PEACE PROBE by Gene Stoltzfus

Yasukuni Shrine, God and Country in Japan by peaceprobe
October 2, 2007, 11:24 am
Filed under: Japan, Politics of Empire

Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution 

Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. 

In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of  belligerence of the state will not be recognized. 

This “No War” clause went into effect on May 3,1947,  after World War II.


An aging veteran of Japanese political life, Yasuo Fukuda last week became Prime Minister.  People in Japan who oppose the growing Japanese defence establishment will watch for how the new Prime Minister leads in the growing rift between those who seek greater Japanese dominance in Asia in the tradition of the Japanese Co-Prosperity sphere [Japan’s Asian Empire] that collapsed at the end of World War II.  Besides decisions like the continued deployment of the Japanese Navy to provide logistical support for Afghanistan’s war, the Japanese working against remilitarization will have their eyes glued to two additional bell weather symbols. 

Will the new Prime Minister make occasional “private” visits to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo which in Shinto tradition protects and respects  the spirits of the Japanese war dead?  In a concession to critics he has said he will not.  The shrine incorporates a museum celebrating the brave achievements of the Japanese imperial war machine up to 1945.  In the related but more practical world of nationhood will the new Prime Minister give hints of his government’s attitudes towards a movement to drop the controversial pacifist plank from the post war constitution requiring that Japan not have a military?

In 2005 when I visited Japan my hosts in Tokyo and later in the Northern Island of Hokkaido urged me to visit the Yasukuni Shine.  I am glad that I did.  Fresh from the U. S., biggest economy in the world, where a great debate over something called civil religion was in high gear and then in the second largest world economy, Japan, the visit introduced me to how a more subtle but similar debate was being played out among my Japanese friends.  Civil religion is the institutionalization of sacred beliefs about the nation that are held and put into policy by public leaders.  In a time when the disproportionate influence of religion is attributed to Muslim nations it is noteworthy that the two states with the largest economies are being regularly challenged by zealous religious minorities in their population to be more faithful to mythological or theological notions that link the state with God(s) or the will of heaven.   All states are influenced by a degree of civil religion consistent with their own history.  

The Yasukuni Shrine where recent Japanese Prime Ministers have gone to pray, is technically a private institution.   However its tone and subject, the honouring of not only the spirits of individual soldiers who have died, but also the militarization of Japan that culminated in imperial crimes throughout Asia is viewed with grave concern among East and Southeast Asian nations where the memory of World War II is still alive.  When I visited the museum the grand entrance was dominated by a military vehicle that had heroically served in Burma during the Great Asia war.  My friends tell me that Japanese text books  incorporate the heroic interpretation of the Great War depicted in the museum’s exhibits.  Prime Minister Abe who preceded the new Prime Minister did not visit the shrine due to pressure from Korea and China. Within the Liberal Democratic Party support to incorporate the Yasukuni Shrine as part of a national religion continues to be an important political thread.  

Ironically when I visited Japan I had recently completed a speaking tour that included Texas and several other states.  The similarity of the questions from my audiences were uncanny.  In the United States people can’t understand how traditional religion, Shintoism based on animism, can feed the currents of civil religion and the resurgence of the nationalism.  In Japan my audiences similarly grasped for answers to the reported influence of Christians in war making in Iraq and elsewhere.  Only one percent of the Japanese people define themselves as Christian, however their contribution to the peace and justice movement is widely appreciated and trusted.  Like Christians in North America they are involved in the hard work of Bible study and prophetic living even in the face of a new wave of missionaries who often embrace a  boundless militarism.  

The rejection of militaristic Christianity by American voters hinted in the recent mid term elections in the US may or may not be permanent, since the non Biblical notion of America as God’s chosen light remains one of several deeply held threads of American history going back to the Pilgrims.  In practice US policy has encouraged Japanese rearmament, first in the Cold War, then in the war on terrorism.   Japan’s highly trained Self Defence Force which includes ground, maritime, and air units is estimated to have 240,000 soldiers.

During the century long modernization of Japan leading up to the period of the Japanese Asian empire, Shinto mythology was enlarged to empower the expanded and militarized Japanese state.  During Japanese modernization the unifying and divine [literally heavenly sovereign] power of the Emperor was deepened in consciousness.   When the divine sanction of the Emperor was revoked following the American occupation, the power of Shinto mythology was challenged.  Although Shintoism does not purport a notion of God as found in America, its respect for spirits carries significant hold on deeper popular belief.  This hold is reflected at the Yasukuni Shrine by honouring the spirits of warrior ancestors and displaying the crafts of imperial warfare.  The outworking in society and politics leads eerily to polarization in Japanese society, similar to what has happened in the U. S.  

While in Japan I was told that there are more than 2000 local committees working for the protection of Article 9.  This is their response to a civil religion that has crept into the policy halls of Japan’s dominant Liberal Democratic Party over the last 20 years. When our Japanese friends speak out, their patriotism is questioned with the use of public guilt and other hard attacks in the press.  American Christians who challenge the marriage of Christianity and militarism find themselves attacked too, but with less stylised language honed by millennia of stretching towards the cultural unity of religion and nationhood.  

The flowering of civil religion with the Romans and appearing frequently through world history as the blessing of heaven for the state, leads through the hard journey of militarism, distant wars to conquer hearts and minds, and crimes against humanity in the name of a state’s notion of God and country.  The untangling of this marriage can be only partially completed at any ballot box.  The real completion begins and ends in the hearts, convictions, and confident actions of people who remain firmly rooted in a spiritual centre that will survive and even flourish despite  the press releases, innuendo, and sometimes direct persecution by the machinery of the modern Japanese, or American states.


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