Japan has been a home for Shinto and Buddhist religions for centuries. The Christian missionaries during the 16th, 19th and 20th centuries worked hard to evangelize the Japanese nation but could not get desired success. There efforts in past failed partly due to sanctions imposed by the local rulers. The Jesuits missionaries traveled with Spanish and Portuguese traders to many areas of America and Asia-Pacific and established their churches and religious missions. They were funded, sponsored and trained by their respective governments in order to spread Christianity.
At several places they preached the Christian faith by force but the aboriginal population did not accept it wholeheartedly. Initially the Jesuits targeted the elite class of the country and a large number was converted. The rulers also forced their subject to embrace the same faith. About 300,000 Japanese were converted in the first phase. Later on, Christianity was prohibited as the rulers started seeing them as a threat to their authority. Following a change of regime, the ban was lifted and missionaries were again allowed to enter Japan. Like many Native American tribes, the Japanese also resisted the new religion.
As a result, presently Christians form only 1% of the total population in Japan. This paper is focused on how the Christian religion was introduced in Japan, the evolution of evangelism, establishment of churches, the restrictions and hurdles faced by the missionaries and priest of the new religion and the response of Japanese nation towards an alien faith. All these queries are answered in detail given as follows. Christianity in Japan spread in various phases. Like many other parts of world, it was brought by religious missionaries and the European traders and invaders.
It is almost in middle of the 16th century that the Portuguese traders arrived on the “land of rising sun”. The traders, who landed at Kyushu, brought along gunpowder that was not previously known to the Japanese. The local barons cordially responded to these traders mainly because of the weapons they possessed. The traders were also accompanied by Christian missionaries who were allowed to conduct their religious preaching by the local barons. A large number of Japanese were converted by these missionaries. The formal conversion to Christianity began when Francis Xavier, the Spanish born Jesuit missionary came to Japan in 1549.
He was among pioneers of the Society for Jesus or commonly called Jesuits. As a missionary, Xavier went to Asia and carried out his missionary activities in India and Malacca. In Malacca he met a Japanese rebel, Anjiro who urged him to visit Japan. Xavier went to Japan with two other missionaries and started his mission. He confronted some problems because of the language barrier. The Kodansha’s Encyclopedia of Japan describes Xavier’s arrival in Japan as, “In 1547 he met in Malacca a Japanese fugitive named Anjiro, whose glowing account of his naive country fired Xavier with enthusiasm to evangelize Japan.
Xavier reached Kagoshima with two Jesuit companions on 15 August 1549, and with Anjiro as his less than adequate interpreter, he preached Christianity and compiled a simple catechism, with the result that about 100 people accepted baptism. A year after his arrival Xavier visited Hirado and Yamaguchi, but wishing to obtain permission to preach throughout Japan, he made his way to Kyoto in an unsuccessful bid to meet Emperor Gonara. He left Japan for India at the end of 1551”. The activities of missionaries were generally supported by the local landlords and rulers who wanted to get monetary benefits from the foreigners.
The main centers where the missionaries were settled include Kyushu, Nagasaki and Honshu. The religion of Jesus was initially taught to ordinary masses however, by 1563 Omura Sumitada, a daimyo (regional military lord) was converted to the new faith. It was followed by the conversion of six more daimyo in 1579. The Kodansha’s Encyclopedia of Japan however, tells that many of those converted to the Christ’s faith were forced by their Christian masters. “By that time the number of Christian was estimated at 100,000 but this figure includes those converts who embraced the faith of the Lord at the behest of their Christian Lords”.
After Xavier, the Jesuit missionary Luis Frois came to Japan in 1563, who later on wrote a book about his experiences in Japan. The treatise named Historia de Japam contains information about the activities of Jesuit missionaries in Japan. The Christian missionaries came from Europe, America and Russia and started social and educational activities and introduced their cultural trends in Japan. They also established churches in various part of the country. Father Vilela constructed the first church at Nagasaki in 1569. The site initially meant to build a pagoda, was given to him by a Christian lord of the area.
Father Vilela converted about 1500 of Japanese by 1571. The year 1579 is marked by the arrival of Jesuit supervisor for Asia, Alessandro Valignano in Japan. Valignano took with him four local Japanese boys who established an embassy in Rome to represent the Christian Daimyo of Kyushu. By that time, Christianity was recognized by the high ranking military and other officials of the country. Initially the military lords were helpful towards the missionaries mainly driven by their own interests, but with passage of time they noticed the increasing influence of missionaries.
The situation was alarming for them and ultimately made them rethink about their relation with the Jesuits. It was therefore in 1564 that the Christian missionaries were ousted from Kyoto by Emperor Ogimachi but were allowed to come back in 1569 by Oda Nobunaga. Nosco writes that Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1587 again ordered the missionaries to leave Japan but the orders were not materialized until the Expulsion Edict of 1614 by Tokugawa Ieyasu was implemented. Ieyasu and his successors did not want the aliens to control the political and economic order of their country and also wanted to avoid any internal political and religious rivalry.
In 1638, another edict was issued by the Shogun (title for Japanese rulers) that absolutely restricted the entry of foreign traders in the country except for a limited relaxation provided to Chinese and Dutch traders. This edict also banned the practice of Christianity and everyone was directed to register in the Buddhist temples. David Reid writes that “danka seido” was established by the government in 1638 and “every Japanese household to register with and financially support a local temple”.
Another temple namely “terauke seido” was formed in 1662 , from which all adult Japanese were compelled to get every year “a certificate attesting that he or she was innocent of association with subversive religion, namely, Christianity”. Not only was a certificate considered enough for the suspected Christians, they were called to step on a photo or “fumie” of their Lord Jesus in order to proof denouncement. Finally, in the mid-16th century, an attempt was made to execute all the converts and the missionaries were forced to leave the country and the process of Christianization was halted.
At that time there were about 300,000 Christians of which around 3000 were put to death and a large number abandoned its religion whereas, the remaining practiced Christianity secretly. “In 1622, 51 Christians were executed at Nagasaki, and two years later 50 were burned alive in Edo (now Tokyo). A total of 3000 believers are estimated to have been martyred; this figure does not include the many who died as the result of sufferings in prison or in exile. In 1633 some 30 missionaries were executed, and by 1637, only five were left at liberty”. This phenomenon continued for almost two centuries.
These hidden Christians could not practice all the rituals of their religion because of the ban imposed by the Buddhist rulers. Christianity was reintroduced in Japan after it gave up its policy of isolation and established relations with Europe and America. This change resulted after the conclusion of the Treaty of Amity and Commerce between the United States and Japan at Edo on July 28, 1858. Following that, foreign religious missions were allowed to operate in the country. This time the protestant and orthodox missionaries also came to Japan along with the Catholics.
In 1868, the Meiji regime was restored in Japan. This phase accordingly ended with the end of Meiji era in 1912. During that time even, the Christian were not able to evangelize publicly till 1873. “During this period over 30,000 “hidden” Christians came forward; they belonged to groups that had worshipped clandestinely during the more than 200 years of persecution”. The Kondansha’s Encyclopaedia of Japan however, informs that it was in 1865 when a group of hidden Christian’ known as Kakure Kirishitan at Nagasaki publicly declared themselves as follower of Christ. Located in more remote areas where the government surveillance was at its weakest, these communities had preserved their religion in secret for more than two centuries. Of approximately 60,000 Kakure Kirishitan discovered at that time only half chose to return to the reintroduced church. The anti Christian laws were still in effect, and many of the discovered Christians were jailed or exiled to other parts of the country. It was only in 1873 that the Meiji government withdrew religious sanctions, although freedom of religion was not specifically granted.
Even the 1889 constitution of Japan guaranteed only qualified religious freedom “within limits not prejudicial to peace and not antagonistic to duties as citizens”. Ivan Kasatkin alias Nikolai, a Russian missionary, was the founder of Orthodox Church in Japan. Nikolai arrived in Japan in June, 1861 after the country came out of two hundred years of isolation. He worked with the Russian embassy and operated secretly until 1873 when Christianity was legalized by the government. “Hundreds of Japanese were converted each year. Lay ministry was successful. The church was independent.
If few recruits could be obtained among the elite, humble commoners listened and came to Christ. By the time of Nikolai’s death, the Japanese Orthodox church numbered 33,000 converts”. The Protestant missionaries first entered Japan after July 1858. It is said that a large number of Protestant missionaries came in the year 1873 and within a decade, the number of Japanese converted to Protestant faith reached 4987. The Christian missionaries not only preached their religion through sermons but also used education as the main tool for their fulfillment of their task.
The missionaries established educational institutions where the main target was the youth. During the first phase, the missionaries set up educational institutions that acted as evangelizing agencies. Their cause was not to train the local population in sciences or languages instead the places were used to communicate their faith to the people. Initially the academic classes were conducted at homes of missionaries where they found enough time to convince the Japanese people and attract them towards evangelism.
After the home institution evolved in full-fledged institutions and were shifted into proper buildings, they acted as extension of churches. Hisayama quotes a missionary at Shizuoka Eiwa Women’s School saying, “Our purpose is to make this school the true center of evangelism and to provide each Christian student with the self awareness that she is to be a servant of Christ”. These schools were the most effective source of conversion to evangelism. Students have been the easiest target of the missionaries mainly because they lived away from the influences of their families.
A large number of conversions took place in the same way. The Japan Christian Yearbook survey shows, “The school at Fukuoka has 70% of its students Christians. One at Himei reports all teachers Christians and every girl in the boarding department a Christian. ” [sic] At Kwassui Jo Gakko in Nagasaki 132 girls decided for Christ under the inspiration of the Kanamori meetings. Several schools report the entire graduating class as Christian, and even in the conservative centers on the west coast usually large numbers have taken their stand openly for Christ”.
Similarly the Missionary Intelligencer 1914 of provides another evidence of students’ conversion to Christianity in missionary schools. In the year 1914, a large number of students Joshi Seigakuin (Margaret K. Long Girl’s School) were evangelized. “This has been a record year thus far in the evangelistic work of the school and of the Takinogawa station. All the graduates from the beginning of the school, excepting one, are Christians. As the school grows in numbers possibly this standard cannot be maintained, but the ideal is that every girl who leaves the school shall go out a Christian, and all the Christian teachers work to that end.
Sixteen girls have been baptized this year. Most those who have not yet taken a decided stand for Christ are enrolled as inquirers”. Since the missionaries attached great importance to education, a large number of academic institutions were established at different cities throughout Japan. The Kondansha’s Encyclopaedia of Japan states,” In the first decade after missionary activity resumed in Japan, the Protestant was represented by four denominations (Anglican-Episcopal, Presbyterian, Dutch Reformed, and American Baptist Free Mission Society) joined later by representatives of other churches.
From the beginning, the importance was attached to education as a means of spreading the Christian message. Doshisha English School (Now Doshisha University) was founded in Kyoto in 1875, and Aoyama Gakuin ( now Aoyama Gakuin University) and St. Paul’s School (Now Rikkyo University) in Tokyo in 1874. In 1953 international Christian University (Kousai Kirisutokyo Daigaku) was founded in Tokyo”. The third wave of Christianization in Japan came during the World War II. The rate of conversion however, remained slow as it was during previous phases.
During war, the Japanese clergy took charge of the churches and a large number of foreign missionaries left Japan. In 1941, the government forced about 30 Protestant churches to unite and form a single body called Nihon Kirisuto Kyodan or United Church of Christ in Japan. The Japanese parliament Diet passed the Religious Organizations Law ( Shukyo dantai ho ) in 1939, which empowered the government to disband religious groups whose teachings differed from the “Imperial Way”. The government also took other similar steps that resulted many churches to change and operate in accordance to the local customs and traditions.
Mullins writes that the old indigenous theologies of the land described Japan as a kingdom of God and Japanese people as the selected people to create a kingdom of peace in Asia. The government also created a special police force named Tokko designated to identify and control the groups possessing deviant beliefs. A number of socialist and communists were arrested by Tokko initially followed by detention of Christians. Muller says that during that period the number of religious detainees outnumbered the political captives.
The Christian groups were scrutinized on basis of their beliefs and teachings and those who differed most with the Japanese views were put to task. Mullins states that from1939 to 1941 about fifty-three Jehovah’s Witnesses were arrested and investigated. The main conflict between the local religious beliefs and Christianity was the belief in one God. Japanese believed their emperor as supreme and the Christian view directly clashed with their version. After going through the above three phases, Christianity is still a minority religion in Japan.
The current number of Christians in Japan is not more than 1% of the total population. There are a number of reasons responsible for the non-popularity of Christianity in the region. Primarily evangelism was seen as an alien faith by the Japanese and was therefore, not taken in high esteem especially by the political and military elite. Initially the local nobility welcomed the missionaries and traders from the west and many of them embraced the new faith. However, these leaders soon noticed the rising influences of the foreigners and regarded it as threat to their authority.
Moreover, the first converts to Christianity came from clans different from those of the rulers and were thus not appreciated by them. Christianity in Japan was confronted with a well-established ideology, Confucianism, which had its deep roots in the Japanese soils. As observed by George Elison, “Edo period Confucians… maligned Buddhism in practically the same language they used for Christianity. They and their employers knew, however, that history can at best be bent, not done away with. Buddhism had set deep roots in Japan and adapted to Japanese conditions.
Christianity could do neither, and was an alien religion. That was the crucial difference. Buddhism could not be erased and was used; Christianity could not be used and was erased”. In the second phase i. e. , during the Meiji regime, the evangelist saw their religion flourishing for some time. Japan came out of two centuries of isolation and went through a process of westernization. The mission schools that were established first in homes of the missionaries offered better education facilities especially to women.
The youth that hailed from middle class of society and those who migrated from rural areas and settled in cities were especially attracted towards those institutions. In order to compete with the nobility, the new class adopted western religion and way of life. “For the young samurai Protestant converts… , the radicalness of their choice of a Christian value system to replace the past one, was as much subject to their taste for their past positions and values as to a sense of dissatisfaction with them.
Their estrangement from power and from the institutions that gave status meant that they had to build an intellectual structure which could restore their sense of identity and a new world within which they could succeed to authority. Christian samurai lent their strength to associate themselves with a value system that seemed to offer structural similarities to their past order, gave a meaningful order to the new world, and promised future success for the believer…. ” The survival of Christianity in Japan however, depends on to what extent it operates in accordance with the norms and traditions of the society.
Hamish Ion explains the phenomenon as, “In the context of their own society and its values, Japanese Christians were outsiders, representing a heterodox alternative. Many Christian leaders sought to remove this stigma by accommodating themselves to Japanese society, which meant that the Christian movement tended to align itself with the Japanese status quo. During the late nineteenth century, the Christian movement had been identified with opposition to the government; after 1905, it was largely unable to attract those who were opposed to the status quo”.
Japanese are generally not committed to a specific belief or ideology but strictly observe rituals of Shinto and Buddhist religion. For centuries the Japanese social fabric is closely knitted by their ancient traditions and family ties and regards for ancestors is considered as the core of their society. Those who deviate from these norms are not encouraged and often isolated by their families and clans. This has been one of the main reasons why Christianity or any other foreign religion failed to get a considerable response in Japan.
Mullins observes that, “transplanted Christian traditions have tended to clash with Japanese religious sensibilities by demanding exclusive commitment. Their pre-existing religious duties and obligations made it extremely difficult for most Japanese to make a personal commitment to Christianity. When such a commitment has been made, the consequences have often been disruptive. The history of Christianity in Japan abounds with stories of individuals being cut off from their families or isolated in communities.
This isolation comes because of newfound faith and perhaps a consequent refusal to participate in Buddhist ancestor rites or community festivals related to the Shinto tradition”. However, Mullins also opines that during the current century specifically, Japanese have adopted some of the rituals of Christianity and are commonly observed. For instance, Christian style of wedding has been very popular among youth born in the post-World War II period. Mullins to a survey conducted in 1991, which “discovered that the percentage of Christian or church-related weddings was 35 percent in the Kanto area and 23. 8 percent in the Kansai region.
At the very least, the fact that scores of younger Japanese are choosing Christian weddings indicates that the present environment is much more open to Christianity and that the stigma once attached to the Christian faith has declined during the past several decades”. Mullins further states that this observance of Christian rituals may not be considered as an indication of solid faith in the religion instead it could be associated with “popular movie stars and all of that”. At the turn of century, the total number of Christians living in Japan is estimated at about 1,075,000 that accounts to less than 1 % of the total residents.
The Kondansha’s Encyclopaedia describes that, “There were 436,000 Catholics with some 800 parishes in 16 dioceses, while Protestants numbered 639,000 with nearly 7,000 churches”. The statistics shows that overall the evangelist faith has not received the desired response in the Japanese society. No significant conversions have been witnessed during the last half century. It is still a foreign religion and the one practiced by a small minority is also more Japanized rather than Christianized.