Shrines and forests in cities in modern times

After the middle of the 19th century, Japan abandoned its national isola­tion policy, and stepped drastically into the modern era under the strong in­fluence of the Western world’s advanced technologies. However, these were also times when nation states were being born in the West (Anderson 1983), and this influenced the many cultural or institutional conversions intended to enforce the integration of a national Japanese identity. The new Japanese government brought back the Tenno as a Westernised emperor, whose status once had been the emperor of Japan, and who then had been forced to the sidelines in the Tokugawa Era. The government also claimed its legitimacy in combination with the traditional Shinto religion. At this point, the pantheistic characteristics of the religion and the accumulated narratives were discarded, and only the visible Tenno family was regarded as existing and as descendants of the gods of the ancient Japanese myth. Consequently, all the shrines were registered in order of hierarchy, and large national shrines were respected and preserved, while small or primi­tive shrines were abolished or made to merge inside the municipal area.

On the other hand, some sites of shrines or temples were designated as public parks, and several sites were actually conserved as public open spaces. However, the major purpose of these changes was to support the national land-management policy, so there was little motive to conserve these places.

Early in the 20th century, the government planned a national project to build a shrine in Tokyo (Meiji Jingu) after the death of the reigning Tenno to worship him as a god. For the project, an artificial large (approximately 70 ha) forest was also to be laid out surrounding the shrine (as nature of the third kind; Kowarik 2005). These plans were realised, and today the forest is admired for its scientific vegetation planning and for the foresight involved in planting a forest in a megalopolis. However, unlike pre­modern times, the forest’s characteristic as a place for interactions between city people and nature has almost disappeared. The narratives that had been shared among the people concerning shrines or temples and their for­ests were converted to the national myth to bless the Tenno, and the myth was misused for promoting extreme nationalism and fascism to head the nation toward World War II.

Updated: October 14, 2015 — 4:40 pm