Hawaii’s Domestication of Shinto

by James Whitehurst

Dr. Whitehurst is professor of religion at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington.

This article appeared in the Christian Century November 21, 1984, p. 1100. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Shintoism gave its wholehearted support to the Japanese during the war, providing its very rationale, that the emperor was a descendant of the very gods who had created their islands, that Japan had a mandate to rule the world. In a good many churches in America it would be easier to remove the cross than to remove the American flag from the sanctuary. Are our temptations much different from that of Shitoism? Shitoism now regrets that they became to tool of the state.

An American flag waves briskly in the breeze beside a Shinto shrine on the major freeway leading from Honolulu to Pearl Harbor. Just five miles away is the spot where Japanese planes dropped their bombs on the American fleet. Few tourists rushing between Pearl Harbor and Waikiki realize the deep irony that flag symbolizes. But for those who fought in World War II or know the history of that encounter, the sight of an American flag at a shrine so closely associated with the adversary calls forth a whole complex of reactions.

It was Shinto, the native religion of Japan, that had not only given its wholehearted support to the war machine but had provided its very rationale: the myths and legends that led directly to the kamakazi pilots. Shinto taught that the emperor was a descendant of the very gods who had created their islands and that Japan thus had a mandate to rule the “world under one roof”  (Hakko Ichiu).

The idea that such a religion could ever find a home in America would have seemed preposterous in the 1940s. In fact, at the close of the war one of the arguments used against statehood for Hawaii was that the Japanese population in Hawaii was so great and their loyalties so questionable that it would be risky to include them in our commonwealth.

Suspicion about the Japanese was building up long before Pearl Harbor, of course. In the 1930s, when Japan was invading China, Japanese women solicited funds on the streets of Honolulu for good-luck headbands for the soldiers. Imported films glorified Japan’s conquests; when Hankow and Canton fell, victory services were held in Shinto shrines in Hawaii. The emperor’s birthday was celebrated each year, and it was rumored that the Shinto god of war, Hachiman, was worshiped in one of Honolulu’s shrines.

Once Hawaii was attacked, all of this changed. Japanese leaders, including Shinto priests, were rounded up and deported. It was impossible to resettle all of the Japanese, as California had done, for they constituted nearly one-third of the population. The people of Hawaii simply had to learn to live together despite their qualms. Suspicions continued for a while: Shinto shrines were considered a hotbed of subversive activities by some and were vandalized; Japanese maids were thought to be spies; Japanese fishermen were believed to have directed the pilots of the emperor to their targets.

Nisei (second-generation Japanese) were eager to allay such suspicions. The 100th Reserve Officers Training Corps unit at the University of Hawaii was eager to fight in the war and prove that Japanese were loyal citizens of the territory. They soon got their opportunity as part of the much-decorated 442nd Battalion (all Japanese) that fought in Italy and France and, on VE Day, led the parade of Allied Forces.

Elderly Japanese did not find it so easy to shift allegiances. For years, their hopes had been pinned on the invincibility of the emperor; never in its 2,000-year history had Japan been conquered. One small group, the Doshikai, even refused to believe that the empire had collapsed in the summer of 1945. In October of that year, rumors surfaced in Honolulu that Japan had really won and that Prince Takamisu was on his way to Hawaii to negotiate a surrender. It was even whispered that President Harry Truman was going to Tokyo to apologize for the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In light of the persistence of such beliefs among a people nurtured with Shinto myths, it is understandable that many Americans felt it necessary to crush the Shinto faith once and for all. General Douglas MacArthur was in a quandary. Though he believed firmly in the freedom of religion, he saw the hold that fanatical Shintoism had on the Japanese mind. He pondered the matter for weeks; the solution finally came in the Allied Directive of December 15, 1945. Shinto was to be completely disestablished: it could not be taught in Japan’s public schools, state funding would be eliminated, and the emperor would be persuaded to denounce his divinity (to “de-god” himself, as the GIs called it). On January 1, 1946, Emperor Hirohito shocked Japan with a radio announcement -- broadcast repeatedly, so there could be no misunderstanding -- stating that it was a mistake to think of him as a descendant of the gods or that the Japanese were a superior people.

That such a nationalistic religion could be found on American soil was a shock to me when I first encountered it 20 years ago, shortly after Hawaii became a state. I discovered that Shinto had come to Hawaii with Japanese workers looking for jobs on the sugar plantations a little more than a century ago. When they found they liked Hawaii and decided to stay, the workers sent word home for brides. Parents arranged marriages, and soon boatloads of “picture brides,” as they were called, landed in Honolulu. Although marriages had been meticulously planned, the missionary-educated Hawaiians had qualms about their legality. To satisfy the public outcry, hasty weddings were arranged. At the Izumo Tai Shi shrine in downtown Honolulu, there were as many as 100 weddings a day. From these unions issued a population explosion that soon flooded the islands.

The immigrants brought with them their godshelves (kamidana) and the numerous festivals (matsuri), primarily associated with the agricultural cycle. As they became prosperous and moved to the cities, they constructed Shinto shrines. Their celebrations, especially the New Year’s festival, became a part of the Hawaiian landscape.

America prides itself on its religious pluralism, its hospitality to all races and religions. But how did a religion which was so much a part of the distinctive Japanese way of life manage to survive on U.S. soil?

My search for an answer took me first to an investigation of the postwar status of Shinto in Japan. In an interview with Professor Naofusa Hirai at the Kokugakuin University (a Shinto institution) in Tokyo, I learned that Shinto is a religion of nature; its deities (kami) are personifications of natural forces such as rivers, seas, mountains, fire and wind -- powers that create a sense of awe and wonder in the human spirit. Professor Hirai regrets the way Shinto became a tool of the state, apart of the war cult. “Shinto is eager,” he said. “to shake off these nationalistic accretions and move strongly in the direction of internationalism.’’ He, with other Shinto leaders, would interpret the phrase Hakko Ichiu (the world under one roof) as pointing to the goal of democratic world government. Far from being supernationalistic, Shinto priests today are often active in peace movements.

In returning to Hawaii, I wanted to see how this new interpretation was working in the States. I interviewed Bishop Kazoc Kawasaki, head priest of the Daijingu Shrine on Pali Highway in Honolulu. Kawasaki was himself a victim of wartime prejudice and spent most of the war years in the relocation center at Camp McCoy in Wisconsin. From him I learned how easy it is for Shinto to adapt to new situations, since one of its major teachings is just that: to blend with the social and cosmic environment. Kawasaki, a skillful communicator, employs numerous Western teaching methods such as flip charts and object lessons to get his point across. Although Shinto has generally been viewed as polytheistic, Kawasaki’s flip charts show a decidedly monotheistic emphasis, which undoubtedly communicates better to a Western-educated audience. One Creator God, Hitori Gami. is shown as the source of all lesser kami manifestations.

Kawasaki held up a fun-house mirror at the center of the sanctuary near the large, round mirror that symbolizes Amaterasu, the sun goddess. “We should be perfect mirrors, clean and without blemish,” he said, “and not distort things as this fun-house mirror does.’’ Later he displayed a group of billiard balls in a triangular rack and showed how each ball moves in relation to the others. Comparing them with a display of square blocks, he said. “These cubes are too individualistic: they can’t move well with their surroundings.” A beautiful illustration of accommodation!

In the shrines of Hawaii, I found many examples of survival through adaption. Shinto has not yet succumbed to the Sunday-morning service, as has Buddhism; it celebrates in the evenings on specified days of each month, such as the 10th, 15th and 29th. But a sermon has been added to some services; wooden chairs often replace tatami mats with rounded pillows on the floor: tape-recorded music sometimes replaces the sound of drums, wooden blocks and bamboo flutes. Instead of a bamboo dipper at a basin of flowing water for purification at the entrance to a shrine area, one finds a water faucet, paper cups and a paper-towel dispenser! So far, there is no sign of Bingo, but shrines do regularly have their raffles. Stacks of rice flower, sake and fruit are often placed at the altar; after the gods have consumed the “essence,’’ the food is given away at the end of the services as door prizes.

Through such adaptions, Shinto has made itself at home in its American setting. But Americanization is usually a two-way street. Is there anything to be learned from a religion as alien as Shinto?

Through the years, I have come to respect and appreciate it in ways that would seem impossible for one who grew up during World War II. For one thing, Shinto offers a needed corrective to our domineering attitude toward nature; it maintains a fine-tuned sensitivity to the “ground of Being,” an intuitive awareness of the mystery which created and sustains us. Shinto shrines, with their unpainted surfaces and natural beauty, conjure up a feeling of sacred space as well as provide a place for quiet withdrawal. Passing under a torii arch and washing one’s hands creates an atmosphere of readiness and receptivity. And when one arrives at the portal of the shrine, the simple clapping of the hands and bowing deeply helps one to restore a cosmic balance. Note that it is not an attuning of oneself to nature, as though nature is something outside the self; the Japanese have no word for “nature’’ in that sense. Yet it would be overly romanticizing to say that everything in modern Japan shows a perfect blending of humans and the environment; that is more likely a private achievement, expressed more in one’s enclosed garden than in the public arena -- witness the beer bottles littering the pilgrim’s path up Mt. Fuji!

Is nature mysticism impossible in a secular age then? Alfred Bloom of the University of Hawaii’s religion department thinks not. He insists that Shintoists. for all their love of nature, are still firmly grounded in the mundane world of business and economics. A Shinto priest sees nothing incongruous about waving his harai-gushi (purification wand with paper streamers) over the nose cone of a Boeing 747 and blessing it for secular use. Even in the machine he senses something that is more than just machine, since the divine is at the heart of all matter, even the technological products humans create. Perhaps there is something here that Westerners can appropriate.

If there is something to be gained from Shinto, there is also a pitfall to beware of: the peril that comes from too closely associating religion and culture. Shinto now regrets its close wartime associations with an imperialistic state, when it was used as a tool by the warlords.

I grew up in a church in Ft. Wayne. Indiana, where a prominent stained-glass window portrayed a cross before an American flag -- as though there were no conflict between the two. And as a young pastor in Rockford, Illinois, I found that an American flag simply could not be removed from the sanctuary without splitting the church. My experience tells me that in a good many churches it would be easier to remove the cross. Are our temptations really so different from those that faced Shinto? We have our own myths of divine origin as a nation blessed by God with a “manifest destiny” to bring a large share of this continent ‘‘under one roof.” A better knowledge of Shinto’s history might save us from a ‘‘cultural Christianity’’ which tells people only what they want to hear.

In my youth, “Japs” were pictured as slant-eyed terrorists with bombs in their hands and daggers between their teeth; today the former enemy has become a friend. In wartime Hawaii, Japanese leaders were deported: today, the nisei Daniel Inouye represents our 50th state in the US. Senate. And in the short period of 25 years, the despised religion of Shinto has become domesticated; it is just another sect listed in the Yellow Pages of Hawaii’s telephone books.

An American flag flying beside a Shinto shrine on the freeway to Pearl Harbor! An incredible sight one can encounter only in America. And only in Hawaii could it happen at such breathtaking speed.