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Separation of State and Religion and Japanese Education PDF Print E-mail

Seishiro Sugihara
Musashino Women's University

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Tokyo, Japan May 23-25, 1998

I have been asked to discuss the separation of the government and religion in Japan today and the issue of education. First, I would like to review the actual situation of religious education in this country. I have taken my conclusion first. There is a lot of ignorance in this area. There is too little in the way of nurturing religious feelings, although not in old schools. There are some areas which forbid the standard expression before meals in Japan. In Japan we say “Itadakimasu” before starting meals, meaning “I gratefully accept the food.” Well this expression before meals is a traditional table etiquette in Japan, yet because someone has taken issue with this, saying that it is related to a particular religious denomination, it has been forbidden.

Also, the spring and autumn equinox are national holidays derived from British culture and emphasizing that we should value moderation or the golden mean. So we have national holidays on these days. This is also a day also to visit the family grave and hold a memorial service for ancestors. Schools are closed. At school, however, we do not teach that these days are religious holidays because if they say so it will be interpreted as having to do with a particular denomination. What this means is that education regarding religious feelings which have to do with the highest and universal form of love toward the self within children is completely neglected in the school system. Therefore, the children do not learn to view and love oneself from the highest perspective.

As a result the internal myths which control impulsive desires are weakened. In consequence, we have children like the junior high school boy who murdered his playmate and left his friend’s severed head before the front gate of his own school. Claiming that he wanted to experiment with how easily human beings would break, he brought down a hammer on a young girl’s head and killed her as well. This boy had made up his own strange god of something, which goes to show that the universal religious feelings found in him were not properly hosted through appropriate religious education.

Let us look back on the Aum incident which began with the spreading of poisonous gas in the subway systems in Japan. This became known throughout the world. People who are from outstanding academic backgrounds committed unbelievably anti-social crimes asserting their faith as motivation. This unfortunately has given society the impression that religion is a frightening thing. However, the reverse is true. This is the consequence of having created a big gap of ignorance and deprivation about religion. Although one is ordinarily a religious being, nothing about religion is being taught. This is where we are today.

Now let me turn to the Japanese Constitution. According to Article 20, Section 3, “no religious organization shall receive any privilege from the state nor exercise any political authority.” Now I would like to briefly discuss the principle of separation of state and religion. This could lead to the elimination of religion from society in general because in the real world politics and religion exist mixed with each other. Because it is impossible to eliminate politics from society, it turns out that religion is one-sidedly cast out. We may retain the politics, but the religion is cast away. In other words, the principle of separation could function to eliminate religion from society if excessively emphasized.

That would mean that the principle of church and state that was placed to ensure freedom of religion ends up suppressing this freedom. In fact, it is said that among the former socialist nations only Albania directly suppressed religion. It could be said, in principle, that the other socialist countries only applied the rules of separation of state and religion strictly. If this principle, which originally sought to maintain friendly relations between religion and state and to enhance the freedom of religion, is applied too vigorously it ends up suppressing freedom and oppressing religion. Too much of a good medicine becomes poison.

As far as education is concerned religious feelings exist universally within human beings. An education in the true sense is not possible without nurturing this aspect. Yet as a result of becoming overly conscious of the rule of separation of church and state as given under Article 20, Section 3, education today eliminates religion too easily. This is wrong. Clearly.

Originally, postwar Japan, which was going through a period of self-examination, was actually trying to value religious education. It may have seemed that Article 20-3 was banning all religious education from the schools. However, that would make universal education impossible. We must not forget that during an imperial Diet meeting on August 15, 1946, a resolution on the education of religious sentiments was passed with regard to Article 20. It was stated,

We must stipulate in this section that a doctrine which is biased toward a particular religion or denomination must not be taught. We will clarify the meaning to that effect so that it will not be misinterpreted by posterity.

It was the provision in Article 9 of the Fundamental Law of Education, which stated this point as law more concretely in Article 9, Section One.

Now tolerance for religion and the place of religion in society must be respected in education. Therefore, certain religious education is not possible in public schools, but this does not apply to more general religious training. And in private schools, according to Article 24 of the School Law, it is possible to teach religion in place of ethics and the teacher’s license is issued specifically to allow for such a teaching. Therefore, institutionally the Japanese education laws value education on religion.

Then what is possible under current law? In 1967, the course of study was issued stipulating the content of education to be given. The course of study for third graders in primary school is one example. Part of that section reads as follows:

Children are encouraged to investigate what sort of celebrations and rites are conducted by the State for religious reasons, the national holidays, some local festivals.

There are many possible ways that schools can teach the children about the activities, the religious activities, or services conducted on special occasions. This is how religious education is practiced.

Japan is not a Christian country, yet at the end of December we celebrate Christmas. In kindergartens and day care centers, Christmas is a very special day. Many children look forward to it. Yet because of this principle of separation of church and politics, there is one incident in connection with Christmas. In 1982, in Sendai City, one of the municipal nurseries was instructed by the city authorities to stop celebrating Christmas because it was a religious event. There was great opposition from the parents accusing the city of canceling an event that the children were looking forward to and the instructions were withdrawn immediately. This incident is indicative of the issues we have of the separation of church and state in this country.

State and religions co-exist in many aspects of life. Politics is a secular part of our life that we cannot really remove, so we need a friendly coexistence between state and religion. Otherwise, we cannot really realize the separation of state and religion in the true sense of the word.

Also, we must not ignore religious education within general education and in terms of the system. Religious education is definitely possible under the current situation which rather expects its promotion. Yet the reality is that religion is viewed even with contempt or seemingly ignored and religious education is avoided as much as possible. How did this situation come about? A large part of it is due to the religious education policy of the occupation period from 1945 through 1952. We cannot say that this is the sole reason, but it was certainly a big turning point in this issue. On October 15, 1945, the Ministry of Education issued an instruction related to the treatment of religious education in the schools. It permitted religious education based on sectarian religion to be carried out in the private schools.

A regulation of 1899 had stated that “general education must be placed outside the framework of religion.” Under this regime, even private schools couldn’t teach religion. The policy was intended to eliminate religious education from all schools. The history of education explains that the Japanese feared Christian religious education at that time. However, to eliminate religious education of all kinds would detract from the universal nature of education. Therefore, in 1935, the Minister of Education issued a notification number eight regarding the nurturing of religious sentiments to the effect that religious sentiments can be and must be fostered even though sectarian religions cannot be promoted. This was not worthy from the perspective of the education of religious feelings.

This was a time when the military was on the rise in Japan and some were critical that this was a strategy to promote mobilization of the people for the war purpose. Nevertheless, research indicates that it supported purely the promotion of religious education. In 1945, there was the notification that I mentioned earlier allowing religious education based upon sectarian religion in private schools if not in public schools.

On December 15, 1945, the Central Liaison Office issued a directive known as the Shinto Directive, on the subject of the abolition of governmental sponsorship, support, perpetration, control, and dissemination of state Shinto. It stated, “the sponsorship, support, perpetuation, control, and dissemination of Shinto by the Japanese national, perfectural, and local governments, or by public officials, subordinates, and employees acting in their official capacity are prohibited and will cease immediately.” That was issued by the Occupation Forces.

Shintoism was viewed in Japan as a natural religion which existed before the state of Japan was established. Its chief minister is, historically speaking, the Emperor. We cannot declare that a natural religion will bring no harm, but Japanese Shinto originated from the rice farming culture of ancient times. Even from the eyes of the older men, there seem to be no elements that may prove a direct obstruction of some strange customs for instance. We might say that it is a religion conveying human truth in its primitive simplicity. There are no written doctrines whatsoever in Shintoism, and yet it possesses a simple truth to which man, when in confusion, can return and find comfort. In many cases, for instance, in accepting Buddhism as a sectarian religion from China and Korea, the natural religion Shinto stands in between. Shinto has continued up to the present day when the 20th century and the Imperial system are coming to an end. The Shinto Directive was intended to eliminate Shintoism as a sectarian religion from a public position.

There is a certain rationale in terms of the science of religion in claiming Shinto to be a sectarian religion. On the other hand, it is a revered religion without a founder. And in one sense it exists as a social protocol. Therefore, it is difficult to treat it in the same way as conventional sectarian religions as it does not exist based upon the faith of individuals. If something which has become a traditional social custom is completely removed by the administration as a sectarian religion, the effect will be the same as separation of state and religion—oppressing religion. It is a religion found in the overlap area where politics and religion co-exist and may definitely be said to be a religion that transcends sectarian religion.

For instance, the American ceremony in which the American President places his hand on the Bible or the invocation before opening a session in Congress in the United States are definitely religious rites of the State transcending sectarian religion. Shinto has such an aspect of being the religious rite of the state or society. Ancient Japan adopted Buddhism from Korea and China on top of the existing Shinto base. This has given rise to syncretism unique to Japan in which national and social protocol is covered by Shintoism whereas Buddhism has become a sectarian religion. Together these formulate the Japanese religious culture.

If Shinto is interpreted as a sectarian religion in terms of the science of religion and is treated as such, this would mean eliminating national and social protocol from the State and society. The Shinto Directive positioned it is as one sectarian religion to be dealt with by the principle of separation of state and religion. Shinto was removed from the public schools together with other sectarian religions. Thus on November 3, 1945, the current Constitution which stipulates the earlier principle of separation of state and religion was proclaimed and implemented, starting May 3, 1947. But there is also the Diet resolution in favor of religious education and the course of study providing some specific examples of how religious education may be conducted that I touched upon earlier.

Things looked to be going well but under the Occupation Forces there was some opposition from Christians. They voiced their opposition to the Occupation Forces. They said that some of the examples found in the course of study—which was adopted from the course of study of the State of Virginia in the United States—if religiously followed, would cause minority Christians to suffer and should not be allowed. Upon instruction by the Occupation Forces, the authority had to issue a notice indicating what cannot be taught in schools.

The problem here is that in 1952, the Occupation ceased. Once the Occupation ceased, the Shinto Directive was to be no longer valid and could no longer be the basis for eliminating religious education at schools. However, the Ministry of Education did not take action and thus it is still not clear today whether the Shinto Directive of the Occupation era is still valid or not. So the practice has split. That is, schools try to avoid religious education and this is where we are today.