Recently, at the lunch table, some coworkers and I were discussing how governments tend not to like Christianity. “From the point of view of a government, they really only want people to worship the leader or their ancestors,” someone told me.
“Why is that?” I asked.
“Because those are the only two objects of worship that pose no threat whatsoever to the leader’s power,” they said. “Worshiping the leader only increases his power, of course. And your ancestors are dead, so they’re not going to overthrow the government.”
When I thought about it, it made sense. And perhaps not coincidentally, the Emperor and one’s ancestors have been major objects of worship in Japanese history, while Christianity was brutally suppressed. (1)
What I have learned, since becoming immersed in the world of politics, is that a lot of the cultural phenomena that people assume are organic are actually constructed by those in power with an eye to maintaining their control.
On that note, recently I was reading The Sakura Obsession by Naoko Abe. While this book is primarily about the preservation of diverse species of Japanese flowering cherry trees, the English release includes additional background information about Japanese history for an international audience, including some that was of great interest to me.
Ms. Abe describes Japan’s historical quest to avoid becoming a colony of a Western power, like so many other Asian countries had, by increasing its power to rival that of Western nations, while also maintaining its own identity. She tells how Japan’s first Prime Minister took a tour of Europe seeking a new form of government that would allow Japan to do just this. Hirobumi Ito saw that a constitutional government would command respect from the West. He also saw that this form of government worked in Europe precisely because the culture was rooted in Christianity (2):
In 1882 a Japanese delegation led by Hirobumi Ito, who later became Japan’s first prime minister, travelled to Europe on an eighteen-month trip to the newly unified Germany, Austria-Hungary, England and Belgium to learn about the region’s constitutional systems. . . . Japan needed a clear ‘axis’ or foundation that would function in the same way as the Christianity that underpinned Western culture, Ito decided.
Rejecting suggestions that that ‘axis’ should be Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, or Christianity, Ito settled on Japan’s native Shintoism. He perceived he could combine this religion with Japan’s historic tradition of emperor worship to “give Japan a powerful spiritual backbone.” Abe continues:
. . . when the Meiji government deliberately reinvented the imperial story, the emperor . . . was cast as a ‘divine father figure’, with a role newly enshrined in a constitution that became the foundation of Japan as a modern nation.
I’ve already written about the uncanny resemblance of the Japanese perception of their Emperor to God as He is known by Christians: a benevolent father figure. And now it seems that resemblance may not be a coincidence. Did Ito believe he could manufacture a uniquely Japanese belief system that mimicked Christianity, allowing Japan to reap some of the social benefits associated with the faith, without the perceived risk of the people actually believing in God? Is this why Japanese culture can seem strangely reminiscent of Christianity, while simultaneously not being Christian?
(1) In reality, Christianity poses no threat to a legitimate government. Our Lord Himself told us to ‘render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.’ An unscrupulous government, however, may find it more convenient to control its populace in immoral ways that Christians would resist, even with the sacrifice of their lives, as their first allegiance is to God. It is this power that unscrupulous governments fear.
(2) General MacArthur perceived the same thing, which I wrote about here.