Japan – To what extent did the Meiji Restoration lead a secularising agenda?

By Patrick Martin (2015)

In 1868 Shinto was made the state religion of Japan and the Bureau of Temples and Shrines was established.[1] State ritual was promoted by the Meiji government and traditional religious observance to the kami (deities) was considered a private matter. Shrines used previously to approach the kami were reclassified as official sites for “obligatory expressions of loyalty to the nation.”[2] The policy of State Shinto that was created for the restorative Meiji Empire would eventually lead to the ultranationalist fanaticism of the Japanese Imperial Army. This essay intends to discuss the nature of the Meiji Restoration with a focus on the secular process of State Shinto. Firstly, this essay will give a brief overview of the Meiji Empire, followed by the Tokugawa shogunate’s closeness to religion. Secondly, secularisation will be discussed, paying close attention to State Shinto. Thirdly, issues regarding religion will be addressed as a counterpoint to secular theory. This essay will conclude with the acknowledgement that State Shinto was not entirely secular, despite a secularising agenda being pursued by the Meiji.

The Meiji government came to power after end of the Tokugawa shogunate. Several clans, dissatisfied with the Tokugawa regime, wanted to reinstate the imperial line to power. After the installation of the new government, headed by 14 year-old Meiji Emperor, Japan ended its centralised feudal system and began the process of modernising the nation.[3] Meiji means ‘enlightened rule’ and was meant to indicate a grand sense of purpose to the new government – a harkening back to the pre-shogunate era. For centuries the Japanese Emperor had been a symbol or embodiment of “national unity… and harmony between rulers and ruled,”[4] but had not ruled during the Tokugawa shogunate. He was “immensely important”[5] to the advocates of Restoration as he could provide the combination of legitimacy to the new state (a sense of which was needed to overhaul and replace the Tokugawa shogunate), and distance from the policies of the Tokugawa. Importantly, the changes that the Meiji leadership brought in did help in significantly modernising the nation by making it more economically prosperous and militarily strong. This process of developing a Japan that could be independent on the global stage, called fukoku kyōhei, was a driving goal behind the Meiji Restoration.[6] As Jansen so accurately puts it, the “outstanding intellectual and political experience in the formative years of the Restoration activists was the discovery that their society was incapable of successful resistance to the Western threat,”[7] having witnessed what was happening in China. This fear of a Western threat not only provided the desire to promote changes on a national level (hence the Restoration), but also led to the development of a nationalistic foundation on which to pursue a distinctly Japanese progress of change. The late Tokugawa regime’s Buddhist and Neo-Confucian values had a very different character from the Meiji Empire which quickly promoted State Shinto as its ideology.

The Tokugawa period ushered in the complete unification of Japan under a feudal system. This period was characterised by “stability and conservatism,”[8] and Buddhism was patronised by the state.[9] This is important because the policies enacted under the Meiji Restoration and subsequent public backlash against Buddhism partly stems from the close Tokugawa relationship with Buddhism. The Tokugawa shogunate had efficiently aligned itself with the Buddhist religion in Japan by strengthening pre-existing ties from previous regimes. This benefitted the Tokugawa government by providing the ruling elite with an efficient method of state registration and control. Originally a voluntary system of familial affiliation between people and Buddhist temples called ‘danka seido,’ the Tokugawa made it compulsory for all Japanese citizens, pushing minority religions aside and ensuring that the government had an up-to-date census. By unifying the country and forcing ‘danka seido,’ the Tokugawa had top-down control over all the Buddhist sects in the country.[10] In the past, the most powerful political rivals to the ruling elite were the Buddhist temples. Therefore, the state patronisation of Buddhism, the compulsory ‘danka seido,’ and persecution of minor religions in Japan (such as Christianity) provided the Tokugawa with a means to maintain the regime and unification of the country. It also ensured that the Buddhist temples would become wealthy and therefore less likely to oppose the shogunate.

The adherence to the shogunate’s religious status quo led to stagnating creation of new ideas among Buddhists, and an increasingly formal, structural institutionalised approach to religion in Japan. Unlike Christianity and Islam, it is important to acknowledge that practitioners of both Shinto and Confucianism in Japan and China do not place their deity above temporal authorities – the temporal and spiritual are the same thing.[11] Therefore even though the Tokugawa “co-opted [Buddhism] for political purposes,”[12] they found no coherent pious opposition to their tactic because unlike in Christianity or Islam, God was not on a higher platform than government. As I have already alluded to, the Tokugawa shogunate’s conservative policies regarding religion hid years of religious discontent and paved the way for a return to the old ways – ways devoid of ‘foreign influence.’ With the fall of the Tokugawa and return of the Emperor, Shinto underwent a resurgence. It accepted the indigenous aspects of ancient Shinto whilst simultaneously removing any foreign influences it had picked up over the years when Buddhism was the dominant religion.

The other foreign influence in the Tokugawa’s political outlook was Neo-Confucianism, which was introduced into Japan from China. If we look at Earhart’s discussion of Neo-Confucianism under the Tokugawa, it becomes apparent that the shogunate found that the humanist and rationalistic aspect of Neo-Confucianism lent itself very well to state management. The Tokugawa saw Neo-Confucianism as a “heavenly sanction for the existing political and social order”[13] in Japan. Prior to the Meiji Restoration, this “suitable philosophy”[14] ensured that the immobility in social status due to the caste system would be upheld and thus the status quo would remain. This meant that the ruling elite would have a strong workforce for its agricultural economy, and more importantly, they would pose less of a challenge to the unified nation as the population would simply accept individual positions in society as ‘fate.’ What is important to note about this Neo-Confucianism is that like Buddhism, it too became highly systematised and was more of a theory of governance than a religious way of life.[15] Equally important to note is that during the later period of the Tokugawa shogunate, Japanese Neo-Confucian and Shinto scholars were instrumental in pushing an increasingly ethnocentric focus to their studies, bringing in ancient Japanese literature and rejecting the Chinese aspects of Neo-Confucianism.[16] This increasingly Japanese focus would be later pursued by the Meiji by reinforcing the “feeling of national pride and national strength,”[17] which State Shinto is steeped in.

The concept of a secular view is commonly understood today as desiring the decline of religion in public affairs and the removal of religion from social and political activities. The process of separating church and state is most commonly sought by those promoting an ‘enlightened,’ secular ideology.[18] As Steve Bruce summarized in God is Dead, spiritual leaders such as priests have been displaced by scientific, secular, rational institutions that can provide alternate explanations to previously held religious arguments.[19] Furthermore, secularisation can be seen to challenge the formal ritual and symbolic ceremonies that religion holds at its core. Émile Durkheim has suggested that tasks that were once an integral part of religious institutions such as maintaining societal order and cohesion are now being undertaken by other specialised institutions – which is an increasingly common phenomenon in a secularised society.[20]

Another relevant point regarding secularisation is that nations or societies that have a “vulnerability to sudden, unpredictable risks”[21] are less likely to have a secular outlook, and tend towards religion. Therefore the Tokugawa adherence to Buddhism and Neo-Confucian values in religion and governance respectively can be understood as a response to the vulnerability of Japan. Prior to the Tokugawa shogunate’s control of Japan, Japan was unpredictable, with warring clans vying for control over varying territories.[22] Thus the religiosity of Tokugawa Japan can be seen to reflect this sensitive circumstance. When the Meiji came to power however, Japan had been unified for some time and had begun a slow process of modernisation. Due to this a more secular approach was adopted by the Meiji. Norris and Inglehart conclude that modernisation greatly weakens the influence of religious traditions in affluent societies making religion subjectively less important in people’s lives, so from this conclusion we can assume that the same would apply to Meiji Japan – which would soon become an industrial power.[23]

As previously stated, the Meiji period ushered in the forced separation of Buddhism and all foreign religions from the state apparatus. The Meiji government saw secular politics as a key mechanism for social institutions in a modern state. Absolute power was returned to the Emperor and Shinto, now removed from Buddhism and back to its Japanese roots, “was secularised as the national ideology in the form of State Shinto.”[24] This secular process was matched by the desire to remove the religious influence of Buddhism, and was apparent very early on in the regime: haibutsu kishaku advocates the expulsion of Buddhism from Japan and was a policy of the Meiji in pursuit of a secular government.[25] Buddhist shrines and temples were physically destroyed, ritual aspects of Buddhist life found itself outlawed and wealth that had been amassing at the temples during the Tokugawa shogunate was amalgamated into locally governed lands.[26] The Meiji also enforced the idea that kami could no longer be identified with Buddhist deities, leaving Buddhist priests, once at the highest echelons of society under Tokugawa rule, stripped of their rank and status – a clear instance of removing religion from state.[27]

Despite Japan’s desire to remove Chinese influences in religious matters (classed as ‘foreign’ and therefore detrimental to the nation), it was more than willing to glean insights into and assimilate western socio-economic practices in order to modernise rapidly.[28] As such, parallels between the leader-centric Meiji constitution and that of Germany can be seen drawn in channelling nationalistic emotions.[29] However paradoxical in appearance, this was in line with an ultranationalist approach – one that would ensure the survival of Japan in an era that saw China (until then Asia’s preeminent civilisation) subjugated by colonial powers.[30] Nevertheless, the establishment of State Shinto practises firmly placed Japan’s ethnocentric rituals at the forefront of societal customs, and it was to be seen as “separate from religion.”[31]

Murakami Shigeyoshi explains that during the formative period of State Shinto, several important factors must be touched upon. Firstly, whilst shrines had been reclaimed from Buddhists they were not to be seen as religious. Instead they were to be viewed as “national institutions separate from religion.”[32] Secondly, palace rituals were consolidated – again this was not considered religious in nature, but rather a vehicle in which to promote the return of Japanese governance to traditional Japanese roots.[33] Thirdly, and bringing my first two points together, all Shinto shrines were reorganised around Ise Jingū (Ise Grand Shrine). This shrine is important in Shinto religion as it is dedicated to the goddess of the universe, Amaterasu, but with the Meiji Restoration this link became even more influential. One of the key ideological underpinnings of State Shinto is the claim that the Emperor is directly descended from Amaterasu.[34] Thus official rituals were to be carried out at national institutions as a way of showing reverence to the Emperor, a sacred being close to the divine. This is in line with what Zhong posits: political discourse at the end of the Tokugawa period emphasised imperial genealogy as the embodiment of political values “capable of grounding a ritual-based social order.”[35] Therefore the Meiji Restoration was legitimised by State Shinto by leaning on religious aspects of Shinto.

Yet, if these rituals and Emperor Worship are deemed as secular, then that leaves us with the question what is meant by religion? If Shinto kami were religion, then surely the linkages to Amaterasu can be considered religious in nature? Religion can be classified as a fundamental set of beliefs or practices that usually involves devotional and ritual observances, and often share a moral code of affairs.[36] These moral codes can have an impact on the worldview of a specific religion and cannot easily be grouped together to form a singular worldview held by everyone.[37] One of the “seven dimensions of religion”[38] discussed by Smart is social and institutional. Every religious movement (including animism) is embodied by a group of people which eventually becomes institutionalised with the aforementioned rituals and devotion. Should we consider José Casanova’s debate on secularisation, paying specific attention to what he calls the “specialisation of religion within its own newly found religious sphere,”[39] we can attach an important link to Shinto. This religious sphere can serve as a vehicle by which to observe State Shinto in Meiji Japan that may not line up with the claim that affluent societies make religion subjectively less important in people’s lives. In addition to this, Smart states that “outstanding individuals”[40] can impact the social aspect of religion. The spiritual aspects embodied in Meiji Japan’s Emperor (institutionalised as an outstanding individual), and his closeness to the mystical and metaphysical world clearly indicate a propensity towards religion. Thus the application of State Shinto appears to be much less secular, in fact using the specialisation of religion to further the control of the state.

However, secular ideologies can also fulfil many, if not all of the criteria that are used to define ‘religion.’ State Shinto is no exception to this and if we apply Smart’s seven dimensions we can immediately make some linkages to what has already been discussed in this essay. To begin with, rituals became a core feature of State Shinto and were institutionalised in schools, state and prefectures throughout Japan.[41] Due to the desire to industrialise into a strong nation capable of fending off colonial influences, ultranationalist tendencies were encouraged and promoted by ritual, experiential and legislative methods.[42] The late Tokugawa period discourse on Shinto that was promoted by the Meiji, and the fundamental Japanese qualities it purported, can be seen as both narrative and mythical dimensions of the secular state. Not only did it give a strong ethnic rooting to the legitimacy of the Meiji alongside the development of Japan, it reaffirmed the Japanese ‘spirit’ as unique and something to be celebrated.[43] Lastly, the fact that shrines played an important part in ritual and had been nationalised also conforms to Smart’s dimensions. It may then be better to view State Shinto as a secular civic creed that has its foundations in religion and can therefore share the same characteristics of religion, whilst still remaining separate from religion itself.

State Shinto therefore was to be followed by all Japanese citizens because it “related to the dominant ethics of the constitution, loyalty to the nation.”[44] Smart declares that in nominating Shinto as the state ideology, the Meiji government gave formal expression to “the overriding importance of the nation over other values.”[45] By declaring it a non-religion, State Shinto was able to be used to promote a Japanese social ethic which would be reinforced through compulsory ritual. It became a civic creed – a statement of alliance to the emperor, in which it was the state ideology but not a linked to a church or religious institution, unlike Tokugawa-era Buddhism. Despite not formally developing religious doctrine, it formed the “emotional heart of a nationalist ideology”[46] which was much like an updated version of Bushido – the warrior code of feudal Japan. This new spiritual underpinning and sense of civic duty helped Japan modernise and expand until the Second World War.[47] The whole thrust of State Shinto, it can be argued, was aimed at sanctifying authority. As Holtom reports, the actual constitution of 1889 cements this idea by declaring the Emperor as “sacred and inviolable.”[48] This clause stems from the Emperor’s link to the divine which cannot be regarded as a secular notion, and therefore casts doubt on the concept of State Shinto being a purely non-religious entity. Therefore in the case of Meiji-era State Shinto, we arguably see a clear example of the fusing of politics and religion for the benefit of the state.

In conclusion, it is true that the Meiji Restoration actively sought out a secular ideology in State Shinto. The state integrated the local into a system of national, with shrines being the driving force behind the implementation of this policy. The Meiji also tried to suppress new emerging religions in order to maintain a specific ‘secular’ Japanese worldview based not on religion, but a civic creed.[49] However, State Shinto had very strong religious characteristics, and when compared to Smart’s dimensions of religion, we could be forgiven for thinking that State Shinto actually was a religion. Nevertheless, the Meiji formally labelled it as a non-religion, and when we look at the serious reduction of Neo-Confucianism and Buddhism in the post Tokugawa period via separation edicts, we can actually get a sense that they were sincere in their goal of maintaining a secular ideology. State Shintoism gave a backbone to the Empire, with loyalty focused in the Emperor himself – an embodiment of the nation. However, the deep-rooted history of Shinto as a religion meant that the divine link in the Imperial genealogy could not be overcome by simply proclaiming State Shinto non-religious. This link to Amaterasu was entirely religious in character and used to enforce “unquestioning acceptance…that the Emperor’s rights of sovereignty were intimately associated with the worship of this deity.”[50] Clearly this is an incident of religion fusing with politics, and therefore by definition not secular.

The nationalistic pride that State Shinto invoked is arguably both its greatest strength, and downfall. It ensured that the nation would work with a singular shared goal which it needed to do to avoid falling to colonialization like China, but it was also a major factor behind Japan’s increasingly militaristic approach in the early 20th Century, which caused an incredible amount of destruction. While the Meiji Restoration can be seen to have led a secularising agenda in certain aspects of policy, it was not entirely devoid of religious symbolism or ritual – which underpinned the whole agenda of State Shinto. In fact, the conclusion that this essay draws is that despite all of the Meiji’s attempts at labelling its policy of State Shinto as the nation’s non-religious “rights and creed,”[51] there are simply too many comparisons to traditional religion to accept it as entirely secular. In fact, it is only after the complete disestablishment of State Shinto and the Emperor’s renunciation of divinity post WW2, that Japan can be seen to have secularised to the extent iit had tried to during the Meiji Restoration.[52]

Bibliography

Beasley, W. G. The Meiji Restoration. London: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Beasley, W. G. The Japanese Experience: A Short History of Japan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

Bruce, S. God is Dead: Secularization in the West. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002.

Bruce, S. Politics and Religion. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2003.

Casanova, J. Public Religions in the Modern World. London: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Covell, S. “Religious Culture.” In The Cambridge Companion to Modern Japanese Culture, edited by Yoshio Sugimoto. 147-165. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Earhart, H. B. The Religious Life of Man: Japanese Religion: Unity and Diversity. California: Dickenson Publishing Company, 1969.

Hardacre, H. “The formalisation of secularity in Japan.” 1-19. (2011) (Accessed via http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:8843159)

Holtom, D. C. Modern Japan and Shinto Nationalism: A Study of Present-day Trends in Japanese Religions. New York, USA: University of Chicago Press, 1963.

Huang, Y. Z. “The Sick Man of Asia,” Foreign Affairs, vol. 90, no. 6 (2011) [http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/136507/yanzhong-huang/the-sick-man-of-asia]

Jansen, M. B. Sakamoto Ryōma and the Meiji Restoration. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Norris, P., and Ronald Inglehart, Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Shibata, M. “The Politics of Religion: Modernity, Nationhood and Education in Japan.” Intercultural Education, vol. 19, no. 4, (2008): 354-361.

Smart, N. The World’s Religions (2nd Edition). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Susumu, S. “State Shinto in the Lives of the People: The Establishment of Emperor Worship, Modern Nationalism, and Shrine Shinto in Late Meiji.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, vol. 36, no. 1 (2009): 93-124.

Tipton, E. K. Modern Japan: A social and political history (2nd Edition). New York: Routledge, 2008.

Zhong, Y. J. “Freedom, Religion and the Making of the Modern State in Japan, 1868-89.” Asian Studies Review, Vol. 38, No. 1 (2014): 53-70.

[1] D. C. Holtom, Modern Japan and Shinto Nationalism: A Study of Present-day Trends in Japanese Religions, (New York, USA: University of Chicago Press, 1963), 5.

[2] Helen Hardacre, “The formalisation of secularity in Japan.” (2011): 9. (Accessed via http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:8843159)

[3] William G. Beasley, The Meiji Restoration, (London: Oxford University Press, 1973) 288.

[4] Ibid, 302.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibi, 422.

[7] Marius B. Jansen, Sakamoto Ryōma and the Meiji Restoration, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 347.

[8] H. Byron Earhart, The Religious Life of Man: Japanese Religion: Unity and Diversity, (California: Dickenson Publishing Company, 1969), 70.

[9] Ibid 71.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Steve Bruce, Politics and Religion, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2003), 84.

[12] Ibid.

[13] H. Byron Earhart, The Religious Life of Man: Japanese Religion: Unity and Diversity, (California: Dickenson Publishing Company, 1969), 72.

[14] Ibid.

[15] H. Byron Earhart, The Religious Life of Man: Japanese Religion: Unity and Diversity, (California: Dickenson Publishing Company, 1969), 73.

[16] Ibid. 74.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 3.

[19] Steve Bruce, God is Dead: Secularization in the West, (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002), 36.

[20] Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 9.

[21] Ibid, 16.

[22] Marius B. Jansen, Sakamoto Ryōma and the Meiji Restoration, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 7-9.

[23] Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 21.

[24] Masako Shibata, “The Politics of Religion: Modernity, Nationhood and Education in Japan,” Intercultural Education, vol. 19, no. 4, (2008): 354.

[25] Yijian Zhong, “Freedom, Religion and the Making of the Modern State in Japan, 1868-89,” Asian Studies Review, Vol. 38, No. 1 (2014): 56.

[26] Helen Hardacre, “The formalisation of secularity in Japan.” (2011): 7. (Accessed via http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:8843159)

[27] D. C. Holtom, Modern Japan and Shinto Nationalism: A Study of Present-day Trends in Japanese Religions, (New York, USA: University of Chicago Press, 1963), 126-127.

[28] Masako Shibata, “The Politics of Religion: Modernity, Nationhood and Education in Japan,” Intercultural Education, vol. 19, no. 4, (2008): 354.

[29] Yijian Zhong, “Freedom, Religion and the Making of the Modern State in Japan, 1868-89,” Asian Studies Review, Vol. 38, No. 1 (2014): 54.

[30] Yanzhong Huang, “The Sick Man of Asia,” Foreign Affairs, vol. 90, no. 6 (2011) [http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/136507/yanzhong-huang/the-sick-man-of-asia] (Accessed Sept 2014)

[31] Shimazono Susumu, “State Shinto in the Lives of the People: The Establishment of Emperor Worship, Modern Nationalism, and Shrine Shinto in Late Meiji,” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, vol. 36, no. 1 (2009): 95.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] William G. Beasley, The Japanese Experience: A Short History of Japan, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 29.

[35] Yijian Zhong, “Freedom, Religion and the Making of the Modern State in Japan, 1868-89,” Asian Studies Review, Vol. 38, No. 1 (2014): 57.

[36] Ninian Smart, The World’s Religions (2nd Edition) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 13-14.

[37] Ibid, 18.

[38] Ibid, 21.

[39] José Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World, (London: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 19.

[40] Ibid, 21.

[41] D. C. Holtom, Modern Japan and Shinto Nationalism: A Study of Present-day Trends in Japanese Religions, (New York, USA: University of Chicago Press, 1963), 180.

[42] Ibid, 182.

[43] H. Byron Earhart, The Religious Life of Man: Japanese Religion: Unity and Diversity, (California: Dickenson Publishing Company, 1969), 74.

[44] Ninian Smart, The World’s Religions (2nd Edition) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 471.

[45] Ibid, 472.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid.

[48] D. C. Holtom, Modern Japan and Shinto Nationalism: A Study of Present-day Trends in Japanese Religions, (New York, USA: University of Chicago Press, 1963), 185.

[49] Steven Covell, “Religious Culture,” in The Cambridge Companion to Modern Japanese Culture, ed. Yoshio Sugimoto, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009) 163.

[50] D. C. Holtom, Modern Japan and Shinto Nationalism: A Study of Present-day Trends in Japanese Religions, (New York, USA: University of Chicago Press, 1963), 192.

[51] Elise K. Tipton, Modern Japan: A social and political history (2nd Edition), (New York: Routledge, 2008) 74.

[52] D. C. Holtom, Modern Japan and Shinto Nationalism: A Study of Present-day Trends in Japanese Religions, (New York, USA: University of Chicago Press, 1963), 189.

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One thought on “Japan – To what extent did the Meiji Restoration lead a secularising agenda?

  1. Excellent analysis. The essay is very well researched, well written, very well referenced, and demonstrates very good understanding of the case study and excellent critical thinking.

    At the same time, there could at times be a little more signposting in that sometimes the direction of line of argument is a little uncertain. This might be the writing style: although it is well written, sometimes the direction of the argument is momentarily suspended, so to speak. It might also be caused by the fact the essay sometimes opens some pretty different lines of inquiry, which although interesting and relevant, is a choice that could perhaps be explained and justified a little more explicitly. The full conclusion of what is being said for the essay question is also brought out a little slowly sometimes.

    Nonetheless, despite these fairly minor issues, this remains a very good, thoroughly researched and well argued essay which answers the question well.

    Like

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