Tuesday, April 30, 2019

A Big Day for Japan

Emperor Hirohito of Japan, properly known as Emperor Showa, died in 1989. His successor, Emperor Akihito, is abdicating the Chrysanthemum Throne today, so as of tomorrow, May 1, Japan will have its third Emperor in thirty-one years.
The Last Day of Showa
Emperor Showa died at 6:33 a.m. on January 7, 1989. I remember that morning well, for I was scheduled that morning to give the final paper at the Hayama Missionary Seminar, an interdenominational gathering of missionaries to Japan. The theme of that conference was “Showa, X-Day, and Beyond.”
“Showa” was the name of the era that started when Hirohito became emperor in 1926. So, in Japan I would sometimes give my birth year as Showa 13, and we would sometimes have to indicate that we arrived in Japan for the first time in Showa 41. New Year’s Day in 1989 was the beginning of Showa 64, the longest era in Japanese history.
“X-Day” was the Japanese circumlocution for the day Emperor Hirohito would die--and since he turned 87 years old in 1988 and was not in good health, throughout the last part of that year, X-Day was expected at any time.
It was sobering to present my paper just three hours or so after the Emperor’s death. The title of my paper was “Beyond Showa: Christianity and Japanese Religions.” (A PDF of the entire booklet of that 1989 Hayama Conference papers can be found here.)
A deep concern of Christians in Japan at that time was the possible impact all the Shinto-related enthronement ceremonies might have on Christianity during that year and in the years to come. For good reason, given its close ties to the Pacific War (1941~45), most Japanese Christians were quite critical of the imperial system of Japan--and that is still true now.
The day after the Showa Era ended, the new era, called Heisei, began on January 8, 1989. And now, today (April 30), that era comes to an end.
The Last Day of Heisei
The era names in Japan all are composed of two kanji (Chinese characters). 昭和 (Showa) is generally said to mean “enlightened peace (or harmony).”
平成 (Heisei) means “achieving peace”--and it seemed to be a fitting era name for Japan, which had certainly been a peace-loving, peace-seeking nation since the end of World War II. (The most common Japanese word for peace is 平和heiwa.).
The new era which begins tomorrow (on May 1) is Reiwa (the kanji is shown in the picture on the right), which is now commonly said to mean “beautiful harmony.” According to Prime Minister Abe, the new name conveys a meaning that “culture is born and nurtured when people’s hearts empathize with each other beautifully.”
Although the “Western calendar” is also used in Japan, the era name is still a part of daily life there, used on coins, drivers' licenses, and official paperwork.
The Ongoing Opposition
Everyone in Japan, however, is not satisfied with the ceremonies surrounding the enthronement of the new emperor. As in 1988-89, many Christians oppose those activities because they are so closely tied to the Shinto religion--and to Japanese exceptionalism.
What in this country is generally called the separation of church and state is also acknowledged in the current (since 1947) Constitution of Japan. But tomorrow’s activities, and those scheduled for October 22, seem to be blatant violations of that principle.
Perhaps even more than in 1989, the enthronement ceremonies for the new emperor may well stir nationalistic (Make Japan Great Again!) sentiment in Japan--and that is the underlying reason for the ongoing opposition to the imperial system and the enthronement ceremonies tomorrow for Emperor Naruhito. 


  1. Here are comments from Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago.

    "Thanks, Leroy, for your fascinating remarks about Japanese culture and language. I learned a few things.

    "My impression is that the U S occupational leaders wisely retained the Japanese imperial system, albeit within a new constitutional setting, as it provided some stability to the postwar environment. Traditional Shinto has something of a militaristic bent to it, so hopefully that aspect of Shinto will remain repressed in the future."

    1. Yes, I think the U.S. wisely allowed the imperial system to remain in Japan, but with limited political power. But, no, it is not true that "traditional Shinto" was militaristic. It was only from the end of the 19th century that political leaders in Japan, who became more and more militaristic, began to co-opt Shinto mythology for the sake of gaining support for an aggressive Japan. Interpreting Japan as the nation created by the Shinto gods and the Emperor as the direct descendant of the Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess--the new Emperor is said to be the 126th in the direct line of descendants--Japan's militaristic leaders set about to create a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, with Japan at the top, of course. That sort of thinking had not been a part of traditional Shinto, which was more of an animistic religion, one seeing "divinity" in all things.

  2. Given the privacy surrounding Japanese emperors, will the ceremonies be as public as say the coronation of a British monarch? I'm guessing not, but I would enjoy seeing them. Thanks for this timely insight into Japanese life.

    1. David, Tuesday’s ceremony to mark the abdication of Emperor Showa was televised live nationwide. But it seems that the events of May 1 will not be televised.

      The formal enthronement ceremony,though, will be held on October 22, and it seems that at least part of that ceremony will be televised.

  3. Thanks, Leroy. I read about this yesterday and am glad you are giving us some insight. I have two questions: first, you indicate that as in 88-89 "many" Christians are in opposition. Could you give us some idea of how many Christians you are talking about? Second,what is the proportion of Christians in Japan to more traditional practitioners of indigenous and/or more traditional forms of spirituality? I'm just really curious about the weight that such opposition might carry in Japan.

    1. Thanks for your questions, Milton.

      The National Christian Council in Japan, which includes the largest Christian denominations of Japan--the United Church of Christ in Japan, the Anglican Church in Japan, and, yes, the Japan Baptist Convention (and others)--stood in firm opposition to the enthronement ceremonies surrounding the new Emperor in 1989. And while I assume that most of the members of those NCCJ churches were in agreement with that opposition, it would represent less than 1% of the population of Japan. The influence of Christians in Japan, however, has in the years since the end of WWII been much stronger than might be expected from their small numbers.

      It is hard to say how many "traditional practitioners" there are in Japan. Most Japanese are both cultural Shintoists and cultural Buddhists, but the number of "believers" and/or actual "practitioners" of Buddhism and especially of Shinto is relative small. Most Japanese born since the end of WWII--which, of course, is the vast majority of Japanese now--are mainly secular with no acknowledged religious faith. That doesn't mean there is no expression of spirituality, though. But that spirituality is to a large extent a mixture of Shinto, Buddhist, and Christian ideas/practices.

      Last week the Japan Baptist Convention issued a strong statement in opposition to the what they see as a violation of the principle of separation of "church and state" by the enthronement ceremonies for the new Emperor. It will have little effect on the current government--but there will be far more than Christians who will be in agreement with that statement. Not all Japanese are supporters of the imperial system--although, no doubt, most are. Like some Brits see the monarchy of Great Britain, perhaps most Japanese people see their imperial system as a rather charming, and harmless, expression of the uniqueness of their nation.

  4. Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson in Kentucky expresses the prayer of many of us:

    "I pray that the Japanese people will continue the peace concern of the Heisei Era."

  5. I do like the terms, Enlightened Peace, Harmony, Shalom, Salaam, and Heisei. Good foundations, especially for a nation known for its militancy. I wish him well as he leads his people. But religions and tribes seem to have a way of arrogance and revenge - even the best. May Japan find the best, and lead by example. As I remember, St Mother Theresa wished all success at doing their best in service to humanity regardless of religion. My friends span many religions, and it's a joy to celebrate with them in good.

    I think Keith once published a piece on the similarity of the earliest Shinto writings to that of the earliest Chinese, and Jewish history - even with similar names.

  6. The last section of today's blog seems rather awash in irony, from "Japanese exceptionalism" to "Make Japan Great Again." Perhaps we should gather all the American political leaders into the National Cathedral in Washington to explain to the Japanese the importance of the separation of church and state. Why, we could even remove the mote from Japan's eye! (Spoiler alert: Matthew 7:5.)

    1. Craig, I wrote the last paragraph far more in solidarity with the Christians (Baptists) of Japan than as an American citizen. (Please read the last paragraph of my response, above, to Milton.)

      But you are right in pointing out that there are many questionable practices in USAmerican politics that seem to violate the principle of separation of church and state. So, it is certain that U.S. political leaders, with a few exceptions, would not be able to explain to the Japanese the importance of the separation of church and state. But there are those of us who are American citizens but who first and foremost identify with the Kingdom of God--and we strongly advocate the separation of church and state in both Japan and the U.S.

      Further, the Shinto-laced ceremonies of the imperial system in Japan show far more of the union of religion and state and any of the ceremonial activities in the U.S. For example, as indicated in an NPR article yesterday, "The day leading up to his abdication was full of rituals. According to Japanese mythology, the 2,600-year imperial line begins with the Shinto sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami. At dawn, Akihito told the sun goddess he would be abdicating." The article at the following link shows a picture of the Emperor going in to report to "the great august kami (deity)" Amaterasu. https://www.npr.org/2019/04/30/718519712/japanese-emperor-akihito-abdicates-throne-new-crown-prince-to-ascend

  7. If any of you read my response to MPH that I posted this morning, please read the corrected version I posted a few minutes ago. I apologize for my error in the original response.

  8. Thank you, Leroy, I learned a great deal from your post and comments. You know me as Ellen from VC.

  9. I appreciate Thinking Friend Patrick Crews in Arizona for posting the link with an article that included the following:

    "On Tuesday afternoon, the abdication ceremony for Emperor Akihito was held at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. At roughly the same time, though, a different gathering was taking place in the capital’s Shinjuku district, where a number of Japanese Christian organizations, including the Japan Baptist Convention, National Christian Council in Japan, and The Society of Jesus, held a joint press conference to voice their complaint about the ascension ceremony for Akihito’s son, Naruhito, which was scheduled to take place the next day.

    "At the heart of the Christian groups’ grievance is the fact that while the imperial changeover is an event of great cultural significance in Japan, there’s a religious aspect to it as well. Traditional Shinto belief holds that Japan’s emperors are the descendants of the sun goddess Amaterasu, the religion’s most important deity, and that by extension the emperor himself is a god in human form. In addition, Japan’s imperial regalia, called the Three Sacred Treasures and consisting of a sword, curved bead, and mirror, also have millennia-old connections to Shinto belief, and both the sword and bead are presented to the new emperor during the ascension ceremony.

    "This prompted the assembled Christian groups to issue a joint statement declaring the ascension ceremony, an official state function which Prime Minister Shinzo Abe both attended and delivered a speech during, “a violation of the fundamental principles of democratic sovereignty, as well as the separation of government and religion, as specified in the constitution of Japan.” The organizations hold the same opinion about Emperor Naruhito’s enthronement ceremony, the second ceremony in the succession process, which is scheduled to take place in October, saying that the official state status of the ceremonies shows 'a resurgence of State Shinto,' a term used to describe the strong reciprocal influences of Shinto doctrines, including the absolute divinity of the emperor, and government policies on each other during Japan’s bellicose political climate during the first half of the 20th century.

    "However, while Shinto fundamentalists do exist in Japan, it would be an exaggeration to say that the majority of the Japanese people revere the emperor as a god. Naruhito’s grandfather himself, Hirohito, famously made a public statement rejecting the idea that he was a living god following Japan’s surrender in World War II, and in the current era, the emperor is seen more as a symbol of Japan’s traditional values and culture, not as a religious leader.

    "Since the Emperor of Japan commands no official political power, it’s unlikely that the Japanese Christian groups’ claim that the ascension and enthronement ceremonies constitute a violation of the constitution will lead to any changes in the planned October event, just as Naruhito’s ascension ceremony went on as planned on May 1."

  10. Since my retirement last year from Japan after 40+ years, I am feeling a bit isolated from the opposition to the enthronement ceremonies. I would expect nothing less than a strong statement from the Japan Baptist Convention in opposition. The issue is church-and-state and also absolute loyalty to emperor and State. In 1989 as a new pastor in Japan, I led the church where I served in a study-group on Sunday afternoons about where the church and Christianity stands in Japan in regard to the very Shinto-focused ceremonies. The church was very cooperative with my leadership concerning our need to be informed. I laugh now that I realize that most churches in the Japan Baptist Convention, including the ones considered the most socially active, did not study the materials published by the Convention nearly as enthusiastically as my little church did. Opposition to the ceremonies comes both inside and outside the church from the huge expense, much like a lot of opposition in Great Britain to the monarchy. I too worry that Japan is rapidly moving away from its Peace Constitution and will find a way all too soon to follow the US into whatever war comes next. I too pray that Japan can become more of a leader as a voice for peace.

    1. Thanks, Lydia, for posting these comments. They were very meaningful coming from someone who had been there and had thought through the issues 30 years ago.