Toward a Modern Belief: Modernist Protestantism and Problems of National Religion in Meiji Japan

By Nirei, Yosuke | Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, January 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Toward a Modern Belief: Modernist Protestantism and Problems of National Religion in Meiji Japan


Nirei, Yosuke, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies


In this article, I discuss the significance of religious liberalism and reformism of Meiji Protestantism at the turn of the twentieth century. The period, I argue, is crucial to understanding Japanese Protestantism as modernist. The survival and expansion of Christianity and its educational institutions were at stake during the strong nationalist and imperialist consensus in the aftermath of the Sino-Japanese war. This essay focuses on the "intellectual" impulses of modernist Protestants, their resonance with liberal theology, and their collaboration with emerging social and cultural sciences, especially comparative studies of religion. As I demonstrate here, the interest in these two realms of knowledge was widely shared among educated elites beyond Protestant circles, contributing to Japanese Protestants' overall growth and wellbeing in the early twentieth century.

KEYWORDS: Protestantism - Meiji period - liberal theology - modernism - Kanamori Tsurin - Kishimoto Nobuta

(ProQuest-CSA LLC: ... denotes non-USASCII text omitted.)

Last year [1895], the entire society showed a strong religious tendency.

Uemura Masahisa

Jesus and Shakespeare are fragments of the soul, and by love I conquer and incorporate them in my own conscious domain.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

The beauty of Christianity is that it can sanctify all the peculiar traits that God gave to each nation. A blessed and encouraging thought that J-too is God's nation.

Uchimura Kanzo

For JAPANESE Protestant churches, the decade of the 1890s is often discussed as a time of "struggle" or "hardship."1 This was in sharp contrast to the preceding phase of rapid Westernization (okashugi ...), which offered an unprecedented opportunity for the emergence of Protestantism in Meiji Japan. Crucial challenges to Protestantism came from both within and outside the churches. Within the church, the Japanese Protestants' conflict with Western missionaries intensified over the issues of their ecclesiastical autonomy and liberal theology. Significantly, the Protestant engagement of these theological and ecclesiastical issues developed in conjunction with questions of Japanese morality and religion that were popularly discussed in journalism and academia in the late 1890s. This ideologically charged interest in the nation's morality and religion became particularly acute in the aftermath of the Sino-Japanese war (1894-1895) amid the public hand-wringing over further development and expansion of an empire.

At the time, many were calling for statism and "national morality" (kokumin dotoku ...) based on the notion of chukun aikoku ... (monarchical loyalty and patriotism), which had been often pitted against Christians before the war. All established religions collaborated with the war effort, including leading Protestants who formed the Association of Christian Comrades concerning the China/Korea Question (Shin-Kan jiken Kirisutokyoto doshikai ...) in 1894, defended the cause of war, stirred up national morale, and glorified and prayed for the Imperial fortune. Nonetheless, Christianity and its foreign missionaries continued to be looked at with suspicion by state bureaucrats preparing for mixed residence with foreigners. Then after the war, the government-ordered restrictions on religious education in both public and private schools hit Protestants particularly hard. Positivistic university academics and Darwinian evolutionary theorists alike continued to disparage Christianity in particular and religion in general.

Paradoxically, however, the extraordinary tension and euphoria resulting from the war proved beyond the government's control and stimulated a popular religious mindset. A leading Protestant, Uemura Masahisa ... (1857-1925), noted in 1895 that the entire Japanese society showed a "strong religious tendency." Indeed fin-de-siècle Japan witnessed a number of renewed religious movements, many with Shinto origins, such as Tenrikyo and Kurozumikyo, which the government likewise looked on with suspicion, and which Christians and Protestants like Uemura dismissed as primitive chicanery, even welcoming the government's movement to suppress them. …

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