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Religion


Marines receive Communion atop Mt. Suribachi

Naval History and Heritage Command #NH 10583

Religion played a relatively modest role in the Pacific War compared with racism, nationalism, and expansionism. While much of the American sympathy with China in its struggle with Japan was inspired by Christian missionaries active in China, concern with maintaining the "Open Door" to Chinese markets was at least as important. However, religion permeated both Japanese and Western societies to a greater extent than is true in the 21st century, shaping much of the world view of most of the participants in the conflict.

Religion and the Western Powers. Christianity was the predominant religion of the citizens and subjects of the western Allies. For the most part, this was Protestantism, though there was a significant Catholic minority. However, religious liberty is explicitly guaranteed by the U.S. Bill of Rights, which also prohibits the establishment of any national religion. The other Western powers also granted religious liberty, even when they had an established state religion, such as Anglicanism in England. Though there was significant prejudice against Catholics among the Protestant majority and against Jews among both Protestants and Catholics, this did not prevent Al Smith, a Catholic, from being nominated as the Democratic candidate for President of the United States in 1928, or from Henry Morgenthau, a Jew, from serving as Treasury Secretary under Roosevelt. Claude Bloch, a Jew, served as Commander in Chief of the U.S. Fleet in 1938-1940 and was commander of 14 Naval District when Pearl Harbor was attacked, while Mervyn Bennion, a Mormon, commanded West Virginia and was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor for his courage during the attack.

The attitude of most Western Christians was shaped by the theory of just war, which allowed Christians to engage in warfare to remedy a perceived grave injustice when other alternatives were exhausted. The attacks on Pearl Harbor and the British and Dutch colonial possessions removed any doubts about the justness of the war against Japan from the minds of most Westerners. However, a small minority of Christians interpreted the New Testament as prohibiting participation in armed conflict under any circumstances. These conscientious objectors included Quakers, Mennonites, Seventh-day Adventists, and (under a slightly different set of objections) Jehovah's Witnesses. Conscientious objectors were sometimes willing to serve as medics or in other noncombat positions within the military, and one conscientious objector, Desmond Doss, was awarded a Medal of Honor for his bravery under fire while serving as an unarmed medic on Okinawa. Conscientious objectors who objected to any service in support of war were required to perform nonmilitary service, such as farm work, under civilian direction.

Religion was an important component of morale for many men. The armed services recognized this and provided chaplains to minister to the troops. American chaplains were ordained ministers within their own denominations, but were expected to make arrangements to accommodate the religious needs of all troops in their unit regardless of denomination. Chaplains were given nominal officer rank but were classified as staff officers, with no command authority. As noncombatants, they were generally not armed. Supplies sent to the Philippine guerrillas included white flour for manufacturing communion wafers, an important element of the Roman Catholic religion of many Filipinos.

The Indian Army included large numbers of non-Christian soldiers, primarily Hindus or Muslims. There was considerable potential for friction between these two groups, which was avoided largely through a regimental system that raised individual battalions from geographic areas that usually shared a common religion. British officers in the India Army had to be particularly sensitive to the religious beliefs of these men.

Religion in Japan. While the average Westerner associated himself with a single religious denomination, the average Japanese observed both Buddhist and Shinto traditions. Both are polytheistic religions in the sense of believing in the existence of a multitude of divine beings. However, Buddhism emphasizes the individual's quest for enlightenment, and in some forms more closely resembles a philosophy than a religion; while popular Shinto is an animistic religion centered on local divine spirits (kami) associated with aspects of nature, such as streams, mountains, or forests. Embree (1943) has suggested that "Popular Shinto gives a man confidence in the face of the uncertainties of life, while orthodox Buddhism looks after his immortal soul."

The spirits of Japanese warriors who died honorably were believed to gather at the Yasakuni Shrine in Tokyo, where they were venerated by the Emperor himself. Mutaguchi Renya, commander of the Japanese forces participating in U-Go in Burma, reportedly built a Shinto shrine at his headquarters when the battle turned against the Japanese. It was also the custom of Japanese soldiers to make every effort to return some portion of a fallen comrade's body to Japan, and Allied soldiers unacquainted with this custom were shocked to find body parts in Japanese field packs.

Distinct from both Buddhism and popular Shinto was state Shinto, a form of ceremonial deism associated with the political structure of Japan. "By official definition this state Shinto is not a religion, but rather an aspect of patriotism. By means of this distinction it is possible for Japan to have a constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion and still require Shinto observances of all her subjects regardless of whether they be Buddhist, Christian, or Agnostic" (Embree 1943). State Shinto accorded a special role to the Emperor as the traditional descendant of the Sun God, Amaterasu, and there were small Shinto shrines on Japanese warships corresponding to the small chapels or chaplain's offices on Western warships. Pilots departing on dangerous missions sometimes left gifts of sake at these shrines.

Japan had a tiny Christian community, and there was a small number of Christians within the officer corps. These included Colonel Jimbo Nobuhiko, a Catholic who persuaded Ikuta Torao to spare the Filipino politician Manuel Roxas from execution. Ironically, the Japanese Catholic community was centered in Nagasaki, whose cathedral was completely destroyed in the nuclear attack.

References

Embree (1943-1-23; accessed 2011-12-27)
FM 16-5, "The Chaplain" (1954; accessed 2011-12-27)
Werneth (2008)
Wise (1968)
"World War II Medal of Honor Recipients" (accessed 2011-12-27)



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