Patriotism in Wartime: Nikolai of Japan and the Kingdoms of this World

by Betsy Perabo

St. Nikolai of Japan

In a diary entry on Christmas Eve 1904, Bishop Nikolai of Japan expresses his deep sorrow over Russian losses in the ongoing Russo-Japanese War.  Nikolai remained in Tokyo during the war at the request of the Japanese Orthodox congregation he had served for more than four decades.  His suffering was all the more difficult because he lived alongside Japanese Christians he had known for many years, who were – appropriately, he said – celebrating their own victories.  He states his desire to transcend this suffering when he is with his fellow Christians, writing:

I live now in a two-story house. On the upper floor we are all children of the Heavenly Father; on that floor, there are no Japanese, no Russians. Most of the time, I try to be there…Together we engage in Christian deeds for the Church, translation, book publishing, even Christian help to the prisoners of war or the Japanese wounded—all of this is suitable for the children of one Heavenly Father….But sometimes an oppressive state of soul pulls me down to the lower floor, where I remain by myself, without the Japanese….I must go to the upper floor, where there is no anger…I must be an inhabitant of the upper floor. (Betsy Perabo, Russian Orthodoxy and the Russo-Japanese War, 149. Other in-text citations also come from this source.)

In a twist on the classic forms of the “doctrine of the two”—two cities, two kingdoms, two governments—Nikolai characterizes the coexistence of the “earthly kingdoms” and the “heavenly kingdom” as two floors of the same house, with the lower floor divided into two separate sections.  What Nikolai’s version of this theological construct captures that others do not is the multiplicity of the earthly kingdoms. Scriptural translations reflect this: Revelation 11:15—the angel’s declaration that “the kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord” (NRSV)—has also been translated as “The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord” (KJV).  We cannot abstractly consider how our own “earthly kingdom” relates to the heavenly kingdom without reminding ourselves of this multiplicity.

How did this concept help Nikolai to think about the Russo-Japanese War, and how might it help American Christians think about their own country’s wars and conflicts? Today, Christians who speak out against military actions taken by their own government may be accused of a lack of patriotism, and a disinterest in protecting their fellow citizens. Though the non-theological, pragmatic justifications of actions taken—as, for example, in the case of the targeted killing of the Iranian General Suleimani—can and should be debated, here I will focus on a theological assumption that sometimes undergirds these arguments: that one’s own country and its population is inherently more valuable in the eyes of God than the other country and its population.   If we believe this, we may come to believe that it is appropriate to discard the laws of armed conflict that place them on equal moral footing.

As a Christian with deep connections to more than one earthly kingdom, Nikolai of Japan was well-positioned to consider such issues. Nikolai arrived in Japan in the summer of 1861 and spent almost all of the rest of his life there. His intensive study of the Japanese language and culture facilitated his mission to the Japanese. He ordained the first Japanese-born priests and deacons, and began efforts to build an Orthodox cathedral in Tokyo, which was dedicated in 1891. By 1900, there were 376 ordained Japanese Orthodox priests and approximately 26,000 Orthodox Christians in Japan (Samuel Hugh Moffett, A History of Christianity in Asia, Volume II: 1500 to 1900, 507).

Nikolai’s success in building a Japanese Orthodox Church during the late 1800s faced challenges when Japan entered a war with his native Russia in early 1904. He announced that he would stop leading the public prayers of the Japanese Orthodox Church so as to avoid praying for the success of the Japanese emperor and military in their fight against his own nation. But he acknowledged the right—and, in fact, the responsibility—of the Japanese people to fight for their own emperor and pray for the success of their military.

During the war, he was quick to put to rest the concerns that Orthodox Japanese Christians were prone to be disloyal to Japan due to their allegiance to the Orthodox church. The central misunderstanding, he says, is that Orthodox Christians believe the emperor is the head of the church. This is utterly false: the only head of the church is Jesus Christ. He states, “As your brother in faith, the Russian emperor of course only wishes that you be good Christians fulfilling all Christian obligations, including observance of your faith and loyalty to your homeland and your emperor” (105). Nikolai is not quoting the tsar here, but saying what he assumes his position must be.

Nikolai’s theology is, of course, rooted in his own historical situation. With deep ties to two states that he sees as essentially moral, Nikolai does not consider whether it is appropriate to fight on behalf of a corrupt emperor or in an unjust war.He does not have to confront this problem, nor does he have to consider how an Orthodox state might confront a state with no Christians in it whatsoever.

Nevertheless, he makes generalizations about how Christians should relate to their nation. “Love of country is natural and holy,” he writes; and he applies this principle to the Japanese as well as the Russians (95). In October 1904, Nikolai officiates at the funeral service to honor Japanese Orthodox soldiers who had been killed in action in the war against his own country. At the service, he tells his congregants that those killed in the war are their brothers, and his own “spiritual children.” He adds, “Thus you with brotherly love, and I with the love of a father, carry warm supplications to God that He will impute to them their strivings and death, undertaken by them in fulfillment of their duties to their Fatherland and State, as martyrs’ holy deeds and reward them with the Kingdom of Heaven” (1). He says that it is acceptable for everyone to serve their “earthly Fatherland,” but notes that all people, regardless of nationality, belong to the “Heavenly Fatherland” (95).

As Nikolai indicates, when we are at war, it is not easy to view the citizens of another country as our brothers and sisters, or to support the international laws requiring equal treatment of all countries.  We are inclined to look at the ordinary soldiers of our own country in a different light than the ordinary soldiers of another country. Nikolai’s theological principles tell us this is wrong.

Even if we disagree with his conclusions, Nikolai witnesses for us what it is like for a lifelong Christian to live in wartime, and to work through the meaning of these experiences theologically.  Early in the war, Nikolai’s longtime friend and fellow translator Pavel Nakai writes a prayer asking God to give victory to the Japanese troops. Nikolai says the prayer is appropriate, but adds that when it was read in Tokyo’s Orthodox cathedral, he prayed silently “for the granting of victory to [his] own Emperor” (106). Two men worshiping in the same church but praying at the same time for different outcomes to the ongoing war: this is Nikolai’s life in wartime, and this is what informs him and instructs him on how to navigate life in his own earthly kingdom, his own two-story house.


Betsy Perabo is a professor of Religious Studies at Western Illinois University and the author of Russian Orthodoxy and the Russo-Japanese War (Bloomsbury, 2017).

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.