Friday, January 10, 2014

Worries about Japan—25 Years Ago and Now

Do you remember the first week of January 1989? That was 25 years ago, but I remember it well as that was a time of significant transition in Japan where I then lived.
Emperor Hirohito passed away that year on January 7. Born in 1901, he became the Emperor of Japan in 1926 and at the time of his death had been Japan’s longest-reigning monarch. When a new emperor accedes to the throne in Japan, a new era name is chosen and the calendar starts again at year 1. So Emperor Hirohito died in Showa 64.
Crown Prince Akihito became the 125th Emperor of Japan upon the death of his father and chose Heisei (“peace everywhere”) for the name of the new era. So last week was the beginning of Heisei 26 in Japan.
In the weeks before Emperor Hirohito’s death there was considerable anxiety among many Christians, and some other non-traditional Japanese people. Accordingly, “Showa, X-Day and Beyond” was the theme for the thirtieth Hayama Men’s Missionary Seminar, held on Jan. 5-7, 1989, at Amagi Sanso in Japan.
“X-Day” was the name given to the unknown day of the Emperor’s approaching death—and he died while the seminar was in progress. I had the privilege of giving the final paper at that meeting.
Part of the Christians’ concern at that pivotal time in Japanese history was the possibility of a surge of nationalistic (Shintoistic) fervor that would be detrimental to the Christian presence and activities in Japan. Even though religion and the state are to be separate according to the Japanese Constitution, there was considerably anxiety about that not being honored after X-Day.
Looking back, Emperor Hirohito’s death 25 years ago seems to have had minimal long-term effects on the religious or political situation in Japan. Things did not turn out as negatively for Christians, or others, as feared.
But now, quite unrelated to any religious affiliations or affectations, there seems to be a growing nationalistic movement in Japan led primarily by the current head of the Liberal Democratic Party, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is now in the thirteenth month of his second stint as head of the Japanese government.
PM Abe (pronounced ah-beh) became the 90th Japanese Prime Minister in September 26, 2006. He was then Japan's youngest prime minister since World War II—and the first to be born after the war. But he served as prime minister for less than a year the first time, resigning on September 12, 2007.
Since his election again in December 2012, Abe has taken a hawkish position that is currently a concern for many Japanese—and people in nearby countries. The end of month, as the Washington Post reported, “Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited a Shinto shrine Thursday that honors Japan’s war dead, including 14 war criminals, and is seen by Asian neighbors as a symbol of the nation’s unrepentant militarism.”

That visit to Yasukuni Shine is, of course, much opposed by Christians, and others, in Japan. But much of their opposition last year was due to PM Abe’s expressed intention to change Article IX of the Japanese Constitution, which outlaws war as a means to settle international disputes involving the state.
Less than a week after his ill-conceived visit to Yasukuni, in his New Year message last week PM Abe reaffirmed his resolve to change the nation’s pacifist constitution. No wonder not only peace-loving Japanese but people of the neighboring countries, and elsewhere, have worries about the direction Japan is headed.


  1. Very interesting, Leroy. I'd be interested in your reflections on whether and how much there is still an underlying militarism in Japan. The Japanese, like the Americans, seem to be a very proud people, and I'm not sure how much in our nationalistic world that that pride can be satisfied by economic development, technological innovation, cultural achievement, and sports. The Japanese also seem more deeply unified (or less pluralistic) than America which might make their nationalism more worrisome than ours; although, quite honestly, our jingoism is very worrisome and, in my view, deeply militaristic and anti-democratic.

    I'm guessing the Japanese will change their constitution, and it will be with America's blessing because the U.S. will view them as a potent Asian partner to balance against the growing Chinese military presence (also a military ally the U.S. won't have to financially subsidize). On both countries' part, that would be more of a pragmatic move than the result of a nationalistic or militaristic spirit.

    From my own meager Japanese experience and studies, I don't have much anxiety about Japan re-arming. I'm speculating that they're in a very different place now and too closely tied to the U.S. and the West to ever be in the geopolitical position they were early in the twentieth century. But I look forward to more of your reflections.

    thanks for the informative article

    1. Everything that Anton says and that Leo says is right! I would only add that since my views about pacifism are in flux, and since I am largely ignorant about Japan's military assistance recently in Afghanistan and elsewhere (I found this:, I would say that whether passively and actively supporting military actions is a slippery slope. Anton's observation that homogeneity may lead to "group think" is interesting, but our own experience in the change in public opinion since 2001 about attacking Afghanistan and then Iraq give me hope that in the long arc of history we humans will eventually do the right thing . . . And since my views about nuclear power vis-a-vis limiting greenhouse gases is also in flux, I would welcome Leroy commenting on Fukushima and Japan's future course in energy use. I have heard one commentator say that if the world were either 100% nuclear or 100% coal, he would choose nuclear: it would be better to have a few accidents like Fukuchima and Chernobyl than to ruin the whole planet with global warning!

    2. Anton, thanks for reading my blog posting early this morning and being the first to respond, as you often are.

      I think there is a growing sense of nationalism in Japan, and nationalism usually entails militarism to a certain degree. And, as you recognize, there is more uniformity in Japan, so if the movement toward nationalism/militarism gains momentum, there is more likelihood there than here, for example, that it would engulf the country.

      I think you are probably right in guessing that the Constitution will be changed--but that is not likely to happen for several years. Even PM Abe, I hear, is talking about 2020 as the target date.

      And, yes, probably the U.S. government would now probably not be opposed to Japan changing Article IX of the present Constitution.

      Also, while I don't have any short-term worries about Japan being involved in military action, in a decade or two when there will likely be more economic/resource problems in the world and in East Asia in particular, I would not rule out the possibility of at least limited military action toward China and maybe toward North Korea.

    3. Thanks also, Phil, for your comments.

      I still don't have enough knowledge about the nuclear energy issue to make any definite statements about it. My inclination has been to not be critical of the use of nuclear energy because of thinking that it causes far less global warming. But some articles I have seen about that question whether that is so.

      Also, I know several Christian pastors in Japan, including some of my former students, who are strong and vocal critics of the Japanese government's support of nuclear power plants. Partly because of them I don't want to support nuclear power until I am confident that such power is the lesser of two evils.

  2. Thanks Leroy. You are right on in terms of the Japanese spirit when it comes to being a war nation or a peace one. I am concerned at their gaming with the Chinese over the reminds me of the events down the road in Thailand. In both places, the majority spiritual communities or cultural religious grounding for the nation are involved. Buddhism in Thailand is a mess and in Japan Shinto can play a negative role, although that is not the practice of these spiritual communities.... of course this is something Christians and other non traditional groups and folks need to watch. Good work again Leroy, I really appreciate take on things, hi June!!

    1. Thanks for reading and responding, Bob.

      Yes, whether in Thailand or Japan -- or the U.S. -- the dominant religious tradition can be, and often is, used by the government and/or by economic interests to spur militarism rather than peace.

  3. I believe this has far more to do with current Chinese and Korean relations than with historic Japanese trends. Both Germany and Japan greatly downplayed military power after the war, and for good reason. However, at some point they were virtually certain to rejoin the ways of nations. Which gets back to the current tension with China and Korea.

    As the Bible puts it, "It was the time in spring when kings went off to war." Unless, of course, you were David, and stayed home to discover Bathsheba. The only real way out of this is for the nations together to mutually move that way. Consider how Russia, the United States and China have slowly and fitfully ramped down mutual threats and fears. Do not expect Japan to do it alone.

    For an interesting look at how China sees this, check this:

  4. The Japanese have a very strong sense of national identity, and Abe seems intent on exploiting this in order to remain prime minister since there is not much else he can do. His economic policies have not produced any tangible benefits for ordinary people and there is no sign of the Fukushima debacle ending soon.

  5. Thanks, Leroy for recounting this story!
    I agree it is a sad thing to see Abe at Yasacuni Shrine. I too fear that Japan will align itself with the military powers. And I do hope the Christian Church in Japan, small though it is, can be inspired to stand in opposition. For too long the Christian Church downplayed it's pacifism in order to remain in Japan (with the help of US military force). I know you are familiar with this.
    I was very interested in the recent "Statement of Faith" by the Hokkaido Mennonites. You may have seen this before. I appreciate their clarity on this issue, and their willingness to "go against the tide" of Japanese public opinion. It can be found here:.

    1. Bob, thanks for your response--and for sharing the link to the recent statement by the Mennonites in Hokkaido. I appreciate you calling it to the attention of others.

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  7. Thinking Friend Bob Hanson, whom I first knew when we lived in the same city in Japan years ago, sent the link to the following "Democracy Now!" interview about the same general subject as the above blog posting: "Shock Doctrine in Japan: Shinzo Abe’s Rightward Shift to Militarism, Secrecy in Fukushima’s Wake."

    The link is