One Nation, Under Gods

One hundred and eighty teachers in Tokyo face a reprimand for declining to sing the Kimigayo, Japan’s national anthem, in graduation ceremonies:

May the reign of the Emperor continue for a thousand, nay, eight thousand generations and for the eternity that it takes for small pebbles to grow into a great rock and become covered with moss.

As ideology, these lyrics are no worse than “God Save the Queen” – atheists might even say they are slightly better, as they avoid mentioning God, although the Emperor’s past status as a divinity needs to be remembered. However, the song is controversial for reasons of context. The words go back to the ninth century, and the tune to Meiji era, but for many the anthem (which was made official only in 1999, despite its long history) carries nationalistic overtones that recall Japanese colonialism and the nationalism of the 1930s and 40s. As well as those who object to the anthem for historical reasons, the Asahi Shimbun (linked via History News Network) notes that some

think the anthem and the flag are just fine, but refuse to be treated like puppets, forced to sing or stand up when they don’t feel like it.

With so many differences of opinion, would it not be going overboard to force every single person at any school ceremony to stand facing the flag and sing the anthem?

The crackdown was ordered by the Tokyo Board of Education on instruction from Tokyo Governor Ishihara Shintaro. This in itself is likely to have put a lot people off: Shintaro is a populist authoritarian who has accused the Chinese of exaggerating the Rape of Nanking and has warned that when the next earthquake comes the biggest problem will be rioting foreigners. The dissenting teachers recall to me the famous event of 1891, when the Christian Kanzo Uchimura failed to bow low before the Imperial Rescript on Education, also in Tokyo. Uchimura was forced to resign his post.

Meanwhile, a district court has found PM Junichiro Koizumi’s visits to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo to be an unconstitutional breach of religion-state separation. The shrine, which commemorates Japanese war dead, is also controversial because in 1978 the souls of several war criminals were enshrined within it, including that of Hideki Tojo. Prime Ministerial visits to the shrine have been going on for some years, despite protests from various groups within Japan and from Japan’s neighbours. Koizumi’s defence, like that of his predecessors, is that he is visiting as a private citizen, not as Prime Minister. This “private” explanation got short shrift back in 1979 when PM Masayoshi Ohira (a Christian, by the way) visited. One Korean-Japanese, despite having a brother enshrined at the site, objected to the visit and noted that:

Even though Ohira says his visit is private, the fact that he used an official car and signed the registry giving his title as Prime Minister has given his visit a strong public colouring. (1)

Koizumi also signs himself as “Prime Minister”, and he has declared that he wants to make official visits.


Postscript: Before the Second World War, Japan developed “State Shinto”, which was distinct from “Sect Shinto”. The government argued that State Shinto was civic rather than religious, and so its citizens could reasonably be obliged to show respect for its symbols and rituals whatever their personal religous beliefs (it was abolished after the war). Reading about how the American Pledge of Allegiance was recently defended brings this to mind. As Leon Wieseltier at the New Republic puts it (link via Vincent at Religion Related Injuries):

In the Pledge of Allegiance, the government insisted, the word “God” does not refer to God. It refers to a reference to God. The government’s argument…solicitor general [Theodore B. Olsen] maintained, “is a statement about the Nation’s historical origins, its enduring political philosophy centered on the sovereignty of the individual.” The allegedly religious words in the Pledge are actually just “descriptive”–the term kept recurring in the discussion–of the mentality of the people who established the United States. As Olson told the Court, they are one of several “civic and ceremonial acknowledgments of the indisputable historical fact that caused the framers of our Constitution and the signers of the Declaration of Independence to say that they had the right to revolt and start a new country.”

Although in the age of Bush and Ashcroft this may be unfashionable, might we not get some mileage out of the old American Civil Religion Thesis, which sometimes spoke of an “American Shinto”?

(1) Quoted in Mark R Mullins, Handbook of Christianity in Japan, p. 367.

3 Responses

  1. I’ve never totally subscribed to Rousseau’s civil religion thesis as a solid description of America… but that just might be because I’ve almost exclusively seen it as applied by liberal Christians as a method of politely excusing themselves from the positions of their fundamentalist counterparts. It seems to have almost become another doctrinal dispute rather than a sharp political observation. Poor Rosseau.

  2. […] the haziness of the afterlife in Shinto: Some vague thoughts about my soul being enshrined in Yasukuni Shrine, about the incomprehensive world of death, and other thoughts came and […]

  3. […] regulation (which I looked at previously here) was brought in by Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara, but has wider political support: Takayuki […]

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