Reasons to Love History #5: Messages from the Past

Think I’ll make “Reasons to Love History” an ongoing feature, what do you think? (The first four reasons were here).

I’ve been researching the history of Japanese religion for a paper, specifically State Shinto in the Meiji period. It was basically a government policy of using the Shinto religion as a nationalistic tool that the US abolished in 1945/1946. Today, I finished reading History of Japanese Religion by Masaharu Anesaki. I knew the book was from 1963, so it was not only a history of the past but also a primary source for 1963, but what I didn’t realize was that it’s actually a 1963 reprint of a book from 1930.

As a historian, I know people in the past couldn’t see the future, but that’s easy to forget. Anesaki didn’t know how things would turn out after WWII, or even that there would be a WWII. He doesn’t call the first one “World War I,” he calls it “The Great War.” I’d been looking at it from the outside, charting where State Shinto began and ended, but for Anesaki, State Shinto is a present concern! He’s an actual person from the time I’m studying, who’s actually describing how people feel about my topic during that time! That’s a historian’s dream.

Anesaki finishes his book talking about wartime religious unrest, and wonders what role religious idealism might have in Japan’s future. His final words are, “What this idealism or religious motive should be, whether or not it could be efficiently reinvigorated, all this must be left to the observation of future historians.”

Statement from the past, specifically left for people in the future. That’s as close to time travel as it gets. I don’t know what you’d think of the future, Mr. Anesaki, but I’ll try to observe the best I can.

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