William Bunce, 100; Demilitarized Japanese Institutions After War

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 14, 2008

William Kenneth Bunce, 100, who as a Navy officer in 1945 wrote the directive that disestablished Shinto as the state religion of Japan, died of chronic pneumonia July 23 at Heron Point retirement community in Chestertown, Md.

Dr. Bunce's job during the post-World War II occupation of Japan was the demilitarization of Japanese institutions, religion and culture.

Shinto, a 1,500-year-old polytheistic religion, had become a militaristic and ultra-nationalistic dogma under the direction of the government, which wrote the church rituals. Students were required to study Shinto in school, the state supported its 50,000 shrines, and the emperor would periodically travel to shrines to discuss public affairs with his long-dead ancestors.

Dr. Bunce's directive, prepared under the orders of the Allied commander in chief, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, banned the doctrine that the emperor was descended from the sun and that he, the Japanese people and the Japanese islands were superior to all others. The Shinto religion, stripped of its nationalism, was allowed to continue, and believers could worship privately.

"The Bunce directive skirted dangerously close to violating religious liberty," Time magazine said in its Dec. 24, 1945, issue. "But it had long been agreed among most students of Japan that Shinto in its modern form was a tool and a disguise for militarism. . . . It was the first official U.S. attempt to draw the fine line between genuinely religious doctrine and social propaganda."

The New York Times agreed. With "the elimination of state Shinto, General MacArthur has laid the axe to the root of the last great pillars which held up the imperial system by force, custom and persuasion," reporter Lindesay Parrott wrote Dec. 23, 1945.

Dr. Bunce, who later was a Foreign Service officer, came to the task with a background in Japan. A native of Gallipolis, Ohio, who graduated from Otterbein College in Westerville, Ohio, he received a master's degree in history from Ohio State University in 1933.

He became an English teacher and lecturer at Matsuyama Kotogakko, a government junior college in Japan, during the 1930s. He left after three years to complete a doctorate in history at Ohio State, then returned to Otterbein to chair the history department and become dean of the faculty.

When he joined the Naval Reserve in 1943, Dr. Bunce studied international law, military government and the governments, economies and cultures of Southeast Asia, receiving a master's degree from Columbia University.

In 1944, Dr. Bunce was made officer in charge of the Area Studies Division at the Naval School of Military Government at Princeton University, then was assigned to Monterey, Calif., and Manila to help plan for the occupation of Japan.

In Tokyo, he was chief of the Religious and Cultural Resources Division at the general headquarters of the supreme allied command. He represented the command and Japan at three UNESCO general conferences and helped advise the UNESCO director general on programs for Japan.

He received the Legion of Merit for his work in Japan.

After the occupation ended, Dr. Bunce joined the staff of the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo and the old U.S. Information Service. For the next 19 years, he was a diplomat, serving as counselor in public affairs at embassies in India and Korea, as well as stints in Washington. He retired in 1971.

He enjoyed photographing and growing thousands of azaleas, rhododendrons, ornamental trees, shrubs and flowers at his homes in Alexandria and Fairfax Station for the next 37 years.

His wife of 74 years, Alice Shively Bunce, died in 2007.

Survivors include four children, Sylvia Bunce Duvall of Salisbury, Julia Bunce Elfving of Olathe, Kan., Peter William Bunce of Shorewood, Ill., and Michael Robert Bunce of Tualatin, Ore.; seven grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company