We thus observe a seesaw of church-state relations in the pre-war era which is repeated in the post-war period. In the mid-nineteenth century missionaries with notions of religion free from state interference arrived in a society where state use of religion was the centuries-old norm and Christianity had been outlawed for over 200 years. The uneasy relationship came to a head in the confrontation of 1899, only for the tension to dissipate in the mutual recognition of the 1910s and 1920s. Confrontation again becomes the key characteristic of the relationship from 1927 through the 1930s and 1940s, before the halcyon days of the Occupation in 1945–52. The post-Occupation period sees a reversion to the type of confrontation on the legal battle field which marked the late 1920s and 1930s.

How do we account for this seesaw of church-state relations? State policy alone is a partial but ultimately inadequate explanation. More fruitful is an understanding from the point of view of Christian identity.

The sense of guilt at both wartime acquiescence and post-war tardiness in admitting guilt, combined with the knowledge that their actions would be subject to the scrutiny of society around them, ensured that Japanese churches in 1989 did not want to be seen to be repeating their error of earlier periods. They were prepared to go on the political offensive as publicly as possible. In their desire to be seen to do the right thing, Japanese Christians succumbed to the temptation to engage in the constitutional debate at the expense of presenting a more identifiably Christian position. The home ground advantage had been ceded to the state, and it appears that on its own turf the state presented as an invincible opponent.

The presence of a guilty conscience for having cooperated with the war effort was a new element in the political awareness of the post-war Japanese church. Had Japanese Christians’ awareness of their own history, an awareness which Yasuo Furuya identifies as arising in the 1970s,[44] led to greater consideration of events a little further back than the late 1930s, there is reason to think that the pre-war pattern of legal confrontation might not have recurred. The reality, however, appears to be that the issue of war guilt so dominated Christian historical consciousness that determination to ensure that the mistake of acquiescence to the state was not repeated became the paramount guide to behaviour.

Opposition to the state became a public platform in the 1970s and 1980s on which the churches could establish their credentials as no longer being tied to the state. Such opposition had several characteristics: it was public; it was intellectual; it ostensibly addressed the question of war guilt; and it maintained a sense of separation or purity. On all these counts, I would suggest that the church was out of step with the rest of Japanese society. Moreover, it chose the political realm, about which increasingly consumerist and materialist Japan cared little in the 1970s and 1980s, as the forum for asserting its influence. The church focused on sustaining its identity as Other than the surrounding society, and chose to do so by declaring its opposition to the state. It worked from an assumption of cultures as static, discrete and singular, rather than fluid, not clearly defined, and multi-faceted.[45]

In essence the point to realise here is that the Christian community in Japan in the post-war period seemed to have learnt little from its previous experience. Firstly, it emulated the nineteenth-century missionary insistence on self-separation from surrounding culture. Secondly, it imitated its own ultimately futile course of opposition to legislation of religion in the 1920s and 1930s. Thirdly, it adopted the pattern of using the post-war constitution as the basis for arguing against government initiatives. In doing so, it conceptually locked itself into the government’s sphere of influence, just as it had wedded itself to the state more overtly in the 1910s and 1920s.

The Christian opposition to state attempts to legislate for control over religion in the 1920s and 1930s was a critical turning point in the relationship between church and state. The halcyon days of the immediate post-war period appear at first glance to indicate a return of Christianity to a privileged position comparable to that enjoyed forty years earlier. Analysis shows, however, that the position rested on the shifting sands of constitutional guarantees, a willingness to avoid discussion of past mistakes, and short-lived goodwill engendered by shared hardship during the war and reconstruction period. The re-emergence in the 1960s and beyond of the issue of the relationship between church and state, and particularly attempts to introduce legislation in that area, resulted in the church moving even further towards sustaining its identity by maintaining its distance from societal norms. Opposition to the state became the predominant mode of self-expression of the Christian identity to the surrounding society.

Seduced by the freedoms enshrined in the post-war Japanese constitution, Christians used it as the bedrock of their self-identity. They attempted to define and sustain an identity by using an institution of the state. By doing so it seems that they came perilously close to losing sight of both previous Japanese Christian experience and broader Christian history. As such, their experience offers a contemporary case study that appears to confirm the wisdom of the biblical injunction to eschew conformity with surrounding societal norms (Romans 12:2), lest one’s Christian identity lose any distinctively Christian characteristics.