Fr Thomas Plant, Tokyo-based Anglican priest and comparative theologian

Month: October 2010

St Luke’s Hospital Chapel, Tokyo

This morning, I went to Mass at the Anglican chapel of St Luke’s International Hospital in Tsukiji, near the famous fish market.  The chapel was built in the 1920s in Gothic style with clear Oxford Movement influences.  It boasts a fine choir and organ and a Catholic liturgical sensibility.  The blessed sacrament is reserved in a tabernacle on the High Altar, which seems to be fairly rare in Japanese Anglican churches.
The Chaplain, Fr Kevin Seaver, is a friendly Anglo-Catholic American priested a few years ago.  He has lived in Japan for some 25 years now. 
All services are in Japanese, but the liturgy is familiar enough for a non-speaker to follow what is going on, and the Sunday morning Eucharist is open to all. 
The congregation and Fr Kevin were very welcoming, and I would highly recommend the church to any visitors or residents in Tokyo, especially those longing for a traditional church environment. 

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Dharma talk at Tsukiji

Haseo Daien of Tōzenji gave a talk which helpfully summarised the conceptual differences between Christian theology and Shinran’s thought as he sees them, with the aim of correcting potential misunderstandings by Westerners.
He did make it clear that his talk was a simplification of a complex topic, but argued that the fundamental difference lies in the dualism of Christianity against the non-dualism of Buddhism. He went on to contrast Christian faith as a matter of purely intellectual assent with the conversion of the heart implied in ‘shinjin,’ suggesting that ‘faith’ is an insufficient translation of Shinran’s term.

His reading of Christianity seemed to me to be very much a Protestant one, and I think many of his conclusions would hold if Christianity were defined by Calvin or Kierkegaard. It was not a theological position that I would recognise from my Patristic studies, however, or to which many Catholic theologians would subscribe. Any theology of the Incarnation seriously questions any notion of absolute duality between man and God, and the sacramental theology of the Catholic and Eastern churches, which stems from this insight, blurs the line of the natural and the supernatural further still. I would also question Haseo’s definition of Christian faith as a matter of mere intellectual assent, which again is true of some Protestant theology, but is not an accurate reflection of Christian thought as a whole. Last, I am always rather suspicious of labelling Christianity a ‘Western’ religion, given that its roots are Middle Eastern and it spread as far as China just as early as it reached Western Europe. These things taken together, I suppose that my critique would be that the intellectual differences are not quite as extreme or clear-cut as Haseo presented them, but of course, he was delivering a sermon rather than an academic paper, and was constrained by time.

Haseo sensei and the others at the Temple were very welcoming and have invited me back in November. I also hope to go and meet Haseo sensei again at Tōzenji.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Priorities, priorities: John 12.1-11 and the Catholic movement

“Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor?”: a common criticism of my beloved Catholic tradition: and not unjust. We all know parishes more bothered about maniples than mission, popery than poverty, canopies than charity. I once heard about a PCC where the parish charitable effort was dismissed in five seconds so that they could talk for fifteen minutes about new candlesticks for the High Altar. Parishes get pricey: the choir fee, the statues, the incense, the robes. “Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor?”
“This he said, not that he cared for the poor.” But unlike Judas (if we believe John’s unkind portrayal of him), the Catholic Movement in the Church of England was founded in care for the poor.
The Tuesday before Ash Wednesday of 1856, Fr C.F. Lowder preached the first Mission Sermon in what would become St George’s-in-the-East mission. Lowder, educated at public school and Oxford, was an unlikely pioneer of inner city church planting. But, while serving a six-week suspension for helping choirboys throw rotten eggs at an anti-Catholic placard bearer, he read the Life of St Vincent de Paul. Inspired by his evangelism in 17th century France, Lowder set up the mission. St George’s, Wapping, was then regarded as the worst place in London, cut off from London by the Docks, with no access by Underground or bus. A parish of 30,000, dockers, vagrants, criminals, foreign sailors. And prostitutes – women older than sixty, girls younger than ten, and boys walked the street – working to pay the daily rent to avoid getting turfed out of their family homes. The parish had no permanent clergy and understandably not one person went to church.
At first, Lowder had only a flat, not a church, so the first mission services were held on the streets: a hymn, a sermon, a prayer, another hymn. They were often interrupted by catcalls, singing, thrown mud and dog turds, once even a well-rotten dead cat. But the missioners carried on, some ordinands starting a Sunday school, and some (sadly unnamed) women volunteers founding schools and nurseries that are still running today. Boys’ and girls’ clubs, working mens’ and womens’ clubs were founded, and fifty-seven prostitutes that year were helped into honest work.
Only eight months after the mission started Lowder’s team had raised the funds to make a corrugated iron church fit to hold 200 people. Mass was offered daily, on Sundays twice, with the Offices and children’s worship.
Lowder wanted to bring God to the poorest in all His glory, and he didn’t dumb down – in music, liturgy or even dress. The priests in their cassocks dressed as priests, not as gentlemen who’d just dropped in, and they were abused for it. They processed around the streets preaching the Stations of the Cross, choirs singing, thuribles blazing, and faced mockery and stoning. But they went to lead people on a journey of holiness – and it worked. Those people formed devotional guilds with rules of life on modesty, practical service, frequent Confession, patterns of daily prayer.  From these guilds came changed lives.
As for Lowder, he turned down a plush parish in the West End, and stayed in Wapping until he died of the strain, at sixty. His Catholicism was far more than maniples and monstrances: through faithful ministry of the Catholic sacraments, he brought real and lasting change.
So why Jesus’ strange objection: “The poor always ye have with you; but me ye have not always”? Wasn’t Judas right? The dinner-party cynic asks, accusingly, why, if we Christians are so concerned about the poor, we don’t sell off such ephemera as the smells and bells and the clerical bling. Ask the same cynic to sell off some of the ‘ephemera’ of their life – the widescreen TV, the 4×4, the Rolex – and you’ll get short shrift. These things are all so much more important than our Sunday morning Punch and Judy show.
I think it’s a question of priorities. Our priority, like Lowder’s, is not to throw money at a problem in the hope that it will go away. Our priority is not to fight social injustice on the terms of the unjust system that perpetuates it. Our priority as Christians is holiness, and as future priests, to guide people in holiness. This holiness, as the psalmist knows, is found in beauty, the sort of beauty that Catholic worship at its best offers: a glimpse into heaven that brings us closer to God.
Jesus’ words – ‘me ye have not always’ – show the urgency of our priority, our mission to enable everyone to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness, a beauty and holiness which carries out of church and into everyday lives. As Fr Lowder’s mission shows, while money helps, it is the journey to holiness, not raw cash, that yields the lasting change. Sure, there are more important things than maniples: but the next time someone tells you that the beauty of worship is worthless, perhaps the example of Fr Lowder can help you change their mind.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Yasukuni Jinja: Revisionism by omission

“When the war ended, the colonial powers returned to their colonies.  But those whose desire for independence had been awakened were no longer the obedient servants of their colonizers… the colonizers who had been defeated by Japan in the early stages of the Greater East Asia War could no longer suppress with military might the ideals that Japan had advanced after the First World War but had subsequently been rejected – racial equality.”
This final panel at the Yasukuni Shrine Museum sums up its take on Japan’s role in WW2: the Japanese invaded Asian nations not for the sake of expansion or national gain, but for the sake of racial equality.  They were the good guys, innocent victims of Western expansionism. 
I cannot stand the patronising foreigners who come to Japan to preach about the superiority of their countries’ liberal ways, and I don’t want to be one of them. Every country has its fair share of bad history, no doubt.  So, yes, we could talk about the excesses of European Imperialism, our often cruel maltreatment of or conquered subjects.  When the Japanese say that they were pushed into war by the threat of European conquest, they have a point.  They equally have a point when they remind us that they pushed for a clause of racial equality in the League of Nations, but that it was rejected by Britain and America, for whom eugenic theory was much in vogue.  They also enjoyed heavily one-sided trade agreements with Asian nations, Japan included, on this basis.
It is also quite right and proper to honour one’s war dead and to pay homage to the bravery of those who have died for sovereign and country.  We should not question the function of Yasukuni Shrine in this regard.  But I would suggest that the Shrine Museum does not salute its war dead so much as dishonour them when it abuses their memory to support its programme of historical revisionism.
Certainly, the European and American empires were guilty of expansionism and racialism.  But for the Museum to argue that the Japanese were fighting in order to protect fellow Asians and promote racial equality is a disturbing perversion of the truth.  In Korea, Taiwan and Manchuria, conquered subjects were forced to adopt Japanese names and to speak the Japanese language.  They were in every respect second-class citizens to the Japanese.  Many, especially Koreans, were forced into slavery, including sexual slavery to Japanese soldiers.  Given too that the Japanese were allied to the Nazi Germany, whose promotion of racial equality is hardly laudable, the claim seems even more preposterous.

Japanese poster – the Chinese welcome their ‘liberation’

Yet the Yasukuni Museum’s revisionism is clever because it is executed only by omission.  What is said is by and large true, no doubt: the problems start with silences, and are more marked when euphemism is brought into play.  There is no mention at all of the Japanese allying with Germany, and World War Two is systematically referred to as the Greater East Asian War to distance them further from the ideological conflict of the West.  None of the well recorded Japanese excesses in administration of their colonies, such as those mentioned above, are even touched upon.  Invasions are disguised as ‘incidents’: even the conquest of Manchuria is made to read as though the Chinese were responsible, and that the Japanese imposition of the puppet Emperor Puyi was a boon to Chinese self-rule.  This, despite massive military and local opposition from the Chinese themselves.

The infamous ‘killing competition’ news article

This leads to more serious omissions.  The only reference to the atrocities at Nanking is one line, in which we read that ‘Chinese soldiers disguised as civilians’ were treated harshly.  Even Japanese historians allow that several thousand civilians were massacred, while Chinese sources claim a death toll of over 200,000.  Iris Chang (The Rape of Nanking) maintains that between 20,000 and 80,000 women were raped on order by Japanese soldiers, and shows domestic Japanese newspapers advertising competitions between officers as to how many people they could behead with their swords.  There is a wealth of evidence of the massacre from contemporary foreign observers in Nanking at the time, including Christian clergy and journalists, and the Nazi Party member John Rabe, who rescued around 200,000 civilians.  There are also the testimonies of Japanese soldiers involved, recorded by the novelist Ishikawa Tatsuzo. Needless to say, none of this information is given even the slightest mention at the Museum.

Chinese being buried alive

While the breeze is blowing, it would be easy to pursue this tack with other omissions: brutalities in prisoner of war camps, the slave-driven building of the Burma railway, the encouragement given to the Ryukyu (Okinawan) people to commit mass suicide.  These are only examples of the revisionism by omission that one finds in the Yasukuni museum.  But it may be more interesting to compare the way similar issues might be handled in our home countries.  In Germany, to be sure, such revisionism would be punished severely.  Even the victors of the War often wring their hands about their military excesses: the bombing of Dresden, for example.
Certainly, nobody is proud of the two nuclear bombs that America dropped on Japan.  For the Yasukuni museum, though, they are a gift.  The intense suffering inflicted on Japanese civilians allows the Museum to present their nation as nothing but innocent victims.  Whenever any criticism is levelled at Japanese actions in the War, here they have their trump card. And fair enough, you might be tempted to say.  But I think there is a difference between the cruelty of dropping the bombs, and the cruelty enacted face-to-face by ideologically brainwashed soldiers on the ground.  We should certainly abhor the use of nuclear weaponry in future conflicts and acknowledge our wrong in employing them.  But the Yasukuni Shrine also needs to acknowledge the devastating effect of an extreme Right militocracy perpetuating atrocities on civilian populations.

Emperor Hirohito dressed as High Priest of State Shinto

Let us just remember for a moment that the museum is not a state institution, but is attached to a place of religious devotion, of worship: a shrine.  At no point does the museum care to mention that the state was taken over by the military, who made devotion to the imperial Shinto cult mandatory for all Japanese subjects.  It does not care to mention the role of the Shinto hierarchy in suppressing and regulating the worship of all other religions, Buddhism and Christianity included.  It does not care to mention that to this end, Shinto was officially declared a ‘non-religion’ so as to maintain the facade of ‘freedom of religion’ among the Japanese people while treating refusal to adhere to State Shinto as treason.  Coming from a church which spends so much of its time apologising for the excesses, mistakes and downright evils of its past, the self-righteousness of the Yasukuni Shrine comes as a real shock.  Not once do they even imply that their religion, let alone their nation and its soldiers, might have done anything wrong. One can only assume that their silence on these issues indicates approval.
I do not believe that the Yasukuni Shrine is per se an evil place.  One should honour the memory of one’s war dead.  But the Museum’s glorification of war and its complete refusal to engage with the evils of the nation’s past serve only to dishonour them.  The message of the museum to the Japanese must be very seductive, and is all the more dangerous.  Japan was not fighting for ‘racial equality’ any more than the rest of us.  It was fighting because it was forced to, by an unelected and ideologically repugnant military regime.
To my Japanese friends: I love your country and its people, and I really do not want to come across as preachy or self-righteous.  I hope you can understand my frustration at the Yasukuni Museum.  If you don’t believe me, please do go there yourselves!  

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Dancing dragons and fascists – a typical Tokyo Sunday

Japan’s still full of surprises. Wandering through Shinjuku yesterday, one of Tokyo’s busiest districts, I came across a traditional music group playing drum-‘n’-flute out of the back of a van while a man in an old-school dragon outfit danced around snapping his wooden teeth at frightened children. Round the next corner, a fascist rally was blaring out old marching tunes from their big black vans. I bought a pair of trousers from the Uniqlo there and caught the train home.


日 本はまだ時々驚かせる。昨日新宿に歩きながらトラックの中に伝統的な伎楽を弾いているフルートと太鼓のバンドを見た。すると、ある人は獅子舞と言う踊りを 踊って木の歯をカチッと鳴らして小さい子供を怖がれせていた。次の角に、右翼の黒いバスから戦争の演歌が鳴り響いてきた。心が困じてユニクロからズボンを 買ってから電車に乗って帰った。

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

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