One of Pope Francis’ prayer intentions for the month of February was “That opportunities may increase for dialogue and encounter between the Christian faith and the peoples of Asia.” Interestingly, I had a very illuminating conversation along those lines this month.
“Japanese people don’t really have a religion,” a Japanese coworker said to me. “We believe there is a kami* in everything–a kami in the wall, a kami in the floor. That’s why we treat everything with respect. And the greatest kami of all is the Emperor. He rules over all the other kami.”
“Why wouldn’t you call that a religion?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said.
It actually took me over six years to meet a Japanese person who could (or would) give such a lucid account of Japan’s traditional pagan beliefs. When I reflected on what he’d said, and looked a few things up, suddenly a lot of things occurred to me all at once.
I think the Japanese take these beliefs way more seriously than they let on. I’ve already written about how they handle inanimate objects with kid gloves. I’ve seen how official Japanese government documents are still dated with the year of the reign of the current Emperor, not the Christian date. But then I started reading about Japanese mythology.
I was surprised by how beautiful I found it. (I could never for the life of me get into Greek mythology.) And I realized the Japanese probably find it beautiful, too. It seems every nook and cranny of the little Japanese archipelago has a meaning woven into this quaint and quirky story of their ancestors, who were also gods. The sacred objects mentioned are still housed in important shrines. It seems to give meaning to Japan.
I also suspect the Japanese believe they are a “chosen people,” since it is their emperor who is the supreme kami (and descended from the gods in the myths). Perhaps they see the virtues they possess and consider these a mark of their chosen status.
We do know that uniting the world under the Japanese Emperor was an important rationale for Japan’s participation in World War II. And after all, why not? Christians had fulfilled their charge to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth. Maybe Japan had such a mission, as well.
When I consider how achingly innocent the Japanese can be, it doesn’t seem far-fetched at all that they would sincerely believe such a thing. We know their dedication to their Emperor is, or was, such that they would die of dehydration rather than take a drink from a canteen around their waist, if they thought that he had so ordered (this WWII story can be found in The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Incidentally, I wonder if the reason the Japanese seem to have a religious scrupulosity about their jobs is because they consider their bosses to be links in a chain to the Emperor.)
And then, having poured their hearts and souls and very lives into fulfilling what they perceived to be their mission in World War II, they suffered a crushing defeat. Their country lay in ruins, but perhaps more than that, everything they thought they knew about themselves now seemed like a broken promise. Did they now have to give up the beautiful stories that had sustained their civilization for thousands of years? What would the meaning of Japan be?
And maybe that’s why they still haven’t gotten over the war. Maybe that’s why they seem embarrassed and reticent when asked about their religion. Not because they think it’s all superstition, but because they are still hoping against hope that, somehow, it’s not.
My heart aches with them, and I sincerely wonder with them how these things can be reconciled.
*Usually translated “spirit” or “god”; neither one is quite right here.