When we look at Japanese politics 1866-1945, it is so, so easy to simply pick out the adopted similarities to Western-style politics and ignore everything else that is so very different – and hard to understand. And it is so, so easy, too, for that matter, to make judgements in hind-sight: as if a politically active person in 1920 could know where a new Emperor and a politically resurgent army could take the nation, its institutions, and the adjacent areas of Eastern Asia.
But to the celebrated but hypothetical ‘cultural anthropologist from Mars’, it would be clear that in the late nineteenth century context of sudden top-down, forced ‘Westernisation’ – which included the religious and the spiritual – one of the deepest social contradictions would be that between the impulse to Westernise, and nostalgia for the established affective life of the culture. And that in the context of the top-down, forced establishment of corporate capitalism – and the on-going impoverishment of the lower-middle and rural artisan classes – one of the other prominent social contradictions would be between the idealistic rhetorics that had accompanied the “Meiji revolution”, and the economic reality for so many people. And that since both contradictions were developing at the same time, many people would feel them as two sides of a single whole.
This is the space that Omoto-Kyo inhabited.
And so it should be no surprise that the millenia-old tradition of expressing difference and political aspiration in terms of the Kami should continue. And in fact Omoto-Kyo simply inherited an age-old Western Honshu ambivalence about the position and status of Susanoo-no-Mikoto – apparently a Kami of the sea and of those who navigate by the stars – and of the storm: and who consequently brings change. Possibly a Dravidian god – and definitely supplanted by the Yamato supreme-Kami: Amatarasu-no-O-mi-Kami (from most of Western Honshu, if you look East, towards the sunrise, you are looking towards – and up to – the mountain ranges where the Yamato colonists established their capital cities… Takama no hara ni….). At which point Susanoo-no-Mikoto becomes the Kami of the colonised – of the majority of the people. All expressed down the ages with careful courtesy and public reticence…
And we also find difference debated in the meanings of the key terms: key terms which everyone looks to – around which the Meiji Restoration coalesced – but which have different meanings for different actors: and always did. For instance, nostalgia for Yamato Damashi – the spirit of the Yamatai – originated in observation of the innocent, pastoral, and somewhat Austronesian spirit discernible in the older poetry of the Manyoshu, and it was the desire to get back to this innocence that was behind the movement to rediscover a Japanese culture from before the importation of Chinese ways and thinking. The more idealistic of the Meiji revolutionists were motivated by this – but when, over a couple of decades following the Meiji Restoration, this faction – and the ‘liberal’ faction advocating a way of Westernising that would include some degree of social democracy – lost out to the pursuit of corporate capitalism, the accompanying debate was partly framed as discussion of the meaning of Yamato Damashi… …Sadly, the capitalists won the debate by invoking the spirit of the early first-millenium iron-bearing settlers from Silla and Paekche…as appropriated by Japan’s new, Western-style Army.
Important to understand, too: the Army was completely independent of the civilian government.
Important to understand, too: the Navy was completely independent of the Army, but less powerful.
The meaning of the Emperor, too, was infinitely debated within certain, to-us narrow parameters: hence the attacks on the Asahi Shimbum newspaper in Osaka, hence the nature of the only legal charges ever brought against Onisaburo Deguchi and Omoto-Kyo… 1)
And so, in a philosophical and spiritual culture given to – even founded on – the infinite extrapolation and teasing out of the mystery of homonymic, punning meanings… O’Sensei was doing no differently than Pan-Asianist idealists, and communitarian agrarian anarchists, and the exiled progressives trying to help the army build a perfect state in Manchuko 2), when he elaborated on the meanings of “Kodo” (the Imperial Way) and of “Odo” (the Kingly – non-materialistic – Way of old-time Asia – but also, coincidentally a place-name – the locus of Izanagi’s primal, archetypal misogi 3) ) and of a martial art that was in some way “Shinto”… a “Kami no Michi”… a Way of the Gods… 4).
So prewar, just as in the sixties, we have to search for O’Sensei’s meanings when he uses terms that we recognise from political discourse of the time. Because the Omoto-kyo meanings dropped out of visible usage with the Second Suppression of 1935. And the kodo-ha meanings were gradually co-opted after the failure of the attempted Showa Ishin revolution in February, 1936.