AT a recent seminar bringing together Japanese and American businessmen, politicians, and officials, a Japanese participant asked an American what Jews thought of the fact that the United States was a Christian country. Startled, the American, who is Jewish, muttered something about his country's ``Judeo-Christian heritage.''
Religion is a topic that is seldom brought up in trans-Pacific discussions. Most Japanese assume Americans are Christians, and occasionally Jews. There was no provocative intent behind my friend's question. He was simply curious. He had been taught that America is a Christian country. He also knew, from experience, that Jews formed an important part of the American community.
As for Japan, the 8 million or so gods of the native Shinto religion coexist comfortably with the Buddhas and Boddhisatvas that entered Japan in the 6th century A.D. - about the same time that Christianity reached the Angles and Saxons in Britain.
When a Japanese politician wants to assure his constituents that he is not lying, he swears ``by the gods and the Buddhas.'' During the spate of scandals that led to the Liberal Democrats' defeat last year after 38 years in power, the ruling party's politicians used the phrase so often that it became a joke.
But it does underscore a truth about Japan. The old gods didn't die or disappear when Buddhism came in. They were similar to the deities of many primitive peoples - gods of the mountains and the streams, or sometimes a heroic warrior. Clever Buddhist preachers argued that the native gods were reincarnations of the Buddha. Instead of worshipping reincarnations, worship the original, they suggested. They used the Japanese desire to avoid outright confrontation, to try for at least the appearance of harmony and consensus. That desire remains strong.
But Portuguese and Spanish missionaries, bringing Christianity to Japan in the 16th century, introduced an omnipotent God who demanded exclusive loyalty. After a brief period of acceptance, Japan's feudal rulers savagely persecuted native Christians who, from their viewpoint, owed allegiance to an alien god.
When Commodore Perry and his ``black ships'' reopened this long-isolated land in 1854, Protestant and Catholic missionaries brought Christianity back to Japan in a new form. This time, religion was just one part of a whole complex of institutions and ideas from the West - political, financial, commercial, legal, and scientific. In each area, the West was clearly superior. The lesson of neighboring China was that unless you adopted those institutions and Westernized in a hurry, you would be colonized.
The Western missionaries of the 19th century did not come to Asia as had Peter and Paul in the early days of the church. To the sophisticated Greco-Roman world of those days, Christianity had nothing to offer but itself - its teaching of Christ's love. It had no science, no universities or colleges, no superior organizing principles of government or of the economy. Those who accepted Christianity had to do so because they loved the gospel - not for some other presumed benefit, for there was none.
But in 19th-century Japan, Christian converts like Kanzo Uchimura questioned what to them was a missionary assumption that everything about the West was superior, with Christianity being part of that superiority. All his life Uchimura wrestled with the role, if any, Japan was assigned in the divine plan. There were two J's in his heart, he said: Jesus and Japan.
Most Japanese - and indeed, much of Asia - accepted all the other goodies that came from the West: the science, the medicine, and the legal, financial, and commercial framework of modern society. They accepted democracy and individual rights, at least as concepts. Japanese society remains heavily consensus-oriented, but individuals are beginning to emerge who can and do buck the tide.
Nevertheless, the proportion of Christians to the total population - about a million out of 125 million - remains tiny. I suspect it has to do with the reluctance to accept absolute values, to shut off the compromises that can take place when both sides of a negotiation are satisfied with relative values.
Most disputes could not be settled without the relativistic approach. If the Japanese have been successful in many aspects of human engineering, it is not merely because they are meticulous about details, but because, whether in companies or schools, they are willing to work with square pegs until they fit in round holes.
Therein also lies a dilemma. As a nation and a society that has reached great affluence, the Japanese are seeking to widen the circle of individual freedom and choice, of diversity and even of unorthodoxy. They know that scientific truth is not arrived at through compromises. They know that the scarcity of Nobel Prize winners in Japan - only five in nearly half a century - may have something to do with too great an emphasis on consensus in the past. Individuals who believe strongly in their own inventions or discoveries must hold to their convictions until vindicated or proved false.
The climate for change is propitious. Will this change be restricted to natural science, or will it also touch areas of religion? All one can say with assurance is that once ferment begins in one area of national life, it is not easily kept from spilling over into others.