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Home > Debates Last Updated: 18:01 09/26/2008
Commentary (September 24, 2008)

Religion and Politics - Some Differences between the U.S. and Japan

Edward Jones (Fractal Coordinator, Japan Society for Organizational Learning, and Senior Researcher, Tama University)

Japanese translation (PDF) provided by Mr. Jones

Taro Aso's rise to the head of the Liberal Democratic Party raises questions about the role of religion in politics. He is a Roman Catholic who advocates secularizing Yasukuni Shrine. This is sure to stir some discussion of religion since he defended former Prime Minister Koizumi's official visits to Yasukuni Shrine. At the time Koizumi justified his visits as a personal religious expression even though he signed the guest book as Prime Minister. Japan's Catholic Bishops criticized such visits by the Prime Minister and has urged Catholics not to visit the Shrine.

Secularizing Yasukuni Shrine would get Aso off the hook with the church. However transforming Yasukuni into public memorial would probably raise more heat over the question of memorializing condemned war criminals, because it would make it even more obviously political. All of this simply underlines the difficulties of mixing religion, morality and politics.

This problem is quite obvious to Americans particularly in the current election. The issues in the U.S. have gone largely unobserved in Japan, even though Japanese can see that American politicians are expected to profess some religious belief. As a result Japanese see there is influence from religion in American politics but its nuances remain obscure and its impact is unclear.

So it is worth noting that the current presidential campaign involves many claims regarding religion. For example there is an artificial controversy surrounding Barrack Obama's beliefs. He is a self-professed Christian who is a regular church attendee. Yet there are a great number of rumors being circulated regarding his beliefs. Some emphasize selected "un-American" statements by his minister, while others assert that he is a secret Muslim.

Most of these rumors are directed at affecting the choices of "values voters." These are typically people who advocate of a particular branch of Evangelical Christianity that emphasizes the primacy of religion in their lives. "Values voters" tend to embrace a literal interpretation of the Bible and to focus on "family issues" regarding sexuality, reproduction and abortion. A number of strict Christian Fundamentalists believe that the Bible requires the United States to unquestioningly commit to the interests of Israel and to oppose any opponent of Israel. They also believe that it puts them into conflict with Islam as well as with others who refuse to accept their beliefs.

The resulting situation is incomprehensible to the usually religiously tolerant Japanese. It becomes even more bewildering to them when one factors in the prophetic aspect of Evangelism. Shinto and Buddhism have no sense of an "end time" or a "judgment day". The idea that these thoughts can influence political thinking lies outside the social reality of most people in Japan.

Nevertheless they are very real to many people in the United States. More than that, the more extreme believers see economic chaos and global conflict as necessary precursors to the day when they will all be "raptured" into heaven, just before the Earth is destroyed and remade for them to resettle. The Church that Sarah Palin attended for most of her adult life holds these beliefs.

Those who share her beliefs are very excited by their prophetic interpretation of current events. The idea that a potential president believes in the inevitability of a world ending conflict is very worrying to many other people. By contrast Japanese generally see religion as being largely disconnected from politics. It gains attention only when politicians visit Yasukuni Shrine and stir up reactions in other countries. While they remain largely oblivious to the impact of religion on the U.S. presidential race, most Japanese would probably be concerned if they become were aware of its implications.

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