A trans-war perspective

The fact that there were significant elements in the Christian experience in post-war Japan which were absent before the war seems to suggest that the late twentieth century church-state confrontation is explicable as a purely post-war phenomenon. However, investigation of the pre-war period reveals that the confrontation of the late twentieth century exhibited an essential continuity with the Christian experience of particularly the 1920s and 1930s.

Early background

Scholars of various disciplines and writers exhibiting a range of objectives for writing seem united in their understanding that by the time Protestant Christianity arrived in 1859 there was a well established practice in Japan of religion being used by the state to further its own purposes, and that this was generally not considered remarkable. Such a situation presents a clear contrast with the insistence on separation of state and religion in the United States, the cradle of much of the Christianity that reached Japan in the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, Japan’s first modern constitution, promulgated in 1889, included a stipulation of religious freedom, albeit with restrictions. Article 28 of that constitution stated that the freedom of religion of Japanese citizens was conditional upon it being ‘limited to the extent that it does not hinder law and order, and does not oppose the duties of citizens.’ This was the bedrock legal principle on which the government’s treatment of religions rested until 1945. As the government’s definition of law and order, and its idea of the duties of citizens, became more and more restrictive, so too did its treatment of religious groups.

According to the Japanese government’s own analysis, 1899 marked a turning point in its treatment of Christianity. From the removal of the prohibition of Christianity on 2 June 1873 until 1899, the government approach had been to give tacit permission for Christianity to expand, even though it had no official status as a religion.[24] December 1899 saw the first attempt to introduce legislation specifically pertaining to religious organisations.[25] The government expected resistance to the bill. To lay the groundwork, several months before the bill was put to parliament, it issued a combination of sub-legislative regulations, which it insisted were required to enable it to bring Christianity adequately under the umbrella of Japanese law and offer Christianity the same legal protections enjoyed by Buddhism and Shinto shrines.[26] The aggregate effect of these initiatives of 1899 was to hold out to the Christian community the carrot of equality with other religions in Japan, in return for the right to use the stick of legislation to keep Christianity, and Christian schools in particular, in line with government preferences. The Christian reaction was to accept the carrot, but resist the use of the stick. At a later point in time, hunger for the carrot would fuel acceptance of the stick, but at this point the result was strident opposition to the bill put to parliament in December of 1899. In contrast to the futility of the Christian voice 90 years later, that opposition was ultimately successful.


The picture that emerges from early twentieth century events is of a Christianity which has had a long held ambition fulfilled. Evidence abounds of the Christian desire for acceptance by mainstream Japanese society from at least as early as the 1870s. Notwithstanding the defeat of the 1899 bill, the other ordinances enacted in 1899 essentially meant that Christianity had now been granted official equality with other religions, and it used its newly acquired status to resist attempts by the state to control it. The successful defeat of the 1899 bill was early evidence that Christians now had significant social and political influence.

At least on the surface, Christianity was given tacit support from government sources in the early years of the new century. When the Tokyo venue for the Eighth International Sunday Schools Convention was destroyed by fire in 1908, for example, business leaders and the government contributed to restoration costs, and more interestingly, so did the imperial household. In 1909, when the Protestant Christian churches held a week long conference in Kanda, a central suburb of Tokyo, to celebrate fifty years of Protestant missions in Japan, they received congratulatory letters from the Prime Minister, the Minister of Education, the governor of Tokyo Prefecture, and the Mayor of Tokyo. Christianity’s political status seemed in some ways on a par with Buddhism and Shinto, with representatives of all three being asked for input into government decision making processes. In 1912 the Home Ministry invited all three to what came to be known as the Three Religions Conference, at which the Minister sought their opinions on the best means for promoting the morals of the people. Christians were included again in discussions with the Prime Minister about the best way to instil enthusiasm in people after World War One in 1919, and about how to improve the thinking of the nation in 1924. It is clear that in the second and third decades of the twentieth century, the Christian church was well accepted within the power structures of Japan, even though individual Christians may have felt singled out for criticism of their stance on certain issues.[27]

The responses of the church to the 1912 Meiji-Taishô and 1926 Taishô-Shôwa successions further indicate the extent to which Christianity had become entwined in the power structures of the time. Dohi and Tomura record in detail the initial reactions of the churches to the news from the then Imperial Household Ministry in July 1912 that the Meiji emperor was seriously ill.[28] The Alliance of Christian Churches of Japan (ACCJ), the umbrella Christian organisation of the time, immediately sent two representatives, including essentially conservative evangelical Kozaki Hiromichi (1856–1928), to the ministry to pay respects. It also issued a call for all churches in the Tokyo area to hold meetings to pray for the emperor’s recovery, and these were followed by larger combined gatherings of churches, with all centers reporting ‘good attendances, given that it is summer’.[29] The non-Japanese Episcopalian Bishop of North Tokyo drew heavily on the Church of England Prayer Book prayers for the occasion of a death in the royal family to pen a special prayer which gave thanks for the blessings of the years of the emperor’s reign before asking that ‘prayers of loyalty’ for the emperor’s recovery be heard.[30]

In short, the reaction of institutionalised Christianity was indistinguishable from that of the rest of society. In fact, so enamoured were the churches with the emperor, that they requested the government to allow Christian representatives to attend the emperor’s funeral in September 1912. That the church was seen as acceptable by the government of the day is attested by the fact that not only were 150 Christian representatives permitted to participate in the large ceremony in Hibiya Park, but seven were included in the much smaller group within the temporarily constructed funeral building. Even Uchimura Kanzô (1861–1930), the outspoken leader of the non-church movement and object of censure for his refusal to bow to the 1890 Imperial Rescript on Education which demanded loyalty to the emperor, expressed his sadness at the passing of the emperor by suggesting that this was the type of situation referred to by Old Testament prophet Joel’s prophetic description of the day when ‘The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining’ (Joel 3:15).[31]

When the Taishô emperor died in 1926, he happened to do so on 25 December. One would expect that the fact that the death occurred on such an important day in the Christian year would have produced unavoidable conflict with Christian activities. However, if anything the churches in 1926–28 altered their own agendas to support the imperial institution and the government’s actions to an even greater extent than they did in 1912–14. Christian representatives were again sent to the palace to inquire after the emperor’s health in the days leading up to his death, and Christians again attended the emperor’s funeral, although on this occasion their request to attend the smaller private ceremony was denied. The church went beyond its level of support in 1912–14 by issuing a statement, at the October 1928 Conference of the Christian Churches, which congratulated the Shôwa emperor on his ascension to the throne.[32]


By the end of the 1920s, then, it appears that the church in Japan had moved 180 degrees from its 1899 opposition to the state’s attempt to legislate for control over religious organisations. The state had supported the church, and the church was reciprocating by overtly identifying with the state. The events of 1927–29, however, mark a second turning point after 1899 in the relationship between Christians and the state.

In 1927 the Wakatsuki government attempted again to pass a Religions bill, and yet again was unsuccessful. Opposition came from Christians as well as other religious groups. In fact, to judge by the headlines in editorials of the major newspapers, the opposition did not appear to be limited to religious groups.[33] The situation in 1927 was more complicated than that of 1899. In June 1926 the government had decreed the establishment of the Religious Structures Investigative Committee. The Committee was charged with drafting a Religions bill, which it duly did, and the bill was submitted to the January 1927 session of parliament. Members of major religions, including Christianity, were included among the 40 members of the Committee. In that sense, the situation had changed little from the Three Religions Conference of 1912. Christians were still among the privileged few religious groups given a role in shaping government policy.

1927, though, sees the beginning of the souring of state-Christian relations. And it is only after the relationship sours that the mood of legislation also begins to display an ominous tone as far as Christians are concerned. The government’s fundamental position was that the 1927 bill was redressing an enduring oversight on their part. Here was Christianity, recognised as a religious group other than Shinto and Buddhism for almost 30 years since Ordinance 41 of 1899, yet unlike those two, it was not protected adequately by legislation pertaining to religions.

The government argued on a number of grounds that Christians ought to embrace the bill. The lack of legal certainty for Christianity was a problem; all 56 branches of Buddhism and 13 schools of Shinto had agreed to treat Christianity as equals; and any attempt to differ in the treatment of Christianity was morally reprehensible. The government rebuttal of suggestions that Christianity be treated differently is worth quoting at length not only because of the content, but because the savagely sarcastic tone of the response indicates just how far the government had moved in the 15 years since it deemed Christianity worthy of a seat at the policy planning table.

Surprisingly, in response to the Religious Bodies Law, the basis of which is equality of the three religions of Shinto, Buddhism and Christianity, arguments have emerged, albeit an extremely small number, that Christianity ought to be segregated and excluded....The second [of three arguments] is the movement among a number of Christians which in general terms is intent on rejecting even the laws required by the state as the foundation of the freedom of religious groups....[Theirs] is an unfair perspective that seeks to enjoy special freedoms for themselves only, leaving Shinto and Buddhism in their present state constrained by the existing laws and ordinances. It’s unfair because, if, as this one faction of Christianity intends, the Religious Bodies Law were to be defeated, the laws and ordinances that have for several decades since the beginning of the Meiji period pertained to Shinto and Buddhism will remain unchanged, and Christianity alone will be governed by Ministry of Home Affairs Ordinance 41 of 1899 relating to religions other than Shinto and Buddhism. If the opinion had been premised on an absolutely fair and just starting point, there is no way it would be simply a refusal to accept the Religious Bodies Law. It is entirely reasonable that there are those who criticize it as a movement very much degenerated into self-centred egotism.[34]

The implication is clear. Christians who make this sort of claim are interested only in their own welfare. Not only are they no longer suitable recipients of invitations to confer with policy makers, but the religion they espouse is not likely to have anything to contribute to the good of the nation. In the political climate of the late 1920s, as the democratic ideals of the Taisho era were increasingly subjugated to the coercive force of a state apparatus buttressed by the 1925 revised Peace Preservation Law, the message was clearly not just addressed to Christians informing them that the government considered their stance unacceptable. It also sounded a warning bell to other dissident voices that they, too, would be pilloried by the government if they were to step out of line. In the same document the government was equally scathing of the Buddhist voices who argued for continuation of the separate treatment of Christianity, pointing out that they came from ‘a small portion of Buddhists who advocate absolute belief and narrow-mindedly posit the same old intolerant argument for discriminatory treatment of Christianity.’[35]

Clearly, there is little government love lost for Christianity. But the point to note here is that the ridicule was mutual. In light of the nature of the proposed legislation, the long sought after equality with other religions now became unpalatable to Christians, and the vituperative language cited above came after attacks by Christians on the Religious Bodies bill and its drafters. Some of the language used by Christians to attack the bill could at best be described as uncharitable, and is probably more accurately described as provocative. It is the language of personal invective. Uchimura Kanzô, for example, one of the elder statesmen of Japanese Christianity, asserted that the interference of politics in religion was ‘foolish’. In particular, the Ministry’s suggestion that those opposing the bill are ignorant of the nature of religion is a response to Uchimura’s claim that,

the people who drafted it [the bill] don’t know a thing about religion. In my nearly 40 years of ministry, I have hardly ever met a bureaucrat or politician who knows anything about religion...[the drafters] are just outsiders who know nothing of God, spiritual matters, and the world to come.[36]

Uchimura’s words could hardly have been more inflammatory when we remember that the committee that drafted the bill included Christian members.

In 1929 the government again tried to pass legislation controlling religious activity. In response, the churches in Japan set up an ecumenical special committee to respond to the Religious Bodies Bill[37] under the chairmanship of Yamamoto Hideteru, retired professor of church history at Meiji Gakuin. At the peak of the debate in February-March 1929 the committee investigated the attitude of 1240 Protestant churches and reported that in a limited period since the bill had been tabled, over two thirds (865) had registered their opposition to the bill.[38] The special committee concluded that ‘the Ministry of Education says that the majority of churches support the proposed bill, with those opposing being but a few, but that is totally incorrect’.[39]

The 1930s

Within the space of less than two decades from the time Christian leaders had sat down with government leaders to address the declining moral state of the nation, and no more than three years after churches had endorsed rites of imperial succession, the church-state relationship had clearly become a confrontational one. But it was not only the state that Christians had now begun to alienate. Well before 1939, and even before Japan became seriously embroiled in conflict with China in 1937, the social context of legislation had changed in an important way. In 1899 and again in 1927, Christians had stood alongside spokespeople of other religions in opposing the government’s legislative initiative. By as early as 1933, however, the Buddhist Association had decided that equating Christianity with Buddhism was not to their liking. De facto, the position they took was that of the government:

Today, the changes and rumblings in the world of religion have become more violent. This is a point in time when we feel more than ever the urgency of boosting the spirit of the people…We believe that it is a matter of the utmost urgency that...religions be given their appropriate place in terms of the law.[40]

Six years later, under Prime Minister Hiranuma in January 1939, by which time domestic and international circumstances had changed dramatically, the government again put to the parliament a Religious Bodies bill. This time the bill was more succinct, simplified to just 37 clauses from the 130 of the 1927 Religions bill. Shinto had been excluded as a religious group, whereas the 1927 Religions bill had included, in addition to one chapter each on Shinto and Buddhism, a third on Christianity. The bill was passed on March 23, without dissent from inside the chamber or on the streets,[41] and promulgated the following month. The voice of opposition had faded. On the contrary, ‘in Christian circles, there was rejoicing that the word ‘Christianity’ appeared for the first time [in a bill passed into law] as a religious body’.[42]

To suggest that the spectre of the repressive military regime accounts for the neutralisation of Christian opposition to legislation which was unchanged in essence from that of a decade earlier is too simplistic. The argument of this chapter is that the deafening silence was as much of the Christians’ own volition as enforced by the government of the day. Christians’ eagerness to celebrate the recognition Christianity had been given as equal in social and legal status to the other two religions of Buddhism and Shinto, had blinded them to reality. And the reality was that by at last succeeding in placing Christianity on a par with other religions, the government had managed to position it to be shaped to the government’s liking.

The government was able to use the confrontational approach taken by Christians to further isolate the Christian voice from the position of political influence it had held only 15 years earlier. Akiko Minato’s suggestion that 1912 marked the height of Christian acquiescence to the government of the day clearly needs to be rethought.[43] 1912 may well have marked the high water in terms of Christian political influence, but 1939 and the ensuing years saw far greater cooperation with the government than thirty years earlier. Analysis of the post-war Christian experience suggests that Christians had failed to learn that acceptance by the wider society comes at a price, and that by becoming incorporated as part of the state apparatus in the 1910s and 1920s, Christians had left themselves with little room to manoeuvre in opposition to the state in the 1930s.