New Horizons

Foundation Day or Freedom of Faith Day?

Stewart E. Lauer

February 11, 2000 was a Japanese national holiday, Kenkoku Kinen ("Foundation") Day, celebrating the founding of the nation—according to Shinto mythology. The nationalistic-Shintoistic elements within Japanese society hold "pep rallies" on that day. But Christians call the day Shinkyou no Jiyuu ("Freedom of Faith") Day. Many Christians gather on that day to learn about and discuss the state of religious freedom in Japan and to develop strategies to cope with the gradual erosion of religious liberty and freedom of conscience in the country.

The Revival of Shintoism

According to traditional Shinto religion, which is foundational to Japanese culture and nationhood, the first emperor was the grandson of the sun goddess Amaterasu, who sent him to earth to rule it. The claim of subsequent emperors to divinity—and their right to be worshiped by the people—was of course denied by Christians. This resulted in their persecution, which became increasingly ruthless during the fanatical days of the Japanese Empire.

After Japan lost World War II, the American occupying forces required the emperor to renounce his claim to divinity. Also at American insistence, a modern constitution was adopted that grounded political power in the people, allowed the emperor only a symbolic role, and guaranteed religious liberty and freedom of conscience to all citizens. But the conservative forces in Japan have never accepted this, and have looked for ways to revive the old nationalism, centering around the emperor. Remembering the catastrophe of World War II, many other Japanese do not want to see any revival of nationalism or state Shintoism.

To encourage a more patriotic spirit in Japan, the Ministry of Education began requiring schools to honor the Japanese flag and sing a national anthem (neither of which had legal status). However, the traditional flag bears the image of the sun. The Sun Flag, or Hinomaru, has historically been a symbol of the reign of the (divine) emperor. Furthermore, the anthem, called the Kimigayo (which means "May the emperor reign forever!"), is a hymn of praise to the emperor.

For Christians, the idolatrous connection of the flag and the anthem with emperor worship chafes the conscience. For pacifists, who are well represented in the teaching profession, the link between these imperial symbols and wartime nationalism makes them unacceptable. As a result, many school teachers have resisted the directive from the Ministry of Education.

Last year one man, Toshihiro Ishikawa, the principal of the Seirei High School in a town near Hiroshima, was sandwiched between such resistance and the directive. He received daily phone calls from the school board, pressuring him to implement the government's policy by compelling the teachers in his school to honor the flag and sing the anthem at the March 1, 1999, graduation. For various reasons of conscience, the teachers under him had been nearly united in ignoring that policy. On the day before graduation, hourly phone calls from the school board finally got to him, and he committed suicide by hanging himself. That action received national attention. The next day fifty teachers disobeyed the government directive, and twenty-one of them were later disciplined by the school board.

This tragic suicide should have alerted the government to the terrible burden that its policy was placing on its citizens. It should have taken steps to restore the constitutional right of conscience for each citizen. Instead, the government rushed a bill through the Diet (parliament) granting legal status to the Hinomaru and the Kimigayo, so that all government employees could thereafter be required to honor the flag and sing the anthem.

Between 1985 and 1995, over 900 public school teachers were punished (mostly off the record) for exercising their constitutional right to follow their conscience on this issue. And since 1995, the situation has worsened.

The government can hereafter be expected to use its bigger legal whip against any and all whose conscience prevents them from honoring the Hinomaru or singing the Kimigayo. Indeed, on January 28, 2000, the nation's largest school board (governing the Tokyo area) assembled all 270 of the principals in its district and ordered them to compel their teachers to implement the government's flag and anthem policies in each school.

A Conference of Believers

At a two-hour conference of believers from western Japan on Freedom of Faith Day, I joined four Japanese pastors in addressing a group of about fifty from a variety of evangelical and Reformed denominations. During the first hour, each spoke. During the next hour, a panel discussion, including all present, allowed for a free exchange of ideas. A pastor from the Mino Mission (like the OPC Japan Mission, one of the few Christian bodies in wartime Japan which refused to submit to state Shintoism) explained why the political reality here makes an appeal to the courts in defense of one's constitutionally guaranteed liberty of faith and conscience (as would be made in the United States) futile. He said that Japan's judiciary is not as independent of the ruling party (which controls the executive and legislative branches) as it is in some other democracies.

Another speaker pointed out that, according to advocates of the flag and the anthem, the removal of Shinto rites and imperialism from government institutions after the war left a spiritual vacuum. As a parent with five children attending Japanese public schools, I would agree that there seems to be a spiritual lethargy in the schools. However, the treatment now being applied by force is far more deadly than the symptoms. Only "the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead" can bring life to the Japanese. Idolatry is deadly; compelling idolatry is a most heinous form of oppression.

When I spoke at the Freedom of Faith Day meeting, I stated that each Japanese citizen ought to feel free to urge his government to fulfill its duty to honor the Constitution. I also stated that it is the duty of churches and pastors to train their flocks to refuse to participate in acts that involve paying homage to the emperor or his symbols (1 Cor. 10:20-21) or that will be understood by observers as involving such homage (1 Cor. 8:7-13).

An interesting alternative to the Kimigayo was put forward by one participant at the conference, if perhaps only dreaming aloud. He suggested that in each school the Christian children be organized and trained ahead of time to join their voices in singing a hymn to Christ as the national anthem begins. Later, my wife, Laurie, suggested that the hymn "Crown Him with Many Crowns" would be most appropriate.

The government of this nation once imprisoned Orthodox Presbyterian missionary Bruce Hunt for urging Korean Presbyterians to refuse Japanese demands to submit to Shintoism and emperor worship (Japan then ruled Korea and Manchuria). As we view developments here today, we are convinced that major problems lie ahead for our Japanese brethren. To our knowledge, school children have not yet been forced to sing or bow, but, as I write this article, Christian teachers and school administrators are likely to be put under great pressure as school graduation and entrance ceremonies take place in March and April.

Cabinet minister Hinomu Nonaka has announced that the cabinet is considering legislation to nationalize the Yasukuni Shrine and to prepare for revising the Constitution. This is a prominent Shinto shrine near the imperial palace in Tokyo, where the spirits of many war dead, including convicted war criminals, are said to be "enshrined."

In the thirties and forties, the government moved such measures ahead fairly slowly, whittling away the resolve of Christians and acclimating them step-by-step to eventual participation in blatant Shintoism and emperor worship. Then, as now, much of that evil program was the work of the Ministry of Education. We see cause to fear that this Ministry is being used once again in our day to orchestrate the implementation of idolatrous homage to the emperor. May the Lord save his church—if not from persecution, at least from capitulation. Humanly speaking, there is great cause for concern within the churches here and a need for earnest prayer by brethren around the world on our behalf.

Our greatest fear is that Japanese Protestant churches still show a tendency to compromise with the culture. That tendency led to wholesale shrine worship among Japanese Christians and even to the incorporation of homage to emperor Hirohito in worship services during the 1930s and 1940s. Similarly, the Kimigayo was added to the wartime United Protestant Church's hymnal.

For example, it is common to see the children of church members and even of church officers absent from services on the Sabbath when public schools have planned activities. Also, the dearth of male Christians is an oft-given excuse for tolerating or even blessing marriages of Christian women to unconverted Japanese men. Naturally, once daughters are permitted to marry non-Christians, sons (despite no lack of potential Christian wives) must be permitted to do so as well. Since relatively mild pressures have already produced such debilitating compromise with the society, what will happen if the state tries once again to use its full power to compel Christians to commit idolatry en masse, and the excuse is once again trotted out that shrines and emperor worship are not religion, but merely Japanese culture and patriotism?

"And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; and they have no rest day and night, those who worship the beast and his image" (Rev. 14:11).

The author is a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Japan Mission. Reprinted from New Horizons, May 2000.

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