Gen. Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander during the Allied Occupation of Japan, once considered attempting to convert Emperor Showa to Christianity, a diary of the U.S. secretary of the Navy shows.
In his diary, James Forrestal wrote that during his meeting with MacArthur in Tokyo on July 10, 1946, the general said he had “given some consideration” to persuading the Emperor to convert but thought it would need a “good deal of reflection and consideration before it could be carried out.”
Kyodo News obtained a copy of the diary, which was found at the library of Princeton University, Forrestal’s alma mater in New Jersey. The author later became the first U.S. secretary of defense, a post created in 1947.
MacArthur’s idea of spreading Christianity in Japan by having the Emperor change his religion probably stemmed from the general’s belief that democracy arises from Christian principles, according to Ray Moore, a professor of Japanese history at Amherst College, in Massachusetts, who described MacArthur as a “19th century man.”
Moore said the general told an American audience that he was “a soldier of God as well as of the republic.” In October 1945, MacArthur urged Protestant leaders in the United States to send a “thousand missionaries” to try to convert Japan to Christianity.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff also formally approved his plan to provide support to missionaries that year, the professor said.
The general was convinced that with the encouragement of Imperial Palace officials, “the Emperor himself would convert to Christianity.” He also told evangelist Billy Graham, now one of the top Christian leaders in the U.S., that “the Emperor had offered to make Christianity the official religion of Japan,” the professor said.
MacArthur also described the Emperor to Forrestal as “typical of any well-bred, wealthy young club man in a Western society who was used by the military caste as their stooge.”
“Nobody in Japan was happier in their emancipation than the Emperor,” the diary quotes MacArthur as saying.
The Emperor, posthumously known as Emperor Showa, met with a group of Protestant leaders in November 1945, three months after Japan surrendered to the Allied forces, and with Catholic leaders in 1946.
Toyohiko Kagawa, a Christian social activist, also gave a lecture to the Emperor, while Tamaki Uemura, a female Christian activist who visited the U.S. immediately after the war, presented a Bible to the Empress, now the Empress Dowager, and made an oration about it in the Imperial Palace.
The developments gave rise to a rumor that the Emperor would convert to Christianity, according to the memoirs of William Woodard, former staffer at the postwar General Headquarters religious section.
Gen. Elliot Thorpe, a GHQ civil intelligence section chief who was technical custodian of the Emperor and his household, also described in his memoirs, “East Wind, Rain,” how persistently the papal nuncio in Japan demanded that he visit the Emperor to promote Christianity.
A group of high-ranking U.S. Protestant clergymen also asked to meet with the Emperor to discuss the matter, Thorpe wrote.
The group apparently believed that if the Emperor were to convert from Shinto to Christianity, many ordinary Japanese would follow suit.
But in the end, MacArthur gave up the idea of trying to convert the Emperor, believing it would create conflict between Protestants and Catholics, Thorpe wrote.
The Emperor himself denied the rumor of his wanting to become a Christian in an interview with Australia’s Melbourne Sun newspaper in August 1948.
He told the paper it would be better for him to retain his Shinto beliefs.
He considered strengthening his contacts with Christians for a certain period, showing an interest in Western civilization, to protect the Imperial system.
Despite the Emperor’s denial of the rumor, U.S. President Harry Truman and Secretary of the Army Kenneth Royall supported MacArthur’s policy of trying to spread Christianity in Japan, Moore said, citing declassified government documents found in the Harry S. Truman Library in Missouri.
In one of the documents, a memorandum intended for Truman and dated April 27, 1949, Royall recounted a recent trip to Japan. “I became impressed with the religious opportunities now open to us due to the vacuum created by the decline of the Japanese state (Shinto) religion,” he said.
Royall also wrote that spreading Christianity would involve “not only the active encouragement of Christian missionary work but also the dissemination of Christian ethical, cultural and political ideals throughout all levels of Japanese society.”
Truman replied in a document bearing his signature that Royall’s memorandum is “a most interesting document and I am glad to have it.”
Against these backgrounds, Assistant Secretary of the Army Tracy Voorhees, who was in charge of the military governments’ activities in the occupied areas, promoted propagation of Christianity with support and advice from leaders of both the Catholic and Protestant communions.
Christian missionaries and others made extensive efforts to convert the Japanese to Christianity.
More than 3,000 missionaries entered Japan from 1945 to 1950, bibles and hymnals were shipped from the U.S., and churches destroyed during the war were reconstructed in line with Washington’s policy, informed sources said.
Yet with the end of the Occupation in 1952, the popularity of Christianity quickly waned, and most Japanese never embraced the religion.