Nagasaki, Hiroshima, the Surrender of Japan and Christianity

On August 9, 1945, the second of two atomic bombs — the only two ever used as instruments of aggression against essentially defenseless civilian populations — was dropped on Nagasaki. It devastated the oldest center of Christianity in the country (1). As Gary G. Kohls notes, not only was Nagasaki the site of the largest Christian church in the Orient, St. Mary’s Cathedral, but it also had the largest concentration of baptized Christians in all of Japan (2). This can only have further complicated the Japanese view of Christianity: How could the West, which “represented” Christianity, destroy a city that had such a rich history of Christian culture and a large Christian population? In what follows, I discuss the implications of Japan’s capitulation, the role of American political-Christianity and the impact this had on Christianity in Japan.

Since the arrival of Roman Catholicism in Japan in the sixteenth century, Christianity has generally been regarded as an intrusive force, it has often been referred to as the evil-religion (3). Mullins suggests that the macro-political relations that defined various stages of the transplantation process have undoubtedly shaped the perception of Christianity as a deviant religion, one connected to aggressive foreign powers who have designs upon Japan (4). According to Mullins “this is how Protestant Christianity was largely perceived when missionaries arrived from North America and Europe at the end of the Tokugawa period. As latecomers to Japan’s religious scene, both Catholic and Protestant churches have experienced considerable difficulty in ridding themselves of their reputation as foreign religions” (5).

The Nuclear Bombs and the Occupation

Japan’s growing power and the atrocities committed by her military during World War II, together with the attack on Pearl Harbor, gave the Americans justification to attack Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic bombs. This ended the war in 1945 and resulted in Japan’s surrender. According to Mark Selden:

From the earliest reports of the atomic bombings, Americans have viewed nuclear destruction primarily from the Promethean perspective of the inventor and bombardier. The carefully crafted image of a mushroom cloud spiraling heavenward has represented to most Americans the bomb as the ultimate symbol of victory in a 'Good War' that carried the United States to the peak of its power and prosperity. In this story, Americans were portrayed as a brave, selfless, and united people who responded to treachery with total mobilization culminating in a knockout victory (6).

Japan fell under the supervision of the Supreme Commander of Allied Powers (SCAP) under the leadership of General Douglas MacArthur. In his blog, Rob Kerby, senior editor of Beliefnet writes that the Allied Supreme Commander, Douglas MacArthur thought Japan needed Jesus. He argues that in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, MacArthur freely described post-war Japan as existing in a spiritual vacuum. All their gods had failed them — its invincible military, its divine emperor, and its 1,000-year belief that the Land of the Rising Sun would rule the world. Now the conquered people of Japan had nothing. He further indicates that, in 1955, MacArthur told U.S. News and World Report, that no phase of the occupation had left him with a greater sense of personal satisfaction than his spiritual stewardship of the country. Over the next five years, more than 5,000 missionaries from various kinds of churches went to Japan and flooded the nation with millions of Bibles (7).

In a Japan Times article, Mikio Haruna also confirms that MacArthur pondered convince Emperor Hirohito to convert to Christianity. Haruna argues “MacArthur’s idea of spreading Christianity in Japan by having the Emperor change his religion probably stemmed from the general’s belief that democracy arises from Christian principles”(8). According to Ray Moore, professor of Japanese history at Amherst College in Massachusetts, MacArthur told an American audience that he was “a soldier of God as well as of the republic.” In October 1945, MacArthur urged Protestant leaders in the United States to send a “thousand missionaries” to try to convert Japan to Christianity (9).

In the eyes of the United States, the surrender of Japan was triumphant and glorious; but from the perspective Japan, it was extraordinarily humiliating; demeaning of a nation with a 2,000 years of history and cultural heritage. In his message of surrender, Emperor Hirohito (1901–1989) stated, “Moreover, the enemy (United States) has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives. Should we continue to fight, not only would it result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization” (10). He declared that the military would be disarmed and suggested that this was not because disarmament had been forced upon Japan, but because the country had made the difficult choice to favor peace. It is important to note that, despite the surrender of Japan, Emperor Hirohito spoke of the United States as an enemy, even though he had a choice not to do so. Can it be that through the early years after the occupation people therefore would see America as their enemy and Christianity as the enemy’s religion?

Japanese culture does not condone expressing one’s feelings directly; only indirect expression is acceptable. Doing the former can cause humiliation. Defeat of a political system is understandable, but imposing one’s religion upon a nation, especially upon her Emperor can bring the highest level of disgrace. First of all, “forcing” an Emperor to deny his divinity and then asking him to become a Christian does not make a good impression. From a Japanese perspective, it evidences a high level of arrogance. According to Hiroshi Suzuki, the primary reason why Japanese react negatively to Christianity is the darker aspect of the history of the Western world (11). Suzuki proposes that the Japanese relate to the tragic life of Jesus, but not to the history of the West, where Christianity is predominant (12). They respond negatively when they see atrocities committed by Westerners against other Asians or Africans, or in their own society. In their view, a religion that cannot change the moral quality of a society cannot be a good one (13).

War Guilt Information Program

During the early years of the occupation, Japan might have taken Western Christianity to be the religion of the occupiers. Thus, the reason why Christianity succeeded in South Korea was because it was seen as the religion of the liberator (i.e., United States). In Japan, it was likely viewed as the religion of the enemy. The occupying US authorities also organized the War Guilt Information Program. It aimed to implant a sense of war guilt in the minds of Japanese through "education." If it were to be successful, the resulting sense of war guilt would be passed on to future generations.

In his paper, “Some Aspects of Humanism that Combines East and West: MacArthur, Showa Tenno, and Justice Pal” Tomosaburo Yamauchi speaks about the cultural imperialism demonstrated by the United States of America. Yamauchi quotes the words of John Whitney Hall (1916–1997), son of an American missionary born in Tokyo and a prominent pioneer in Japanese Studies:

“We (the United States) have all too easily taken the role of the protector of “Civilization”, equating our private national interests with the higher aims of history. The sense of moral superiority (which was the certitude of our missionaries) and of technological superiority (which is our national faith) combine in our minds to give a particular aura of inevitability to our action in Asia. The Occupation was too easy a chance “to realize the ethnocentric American sense of mission” to remake our enemy in our image. And unhappily for us, Japanese behavior in the postwar years only reinforced our predilection to play the “big brother”. Japan has our approval so long as it plays our game and minds its own business” (14).

Yamauchi also argues that MacArthur, the Christian general, freely delivered 10,000,000 copies of the Bible in Japanese to the Japanese public. He articulated his goal for the occupation was stated publicly, in a speech in which he stressed the need to correct the traditional social order under which the Japanese people have been living for centuries (15). Thus, the Christian mission of Occupation Period was also conducted in the context of the War Guilt Information Program.

Also, John H. Minagawa wrote in the Newsletter Pray For This Nation (11 May, 2003) that the War Guilt Information Program was to implant the guilty feeling that the Greater East Asian War was a war of aggression to the Japanese, they thoroughly disseminated the information through the mass communications such as newspapers, magazines, radio broadcast, etc.” He further argues that the biased public education by the leftist ideology have taught the Japanese history as “the history of aggressions against Asian nations by the Imperial militarism” for the past 50 years after the war (16).

Despite all of the opinions concerning the War Guilt Program in Japan, the fact remains that both the West and Japan have indeed committed crimes against humanity. So, the question that naturally arises is whether one crime can be justified against another? Or, is history primarily shaped and written by the victors? What role should Western inspired Christianity in Asia play here? Should it constantly demand apologies from the Japanese people or its government? Does public expression of such opinions have negative influences on the way Japanese view Christianity?


1. Gary G. Kohls, “The Bombing of Nagasaki August 9, 1945: The Untold Story” (August 6, 2007).

2. Ibid.

3. Mark R. Mullins, “The Social and Legal Status of Religious Minorities in Japan” (paper presented at International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on "Religious Freedom and the New Millennium," Tokyo, May 23–25, 1998).

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Mark Selden, “Commemoration and Silence: Fifty Years of Remembering the Bomb in America and Japan,” in Living with the Bomb: American and Japanese Cultural Conflicts in the Nuclear Age, ed. Laura Hein and Mark Selden (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1997), 3.

7. Rob Kirby, “Is it a scandal that Gen. MacArthur thought Christianity would help Japan?” Beliefnet accessed April 8, 2013,

8. Mikio Haruna, “MacArthur pondered Showa conversion”, Japan Times, May 4, 2000, accessed April 8, 2013,

9. Ibid.

10. Emperor Hirohito’ Speech on 15th August 1945.

11. Hiroshi Suzuki. “Why are Japanese Christians so few?” Paper presented as a seminar talk at the staff meeting of International Friendships Incorporation in Columbus, Ohio on June 26, 2002.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. Tomosaburo Yamauchi, “Some Aspects of Humanism that Combines East and West: MacArthur, Showa Tenno, and Justice Pal” in Bulletin of Osaka Kyoiku University, Vol.61 No.2, 75-89 (February 13, 2013), 78.

15. Ibid.

16. John H. Minagawa, “Intercessors for Japan” in Pray For This Nation (Newsletter may 11, 2003), 10.


Australian War Memorial SEPTEMBER 8, 1945 : Shell of a building that once was a movie theatre in Hiroshima