The Theology of Washington-Toyko

Article excerpt

PRIME Minister Kiichi Miyazawa of Japan had a phone call from President Clinton the other day, telling him about the Vancouver summit with Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Mr. Miyazawa, who is preparing to visit Washington at the end of next week, speaks fluent English and evidently enjoys good rapport with the new occupant of the White House, though he is old enough to be Mr. Clinton's father.

There is one key respect in which the two leaders are not on the same wave-length, however. It is a delicate subject, and I would hesitate to mention it were it not that an attempt to bridge a cultural gap is essential for true understanding between Japanese and Americans. I am speaking of religion, not politics.

Miyazawa, like most Japanese, is nominally a Buddhist. He is equally comfortable with Shinto, Japan's native religion.

One Miyazawa predecessor, Yasuhiro Nakasone, had a Christian mother and a Shintoist father. Mr. Nakasone has told friends he feels just as much at home singing Christian hymns as he does attending a Shinto festival.

The Japanese are multi-religious. They worship Shinto deities - the Sun Goddess and her attendants - but also follow the teachings of Buddhism, which came to the islands from India via China 1,400 years ago. For good measure, many young people choose to be married in church, in white veil and wedding dress.

Religion, many Japanese feel, is something to put respectfully on a shelf, to be dusted off as the occasion demands. It is not a daily concern, or a question of absolute values.

But in America the president's religion matters. Olin Robison, president emeritus of Middlebury College, said recently that it is impossible to understand Clinton unless one recognizes his religious background. Clinton, Dr. Robison says, is not only an intellectual, a quick study who speaks in complete sentences, but a southern populist whose values are anchored in home, school, and church. Clinton's Baptist faith does not depend on liturgy and ritual but emphasizes the individual's direct relationship with God. "If you listen to {Clinton} talk," Robison said, "you will see that that's where he comes from."

Clinton himself is said to regard his religion as a very private thing. …