In the wake of the destruction and surrender of the Japanese empire in August 1945, a "spiritual vacuum" emerged that the country's de-facto ruler, General Douglas MacArthur, sought to fill with religious and quasi-religious beliefs still new to Japan, from Christianity to Freemasonry - writes Suzanne McGee.
That is the focus of a recently published study of the Occupation years of 1945 to 1952 by Japanese investigative journalist Eiichiro Tokumoto.
In "1945 Under the Shadow of the Occupation: The Ashlar and The Cross," Tokumoto documents MacArthur's efforts to persuade missionaries to intensify their efforts among the Japanese population in hopes of providing a counterweight to the growing appeal of communism in the earliest days of the Cold War.
"There was a complete collapse of faith in Japan in 1945 -- in our invincible military, in the emperor, in the religion that had become known as 'state Shinto,'" says Tokumoto, referring to spiritual practices dating back several millennia that in the decades before World War II became a kind of state religion. It became closely associated with the growth of militaristic nationalism that led Japan into war in China and later with the United States and its allies.
"MacArthur was very interested in the relationship between politics and religion in Japan, and he wanted both to reform the ideas and the ideology of the Japanese people as well as [make] sure that communism did not fill the gap in people's minds and hearts," Tokumoto explains.
A number of letters and reports that Tokumoto studied while researching his book only recently were declassified, he says. Among them was a report of a meeting between two American Catholic bishops, John F. O'Hara and Michael J. Ready, and MacArthur in the summer of 1946. After a three-week trip around Japan, meeting religious and political leaders as well as members of the imperial family, the bishops reported to the Vatican that MacArthur encouraged the Catholic Church to attempt to convert the Japanese en masse.
"General MacArthur asked us to urge the sending of thousands of Catholic missionaries - at once," the bishops said in their report. MacArthur told them that they had a year to help fill the "spiritual vacuum" created by the defeat - a vacuum "into which anything may rush."
Based on his experience in the Philippines, MacArthur believed that the Catholic Church particularly would appeal to the Japanese because the tradition of seeking absolution "appeals to the Oriental," they reported. Taking responsibility for one's mistakes or misdeeds, and making amends, long had been a part of Japanese culture - although traditionally, among samurai warriors, this ended with ritual suicide or seppuku, rather than by seeking absolution from a priest.
The general, who became the absolute authority in Japan during the Occupation, reiterated his interest in encouraging conversions to Christianity during the visit of an Australian cardinal, Norman Gilroy, in December 1946. Tokumoto viewed a recently declassified report by Gilroy to the Vatican in which the cardinal wrote that MacArthur believed that, if the church didn't act, "Communist agents will obtain the converts who should be gained by the church."
Even after leaving Japan, MacArthur never relinquished his interest in religion as a counterweight to both extreme nationalism and communism in Japan. When International Christian University was founded in Tokyo in 1955, MacArthur became chair of its fundraising efforts, says Japan scholar Garrett Washington, an assistant professor at Oberlin College in Ohio. "It was another place that could legally teach and protect Christianity."
In the wake of the missionaries' efforts, the Bible became a best seller in some bookshops, while the number of Catholics climbed about 19 per cent between 1948 and 1950, Tokumoto says.
Still, despite the interest of the Japanese in learning about the belief systems - from democracy to religion - that they believed had helped their adversaries conquer them, the effects of these missionary efforts didn't last. Partly, Washington says, despite the Vatican's proposal that missionaries obtain specialised training and language skills, relatively few of the 2,000 or so who flooded into Japan in the war's aftermath could communicate effectively with their target audience.
In the 1960s, within a few years of the creation of International Christian University, there was a backlash against what students perceived as a Christian 'elite' who ran several major Japanese universities or had risen to power in other fields. "There was a growing conviction across Japanese societies that all religions had failed them in one way or another," Washington says.
The perception was that Shinto had led to the disastrous defeat of Japan in 1945, but Christianity was associated with Western powers that young Japanese increasingly saw as "hypocritical," he says. "They were not practicing what they preached, from dropping the atom bombs to the Cold War and even the war in Vietnam."
Today, Washington adds, Japanese citizens have relatively little interest in any religion.
MacArthur's other initiative to fill the spiritual void - expanding Freemasonry in Japan, including the induction of the first Japanese masons - had somewhat more lasting success, Tokumoto says. That first generation of Japanese members included members of the Japanese parliament, or Diet, as well as journalists and even a member of the imperial family.