Of all the issues facing the church in Japan, the most critical has to do with the state’s relation to religion, the current debate having been sparked by the recent coronation of Emperor Akihito. Americans speak of “church-state relations.” But since Japan lacks the West’s roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the question centers on the relation between religion and state.

This issue is all the more crucial in light of the country’s new constitution, adopted after World War II. The prewar Meiji Constitution (1889) did guarantee freedom of religion, but only so long as this did not conflict with the “supra-religion” of Shinto nationalism. The postwar constitution, in a magnificent statement, declares:

Freedom of religion is guaranteed to all. No religious organization shall receive any privileges from the State, nor exercise any political authority. No person shall be compelled to take part in any religious act, celebration, rite, or practice. (Article 20)

In spite of the statement’s clarity, leading Japanese intellectuals and religious groups give varying interpretations. Indeed, there is growing fear that lack of separation will fuel Japanese nationalism. The discussion has become especially heated because of the religious component in coronation ceremonies for the new emperor, Akihito, held in November of last year. The ceremonies traditionally include a Shinto ascension rite known as the Daijo-sai. Implicit in the sacred ritual is the spiritual transformation of the emperor from an ordinary mortal into the embodiment of the soul of Japan. He becomes, in other words, a god (or kami).

Most legal and religious experts concluded that if the Daijo-sai had been performed as a strictly private ceremony there would have been no constitutional questions. Prof. Shigeyoshi Murakami, who teaches religion at Tokyo’s Keio University, stated, “It goes without saying that the imperial family has the freedom to perform religious ceremonies, but spending money from the national budget or allowing public servants to officially attend the ceremony is a violation of the Constitution.”

Many religious groups, academics, and politicians greeted announcements about the Shinto ceremony with strong opposition. This was expressed through writing, lectures, and campaigns to collect signatures. Many Christian churches joined in the signature campaigns. While the coronation ceremonies went on as planned, many are convinced that only unambiguous adherence to the separation between state and religion will guarantee Japanese citizens genuine freedom of religion.

At The Back Of The Classroom

Even more pressing for Japanese Christians than constitutional issues are questions about the degree to which a Christian should be loyal to a pagan society. As a fifth-generation Christian, I experienced tremendous pressure along these lines during World War II.

While in fourth grade, for instance, before class began we all had to worship a model of a Shinto shrine and bow to a picture of the emperor’s court set up in each classroom. When I refused, I was forced to stand in the back of the classroom all day, taking notes on my lap.

Such experiences led me later to study early church history, concentrating on the emperor cult in the Roman Empire and the persecution of the church. In the face of some of the earliest persecutions, the apostle Peter wrote, “Resist [your enemy the Devil], standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings” (1 Pet. 5:9, NIV).

What did Peter mean by “resist”? And when should we resist? This topic became my life work. Thirty years ago I wrote a book, The Christian and the State; now I feel the need to broaden the focus, and I continue to explore state and religion in the systems of early Rome, Japan, and America.

One interesting parallel from history, for example, comes from Rome. Apart from such notable exceptions as Domitian and Diocletian, Roman emperors generally did not force the people to worship them as gods. However, from the early period of the Roman Empire, especially in the eastern provinces, a strong emperor cult was popularized and encouraged by the people themselves. There are some parallels here with current Japanese society.

Japanese Christians today try to emulate the examples of the early Christians. We believe that it is conceivable that a Christian can show greater loyalty to the state by disobeying—rather than obeying—its commands, especially when these are plainly contrary to Scripture.

Japanese churches are determined not to repeat the errors of churches during World War II, when some compromised the faith under pressure from a totalitarian government. They are trying to stand firmly on the biblical injunctions “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod. 20:3) and “Preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2).

By Akiko Minato, who chairs the International Christian Studies Department at Tokyo Christian University.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.