NO one can study the development of the Japanese drive for power without being impressed by the fact that in Japan as almost nowhere else in modern times religion has been made an instrument of national policy. The rulers of Japan assume that the chief and indeed almost the only purpose of religion is to advance the fortunes of the state, not to satisfy the needs of the individual.

The Japanese tendency to think of religion as an instrument of national policy grew out of the conception of the universe as revolving about the nation. Such gods as were known to exist were concerned directly with the organization and control of Japanese life and they worked for the Japanese only, not for the human race as a whole. What concerned other people and their origin or destiny was, then, of no practical importance to the Japanese. And even if, outside of their ken, there were a God of mankind -- of the universe -- what did it matter? Japan had her own gods. Why look beyond that basic fact?

A naïve cosmogony? Yes, but such was Japanese religion in the early centuries. Such was Shinto, the so-called Way of the Gods. It may be said that Shinto is not a religion; controversy has waxed warm over this question, and state officials have been assiduous in trying to prove that it is not. But whether it is a religion or not, Shinto is certainly the basis and source of religious consciousness in Japan. It can be thought of as the Japanese attitude toward life, toward nature and toward destiny. It was a natural psychological development, with no assignable origin, no creed, no affirmations or ethics or duties, other than the requirement that those who held it be at home in the world and live naturally -- in other words, that they follow their own impulses and obey the laws of the state. It was an attitude whose uses were early recognized. Much Japanese energy has been expended in keeping it alive as something that the state could not get along without.

But Shinto has also elements that would seem to make it a religion. There are, for example, gods and goddesses, thought of as powerful and mysterious in the lives of men and in the world about them. We know little of the psychology of the primitive Japanese beyond the fact that as a people they were especially responsive to nature, and that their religion, therefore, was a nature-religion. They constantly were impressed by the working of mysterious power manifesting itself in a multitude of ways. And, as any child-mind might do, they accounted for it by saying, all this is caused by spirits. They called the spirits Kami, a word which means powers above and beyond full human comprehension. These were personalized forces that governed the world -- gods, if you like, although that word does not adequately translate Kami. Divinity is a better term, perhaps. And divinity was everywhere, in personalized form, but in different guise wherever it might appear. After that, we may assume, it was not difficult for the primitive philosopher to come to the conclusion that since divinity was everywhere, and he and all things were in touch with divinity, then all must be, in a sense, divine. A sort of pantheism? Yes, but it was something more. It was a conception of a universe fashioned and controlled by a divinity which manifested itself in personalized form.

Various Kami came to be recognized, some in the world above, some in the world below. All were graded according to the importance of their functions, whether causing the rice to grow and fructify, the wind to blow, the lightning to flash, the earthquake to rumble or the sea to roar. Then it was natural to single out the most powerful representatives of the Kami, above and below. The first of these was, of course, the sun, the greatest, the most powerful and the most beneficent thing the heavens contained. Should it not be taken, then, as the god, or goddess, be given the name Amaterasu O Mikami -- the Great Shining One of Heaven -- and worshiped? Finally, to complete the picture and link themselves with the heavenly Kami, they selected as their own greatest and best representative the direct offspring of the goddess, whom she had commissioned to descend to earth, subdue and repeople it and administer it for her glory and his.


This is Shinto: the matrix of all religion in Japan. Shinto taught the Japanese to be at home in their world, to take life as it came and rejoice in it; to bow to the inevitable and rise above it by asserting their own divinity and kinship with the gods, while placing their prime emphasis on loyalty to him who represented all that was best in themselves. When the Confucianists came in with their teachings of Heaven's law of harmony and the subserviency of the five relations, they found a people prepared to take over their beliefs, but with the emphasis always on the master-servant or lord-vassal relationship. Then when the influence of the Zen sect of Buddhism was united with that of Confucianism and the native warrior-instinct, the result was Bushido, or the Way of the Bushi or Samurai. After that, all religion, all philosophy, and all art too, had their place, and the triumph of militarism was assured for the whole long future.

It was only a step from Bushido, the warrior's way, to Kodo, the Imperial way. Thereupon there was enthroned in every heart the one who was acknowledged to be the arbiter of every man's destiny, and the final authority, whether in heaven or on the earth, to whom every knee must bow.

A key to what this principle means to the Japanese is to be found in their attitude to the Imperial Rescript on Education promulgated by the Meiji Emperor in 1890. The document is not important for what it is in itself, or for what it says, but for what it presupposes and for the attitude of reverence that it has inspired. All it purports to be is a three or four minute homily by the Emperor to his subjects, urging them to be faithful to their destiny and discharge the duties incumbent upon those with such a heritage. Its power derives from the fact, recognized by all Japanese who hear or read it, that it comes to them as the expression of the will, nay the command, of the gods. It is to them, therefore, the symbol, as the Emperor himself is the symbol, of the divine authority to which the unquestioning obedience of every Japanese subject must be given.

The veneration shown for the Emperor's photograph is revealing of this attitude. Not only must this precious square of paper be housed securely in every school in a special alcove or in a building erected for the purpose, but it must be guarded by all connected with the school even at the risk of their own lives. Should a fire break out at any time, the safety of the imperial photograph must first be assured; after that it will be time to think of the safety of the children. A professor in the First Higher School in Tokyo was at one time forced to resign his position for no other offense than his failure on one occasion to make the proper obeisance in the presence of the picture.

This, then, is the spirit that rules Japan today -- a spirit that commands and is obeyed, not from compulsion alone, but from individual choice. It is this last element which makes its authority so powerful and sinister, especially when the Emperor himself is under the sway of the militarists and is compelled to serve as the mouthpiece of their will, rather than using them as his servants to carry out his will in the interests of the people.

We are inclined to blame the militarists and excuse the populace. But alas, this cannot be so easily done, even though the primary blame must be put on the militarists. For every Japanese born in Japan is a Japanese first, not from birth only but from choice, and that means loyalty to the Emperor and unconditional obedience to every command that is given in his name, whether it be at his own initiative or by the will of those who may succeed in exploiting him. Whichever it is, no Japanese can escape the obligation; if it is a crime that is on foot, he must be a particeps criminis.


Let us not be too swift in our condemnation of the naïveté of such beliefs and too critical of their perpetuation into a day when science and truth have compelled other peoples to face reality. The theory has done something for the Japanese, surely. We need not assume that they believe in their myths as the record of historical events simply because they keep the old stories alive and foster the ideology that is built upon them, or even because an ambitious government compels them to teach mythology as history. Shinto has simply made use of its myths to give the Japanese a religious basis on which to build their state.

The theory has done more than produce and keep alive in the minds of the Japanese people an exalted conception of their Emperor; it also has given them a heightened sense of their own importance. For if their Emperor is divine, then they, his children, share that divinity. That means that his mission is their mission; if his is to hold sway over all peoples, theirs is to bring the world under his sway. In other words, they must prove, by achievement, their right to the claim which they make for themselves. If this attitude has given the Japanese an exaggerated opinion of themselves, it has also been a source of power, for it has emboldened them to achieve what should be expected of men with such an endowment.

The theory, furthermore, gives the nation a sense of solidarity and timelessness by binding together all living Japanese and linking them with the generations of those who have gone before them. Ancestor worship (though the Confucian influence reinforced it) was always native to Japan. Divinity knows not time. Those who were once divine and alive are always alive. The living and the dead are bound together with the divine powers above for the realization of the nation's great objective.

The perpetuation of the people's faith in the continued existence of their ancestors is, therefore, of strategic importance to the Japanese state. The worship aspect need not be stressed. It is rather the ever-renewed affirmation of their faith that their ancestors are participants with them in the holy enterprise which keeps them alert. However, the daily offering of rice and wine is encouraged as a way of vitalizing the faith.

A similar device, which at the same time provides an incentive for faithfulness where faithfulness is most desired, is the practice, carried on by the Government or under its orders, of deifying soldiers on their decease. On a certain night in October 1939, for instance, by Imperial fiat, 10,397 soldiers were given honored places, amounting to deification, in the national pantheon, as reward for laying down their lives on the battlefields of China. On October 17, 1938, and on April 23, 1939, respectively, 10,334 and 10,389 soldiers were deified in similar fashion, bringing the total in modern times to 166,601.[i] This is also the reason why, at the sound of a siren which is blown every year at precisely two minutes before twelve on September first, every citizen in the nation is required to bare his head and bow toward Tokyo. It was at that hour in the year 1923 that one of the greatest earthquakes in history sent 100,000 of their brothers and sisters into the spirit world, there to carry on the uncompleted national task.

Nor should we regard it as mere superstitious nonsense that the Emperor on his accession to the throne, and every other personage of prominence when he embarks upon a new and important enterprise, is expected to report the matter at once at the Great Shrine of Ise. Thus he links himself with men and gods, with the living and the dead, and commits himself to faithfulness in an enterprise from which there is no turning back. Even a certain Japanese Christian Bishop, brought up to be faithful to the national gods, felt that it devolved upon him, on assuming his new office, to make his report at the shrine and to pledge his faithfulness to the divine commission he had received.

Such is the place and influence of Shinto in the nationalistic structure of the present-day Japanese state. Is it any wonder that, though Shinto is repeatedly declared not to be a religion, the Government protects and fosters it with all the religious paraphernalia and ceremonialism that can be devised? The Government nevertheless has been compelled to walk softly, for there are jealous Buddhist priests always watching to see that their rights under the constitution are not abridged, and Christian propagandists who are just as alert lest their followers be made to worship at the shrines of another religion. It was for this reason that the so-called "secularizing of Shinto" was carried out in 1899. The officials of the Great Shrine at Ise asserted that thenceforth Shinto was to be regarded "merely as a mechanism for keeping generations in touch with generations, and preserving the continuity of a nation's veneration of its ancestors" -- that while Shinto might never hope "to stand as a religion, it might stand as the embodiment of a national sentiment."

In spite of this, the Government is increasing the amount of money it spends on the building and upkeep of public shrines; it is seeking more and more to popularize the performance of wedding and funeral ceremonies within them; and Japanese students are being compelled to worship at the shrines and to profess allegiance to their ancestors and to their Emperor as the vice-gerent of the gods and the living link between earth and heaven.


The two religions which came from the Asiatic continent, Confucianism and Buddhism, were also used for the advancement of Japan's nationalistic interests. The influence of Confucianism was early felt, almost before any recognition was given to Buddhism, and it was duly appreciated, chiefly because of the civilizing influences which, like Buddhism, it brought over from the continent during the early centuries of our era. Its ethical teaching, which based all relationships among men on a fixed order decreed by Heaven, appealed to thinking men and was widely accepted by them.

When Ieyasu, the first of the Tokugawa Shoguns, came to power in 1603, he quickly seized upon the Confucian teaching because it provided just the sort of stability that he needed for the development of his feudal system. He saw that this system, if it was to succeed, must develop a spirit of obedience and subserviency to organized authority. This was contained in the Confucian teaching of the five relations, which required the subserviency of vassal to lord, child to parent, wife to husband and younger brother to older brother, and provided for equality only between friends. When this was adopted as a basis for human conduct in Japan, however, the emphasis was not put on the child-parent relationship, as in China, but on the vassal-lord relationship. The endless kowtowing and subserviency required of inferiors had a repressive effect on them, and it had also a baleful influence on those who as superiors were required to maintain their dignity and treat with condescension or harshness those who occupied stations below them.

The ruling authorities in Japan have been almost uniformly amicable toward Buddhism -- too much so at times, when unspeakably corrupt moral attitudes and practices called for far different treatment. They gave Buddhism wide latitude because they knew well what they owed to it. In the first place, it proved to be an effective opiate. It kept the people reverent, obedient, patient and submissive, whatever the burdens imposed upon them. However intolerable present conditions might be, the sure satisfactions of Nirvana or the joys of the "Western Paradise" which the priests promised the faithful, were sufficient to enable them to endure. Of what importance, the priests asked, is this world and of what account are its pains and pleasures? Escape from it is what is to be desired -- and the quicker and easier the better. That is why, doubtless, all the new Buddhist developments in Japan were in the direction of short cuts -- the easy way, rather than the difficult, abstruse, un-Japanese way that had come from India. There is no easier road to salvation in all the world than the one offered by the Shin sect, and that is the most popular of all the sects in Japan. It requires only that one trust everything to Amida Buddha, the great mystical personage who refused to enter Paradise so long as there still remained outside one soul whom he could help to enter. Not even the endless repetition of the phrase "Namu Amida Butsu," on which all the Pure Land or Amida sects insist, is required of its adherents, but only the thankful mind that thinks forever -- when it thinks at all -- the words, "We thank thee, Amida."

In the second place, not a little of the nation's education, art, literature and other civilized refinements is directly traceable to the influence and efforts of Buddhism. As Chamberlain says in his "Things Japanese:" "All education was for centuries in Buddhist hands, as was the care of the poor and sick; Buddhism introduced art, introduced medicine, moulded the folklore of the country, created its dramatic poetry, deeply influenced politics and every sphere of social and intellectual activity. In a word, Buddhism was the teacher under whose instruction the Japanese nation grew up." The people may forget that fact, but official Japan does not. That is why the authorities have been so tolerant of it, even at its worst. But they never permit it to get the upper hand or to acquire undue influence in politics. When this happens, as it did in the case of the Hieizan priests in the sixteenth century, the hand of the Government descended swiftly and swept the entire assemblage of priests off their mountain and burned their temples to the ground.

Buddhism was saved, doubtless, and its perpetuation guaranteed, by the ipse dixit of the representative of the Sun Goddess at Ise in the eighth century. Shomu, who was Emperor at the time, was almost fanatically pious in his worship of Buddha, in spite of the fact that his title to the throne rested on descent from Amaterasu. His attitude soon became the subject of somewhat unpleasant comment. This aroused Gyogi, the most influential and popular priest of the period, who took it upon himself to make an expedition to Ise for the purpose of securing an interpretation that would silence wagging tongues. The oracle that he brought back was to the effect that Amaterasu was to be regarded as an incarnation of the Buddha, a verdict which was confirmed sometime later by a declaration of the Goddess, in a vision to the Emperor, that the sun was Birushana (Vairotchana Tathagata), or Dainichi Nyorai (Great Sun).[ii] The device was a clever one, to say the least, and it accomplished its purpose, for thenceforth the Buddhist and the Shintoist pantheons were further reconciled until they became more or less interchangeable, and the amalgamation of the two systems at times approached completeness.


We come now to Christianity. Soon after their first contact with it in modern times, the rulers of Japan decided to make the utmost use of this new religion from the Occident to further their nationalistic program.

The motive which led Japanese leaders to extend a welcome to Xavier when he came to the shores of Japan in 1549 was purely economic. The Portuguese, who had come a few years before for purposes of trade, had already made a favorable start, and, supposing that Xavier's errand was the same as theirs and that he would soon be followed by merchant ships, the Japanese received him with no little enthusiasm and listened eagerly to his teaching. When he disavowed any interest in commerce, however, only the marked deference paid him by the traders restrained the populace from driving him out of the country. It seems clear, therefore, that, as Brinkley says, "The attitude of the official classes toward the newcomers was mainly influenced by the prospect of trade, and that the attitude of the non-official classes toward the foreign religion depended largely on the mood of their superiors."[iii]

In the processes of time, the first favorable attitude of the official Japanese was changed to one of suspicion that the teaching of the Christian doctrine was nothing but a means for gaining entrance into the country, and that it would be followed later by armed forces sent to get possession of the land. Events seemed to substantiate the suspicion. Consequently, when Ieyasu came to power, he was compelled to take cognizance of the matter, with the result that in a few years the propaganda of the missionaries was stopped, they found themselves driven from the country and their hundreds of thousands of converts were either put to the sword or compelled to recant. From that time on until the middle of the nineteenth century the gates of the empire were closed, not only against Christianity, but against all foreigners. And lest Christianity might again find entrance, proscription boards were set up all over the empire to threaten with death anyone who might dare to propagate or espouse the Christian faith. These boards were not abolished until the year 1872, 14 years after the signing of the treaties which permitted resumption of trade relations with the outside world.

After this it was not long until the people, just as 300 years before, began to display marked interest in the newly resurrected faith and to accept it in rapidly increasing numbers. At first, the recognition given to it by the authorities was niggardly and insincere. They tolerated it at all only as a necessary condition for developing satisfactory relations with other countries. This was made evident by the attitude taken by Fukuzawa, who was at the time the most influential man in Japanese educational circles. He violently opposed Christianity at first, and lost no opportunity to attack it, recommending that Buddhism be favored in place of it, although he did not hesitate to say: "We do not believe in Buddhism, nor do we respect its priests. Our concern is for the national power, in the conservation of which that religion must be utilized."[iv]

Only three years later, however, in 1884, Fukuzawa's attitude changed completely and in an essay entitled "The Adoption of the Foreign Religion is Necessary," he said: "The civilized nations of Europe and America have always held that non-Christian countries could not be trusted as enlightened nations. Such being the case, if we desire to maintain our intercourse with Western nations on the basis of international law, it is first of all absolutely necessary that we remove completely the stigma from our land of being an anti-Christian country, and obtain the recognition of fellowship by the adoption of their social color." This he followed up with a later article in which he declared that, in order to have Japan put on an equal footing with other nations, "We must change our professed belief and wear a religious dress uniform with others." He wrote: "We mean by professed belief, what we profess to believe apart from the question of what may be our true doctrine. It would be sufficient to make it publicly known that Japan is a Christian country. . . . We do not mean that the majority of our countrymen should be Christians. A small number, one for every hundred, will be sufficient. All that is required is the assumption of the title of a Christian country." [v]

Fukuzawa's opinion was warmly approved by many others, among them some who even went so far as to urge that the Emperor himself receive baptism, so that Japan might at once be counted a Christian country. This was nothing but a recommendation, of course, that Christianity be used as a tool for the accomplishment of nationalistic purposes. Similar opinions have often been expressed since then. There have been few men in governmental posts who have committed themselves thoroughly to the universalizing mission of Christianity.

The Government's treatment of the Christian church during the years in which the war crisis was developing, and also the way the church in Japan has responded (with a few notable exceptions), lead to the same conclusion.

In 1912 Vice Home Minister Tokonami called a conference of Shintoists, Buddhists and Christians, to which he addressed a plea for union between religion and the state, for the sake of the advantages that would accrue to the state and its people. Each of the existing religions, he declared, Christianity not excepted, should try "to adapt itself to the national constitution, being careful to harmonize itself with the popular sentiments and customs." Some religion, he felt, was necessary for Japan, though of just what kind it should be he had little idea. Probably some kind of amalgam of the three would best meet the exigencies of the case. This implied, of course, that his opinion coincided with that of a good many others, that the sort of religion Japan needs is an eclectic one, embodying only such truths as are best calculated to advance her own particular national interests.

It seems evident that from the very beginning of the Christian propaganda, astute Japanese politicians saw clearly the utter incompatibility between the Christian teaching of universalism and their own fundamental principle. If Christianity stood for world-wide brotherhood and the welfare of all peoples, they stood for their own national aggrandizement alone, even at the expense of all other nations and peoples. If Christ's teaching represented the forgiving spirit and the sacredness of human life, Japan's represented revenge and the prodigal destruction of life, their own as well as that of others, whenever circumstances might seem to require it.

The question then arises, why, if those in authority recognize the utter incompatibility between Christianity and Japanese nationalism, they do not banish Christian teachings from their shores and exterminate the Christian Church, as was done when a similar crisis developed 300 years before. There are two reasons why this is not done. First, international relationships are on a vastly different footing from what they were 300 years ago. Japan knows that to wipe out the Christian Church today would only inflame still further against her the world's already heated passions, so that even if she were able to win this war she still could never hope to realize her age-long ambition to gain the acclaim of the world and compel it to acknowledge the greatness of Dai Nippon. Secondly, she cannot afford to lose the backing which the Japanese Christians have already given to her nationalistic program.

The policy which she has decided to adopt, therefore, is one of conciliation toward the Church in Japan, followed by dictation to it when that may become necessary. It must be made plain to the Christians that "the Way of the Gods is the absolute way," to quote Premier Hiranuma's own words, "and that all teachings that run counter to it cannot be permitted to exist." To summarize a statement by Minister of War Araki, the basis for all moral guidance must be understood to be the Imperial Rescript on Education. The Government is now definitely committed to the establishment of the New Order in East Asia, and in the carrying out of this policy it expects to use all religious organizations. Araki concludes by saying that "any religious body which acts contrary to our national constitution will be dealt with without hesitation."

These unequivocal statements were made during the consideration of the terms and significance of the Religious Organizations Bill in the House of Representatives on February 23, 1929. This bill was passed as a means for more perfectly controlling the activities and teachings of all religious organizations, Buddhist and Shinto sects as well as the Christian Church. One provision of the law was that all religious groups must be organized in large blocs -- in the case of Christians, of 50 churches or more -- and each bloc made responsible to a single head. Only the stronger Christian denominations, of course, could qualify. The Christian churches therefore decided to adopt the Government's suggestion and create a unified, interdenominational organization which should include all Christians, or at least all Protestants. On the surface, the decision seemed to be spontaneous, since it represented the culmination of what had long been considered the Church's eventual goal: the union of the entire body of Christians. Those on the inside know well, however, that practically every step in the process of integration was taken at the suggestion, or under the compulsion, of the political authorities. One stipulation made by the Government was that henceforth no funds for the work of the churches or schools should be received from abroad and no foreigner should be permitted to occupy any place of administrative responsibility.

The conditions laid down for the continuation of the work of the churches were accepted. On October 17, 1940, consequently, in the presence of a vast assemblage of Christians who had been brought together in Tokyo for the celebration of the 2600th anniversary of the founding of the Empire, the new plan of organization which was to make of the Christians one united Church was adopted. That may be looked on as a great achievement, accomplished so far in no other country. There is little doubt, however, as to which was the chief gainer, the Government or the Christian Church. The result was simply the emergence in Japan of a Christianity that is thoroughly Japanized, represented by a Church that is completely integrated with the Government's political program. If the goal the Church set for itself was nothing more than a united Church organization, that goal has been reached; but if it looked for the recognition and establishment of a world-wide brotherhood of all peoples and all races, it is farther from its goal than ever.

The question that now arises is threefold: How much farther will the Government compel the Church of Japan to go? How much more completely will the Church yield to the regimentation imposed? And to what extent will this modify the Church's fundamental Christian faith? A categorical assertion has been made recently by the authorized leaders of the new organization that the Church of Japan will not permit itself to be separated in faith or in doctrine from the universal Church. There remains to be seen how that attitude can be maintained under existing circumstances, and what will be the effect on the Church of Japan's eventual military defeat.

[i] D. C. Holtom, in "Japan Christian Year Book," 1940, p. 24.

[ii] Frank Brinkley and Baron D. Kikuchi, "A History of the Japanese People." New York: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1915, p. 195.

[iii]Op. cit. p. 531.

[iv] Otis Cary, "The History of Christianity in Japan." New York: Revell, 1909, v. 2, p. 159.

[v] Cary, op. cit. p. 174.

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  • C. BURNELL OLDS, a missionary in Japan from 1903 to 1939; for many years Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Kobe College
  • More By C. Burnell Olds