Red Flags and Christian Soldiers

 An Easter service sponsored by US military chaplains, in the public plaza adjacent to the Imperial Palace, 1948.

An Easter service sponsored by US military chaplains, in the public plaza adjacent to the Imperial Palace, 1948.

In October of 1945, barely a month after he accepted the surrender of Japan on the deck of the USS Missouri, General Douglas MacArthur sat down with a delegation of American clergy at his headquarters in the Dai-Ichi Insurance Building in downtown Tokyo. The four churchmen had come to Japan to rekindle a dialogue with Japanese Christians cut short by World War II. They were the first Americans in civilian clothes to enter postwar Japan.

MacArthur, a lifelong Episcopalian, asked them to send 1,000 missionaries as soon as possible. “Japan is a spiritual vacuum,” he said. “If you do not fill it with Christianity, it will be filled with communism.”

So began one of the strangest episodes of the Cold War: MacArthur’s attempt to harness Christianity in his mission to transform Japan into an anti-communist and pro-American bastion of democracy. Between 1946 and 1950, over 2,000 American teachers, social workers and evangelists came to Japan in response to a recruitment drive launched by mainstream churches and blessed at the highest levels of the U.S. government. Among them were my father, a former Naval officer from Seattle who had learned Japanese during the war, and my mother, a divinity student from Connecticut with a passionate interest in China. They went to Japan in August of 1947 on a three-year assignment for the Disciples of Christ and remained in Asia for the next 22 years. I spent my childhood in Tokyo in the midst of a large American community of missionaries, diplomats, military officers, business executives and CIA operatives — one big happy family trying to change a culture more than 1,000 years old.

Going by numbers alone, the American crusade was a miserable failure. In the political turbulence after World War II, millions of Japanese joined the Japanese Communist Party and aligned themselves with the Japanese Left to organize and join labor unions and demonstrate against the spread and testing of nuclear weapons. Fifty-six years after the war, the number of Japanese who call themselves Christians remains around one-half of one percent of the population, the same level it was before Pearl Harbor.

But judged on human terms, the American missionary influx after 1945 was profound; it helped heal the wounds of war and exposed the defeated Japanese to a new kind of American, neither businessman nor soldier, willing to forgo the comforts of home to share in the uncertainties and poverty of postwar Japan. “They were young and idealistic, and identified with Japan,” recalls Kiyoko Takeda Cho, a prominent Christian intellectual who lives in Tokyo and was one of my parents’ first Japanese friends. “They represented not the ruling country, but came for reconciliation. That attitude was very much appreciated, not only by Christians but also non-Christians.”


Hallam and Helen Shorrock, the day they arrived in Japan as missionaries, August 23, 1947. The crate behind them carried one ton of food and all their belongings. In order to receive entry permits from the US occupation authorities, missionaries were required to bring enough food to last for a year. Japanese supplies were very low.

Indeed, what was unique about the post-World War II missionary movement to Japan — and what sets it apart from almost any other missionary campaign of the past 100 years — was its relationship to the government of the “ruling country” that dominated Japan from 1945 to 1952. Unlike Germany, which was divided into four zones by a coalition of allied powers, Japan was under direct control of the U.S. Occupation Army and the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces Pacific, also known as SCAP. From the first day of the occupation, General MacArthur had a mandate from President Truman to take whatever actions he deemed necessary to free Japan from the ideological grip of the “vicious and cruel savages” (Truman’s words) who led Japan into the war. To MacArthur, this unprecedented power was a golden opportunity to export Christianity, American-style.

The general had “something of a messianic complex — a consciousness of being called of God for the hour and a confidence that God was on his side,” wrote William P. Woodward, a prewar missionary to Japan and author of The Allied Occupation of Japan and Japanese Religions, the only history in English of MacArthur’s policies and attitudes towards religion. According to Woodward, who directed the Occupation’s Religious Research Unit, MacArthur viewed Japan’s traditional religions as inferior and even dangerous schools of thought; only Christianity, he believed, could provide the proper moral foundation Japan would have to acquire to build a democracy and insulate itself from the communist ideology creeping in from all sides.

What Japan needed, MacArthur once declared in a speech quoted by Woodward, was a “spiritual recrudescence and improvement of human character that will synchronize with our almost matchless advance in science, art, literature, and all material and cultural development of the past two thousand years.” That elegant but overblown rhetoric deeply impressed President Truman, who quoted the passage in his official letter of endorsement the American clergymen carried during their visit to Japan.

In a sense, the story of the American missionaries who went to Japan after World War II is the story of the occupation itself: a grand social experiment, contradictory, marked by spectacular triumphs and dismal failures — and unlikely to be repeated again. It is particularly significant in the context of contemporary Japan, which has yet to fully escape the impact of its wartime spirituality: Consider the unfortunate statement by former prime minister Yoshi Mori, who said less than two years ago that “Japan is a divine nation headed by the Emperor,” or the decision by his successor, Junichiro Koizumi, to repeatedly visit the Yasukuni Shrine, the spiritual home of Japanese ultra-nationalism where Japan’s war dead, including many of its most notorious war criminals, are buried.

But the mix of politics and religion in occupied Japan seems eerily relevant today as George Bush’s armies blast their way into an unknown future in Iraq and the United States prepares for another takeover of a non-Christian culture. Already, missionary groups which identify with Bush’s messianic zealotry are planning a humanitarian effort in Iraq that all has the signs of a 21st century crusade, blending U.S. foreign policy goals with the American zest for Christianity. Among them are the conservative Southern Baptist Convention and a fundamentalist group run by Franklin Graham, the son of the famous evangelist Billy Graham, who has referred to Islam as an “evil” and “wicked” religion. In this context, MacArthur’s policies in Japan are a vivid reminder of the missionary drive that remains deeply imbedded in the American political psyche.