Columnists > Judgment Calls

To bow or not

Respecting opponents or worshipping idols?

Issue: "View from the Axis," March 9, 2002

At first glance in the "quick takes" section of the newspaper it looked like just another frivolous law-suit: 14-year-old high school Judo champion in the Seattle area files suit in federal court against the U.S. Judo Federation over the issue of having to bow before stepping onto the tatami for a match.

I'm thinking over my orange juice: Hey, kids could use a little bowing, seems to me. Slam-dunk decision for the defendant.

Then the details trickle in: The bowing isn't just to fellow players and instructors in this case (school policies vary here) but before "inanimate objects"-the judo mat and a picture of judo's founder. Leilani Akiyama, whose step-father and coach, John Holm, has shelled out $40,000 leading a campaign to make bowing optional in competitions, elaborates on her dug-in position: "I don't bow because I don't believe in the Shinto ritual."

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Now she's got my attention. The story interfaces with last August's brouhaha over Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visit to a shrine of Japan's war heroes, on top of another uproar over his government's acceptance of a history textbook that whitewashes his country's crimes during that war. In tandem, I am reminded of not a few discussions in this house with my Korean-born husband over something called the "Shinto shrine incident" that in the late 1930s cleft the church in Pyongyang, and whose rippling effects continue to this day.

Shinto (literally "the way of the gods") is an animistic faith in the spirits of rivers and mountains, and, since the 7th century B.C., in Japan's imperial family. When Japanese expansionism annexed Korea in 1910, it was imposed on that peninsula along with other such humiliations as the forced change of surnames and attempted expunging of the language, the better to make Koreans (and Christians in particular) forget their gods and worship the emperor alone. Initially, Christians mounted strenuous resistance, the PCUSA Missions Committee producing a report concluding that bowing at a Shinto shrine is a religious act and not just a patriotic one (as the Japanese propaganda machine had been urging).

In the end, denominations buckled under threat of persecution (If "Paris is well worth a mass," in the words of Henry of Navarre, then Pyongyang is worth a perfunctory bow-or so it was rationalized by the battle-weary), with the Presbyterians holding out the longest. Missionary Harvey Conn argues, "It was among the missions very strongly conservative in theology that Shinto was most vigorously opposed," and that "the basic root of liberalism, which shifts the center of gravity from the gospel to the prevalent intellectual or cultural concepts of the time, necessitates conformity" (Studies in Theology).

My little Far-East digression may be neither here nor there, of course. A bow is not a bow is not a bow, necessarily. The slight folding of the torso before a mat in Washington may well be just the smile left on the Cheshire cat's face, no more religiously charged than a handshake. (Not many Christians worry about the pagan origin of the Christmas wreath.) Still, it is interesting that the Japanese-born Buddhist Akiyama sniffs religion in the ritual (as do several Muslim and Christian teen athletes, who have chosen to bow out rather than bow).

The case of Naaman in 2 Kings 5 can be argued either way, I'm afraid: This new convert to the true God is, inconveniently, in the employ of the pagan King of Aram, and among his duties is that of assisting the aged king to bow to his god, which necessitates Naaman's own perpendicular positioning. So serious a matter of conscience does Naaman consider this that he begs Elisha's forgiveness in advance. The prophet replies, "Go in peace."

Or you can say along with Paul that "an idol is nothing at all in the world" (1 Corinthians 8:4), which then leaves you in the position of having to decide how love of a "weaker brother" dovetails with "the exercise of your freedom" (1 Corinthians 8-10). In the case of Japanese-occupied Korea, was an opportunity missed to show the world unflinching dedication to the Christian God? What a glorious chapter it had been if all, not just a few, had chosen prison?

"If anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean" (Romans 14:14); "Everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial" (1 Corinthians 10:23). I know one Christian in the martial arts who has made up his mind to bow only to men, not to artifacts, and that only as a gesture of respect-which sounds pretty good to me. But at the end of the day, each man makes that lonely decision between himself and God. And may the Lord raise up children who like Moses "prefer to be mistreated" for the crowns of heaven than to enjoy "for a short time" (Hebrews 11:25) the already tarnishing glories of the U.S. Judo Federation.

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again.


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