Christianity Meets State Shinto in Meiro Koizumi’s “Today My Empire Sings”

Still from Rite for a Dream (Today My Empire Sings), 3 screen video installation, 27’30”, 2016 Image courtesy of the artist and Annet Gelink Gallery (Amsterdam) and MUJIN-TO Production (Tokyo)

In 1986, the Museum of Modern Art, Toyama featured the artist Nobuyuki Oura’s controversial Showa emperor-themed collage series Holding Close and Far 遠近を抱えてin its Toyama Art 86 exhibition. While the show ended without incident, the museum came under fierce criticism in the prefectural assembly from right-wing groups following its decision to collect the collages. Bending to this outside pressure, it removed the works from public view, and later sold them to an undisclosed buyer. To fully cut ties with the artist, the museum also burned the remaining catalogues from the exhibition. In response, Oura filed a lawsuit against the museum and the prefecture on the grounds that the public had a right to see the works; he requested that the museum buy back the collages, set up a special showing for them as well as reprint the previous show’s catalogues. 15 years and two appeals later, the matter was finally brought to a close when the Supreme Court declined to hear his case: two lower courts ruled that Oura had been unlawfully censored, but the museum also faced “obstruction to management” and so wasn’t required to buy back the collages or reprint catalogues. This story is a stark reminder of continuing taboos surrounding the emperor in contemporary Japan and the difficulties artists face in challenging them.

“Sunday at Hirohito’s (14)”, acrylic on page of a book, 18×25.5cm, 2012
Private Collection, image courtesy of the artist and Annet Gelink

More recently, the artist Meiro Koizumi has taken the lead in addressing the legacy of State Shinto and its role in Japanese aggression in WWII: his emperor collages show strong influence from Oura, while he breaks new ground in exploring various taboos in contemporary Japanese society through video art. In this review, I will analyze one of his most recent works, “Today My Empire Sings,” shown in Tokyo at Vacant from May 3rd through the 11th. It’s a complex exploration of the psychological and religious aspects of emperor worship as told from the perspective of Koizumi’s father.

Born in Maebashi (Gunma Prefecture) in 1976 to devout Christians, Koizumi attended church while growing up, though he now calls himself a serious atheist. Upon graduating from Tokyo Christian University, he began his career as an artist and has since created and internationally shown works exploring collective guilt, the corruptibility of memory, and taboos. It is not in the scope of this article to introduce Koizumi’s large body of work; for a more general overview, please see this  piece published on Art Radar. Instead,  I want to provide some historical context to better understand “Today My Empire Sings” as a lens for viewing contemporary religious and political realities in Japan— something that contemporary art critics writing outside of an academic context often conspicuously fail to deliver in their analyses of Japanese art.

Koizumi discusses the inspiration for “Today My Empire Sings,” in a press release for the screening of the film:

Several years ago, my father came to my studio and saw a collage of the Showa Emperor I was working on at the time. His expression froze, and he left that day rather evasively. A few days later, he called and confessed that the moment he saw the collage, it felt like something very important to him had been wounded. Even more, he was shocked that he held such feelings towards the emperor. My father was seven when the war ended: he just barely received the wartime education.

He’s spent his life criticizing the emperor. My father has lived believing solely in Jesus Christ.

He’s lived with Jesus Christ as his one and only God.

Counter-demonstration to the annual August 15th anti-emperor protest

To juxtapose his father’s struggle to overcome internalized loyalty to the emperor with contemporary taboos surrounding the emperor system, Koizumi fuses a narrative from one of his nightmares with the chaotic annual August 15th anti-emperor system protests (the 2016 protest). In the nightmare, his father is sentenced to death to become chicken feed. To transpose this nightmare into reality, Koizumi positions a male actor inside the anti-emperor demonstration and films him as he proceeds along with the demonstrators, flanked by the riot squad. By editing and framing footage projected across three screens, Koizumi disturbs the boundary between reality and fiction to give the appearance that right-wing hate speech heard in the movie is being directed towards the “father,” who in turn bears the abuse as he proceeds towards his “execution.” The video work addresses the religious implications of emperor worship that are too often overlooked in contemporary Japan and in the global, highly secularized art world where Koizumi’s works are viewed. To do so, it uses Christianity as a foil.

Still from Rite for a Dream (Today My Empire Sings), 3 screen video installation, 27’30”, 2016 Image courtesy of the artist and Annet Gelink Gallery (Amsterdam) and MUJIN-TO Production (Tokyo)

The history of Christianity in Japan has recently attracted international attention through Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s Silence, a portrayal of hidden Christians in southern Japan. The religion was introduced by Portuguese missionaries in 1549 and flourished for a brief period before being persecuted and eventually banned by the Tokugawa shogunate in the early Edo Period (1612-1639). The Meiji government (1868-1912), while lifting the ban on Christianity, continued to  characterize the religion as a “metaphorical foreigner,” to borrow a phrase of the historian Carol Gluck, to develop a “pure” national identity. This tension continued as State Shinto was elevated to the role of state ritual/morality in the Meiji Constitution (1890)— citizens were expected to pledge loyalty to the Emperor regardless of their faith (a way to bypass the constitution’s clause protecting freedom of religion). Even before the constitution was promulgated, Shinto was classified as something other than a religion: the religious scholar Toshihiro Ohmi writes in Introduction to Modern Buddhism 近代仏教入門that from “1882, the religious activities of Shrines were limited and Kannushi [Shrine wardens] were obligated to focus on performing rituals for the state, i.e., secular activities. In this way, Shinto took the form of secular rituals supporting the state, or a moral creed, rather than a national religion.” (23).

Many Christian sects, far from resisting the rise of State Shinto, reconciled their theologies and rituals with emperor worship. Koizumi uses an 1895 Methodist hymn that praises both God and the emperor as the background music for “Today My Empire Sings” to remind the audience of this history. Christianity, however, retained a public image as being irreconcilable with emperor worship. This can be seen in the 1891 uproar over the Christian intellectual and teacher Kanzō Uchimura’s refusal to publicly pledge his loyalty to the emperor’s signature at First Higher School (a secondary school). As “Today My Emperor Sings” deals with questions of memory and emotional manipulation (reoccurring themes in Koizumi’s work), it needs to be situated in this broader historical background for viewers to fully understand the piece. At its core is the historical tension between a persecuted religion and a religion-turned-national-morality, one that Koizumi shows to be ongoing by focusing on the experience of his father.

In an attempt to rid the country of State Shinto after the war, the American-led GHQ reduced the Emperor to a purely symbolic presence in the new constitution; this proved, however, to be only partially successful: the sacred status of the emperor could not be so easily revoked for those who received the wartime education, such as Koizumi’s father. Even today, right-wing groups visit Yasukuni Shrine on the anniversary of the end of WWII to visit the war dead and pledge their devotion to the emperor. While Shinto was fashioned into a national morality through state violence, its religious characteristics emerge in full sight in Koizumi’s work. Even if it blurs with national ideology, it can’t be simply reduced to a question of nationalism. To best understand this concept, we must take a look at the major player in Koizumi’s work: the actor or character as he will be called going forward.

The identity of the character being led through the protest is ambiguous. A simple reading, one in line with Koizumi’s quote above, would suggest that he is the artist’s father repositioned to give a disorienting impression of fiction and reality blurring in the midst of nationalistic violence. Indeed, this is the central conceit of the piece, and allows for Koizumi’s father’s personal narrative to merge with a larger historical narrative. While this interpretation is perfectly valid, it hides a certain instability— a fissure—present in the character’s identity. Several Japanese critics have offered a more complex reading: that this character represents not only the father but also the emperor himself, imprisoned by the very mechanisms that give him power. Here is Ren Fukuzumi’s interpretation:

“The father [character] says that someone has to be the one. In short, he fully knows he will be sacrificed. In this moment, the emperor comes to mind: the emperor is at once the most deeply revered and disdained existence in Japan.  Even now, the fact that the emperor has no guarantee for his basic human rights despite being such a popular figure among the general public attests to this terrifying duality. As they did before in the war, those who most loudly worship the emperor also most obviously use him. In the Japanese constitution, the emperor is recognized as the symbol of our sovereignty; in this work, the father is the symbol of the emperor.”

The struggle of Japan’s current Emperor Akihito to abdicate reflects the contradiction running through the emperor’s existence: he’s 83, and yet some expect him to serve in this exhausting role until his death (many conservatives for fear that a woman could succeed him). Ren Fukuzumi points to the irony that Japan’s symbol of self-determination lacks the autonomy to decide when he can step down. In addition, the Sci-fi writer and critic Naoya Fujita sees the piece as an attempt to grapple with the violence of air 空気 (implicit assumptions in Japan that often lead to the taboo of controversial subjects), as best symbolized by the emperor system.

Here, I’d like to suggest a complementary reading to both Fukuzumi and Fujita: that the actor can also be interpreted as Christ being led to Calvary Hill. For someone with even a small amount of knowledge of Christian theology, the figure of Christ being mocked and abused on the way to the Cross is a familiar image. Of course, there’s no reason to limit the figure to Christ alone in the Japanese Christian tradition— he could be Amakusa Shirō, the leader of the Shimabara Rebellion (a Christian uprising from 1637-1638 in response to unfair taxation by the Edo government near Nagasaki) on the way to his execution, or any one of the Twenty-six Martyrs of Japan who were crucified in Nagasaki in 1597. Put in this way, the identity of the actor is unstable: Koizumi’s father as played by the actor functions as a microcosm for the historic tensions between Christians and the Japanese state, Christianity and Shintoism, the emperor and public. These can’t be neatly contained: they split unevenly and at times flare into violence.

Still from Rite for a Dream (Today My Empire Sings), 3 screen video installation, 27’30”, 2016 Image courtesy of the artist and Annet Gelink Gallery (Amsterdam) and MUJIN-TO Production (Tokyo)

“Today My Empire Sings” can be interpreted as a depiction of Jesus walking in the midst of a heated conflict he could have known nothing about; or, as an allegory for the emperor ensnared in his power, escorted towards an uncertain future by the riot squad; or, the story of a Japanese Christian struggling to assert his absolute faith in Christ over subliminal devotion to the emperor. All these interpretations are valid, and it is through their constant clashing and renegotiation that the work’s meaning emerges.  This renegotiation should not be dismissed as merely a commentary on atemporality in the internet age, or a postmodern cut and paste approach to religious tradition. It has been the lived experience of many Japanese Christians throughout the modern era. In “Today My Empire Sings,” Koizumi criticizes the violence that he sees as continuing to predicate the emperor system in contemporary Japan. To do so, he positions Christianity in relation to State Shinto for the latter to emerge as the religion that it is.

About the Author

Jeremy Woolsey is an MA student at Tokyo University of the Arts, where he studies the relationship between contemporary art and Buddhism. He is also a musician and translator. You can find more of his writing and contact info on his blog: