General MacArthur’s Christian influence in Japan

In his book Soldier of God:  MacArthur’s Attempt to Christianize Japan, Ray A. Moore details General MacArthur’s plan to transform Japan into a democratic nation following World War II–and, as a necessary prerequisite in the General’s mind, into a Christian nation.  MacArthur perceived that there was a “spiritual vacuum” in Japan after its defeat, and he was eager to fill that vacuum with Christianity–especially before it got filled with something else, like Communism.  “Send me one thousand missionaries!” he commanded.

Needless to say, very few Japanese converted to Christianity.  However, MacArthur’s leadership did have a profound effect on the Japanese, as evidenced by the nearly half-million letters they wrote to him during the five-plus years he headed the Occupation.  Sodei Rinjiro collected a sampling of these letters into a fascinating book called Dear General MacArthur:  Letters from the Japanese during the American Occupation.

The forward to this book notes that to the Japanese, who during the war had suffered such devastation as the annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by atomic bomb, slogans such as “Construct a nation of peace” and “Construct a democratic nation” were no mere lip service to their conquerors.  Many people were angry at their authoritarian rulers for leading them into such a destructive war that had ended in defeat, leaving many starving and homeless.

Enter MacArthur, who brought with him relief shipments of food and the return of family members who had been stranded overseas by the war.  The revered Emperor was permitted to retain his position rather than being tried for war crimes; at the same time, a new constitution was drafted guaranteeing human rights that the Japanese had never before enjoyed.  Even the American soldiers, who the Japanese had feared would come looting and raping, instead became famous for handing out candy to children!

The letters Japanese people wrote to General MacArthur during the Occupation are full of characteristic humility and gratitude for these benefits.  More than that, they seem to address the General almost as a father, confident in his benevolence and concern about their problems.  One passage from a letter, in particular, jumped out at me, because it seemed to me very nearly a Christian prayer.  It went like this:

Your Excellency!  Please take pity on Japan.  No, you have already forgiven Japan’s crimes and are being merciful.  Your Excellency!  I beg you to save pitiful Japan from the roots up.  No, there is no need to beseech you, you already intend to help Japan from the roots.  Your goodwill is evident in the directives you issue every day.  We Japanese people, who battled your country as our enemy until now, can find no words to express our gratitude for the compassionate guidance we are receiving today.  This is only possible because of the extraordinary generosity that is your national character.  It is embarrassing to say so, but I wonder what attitude Japan would have shown if the outcome of the war had been reversed.  The thought makes me shudder.  The Japanese are truly barbarians.  We must repent and reform ourselves.

Just replace “Japan” with “me,” and you’d have something fit to be read in church.

Perhaps General MacArthur didn’t succeed in bringing Christianity to Japan in the institutional sense.  But he did bring mercy, forgiveness and respect for human dignity–the heart of Christianity–and these the Japanese graciously accepted.

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