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Christianity in Korea during Japanese colonization

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Today about 30% of the population in South Korea identify as Christian. This is substantially higher than many other Asian countries. Why did the Korean people take such a likening to the religion? The reasons can be found when looking at the influences of the country over the course of the last 100 years. Japans colonization, the Korean War, and western presence would culminate into the perfect environment for the religion to grow and expand.

American missionaries first arrived in Korea in the 1880s. Compared to other Asian countries, it was very well received. Korea would become a colony of Japan in 1910 and in 1914 it was estimated that there were approximately 150,000 Christians in Korea. During this time Japan did not have strict rules concerning Christianity which would change around World War 2. Christian missionaries were allowed to continue their work in Korea freely.

Prior to the arrival of Christianity Korea had its own practices. Korean Shamanism and Buddhism were common practice in the country until the arrival of Japan. When Japan colonized Korea, they outlawed Korean Shamanism and took over the Buddhist practices to enforce a pro-Japan agenda. This caused many people to gravitate towards Christianity upon its arrival as they were allowed to worship without the influence of propaganda. Christianity quickly became a rallying point to defy Japanese rule over their country. Many felt as though it was a way to rebel. In addition, it became part of a nationalist movement since it was un-influenced by the Japanese.

Another factor the emboldened the presence of Christianity was the Korean War in the early 1950’s. North and South Korean were clashing and South Korea was not as strong as it is today. The United States stepped in to provide support to the government and people of South Korea in an effort to preserve democracy. Because this was the first real western presence felt by the Korean people it garnered a lot of respect for the United States. They were there to assist people in need not to push an agenda they thought the country should adopt. Because of this respect, Christianity gained even more traction and was viewed in a more positive light than just a way to rebel.

Korean culture started to associate Christianity with the middle-class, intellectual superiority, and modernizers. After the release of Japan’s hold on the country and the end of the Korean war South Korea was formed. The country had a desire to modernize and the best example of this would be their allies in the recent war, the United States. These cultural association as well as an attempt to emulate the success the U.S. had was just another reason Christianity gained such popularity in Korea.

There was no one factor that gave Christianity such a strong presence in Korea but rather a perfect storm of multiple factors. Had the country never been colonized or if Japan had outlawed Christianity sooner it is possible one would see similar results as China or Japan.

Emperor Showa

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The 124th Emperor of Japan, Emperor Hirohito reigned from December 25, 1926 until his death in 1989. Born Michinomiya Hirohito on April 29, 1901, Emperor Hirohito was only 15 years old when he was crowned a prince. He was the first crown prince to travel abroad to study in Europe. When he returned to Japan in 1921, Crown Prince Hirohito was named regent when his father, Emperor Taisho, became chronically ill in 1921. He then became the acting ruler of Japan because his father’s health was failing.

 

As regent, Crown Prince Hirohito automatically became the new emperor upon his father’s death. Emperor Hirohito was his official name while serving as emperor of Japan. As with tradition, Emperor Hirohito was renamed after his death. The name Emperor Showa was given because it was the name of the era of Emperor Hirohito’s reign. Showa was a name Emperor Hirohito had chosen for the time he reigned which can be roughly translated to mean “enlightened harmony”.

 

Emperor Showa married Princess Nagako in January 26, 1924. Princess Nagako was a distant cousin of Emperor Showa which was the tradition. They had seven children together, two boys and five girls. Their oldest son, Akihito, was eventually crowned a prince. Later, Crown Prince Akihiot broke a 1,500 year tradition of marrying within the family by marrying a commoner.

 

Emperor Hirohito, or Emperor Showa, ruled Japan during the Second Sino-Japanese War which led into World War 2 (WW2). He was considered a controversial leader during this time period. Japan was already considered one of the great powers when Emperor Showa, started his reign. It was one of only four permanent members of the League of Nations and was recognized as the ninth largest economy in the world. Following WWII, many leaders were prosecuted for war crimes. Emperor Showa was not prosecuted and his involvement remains controversial still today.

 

Under his reign, Emperor Showa became the commander-in-chief of the Japanese armed forces. He was also considered the highest spiritual authority as emperor. Instead of being charged with war crimes, MacArthur made a deal with Emperor Showa to implement a new Japanese constitution. This agreement also required the denouncement of the practice of imperial divinity.

 

Following the end of WWII, the United States continued to occupy Japan until 1952. During this occupation, the United States worked to transform Japan so that the sovereignty would lay with the people through a constitutional monarchy instead of the emperor. When the American occupation withdrew, Japan experienced a rapid economic growth period which Emperor Showa reigned over. The 64 year reign of Emperor Showa was the longest imperial reign in the history of Japan.

 

On January 7, 1989, Emperor Showa died of cancer of the small intestine at the Aoyama Palace in Tokyo. His funeral was an international event attended by such leaders as the President of the United States George H. W. Bush and the French President Francois Mitterrand. He was buried in the Imperial Mausoleum in Hachioji. He was succeeded by his son Akihito. Emperor Showa had remained an active figure in Japan up until his death.

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