- Christianity and Imperialism in Modern Japan: Empire for God by Emily Anderson
The theologian H. Richard Niebuhr famously argued that Christian communities have faced an “enduring problem” since the days of the early church: Christian converts have had to choose between the demands of the “universal” church and their particular cultural heritage. The nineteenth century was no different. In a century dominated by nationalism, Christians across the globe—from German Catholics to Chinese Protestants—were accused of being a fifth column. Scholars of global Christianity have thus asked: How did Christians resolve the contradictions between nationalism and the universalist claims of Christianity?
In this elegantly written book, Emily Anderson offers a nuanced account of how Japanese Christians struggled with tensions between church and nation. Anderson begins her narrative in the 1890s, with the strengthening of Japanese imperial authority through the Imperial Rescript on Education, and ends it with the destruction of the Japanese Empire through war in 1945. By bookending the narrative with these two events, Anderson explores how members of one denomination in particular, the Nihon Kumiai Kirisuto Kyōkai, or the Japanese Congregational Church, understood and sought to explain the relationship between Christianity and imperialism, between religion and empire.
Why focus on the Kumiai Kyōkai? For one, the group has been overlooked in the historiography of Japanese Christianity. Traditional narratives have centered on figures such as Uchimura Kanzō and Kagawa Toyohiko, who criticized Western ecclesiastical structures and formed independent Japanese church groups. The literature has thus missed a large swath of Christians who belonged to a “conventional religious and ecclesiastical framework” and found in Christianity theological justification for Japanese imperialism (p. 8). Throughout the book, we see members of the denomination supporting, and in certain cases contributing to, Japanese imperial expansion, as in the Russo-Japanese War, [End Page 178] the colonization of Korea, the enlargement of the Japanese settlement in Shanghai, and the establishment of the puppet state of Manchukuo.
Anderson’s study of the Kumiai Kyōkai does more than correct historiographical oversight. The group’s decentralized denominational structure enabled theological diversity. In particular, Anderson uses the careers of two influential ministers in the Kumiai Kyōkai, Ebina Danjō (1856-1937) and his disciple Kashiwagi Gien (1860-1940), as a way to illuminate the divergent visions that Japanese Christians held of imperialism. In Ebina, Anderson finds a dogged supporter of Japanese overseas expansion. In contrast, Kashiwagi, while baptized by Ebina, became a bitter opponent. Kashiwagi wanted to turn Japan into a politically neutral, pacifist country—the Switzerland of Asia. The opposition between Ebina and Kashiwagi is the central conflict of the book, and Anderson tracks how they articulated their visions in various newspapers, journals, sermons, and also institutional settings.
The Kumiai Kyōkai’s involvement in Korea is indicative of the friction between the two stances. One faction within the group argued that Japanese Christianity was uniquely positioned to both Christianize and modernize Korea. Members of this faction aided the Japanese government in Korea by organizing festivals and rituals that trumpeted the benefits of the Japanese Empire. At the same time, in Japan, ministers such as Kashiwagi became increasingly vocal in their criticism of the Korea mission. The group never presented a united front in Korea.
Such a finding in itself—that some Christians supported Japanese Empire, while others criticized it—is not surprising. But what is innovative about Anderson’s study is her methodology. Particularly thrilling are the ways that she traces the diverse transnational influences on the theological and ideological positions of Japanese Christians. In her portrait, members of the group are deeply embedded within the transmission of global ideas. Ebina, for instance, was no provincial nationalist. He was thoroughly cosmopolitan: Anderson traces Ebina’s travels through Scotland, United States, and Korea, where he appealed to Japanese emigrants to synthesize Christianity with the spiritual ethic of Bushidō, the moral code of the samurai, which Ebina believed all Japanese could access since the Meiji reforms abolished the samurai class and revoked its privileges. Traveling abroad served to reinforce Ebina...