Freedom of Religion Upheld in Japan
FOR many years in Japan, young students who are Jehovah’s Witnesses have faced a dilemma: Should they follow their Bible-trained conscience, or should they follow a school curriculum that violates their conscience. Why the dilemma? Because martial arts drills are part of the physical education course in their schools. The young Witnesses felt that such drills did not harmonize with Bible principles, such as the one found at Isaiah chapter 2, verse 4. This reads: “They will have to beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning shears. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, neither will they learn war anymore.”
Not wanting to learn warlike skills, which involve harming another person, young Christian Witnesses explained to their teachers that they could not conscientiously participate in the martial arts. After trying to persuade these students to accept the school curriculum, many understanding teachers eventually agreed to respect the consciences of the students and provide alternative activities.
However, some teachers became emotional, and some schools denied the young Witnesses credits for physical education. In 1993, at least nine Witnesses were denied scholastic advancement and were forced to quit school or be expelled for not participating in martial arts.
Clearly, it was time to defend the right of young Christians to receive an education without having to compromise their conscience. Five students who were denied promotion to the second grade at the Kobe Municipal Industrial Technical College (called Kobe Tech for short) decided to take legal action.
What Was at Issue?
In the spring of 1990 when the five students entered Kobe Tech, they explained to the teachers that they could not participate in kendo (Japanese swordsmanship) drills because of their Bible-based views. The physical education faculty were strongly opposed and denied them any alternative means to earn the credit for physical education. Eventually, the students failed the physical education class and as a result had to repeat the first grade (first year college course). In April 1991 they filed a lawsuit at the Kobe District Court, claiming that the school’s action went against the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion.*
The school claimed that providing alternative activities would be tantamount to showing favor to a particular religion and thus would infringe on the neutrality of public education. Besides, they claimed that they had neither the facilities nor the manpower to provide an alternative physical education program.
District Court Decision Stirs the Informed
While the case was being heard, two of the five students again failed the passing grade for physical education, while three others barely passed and made it to the next grade. The school rules stated that students whose scholastic achievements were poor and who repeated the same grade for any two consecutive years could be expelled. In view of this, one of the two students decided to quit school before being expelled, but the other, Kunihito Kobayashi, refused to quit. So he was expelled. Interestingly, Kunihito’s average for all subjects including physical education, which he failed with a score of 48 points, was 90.2 points out of 100. He was first in his class of 42 students.
On February 22, 1993, the Kobe District Court ruled in favor of Kobe Tech and said: “The actions taken by the school did not violate the constitution,” although it recognized that “it cannot be denied that the plaintiffs’ freedom of worship was somewhat restricted by the school’s requirement to participate in kendo drills.”
Like the apostle Paul in the first century, the plaintiffs decided to appeal to higher legal authorities. (Acts 25:11, 12) The case went to the Osaka High Court.
Unselfish Attitude of the Plaintiffs
A noted scholar, Professor Tetsuo Shimomura of Tsukuba University, agreed to give testimony as an expert witness in the Osaka High Court. As a specialist in education and law, he stressed how inconsiderate the school’s actions were in dealing with the students. Kunihito Kobayashi expressed his feelings in the court, and his sincere attitude moved the hearts of those in the courtroom. Further, on February 22, 1994, the Kobe Bar Association, declaring that the school’s actions infringed upon Kunihito’s freedom of worship and his right to receive an education, recommended that the school reinstate him.
As the time approached for the decision to be handed down at the Osaka High Court, all the young Christians involved were eager to be part of the struggle till the end. They felt they were fighting a legal battle in behalf of thousands of young Witnesses who face the same issue in schools throughout Japan. But since they were not expelled from the school, it was highly probable that the court would dismiss their case. And they could see that if they retracted their plea, the school’s unreasonableness in expelling Kunihito would be highlighted. Thus, all the students except Kunihito decided to drop the case.
On December 22, 1994, Chief Judge Reisuke Shimada of the Osaka High Court handed down a decision that reversed the Kobe District Court ruling. The court found that Kunihito’s reason for refusing kendo drills was sincere and that the disadvantage to him for his action based on his religious belief was extremely great. The school, said Chief Judge Shimada, should have provided alternative activities. This fine decision touched a responsive chord in the hearts of those who were concerned about human rights. The school, however, appealed the case to the Supreme Court of Japan, depriving Kunihito of education for more than another year.
To the Supreme Court
An editorial in the newspaper Kobe Shimbun later stated: “The Kobe City School Board and the school should have accepted Mr. Kobayashi back to school at that point [after the decision of the Osaka High Court]. . . . Their unnecessarily confrontational attitude has deprived a man of an important period of his youth.” Still, Kobe Tech took a strong stand in this case. As a result, it became a topic of nationwide news reports. Teachers and school authorities throughout the country took notice, and a decision from the highest court in the country would stand as a stronger legal precedent for similar cases in the future.
On January 17, 1995, about a week after the school appealed the case to the Supreme Court, the Kobe earthquake hit Ashiya City where Kunihito and his family lived. At about half past five that morning, a few minutes before the quake hit the area, Kunihito left his house for his part-time job. He was cycling along the road underneath the Hanshin Expressway, and when the quake struck, he was just approaching the portion that collapsed. Immediately he went back home and found the first floor of his house completely smashed. Kunihito saw that he could easily have lost his life in the quake and thanked Jehovah for permitting him to survive. If he had died, it is likely that the kendo case would have ended without the Supreme Court decision.
The Supreme Court in Japan usually examines appeals on paper only and judges whether or not the lower-court decisions were correct. Unless there is a serious reason to reverse the lower-court decision, no hearings take place. The court does not notify the parties concerned when the opinion is to be given. So Kunihito was taken by surprise on the morning of March 8, 1996, when he was told that the decision would be handed down that morning. To his joy and delight, he learned that the Supreme Court had upheld the Osaka High Court decision.
Four judges, with Judge Shinichi Kawai presiding, ruled unanimously that “the actions in question should be regarded as exceedingly improper from the socially accepted norms, deviating from the realm of discretionary rights, and hence illegal.” The court acknowledged the sincerity of Kunihito’s refusal to do kendo drills and said: “The reason for the appellee to refuse participation in kendo drills was earnest and closely related to the very core of his faith.” The Supreme Court judged that the school could have and should have provided alternative means so that the appellee’s religious belief might be respected.
This decision will no doubt set a fine precedent in favor of freedom of worship in schools. The Japan Times said: “The ruling is the first by the Supreme Court on the issue of education and the freedom of religion.” The decision, however, does not remove the responsibility of each young student to take his own conscientious stand when facing trials of faith.
Professor Masayuki Uchino of Tsukuba University commented that one of the factors that moved the judges to grant a victory to Kunihito was that he was “a sincere student whose academic achievement was outstanding.” The Bible gives this counsel to Christians who face tests of their faith: “Maintain your conduct fine among the nations, that, in the thing in which they are speaking against you as evildoers, they may as a result of your fine works of which they are eyewitnesses glorify God in the day for his inspection.” (1 Peter 2:12) Faithful young Christians can show that their Biblical position is worthy of people’s respect by living their whole life according to Bible standards.
After the Supreme Court decision, Kunihito Kobayashi was readmitted to Kobe Tech. Most of the students who entered school with Kunihito had already graduated. Kunihito is now studying with students who are five years younger than he is. In the eyes of many people of the world, five precious years of his youth seem to have been wasted. However, Kunihito’s integrity is precious in Jehovah God’s eyes, and his sacrifice is certainly not in vain.
For details, please see pages 10 to 14 of the October 8, 1995, issue of Awake!, published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.
[Pictures on page 20]
Left: Kunihito’s home after the earthquake
Below: Kunihito today