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Deutsches Institut für Japanstudien

Mira Sonntag

Japanese Studies, Religious Studies
Since July 2003
(PhD Students, July 7, 2003 - March 31, 2004)


  • Japanese Christianity in the 20th century
  • Interaction of Christianity and society in Japan
  • Rationalism and Salvation in Taishō Japan

The main argument of my dissertation “Rationalism and salvation in Taishō Japan. A thick description of the Second Coming of Christ Movement in 1918/19” can be summarized as follows:
When Christianity was re-introduced to Japan during the Meiji period (1868–1912), it was perceived as both a fundamentally rational religion and as a means to what its promoters referred to as “civilization”. In time Christianity came to lose its status as an indispensable ingredient for “civilization”, while in contrast rationality became increasingly important.
In the wake of this heightened emphasis on rationality, alternative movements began to spring up in the 1910s to explore more spiritual ways of living. These alternative groups stood, in fact, not just at the periphery of the Japanese society, but in open contrast and in conflict with it. The Second Coming of Christ Movement (“SCCM”) of 1918-19 was one such movement.
The SCCM was started by three Japanese Christians, Uchimura Kanzō (1861–1930), Nakada Jūji (1870–1939), and Kimura Seimatsu (1874–1958). The most important of the three and ostensible head of the movement was Uchimura. Due to his central role, studies on the SCCM were done almost exclusively by Uchimura scholars. However, Uchimura’s behavior during this period differs greatly from the rest of his life’s work and these studies have thus concentrated on the differences rather than on the inherent consistencies, and some have even tried to explain away this seeming contrast by insinuating that Uchimura later dissociated himself from his activities in 1918–19.
My thesis takes a different approach to Uchimura’s activities at this time and will prove three points: First, by connecting the SCCM to other coexisting spiritual movements, this thesis will show that the SCCM was, notwithstanding its position on the empirical periphery, in fact central to the intellectual climate of the time. Second, this thesis will illustrate that Uchimura’s actions and beliefs in 1918–19 were not only consistent with both his previous and his subsequent ideas, but are actually the very pivot from where we should understand his life and thought. The third point will touch on the interactive nature of any kind of movement: However central Uchimura was to the SCCM, he relied heavily on the cooperation of the other lecturers, the attendance of his audience, coverage by the print media, and last but not least on his opponents’ will to dispute. Using speech act analysis I will present the SCCM as an interactive enterprise and as an unleashed discourse focused on the theme of salvation. This approach will also further illuminate Uchimura’s centrality to the movement.
While the first two points react to previous studies done on the movement, the third point constitutes a new approach, particularly in the Japanese context. Responding to Hans G. Kippenberg’s proposal to use speech act and discourse theory for the foundation of a new kind of religious studies “which would be based neither on a fixed, universally applicable definition of religion nor on the notion of superiority of science” (see Forum Religionswissenschaft vol. 4, 1983), this thesis will use Kippenberg’s approach to better understand the SCCM in the context of Japanese society as well as in the context of Uchimura’s life work. Therefore it becomes important to search not only for the propositional content of an utterance like “I tell you, Christ is coming!” but also for the role (illocutionary act) this utterance played. The main question is not, e.g. how Uchimura came to believe in the dogma of the Second Coming, what words he used to express this belief, and how close his interpretation of the dogma is to its most orthodox definition, but rather, why he talked about it and made it a public issue.
As Kippenberg indicates, apocalyptic rhetoric often announces the end of the world for the purpose of renouncing previously held loyalties. It was not the dogma itself of Christ’s return that provoked strong opposition amongst other church leaders, but also invited kind empathy from believers of other religions as well as from the public media. With his announcement Uchimura renounced his loyalty to rationality as the highest value in life.
In the first lecture of the series, Uchimura declared that his approach to harmonize scientific thinking (evolutionism) and Christian belief was wrong and that neither evolutionist progress nor institutionalized Christian faith could save the world and guarantee real peace. He further denied a previously held sense of responsibility to better the world, declaring, “This wasn’t my business at all!” Uchimura’s critical attitude towards the Church had been known for decades and the main point of his criticism that the Church lacked the spiritual power to bring salvation to the faithful had remained unchanged. However, this was the first time that Uchimura established a connection between the Christian Church and evolutionist thinking. He thereby questioned society as well as the Church for their underlying principle of rationalism. Church leaders immediately responded with accusations of irrationality and irresponsibility, thus just confirming rationality as their basic value.
Uchimura’s anti-rationalism declaration also functioned as a request to his huge audience (max. 1200) to do the same and renounce their loyalty to the principle of rationality as the main driving force of human life. This was yet another reason why the Church leaders felt the need to respond.
Touching on a common concern with his charismatic rhetoric, Uchimura gave the starting signal for a broad discourse on applied theological questions as well as on common values like democracy and public conceptions of, for example, a “religious person”. Using speech act analysis of lectures, articles, books, and memoirs related to the movement, this thesis will show what exactly gave the movement its explosiveness, while at the same time elucidating the main flow of the arguments and their importance in a broader historical background. In doing so this thesis will face and oppose the common stereotype of the Japanese as a people that is unable to discuss or dispute. But it will also name conditions necessary for the origin of a discourse; and one of these conditions is certainly the acceptance of the existence of conflict.