Japanese Christians and the Emperor

The easiest way for a secularist government to co-opt Christians into their agenda is to tell them that the issue is civic, not religious.

During World War II, the Japanese government required everybody in Japan to bow to portraits of the emperor, towards the direction of the imperial palace.

This was also demanded of churches at the beginning of their worship services.

Rather than resist, the leaders of churches in Japan accepted this demand and instructed all of their congregations to participate in the ritual (not all participated of course, and many faced persecution for their resistance).

In 1942, Mitsuru Tomita, the President of The United Church of Christ in Japan or Nihon Kirisuto Kyodan (a forced amalgamation by the government of 33 protestant denominations in Japan at the time) visited Ise shrine, the most important Nationalist Shinto shrine in Japan. There Tomita prayed to the sun-goddess Amaterasu, who is believed to be the ancestor of the Emperor, to bless the Nihon Kirisuto Kyodan.

This lack of resistance, and even endorsement of emperor worship by some, is remembered by many older Christians in Japan as one of the gravest sins in Japanese Church history. Shamefully, the Nihon Kirisuto Kyōdan had even sent “An Epistle from the Christian Church of Japan to Christian in the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere”, encouraging all Christians in territories under Japanese rule to join them in worshipping the emperor. A bleak contrast compared to the days of martyrdom in Japan.

How did this all happen? 

Satan’s tactics were threefold:

Firstly, bowing to  the emperor was (re)framed as a civic duty rather than a spiritual/religious issue. The logic offered to Christians was “Since saluting the emperor is a civic issue, it does not violate the most important Christian commandment:  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind (Matt 22:33-40). Therefore, you can be a dutiful Japanese citizen while still remaining a Christian.”

Secondly, since bowing to the emperor was no longer a spiritual/religious matter but a civic matter, not bowing to the emperor was regarded as divisive. All were doing their part to win the war, but some people refused to bow to the emperor. Those people were seen to be causing division when Japan needed to be united to win the war. To refuse to bow to the emperor was seen as the ultimate un-Japanese act. By positioning bowing to the emperor as an act of civic duty and not as an act of worship, the authorities made it very difficult for Japanese Christian to spot the syncretism, idolatry and false worship.

Thirdly, to bow to the emperor and play your bit in being united in the war effort, became a matter of ‘loving your neighbor’. Since love of God and love of neighbor are the two highest motivators of Christian action, Christians found it very difficult to say no to participating in these rites.

But why do I bring this up now? Because syncretism is just as much an issue in Churches in Australia, not just Asia.

My fear is that a similar tactic is being used in Australia regarding the Indigenous Voice to Parliament (and the Uluru Statement from the Heart from which it originates, as well as ”Welcome to Country/Acknowledgement of Country” practices).

The Uluru Statement, is a very theological document. It reflects a particular (indigenous) theological view. Since we are created as spiritual beings, every culture is an expression of the shared spiritual beliefs of its people, and it is often difficult to disentangle the two. However, the theology in these documents and practices are explicitly stated, and I believe, are at odds with the Christian faith. To endorse the Uluru statement, “Welcome to Country”, and “the Voice”, requires me to endorse a particular understanding of, and expression of, spiritual and transcendent realities that I do not share. For me to say “yes” is to syncretize my faith.

For example,

  • Together, they require me to affirm that the universe is tens of thousands of years old.
  • They require me to affirm that I and others belong to the earth. Although I do ‘come’ from the dust of the earth and will return to the dust one day, I “belong” to Christ in Heaven. Therefore I am not bonded to any “earth, country or nation”. To put it another way, the ground does not “own” my being, nor provide for me like a master his bondservant. That is not the relationship I have to the earth. 
  • These documents and practices also require me to affirm that there are multiple ‘races’, when there is only one race – the human race – descended from Adam, and redeemed in Christ.
  • They require me to ‘pay respects’ to practices I do not have respect for, thereby making me  duplicitous (there are no ontological distinctions in the value of individual persons, but there are moral distinctions between the individual/cultural acts we engage in – and I am not excusing my Japanese or Australian ancestors for that matter – some are right, some are wrong, a lot of the time it looks grey and requires much wisdom to discern).
  • They require me to affirm that unity between people(s) is achieved by political means, not by both people(s) being united to Christ through repentance and faith.
  • They require me to affirm a materialistic worldview. Pantheism/animism is a ‘materialistic’ worldview in the sense that the spirits that rule the world are still part of this world, rather than there being a God who, although intimately involved in human history, particularly through Christ, stands outside space, time and matter and is wholly and infinitely ‘other’ to that which he has created. Issues like poverty, ill health, and illiteracy are penultimate issues (important and needing attention) but not ultimate issues.
  • They require me to affirm that people are punishable for their parents’ sins, rather than that people should only be punished for their own sins. While we may suffer the consequences indirectly for the sins of our parents – and trace it all the way back to Adam and Eve – our responsibility is not to bear punishment directly for our parents but to ensure we do not repeat their sins.

Thus, I can not endorse any of these things without compromising my Christian beliefs and worship with this particular worldview and its rites and rituals.

Despite all these religious and spiritual overtones, many Christians in Australia are arguing for ‘the Voice’ (and the Uluru statement and Welcome to Country) as a matter of Australian civics, not of Christian worship.

Hence, we have prominent Christians saying that we should do these things as a matter of Christian love for our indigenous neighbours, and we have prominent Christians arguing that this will bring indigenous and others closer, towards a united country.

But let me try and put this all on its head for one moment.

As Christians, we are Christians first and foremost, and whatever nationality/ethnicity second and subsequently. Our primary identity is that we belong to Christ. If being Christian, and worshiping rightly, means being un-Australian (or un-Japanese for that matter), then we must choose to be Christian.

Secondly, as I alluded to above, true unity is achieved by both parties being united to Christ.

Now it seems that in an age of isolation, unity has quickly resurfaced as a national virtue. It is true that a house (or country) divided against itself cannot stand. However, true unity is only achieved in Christ.

This means, the best way to be an Australian, is to be a Christian, and only Christian – not Japanese Christian, Australian Christian, Indigenous Christian, but simply, “Christian”.

The only real way to make the “Australian” value of unity a reality, is to be united with Christ, the great unifier of people. Indeed, “Unity” is a Christian notion first, and any National/Ethnic/Cultural unity is derivative. Further, Christ is the only one that can make two people(s) truly one. He did this by tearing down the wall of hostility that exists between two people(s) on the Cross. When two people(s) realize that it was their hostility towards Christ and towards each other that put Christ on the cross, and that on the cross Christ offers forgiveness to both for their sins, that brings both peoples to himself, and to one another.

Rather than being dictated to and subjected by earthly spirits that make hollow and empty promises of freedom and satisfaction, we are freed and become compelled by the Spirit of Heaven who delivers on all his promises in Christ. 

Many have talked about being informed of the legal matters relating to ‘the Voice’, and many arguments for and against based in Christian ethics, but I have not seen much that deals with the theology/spirituality of these matters except here, here and here, indirectly and briefly in an article on the Uluru statement here, and Welcome to Country here, and in some words on sovereignty and reconciliation here.

I am not saying that the problems that our Indigenous neighbors are facing are unimportant. What I am saying is that I cannot, as a Christian, in good conscience, give my “yes” to “the Indigenous Voice”.  I do not recognise it as one that echoes the Voice of the Shepherd who laid his life down for me.

I pray that more Christians will consider the theology that is implied by the Uluru Statement, Welcome to Country, and “the Voice”. Our practices are a reflection of our theology, albeit inconsistently many a time.  What do our actions say about what we believe God to be like? Since we are created in the image of God, and as Christians, redeemed to be perfected into the likeness of Christ, let’s do our best to ensure that what we say and what we do accurately reflect who he is.

– Makito Miyashita