Negotiating a religious identity in modern Japan: The Christian experience

Colin Noble

Table of Contents

The post-war experience
The legal system
Experience opposing the state
A trans-war perspective
Early background
The 1930s

On the morning of 24 February, 1989, in freezing rain, a cavalcade of officers in military uniform accompanied the funeral cortege of the Shôwa Emperor (Hirohito) through the streets of Tokyo to the site of his funeral in Shinjuku Gyoen. The funeral was conducted in two parts—the first a brief religious ceremony performed by the emperor’s family as a private rite of the imperial house, and the second an ostensibly non-religious one paid for by the Japanese government and attended by about 10 000 invited guests, including numerous world leaders and representatives of foreign governments. The two ceremonies were differentiated by the presence of a curtain drawn to separate the secular space of the second ceremony from the religious inner sanctum of the first. This physical separation was a begrudging acknowledgement by the government of the notional separation of state and religion in the Japanese constitution drafted in 1946 during the Allied Occupation.[1]

Had the Japanese government had its way, the ceremonies would not have been divided. In the period following the emperor’s death on 7 January, government spokesmen had repeatedly argued that performance of the two ceremonies in the same place and time was not in fact a breach of the constitution. The argument met with stiff opposition from a number of sources. Among these were numerous Christian voices. The stipulations in Article 20 of the constitution that ‘the State and its organs shall refrain from…religious activity’ and in Article 89 that ‘no public money or other property shall be expended or appropriated for the use ... of any religious institution or association’ remained a point of controversy in the ensuing 22 months until the completion of the rites of succession of the new emperor.[2]

One scholar’s suggestion that the controversy was ‘largely orchestrated by Christians’[3] credits Christians with more influence than is their due, but is nevertheless helpful because it draws attention to two elements critical to this chapter. The first is the ineffectiveness of the Christian voice: despite the opposition, the two-part funeral ceremony still went ahead in one place, and was paid for with state funds, as were the subsequent succession rites of the following year. The second is that the ineffectiveness of the Christian-led opposition contrasts markedly with the influence Christians had in Japanese national politics earlier in the twentieth century. The Christian voice had not always been so devoid of political influence as it appeared in 1989–90.

The chapter follows the lead of sociologist John Clammer in asserting that the study of ‘ethnically and linguistically entirely Japanese’ minorities such as the Christian community ‘throws considerable light on the mechanisms through which social exclusion is accomplished in Japanese culture and minority status is established and maintained.[4] The point of departure from Clammer, though, is that the question addressed here is the path to political, rather than social, exclusions. Why has Christian political influence in Japan waxed and waned, but on the whole waned, over the course of the twentieth century? As the evidence presented below shows, the first third of the century was a period in which Christian influence was accepted as part of the national social and political fabric, to the point that Christian opposition to government legislative initiatives directed specifically at control of religions proved effective in preventing those initiatives from being implemented. This was not the case, however, in 1989. It is also clear from the evidence that the Christian community has throughout the second half of the century maintained a confrontational approach to the state despite changes in social and political circumstances over time.

The argument of this chapter is that this sustained confrontation has been an outcome of the attempt by Christians to negotiate a place for Christianity within Japanese society. Protestant Christian leaders were representatives of a newcomer on the religious scene in late nineteenth century Japan. They used confrontation with the state over legal definitions of religious behaviour as an avenue through which to carve out a political and social identity for the new religion. The legacy of the early years of Christianity in modern Japan remained at the end of the twentieth century as Christians continued to assert their right to be involved in negotiating the sacred. It is arguable that the decline in political influence has resulted, paradoxically, from this insistence on confrontation as the route to establishing a political identity within Japanese society.

The post-war experience

Two questions arise from the approach taken by Christians to the state in 1989–90. The first is why they chose such a confrontational approach. It is possible to argue for opposition to the state from biblical texts, but confrontation with the state is not an integral part of mainstream Christian thought.[5] Nevertheless, the suggestion that Christians orchestrated the controversy of 1989–90 is understandable given the events of the late 1980s. It was clear from before the emperor died that Christians were not pulling any punches in the debate. In the last years of the Shôwa era, and particularly after the emperor’s first major illness was announced in 1986, Christians broke social taboo in no uncertain terms by publishing numerous works which addressed the issue of an appropriate Christian response to the emperor’s impending death. In 1988 alone, for example, the following titles appeared from Christian publishing houses: Imperial Successions and Us; Imperial Funeral Rites; Thinking About X-Day [the day the emperor dies] Now; In Preparation for the Succession of the Emperor: What Should the Church Do? and From the Decision in the ‘Nakaya Case’ to the Succession of the Emperor.[6]

The second question is why Christians opted to frame their critique of government involvement specifically in terms of the constitution. In answering questions about post-war Japan such as this, there is a temptation to seek answers only in the post-war period. And indeed, there are a number of features of post-war Japan which, in comparison with the pre-war period, made the job of challenging the state and the imperial system easier in 1989–90 than it had ever been. Among these must be counted several which will merely be mentioned in passing here in the interests of looking at more interesting features in depth. Freedom of religion was unconditionally guaranteed in the 1946 constitution (at least in terms of the letter of the law, although arguably not in its interpretation), whereas Article 28 of the previous 1889 constitution provided for only conditional freedom of religion.[7] 1989 marked the death of a controversial emperor, and the end of an era of controversy and qualified national success, in contrast to 1912 for example, which saw the death of a revered emperor and the end of an unparalleled positive period of Japanese history. By 1989 a Japanese Christian theology had emerged which was characterised by independence from foreign influence and reflective of its own history, in contrast to the early twentieth century, at which time the dominant theology was influenced strongly by social evolutionary theory and liberal interpretation of doctrine. Of more interest, though, are three other instrumental influences on the behaviour of Japanese Christians in the last years of the twentieth century: the structure and standing of the post-war legal system; the experience of public debate and confrontation with authority built up by Christians since the 1950s; and the issue of war guilt.

The legal system

Clearly without the post-war constitution’s guarantee of freedom of religion, as well as of thought and conscience, of assembly and association, and of expression,[8] things would have been different. The post-war church was free to criticise without fear of being shut down on the grounds that it was being either unlawful or disorderly, and Christians were also no longer open to the accusation on constitutional grounds that by questioning the actions of the emperor or the government they were neglecting their obligations as citizens. However, this alone cannot account for the church’s vociferous opposition to the government’s behaviour at the end of the 1980s, or for the fact that Christians have chosen to use the courts as a means of confronting the state in the second half of the twentieth century.

In addition to the constitutional changes, there were also several changes after the war in the structure and social standing of the legal system that made it easier for Christians to pursue legal action than had previously been the case. A basic change to the Civil Code had been the introduction of adversarial procedures in which the onus was on plaintiffs to present their arguments forcefully, rather than on the judge to delve into the facts of the matter. Linked to this was the 1962 Administrative Litigation Procedure Law, which established three categories of administrative litigation, opening the way for ‘protest litigation’ (kôkoku soshô)[9] as an avenue for action against the state. In particular, the law facilitated legal challenges to the constitutionality of state acts. The viability of constitutional review, argues Kyoto University’s Taniguchi Yasuhei,

has brought about one major social change, a society has been developing in which the constitutionality of legislation and other State acts can be freely discussed before a court of thing cannot be disputed: the new institution of administrative litigation has brought about a society in which an act of the administration can be attacked by the persons affected.[10]

Citizens have been able to take the state to lower courts over acts of the state they believe to be illegal, such as the use of public funds on religious activities.

In addition, the legal system has achieved a certain level of respectability in the eyes of the public that it did not have prior to the war. Taniguchi argues that in fact it was not until the late 1950s, when steps were taken to attract more capable people into the legal system, that more respect was accorded legal process and its outcomes. It was thus just as the legal system was achieving widespread respectability that Christians were first beginning to engage with the state through the courts.

Moreover, in addition to increased freedom of legal action and the respectability afforded such action, the likelihood of Christians tackling the Japanese government was arguably increased by the removal of two psychological barriers that stand in the way of litigants in Japan.[11] Taniguchi argues that one psychological barrier to litigation is lowered when a grievance is shared by many people, and when the grievance can be directed at an impersonal body, such as a government department, rather than an individual, thus minimising the implication of direct confrontation. The introduction of protest litigation has allowed for the depersonalisation of the state, while the category of people’s litigation has allowed for the initiation of legal proceedings on behalf of a group rather than just an individual. In summary, then, well before 1989, using the courts as a forum for resolving disputes had become both a respectable and an accessible avenue of political action.

The rising respect accorded legal process was somewhat seductive to those seeking to justify their position through the courts. A positive outcome of a legal action would vindicate the position taken, require that the relevant action of the state be redressed, and lend credibility in the eyes of the wider public to the plaintiff’s stance. Alternatively, though, a dismissal of the claims made would, in addition to establishing the basis on which the state could argue the legality of similar actions in the future, add weight to general public perception that the plaintiff had been out of step with accepted cultural norms in taking the state to task in the first place.

Experience opposing the state

It was against this backdrop that Christians built up a history of opposing the state in public debate over points of law and constitution in the decades preceding the death of the Shôwa Emperor.[12] The most well-known legal battle, and the one which was to be adduced most frequently by the government in the debate of 1989–90, was the court case regarding the payment by Tsu City council of money to a Shinto priest for performing a Shinto ground breaking ceremony on the construction site of the City gymnasium in 1965. One key aspect of the Supreme Court decision in the Tsu City case was the introduction into the debate over the separation of state and religion of the term shakai tsûnen, which might be translated as ‘social consensus’. The argument of the two-thirds majority of the panel of judges who upheld the constitutionality of the expenditure in their 1977 decision was that,

in considering whether or not a particular act constitutes ‘religious activity’ [the term used in Article 20 of the constitution]...we must judge objectively in accordance with the social consensus.[13]

The concept of ‘social consensus’ re-surfaced in the government’s justification of its interpretation of the constitution in the debate over the nature and funding of the 1989–90 succession rites.[14]

The fact that the nature of ‘social consensus’ is not adequately defined partly accounts for the vigour with which the church debated the constitutional issue in 1989–90. The introduction into the debate of the notion of ‘social consensus’ in the Tsu City case was conducive to Christians’ involvement in the later debate of 1989–90, because it gave them a particular issue on which they could legitimately challenge the prerogative of the state to pronounce judgment on religious behaviour. Paradoxically, although the focus on the concept of social consensus did liberate Christians to challenge the state, it also resulted in that challenge conforming to the mould of legal debate.

The question of ‘social consensus’ is also raised by anthropologist and missionary Robert Ramseyer in his discussion of yet another legal precedent on which Japanese Christians flexed their muscles prior to the succession debate.[15] He argues that in Japan individuals have come to accept myths about their society, some of which have been perpetuated in relation to the church-state issue. One instance of this was the most celebrated test case about freedom of religion, the Nakaya Case. The case was brought against the Self Defence Force, as an organ of the state, by the Christian widow of an officer who objected to her non-Christian husband’s enshrinement as a war hero in the local Shinto shrine for the war dead. In this case the Supreme Court ultimately ruled in 1988 against the widow. The majority of the bench who voted for the ruling commented on the difference between Christians and Japanese, either inadvertently overlooking, or deliberately ignoring, the reality that the person on whom they passed judgment was both.[16] The popular perception that being Christian and being Japanese were incompatible had now been given a legal stamp of approval by the Supreme Court. The newfound respect accorded legal institutions meant that the impact of decisions such as this was to sway public opinion generally, not just within the legal fraternity.

Both the Tsu and Nakaya cases came after the initial instance of clear confrontation between Christians and the government in post-war Japan. In 1955 the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) moved to establish a Constitutional Review Committee. This resulted in 1957 in a proposal to legislate for February 11th to be declared National Foundation Day (Kenkoku kinenbi). In response, the United Church of Christ’s Tokyo District Social Issues Committee raised a petition of protest containing 6000 signatures, and in 1962 the National Synod of the Church issued a counter declaration naming the date ‘Defence of Religious Freedom Day’, an appellation clearly hinging on the constitutional guarantee.

Roughly coincidental with this, a movement began directed at amending the status of Yasukuni Shrine, the central Shinto shrine in which war dead, including some convicted at the Tokyo war crimes trials, are enshrined. The intent of the movement was to have Yasukuni declared a non-religious entity, and thus make it eligible for government funding. An opposition movement also emerged, in 1959. The Yasukuni Shrine debate was to become the third major long-running and important debate over the separation of state and religion in which Christians, as well as other groups, developed their rationale and technique for the confrontation of 1989–90.

One of the noticeable features of the opposition to attempts to pass bills relating to Yasukuni Shrine was the cooperation between Christian and other groups. Opposition parties in parliament led the voices of protest when the first such bill was introduced in June 1969, while the Christian anti-Yasukuni movement held sit-ins, hunger strikes and rallies. By the end of the following month, 3.7 million signatures were on a petition against the nationalisation of the shrine.[17] Christians worked alongside other dissident groups in opposing the bill, which was eventually laid to rest in 1974 after being presented to parliament five times. In July 1969 the National Christian Council, the All Japan Association of Buddhists and the Religious Federation of Japan, representing mainly new religions, issued a joint statement in response to the statement by Yasukuni officials that they would renounce their religious status immediately were the bill passed. By 1973, when the bill had been presented in parliament four more times, the opposition movement had embraced several Sect Shinto groups (i.e. those who dissociated themselves from the legally non-religious State Shinto) and newer Buddhist offshoots such as Rissho Koseikai.[18] A key point, to which we return shortly, is that the ecumenical nature of the cooperation was reminiscent of the situation over 40 years earlier, when Christians opposing state legislative initiatives had been joined in the battle by other religious groups.

But let us return now to the issue of the 1989–90 succession rites. We can trace a line from the Supreme Court split decision to uphold the constitutionality of the payment by Tsu City of money to a Shinto priest, through the Yasukuni shrine nationalisation debate and the Nakaya case, to the debate in question. As noted above, the ‘social consensus’ legal precedent set in the Tsu case was used by the government, which argued that there was a consensus that the ceremonial procedures should take place in line with ‘the traditions of the imperial household’ (kôshitsu dentô). Awareness of the concept of social consensus enabled church leaders to engage in debate, as typified by United Church of Christ leader Tomura Masahiro, who points out that what effectively happened was that ‘social consensus’ (shakai tsûnen) became elevated to ‘state consensus’ (kokka tsûnen).[19] In essence, however, the Supreme Court had already decreed the definition of social consensus. The accepted understanding was that Shinto ground breaking ceremonies were not religious, and that Christians and Japanese were different. Thus, Tomura’s insistence that there is a qualitative difference between a ground breaking ceremony and an imperial succession carried little weight. Arguing this particular point is an example of the way in which the church’s political involvement was shaped, to its detriment, by its prior experience.

The point to note here is that the momentum begun in the 1950s carried over into the following decades. Although the battle over the Yasukuni Shrine bills, unlike the Tsu City and Nakaya cases, was fought in the national assembly rather than the courts, it really provided the psychological groundwork, as well as some political and legal experience, for later court cases. A movement called Christians for Defence of the Constitution[20] was begun in 1962 in the wake of the renewal of the US-Japan Security Treaty. Its members ‘were active in the Nakaya case, the litigation against the constitutionality of the Tsu City groundbreaking ceremony, and the opposition to the official visits by cabinet and members of parliament to Yasukuni Shrine...and became the driving force in the opposition to unconstitutional national policies.’[21] The fact that, particularly on the Yasukuni issue, Christian opposition was echoed by many sectors of society lent to Christians the sense that they did not stand alone in their opposition to state acts, and that the government could be tackled without undue concern about direct personal confrontation with any individual representing the government.


A third critical component in the post-war Christian experience is the impact of the ongoing process of reflection by Japanese Christians on the role they played in complying with the militarist regime of the 1930s and 1940s. Immediately after the war, widely respected Christian leader Kagawa Toyohiko called for repentance,[22] but the first significant institutional admission of guilt was the Confession of Responsibility During World War Two issued in 1967 by the United Church of Christ in Japan, the remaining core of the combined Protestant church compelled into existence by the Religious Organisations Law of 1939. This was but the first of what has since become a torrent of such statements, a torrent which has included more recently an apology from Japanese Christians to the people of Asia (1990), a Japan Evangelical Association apology for supporting Japan’s invasion of Asian countries (1995), and even an apology from the Holiness group of churches (1995), which might well be justified if they felt they had nothing for which to apologise, since they stood out during the war years for their opposition to the state and consequent persecution at the hands of the government.

The fact that the issue of war guilt was not formally addressed by the largest denomination in Japan until 1967, a full generation after the end of the war, is a key to understanding the relationship between church and state in the later post-war years. Why was there such a delay? In general, the Japanese church in the immediate post-war period was viewed extremely positively by non-Christians. The acceptability of Christianity was sustained by a combination of factors which could be summed up in terms of Christians having shared two significant experiences with all other Japanese: suffering under repression in the 1930s and 1940s, and the struggle for reconstruction after the war. ‘The positive public image of the church at the end of the war had the effect of numbing the church to its wartime responsibilities. In a sense the church indulged itself in the limelight and capitalised on the opportunity. Of course, one could understand the church’s desire to evangelise. However, the lack of reflection and repentance’[23] left unanswered the question of the appropriate relationship between church and state. And that was the question which still faced the Japanese church at the end of the 1980s.