Friday, June 4, 2004

Japan: Watching Shinto nationalism

Date: Friday 4 June 2004
Subj: Japan: Watching Shinto nationalism
To: World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty News & Analysis
From: WEA RLC Principal Researcher and Writer, Elizabeth Kendal.

On 1 July, the South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported, "Education officials in southern Japan have defended their decision to monitor how loudly students and teachers sang the national anthem at recent school entrance and graduation ceremonies." ("Patriotism exam hits wrong note in Japan", by Julian Ryall in Tokyo for SCMP, 1 June 2004)

According to the SCMP report, members of the Board of Education for the city of Kurume visited 40 elementary and junior high schools, to monitor the degree to which students and teachers sang the national anthem, Kimigayo, with passion and gusto. The monitors categorised participation as "quiet", "medium" or "loud". The officials were also required to verify that the schools were displaying the Hinomaru (Rising Sun) national flag at the front of school halls. Apparently six schools failed to satisfy the Ministry of Education's patriotism monitors.

On 31 March, a total of 171 school teachers were reprimanded by the Tokyo board of education for refusing to follow their principal's orders to stand and sing the Kimigayo national anthem at commencement ceremonies held earlier that month at high schools run by the metropolitan government. (Japan Today 1 April 2004)

To understand why this issue threatens Japan's Christians and instils fear into Japanese Christian leaders and missions, we need to look at Japanese Christian history and see how Japanese Shinto nationalism has correlated with persecution of Japanese Christians and foreign missionaries in Japan over the centuries. Today only 1.5% of Japanese are Christian, and only about 0.4% are evangelical.



Pure Shinto is an animist religion that focuses on supernatural spiritual forces inherent in nature. Shinto practice is centred around shrines where a "kami" is believed to reside in an object such as a stone. Local shamans represent the kami and avert evil spirits.

After Buddhism entered Japan in the 6th century, Shinto practice blended with Buddhism and Confucianism and Taoism and became more organised and structured. However, over the centuries a movement developed dedicated to the restoration of pure Shinto as the unique and original Japanese religion.


Inherent to Shinto is the belief that the gods exist in various ranks and the highest god of all, holding the supreme position, is the sun goddess, also known as the Ruler of Heaven, whose name is Amaterasu-o-mi-kami.

It is believed that Jimmu, Japan's first emperor who ascended to the throne in 660 B.C., was the grandson of the sun goddess, and was sent to earth to rule it. Since Jimmu, the emperors of Japan have therefore been said to be divine, functioning both as the high priest and the object of worship. (It was actually in 712 A.D. that the imperial court had this Shinto "history" written down in order to secure its dynasty.)

From this brief summary alone, it is easy to see why Japanese Christians consider the Japanese Hinomaru (Rising Sun) flag and the Kimigayo anthem which glorifies the emperor, to be idolatrous. The Hinomaru flag has also become a symbol of Japanese militarism (which is driven by Japanese Shinto belief).


The first known Christian missionary to Japan was Francis Xavier who arrived in 1549. Christian activity was concentrated around Nagasaki. At this time, Japan was ruled by "shoguns", or military dictators, who monopolised power whilst maintaining a fa├žade of obedience to the emperor. Aiming to stop the spread of Christianity, Shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi had 26 foreign and Japanese national Christians crucified in Nagasaki on 5 February 1597.

Shogun Tokugasa Ieyasu ruled Japan from 1600. Through the 1600-1700s there was severe persecution of Christians - primarily for political and power reasons - after an edict was declared to crush Christianity.

"The Kirishitan (Christian) band have come to Japan, not only sending their merchant vessels to exchange commodities, but also longing to disseminate an evil law, to overthrow true doctrine, so that they may change the government of the country and obtain possession of this land. This is the germ of great disaster, and must be crushed." (1603 edict: footnote 1)

In 1622, 51 Christians were executed at Nagasaki, and two years later 50 were burned alive in Edo (Tokyo). In 1633 some 30 missionaries were executed. During these years many Christians recanted to escape persecution while some 3,000 were executed and others died in prisons or in exile.

In 1865, communities that together totalled some 60,000 Kakure Kirishitan ("hidden Christians") were discovered in the Nagasaki area. These Christian communities had perpetuated the faith in hiding for two centuries.


In 1853, Japan opened its doors to Western trade. Then in 1868, after a brief civil war and palace coup, the shogunate was overthrown and the power of the emperor was restored. This incident is known historically as the "Meiji Restoration". Emperor Meiji instigated revolutionary changes that ushered in sweeping industrialisation, a restoration of Shinto nationalism, and Japanese expansionism, which was fuelled by the belief that Japan was endowed with a unique and divine ruler.

Emperor Meiji founded Japan's Yasukuni Shrine in 1869, which was dedicated to the "souls" of all the Japanese soldiers who would fall in conquest. Japan went to war against China in 1894 (with victory in nine months), against Russia in 1904 (with victory in 1905), and against Korea in 1907 (annexing Korea in 1910).

In the 1890's Shintoism was declared non-religious - that is, not a religious option, but the civic duty of all Japanese, and that included emperor worship.

Extreme nationalism exploded in Japan in the late 1920s and through the 1930s. Shinto was the official religion of Japan and Christians who refused to participate in Shinto ceremonies were accused of lacking patriotism and loyalty. In May 1932, Christian students created a mini-national crisis when they refused to bow in the Yasukuni Shrine. Authorities compromised, urging attendance at Shinto shrines as a non-religious civil manifestation of loyalty.

Shinto-based nationalism permeated every level of Japanese society. State Shinto became a powerful weapon in the hands of militarists keen to justify and glorify their policy of aggressive expansionism.

Japan's defeat in World War 2 precipitated a new constitution (1947) the included freedom of religion and the disestablishment of state Shinto, even disavowing the emperor's divinity. Yet there have always been those keen to revive the former ways, especially now, when Japan is searching for national identity and solutions to its moral problems.

Because of the demonic, spiritist, idolatrous nature of Shinto, Christians of conscience cannot participate in it. As such, Shinto nationalism has always produced discrimination against and persecution of Christians in Japan. Hence any revival of Shinto nationalism today will deeply disturb and threaten Japanese Christians.


When nationalism exploded in the 1930s, the government promoted Shinto nationalism initially and primarily through the Ministry of Education.

Could history be repeating itself?

In October 2003, the Ministry of Education instructed schools to fly the Hinomaru (Rising Sun) flag at enrolment and graduation ceremonies. It also said teachers and school staff must stand and sing the Kimigayo national anthem. According to the "Asahi Shimbun", about 250 teachers and staff have since been disciplined for failing or refusing to comply. These symbols only became legal again in August 1999. The school campaign is spearheaded by nationalist Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, and implemented by the Tokyo Metropolitan Board of Education. (Link 1)

Today, teachers are being penalised for exercising their right to freedom of conscience in refusing to honour the Hinomaru flag or sing the Kimigayo anthem. Schools are being monitored by patriotism police who grade the gusto with which students and teachers sing the anthem, to see if they pass the patriotism test. (Link 2)

Japan has also been re-writing its history textbooks, redefining its aggressive expansionism as liberation, much to the horror of its Asian neighbours.

After World War 2, the Allied Command stripped the Yasukuni Shrine of its national identity and it became just another of Japan's religious institutions. Today however, the Yasukuni Shrine, which now harbours the "souls" of several convicted war criminals, is once again enjoying the patronage of Japan's political leaders.

- Elizabeth Kendal

1) A World History of Christianity. Edited by Adrian Hastings. Cassell 1999.


1) PATRIOT GAMES: Students snub flag; teachers warned
The Asahi Shimbun 27 May 2004

2) Board checked to see how loud students sang anthem

Teacher temper over Japan flag laws
From CNN Tokyo Bureau Chief Atika Shubert, 3 May 2004