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Japan’s ‘spiritual recrudescence’

by David Burleigh

SOLDIER OF GOD: MacArthur’s Attempt to Christianize Japan, by Ray A. Moore. Merwin Asia, 2011, 167 pp., $35.00 (paperback)

India, the jewel in the crown of the British Empire, the largest the world has ever known, was won mainly by attrition, though some of the later additions to it, like Burma, were taken by force. Almost no attempt was made to interfere with native religion. The enduring image of the 19th-century “scramble for Africa”, however, was of rapacious Europeans with a Bible in one hand and a gun in the other.

“Soldier of God” deals, as the subtitle tells us, with Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s attempt to Christianize Japan after its own imperial ambitions had been forcefully subdued in World War II. It is a story that the author, Ray A. Moore, has studied for a long time, and which begins in the 16th century, when Catholic missionaries first arrived on these shores. After the closing of Japan to the outside world in the Edo Period (1603-1868), Christianity was proscribed, eventually on penalty of death.

When Japan was forced open again to trade in 1853, the status of Christianity was less certain, though it soon became apparent that the edicts banning it would no longer be enforced, and so the missionaries gradually returned. Initially there was a spread of enthusiasm, with many conversions, though this went into retreat in the 1890s. By then, however, Christians were well established in the fields of medicine and education in which they had attempted to exert influence and win converts.

The largest influence was perhaps in education, but Christian schools and colleges of all stripes came under pressure from growing nationalism in the 1930s. Most of them were encouraged by the government to unite as a single entity, while many foreign missionaries went home. But some form of educational work continued, even though its religious aspect was more restricted: “What really disrupted the Christian church and school activities was the American government’s decision to subject all of Japan’s cities to destructive firebombing,” says the author.

The remaining Christian organizations, though not banned, were under Japanese control during the war, while foreign missionaries plotted their return, with clear encouragement from President Harry Truman. “Reform in every sphere of Japanese society would be required,” as part of the re-establishment of civil liberties, and democratization. Gen. MacArthur, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, had remarked enigmatically on the need for “spiritual recrudescence”, and proved to be sympathetic.

Even before MacArthur issued an order allowing the missionaries to enter Japan, some had already come in with the occupation forces. Both Catholics and Protestants were urged to participate and to help “subvert Japan’s native religious beliefs and replace them with Christianity.” As part of this policy, the emperor was to be spared and the imperial system retained. Stability would thus be maintained, even as extensive changes were made to other areas of social and economic life.

Seeing himself as “an emancipator of an Asian people”, MacArthur encouraged missionary endeavor, and presented himself at home as a “‘soldier of God’” while exaggerating the numbers involved (at best 1 percent of the population was Christian). The General’s notion that Japan must become Christian in order to become democratic produced unease among the Japanese, and was not unchallenged by his American colleagues. Moore is alert to all the nuances of this encounter.

Much of the second part of the book is concerned with moves to save the emperor from trial as a war criminal: “The general’s personal belief in the transforming power of the cross added a peculiar dimension to his relationship with the emperor,” explains the writer. This was reinforced by accounts of interest in Christianity within the imperial family itself. In part this had to do with the privileged education they had received from missionaries. Thus education had remained important.

Key to the negotiation was an American missionary of long residence and with imperial family connections, Merrill Vories (1880-1964), whose diary is quoted. But a certain amount of mendacity was also involved in the promotion of Christian sympathies, and the suggestion of belief at this high level. Nevertheless, the crown prince (now the emperor) was duly inculcated with such ideas in his private education. That Christianity might also be used as a counter to communism was not at first foreseen.

A major part of the educational project was the establishment of the International Christian University in 1948, and while such institutions no longer act as a counter to communism, they still help to undermine cults. This is a clear and intelligent account of an uncertain period in Japanese history, concisely and persuasively told.