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Monday, June 30, 2003


U.S. policy only fuels fundamentalism

NEW YORK -- "In pre-surrender discussions of the postwar world, no principle, save the basic principle of democracy itself, was more frequently cited than that of religious freedom as essential to the establishment of a permanently peaceful world."

This sentence appears in "Religions in Japan," a report prepared by the Civilian Information and Education Section, General Headquarters, Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, in 1948. Actually, two separate groups within the CI&E -- the Religions Division and the Religions Research Branch of the Analysis and Research Division -- jointly prepared it, indicating the importance of the subject.

I turned to "Religions in Japan" (published as a regular book by Tuttle in 1955) because of the intriguing spectacle under way in the Middle East. The United States, whose occupation of Iraq is ostensibly aimed at bringing democracy to that hapless country, resists the idea of the Shiite group getting into the political process and, ignoring the chaos brought on by the war, now demands a similar "regime change" in Iraq's neighbor, Iran. (The latest Washington Post-ABC poll says 56 percent of Americans approve of military action against the Islamic republic).

These developments are intriguing for two reasons. For one, I gather that the Shiite make up the majority of Iraqi people and that they are strongly affiliated with Iran, which the U.S. regards as a theocratic state. For the other, the Bush administration, the most overtly religious U.S. executive branch in recent memory, has the religious right as its most important constituency. In effect, the U.S. government is willfully creating a clash of religions.

Sixty years ago, the U.S. was as certain of defeating Japan as it was of defeating Iraq this spring. Why then did it think to "discuss" religious freedom as a matter second only to democracy in importance in remaking Japan in the postwar world? The answer is simple: In the American view, the driving force of Japan's war in Asia, which ended up in its infamous assault on the U.S., was based on fanatical emperor worship, and emperor worship was a "primitive" form of religion. Moreover, Japan insisted on preserving the emperor as the core of Japan's polity ("kokutai") as the final "condition" for accepting the unconditional surrender demanded by the Allies.

As an eminent Japanese friend of mine recently pointed out, something must have gone terribly wrong with the governing system to allow such a thing to happen. But that's what happened.

I expected "Religions in Japan" to be a highhanded condemnation. That Japan deserved condemnation as a defeated nation was prevalent for some time after the war and survives to this day in insidious fashion. To my surprise, however, the report turned out to be remarkable for its levelheaded dispassion.

Many under American Gen. Douglas MacArthur are known to have been New Deal progressives, and they are the ones who gave Japan a new constitution, which was not only ahead of its time but also ahead of the U.S. Constitution. Those who looked into Japanese religions may have been in the same group. Describing "primitive Shinto," they even sound wistful that the primitive days were gone:

"The worshipper in prehistoric antiquity usually faced the object of devotion itself, which might be a tree, stone, mountain, or sunrise. He performed his devotions standing within a sacred enclosure, which was often set within a quiet grove. In time, a shrine was erected at the spot, or, if the object of worship was a distant mountain, only a covering was prepared under which the worshipper might stand. The shrines were always of extremely simple construction with no decorative effects, usually nothing more than a thatched roof supported by straight pillars."

Or, in describing Tenri-kyo, which, with its emphasis on faith healing and the fact that it was founded by a woman, reminded them of Christian Science, the authors of the report seem almost to suggest that Tenri-kyo is what a religion is supposed to be:

"In the field of social service, Tenri-kyo gives practical support to its idealism through clinics, a tuberculosis sanitarium, the Tuberculosis Research Institute, orphan asylums, occupational training agencies, and day nurseries. . . . Tenri-kyo adherents do voluntary labor as proof of their determination to carry into actual practice the ideas of their faith. Believers contribute labor to public services, working in groups to clean city streets, erect shelters for the homeless, and render other useful services to their communities. This participation in public activities not necessarily related to their churches has been an important factor in obtaining popular support for their religion."

In this, Tenri-kyo, which is vaguely associated with Shinto, may resemble Islam. In any case, it was State Shinto (Kokka Shinto) that "proved to be a menace to the world," according to the authors of "Religions in Japan." As they detail, it was a phantom concoction of the Meiji government, and the government had to go through a number of trials and errors. Buddhism and other religions objected to the government's attempt to impose its choice. More important, Shinto, as the government willed to conceive it, was too amorphous to form an ideology.

Kitabatake Chikafusa (1293-1354), who wrote "Jinno Shotoki" (Orthodox Account of Deities and Emperors), a great source of modern emperor worship, merely argued that the emperor (or any human being) had to have purity of heart as well as the ability to acquire a wide range of knowledge and tolerate a limitless number of views.

What the authors of "Religions in Japan" scarcely mention is that State Shinto, like the notion of the Japanese as the "leading race" ("shido minzoku"), was a political expediency. In that regard, it may be comparable to what Clifford Geertz identifies as "something called, variously and confusingly, 'reformism,' 'modernism,' 'radicalism,' 'extremism,' or 'fundamentalism' -- sometimes, even, 'Wahhabism' -- in contemporary Islam." ("Which Way to Mecca?" The New York Review of Books, June 12, 2003).

State Shinto, based as it was on flimsy ground, was a castle in the sand. It vanished the moment the need for the political expediency was gone, even though its disappearance did not create "a permanently peaceful world." It seems to me that what the U.S. is doing in the Middle East (and elsewhere), with its pseudo-idealism of democracy and its harsh, overbearing approach, is strengthening the political expediencies of Islam when the religious grounds of Islam may not be as flimsy as those of State Shinto.

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist who lives in New York.

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