This year commemorates the 75th anniversary of Japanese surrender in the Second World War, VJ Day, Victory over Japan. Different countries date it differently, choosing either the actual date of surrender – August 14/15 – or the signing of the surrender document on September 2. Whatever date we choose, this was an epochal moment in world history. It also commemorated a horrible and tragically neglected time in Christian history.
In 1998, London’s Westminster Abbey dedicated an evocative gallery of statues commemorating the Christian martyrs of modern times. The ten figures were chosen to represent a wide range of circumstances and persecutors, from Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany to Mao’s China and radical Islamists. Some of the martyrs are celebrated (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., Oscar Romero), others less so. In one instance, not only is the martyr himself thoroughly obscure, but so is the whole setting of his life and death. Who is Lucian Tapiedi, and who are the Christian martyrs of the Pacific War? And why has this savage persecution slipped so completely from public memory?
Lucian Tapiedi was a young native Papuan, one of a group of eight Anglican clergy and lay workers executed under the Japanese occupation in 1942, and commemorated as the Martyrs of New Guinea. In the context of such a horrific year of global bloodshed, such an atrocity may seem almost irrelevant. In fact, these eight martyrs were only a tiny contingent of a vastly larger number of Christians that the Japanese slaughtered for their faith during the war years. New Guinea alone records some 330 martyrs, including many nuns, not to mention many thousands of other victims across the Philippines, Micronesia, the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), and China.
That amnesia needs some explanation. Partly, martyrdoms were recorded by individual churches or even religious orders, without much attention to the wider story, especially if that meant crossing linguistic boundaries — hence the Anglo-American ignorance of the horrific situation in the Dutch colonies. Also, much of the attention focused on high profile white leaders and missionaries, as opposed to the great majority of murdered Christians, who were native people.
But the failures of memory also reflect a more general refusal to acknowledge the scale of Japanese atrocities during that war. At the time, Western media depicted Japanese misdeeds in the most flagrant terms, but matters changed radically after 1945, because the nuclear attacks that ended the war gave Japan a kind of victim status. For some modern scholars, wartime atrocity tales arose from hysterical Western racism, in a conflict in which both sides demonized each other. If we don’t accept racist propaganda images of the enemy as sadistic misshapen monkeys, why should anyone pay serious attention to every legend of massacre and mutilation? Wasn’t that the kind of wild rumor that incited the deportation of Japanese-Americans?
The problem is that virtually all of these horror stories were factually true, just like the equally ghastly tales told of German conduct on the Eastern Front. Throughout their colonial empire, Japanese soldiers acted in exactly the same way as the Nazis in Poland or Ukraine. They massacred prisoners of war and enemy civilians, enslaved tens of millions in conditions that ensured mass deaths, and forced tens of thousands of women into sexual slavery. The most appalling charges against Japanese forces — torture, medical experimentation, and even cannibalism — are well documented. China alone probably lost twenty million dead during the war, Indonesia four million. To characterize the Western struggle against Japan in terms of moral equivalence is as ludicrous as comparing Roosevelt’s US or Churchill’s Britain with Hitler’s Germany.
I also add one point that is often forgotten, which is the extremely religious nature of the Japanese regime and its war effort. Unlike the First World War, none of the other combatant powers viewed the conflict in religious terms, however much they might borrow terms like “crusade” as they felt appropriate. Even the Soviets used holy language when they felt like it. The Japanese, in contrast, based their ideology wholly in a religious world view of State Shinto, focused in the literal worship of emperor and land, and the language of religion and the divine permeated every aspect of propaganda and ideology. Those famous suicide aircraft were the kamikaze, recalling the divine (kami) wind that saved Japan in earlier times. Fanatical intolerance of other races and faiths was absolutely embedded into this religious system.
When the Japanese empire launched its new expansion in late 1941, Christian missionaries and converts were widely distributed across the region: the Philippines, of course, were firmly Christian. Missionaries were targeted because they were foreign and Western, and many were casually killed. A few incidents became notorious, but they were only the tip of a substantial iceberg. Four Catholic missionaries were murdered on Guadalcanal in 1942, six Jesuits on Palau in 1944. In the Philippines, the Japanese drowned Bishop William Finneman, who is currently being considered for canonization. In 1945, they murdered sixteen de la Salle brothers in Manila, together with dozens of Filipino lay people. Many missionaries suffered because they tried to protect local women from gang rape. In some cases, the murders were undertaken by local Japanese sympathizers. Recall that in Europe, the Germans found active accomplices among local anti-Semites.
We might debate whether some of these crimes had any specifically religious motivation, but the case is clearer for native converts like Lucian Tapiedi. Like the Germans in the East European Bloodlands, the Japanese wanted only a population of terrified and subservient slaves, and they systematically slaughtered any educated or professional native people who might emerge as leaders or sources of opposition. In Singapore and the Dutch East Indies, this meant massacring hundreds of thousands of Chinese. Across the region, it spelled doom for those literate Christian converts who sought to reform and modernize tribal societies. They died specifically because they were Christian.
The most moving part of the story involves those native lay people, often young recent converts, who took over the activities of the churches when white missionaries were killed or interned. Catholic catechist Peter To Rot of New Britain, who insisted on maintaining church life after the Japanese prohibited Christian worship, and ordered a revival of native religious practice, and polygamy. Martyred for his faith, Peter was beatified in 1995. He had a great many less celebrated counterparts.
When we celebrate VJ Day, we should recall the act of religious liberation that it involved, and the countless innocent lives it saved.
I am drawing material here from a column I did at Real Clear Religion.