A Little Faith: Christianity and the Japanese (2023)

Christianity has a generally positive image in Japan. Despite this, Christians make up less than 1 percent of the population. The reasons for this apparent paradox lie in the complex history of the reception of religion in Japan.

A Christianity without Christ

Christianity is the world's largest religion, with an estimated 2.4 billion adherents, or almost a third of the world's population. But in Japan, Christians are a small minority. In contrast to neighboring South Korea, where around 29% of the population identify themselves as Christian, adherents of the religion in Japan make up only 0.8%.

But even though more than 99% of Japanese people are not Christian, that doesn't mean they don't like Christianity or have a negative view of the religion. far from there In fact, many Japanese people can be said to be quite familiar with various aspects of Christian culture. Children, of course, have heard of Jesus. But at school they also get to know people and events related to the history and culture of Christianity, from Martin Luther and Dostoyevsky to Mother Teresa. Many adults are interested in Christian art and music and enjoy visiting cathedrals and churches on their trips abroad. Christmas is a firmly established event in the popular calendar of people of all generations and backgrounds, and many couples choose a Christian-style wedding, even if they are not believers. Christian culture generally has a positive image.

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At the same time, most Japanese have little or no interest in the Christian faith per se. Again, they do not critically reject the Christian teachings after thorough study; they just aren't interested and never bother to find out. In Japan there are numerous schools founded by missionaries and other Christians. According to a survey, every tenth Japanese has attended a Christian school on their way from kindergarten to university. Despite this exposure, the number of believers has remained stubbornly small. Japan's small Christian population is 60% Protestant and 40% Catholic, but many Japanese would have a hard time explaining the difference or showing much interest in understanding it. For most Japanese, their interest in Christianity lies in a version of the faith that has been more or less stripped of its doctrinal content.

The Economic and Military Impact of the First Missionaries

Christianity was first preached in Japan in 1549 whenFrancis Xavier(1506–52) came to Kyushu with a group of missionaries. They had notable success in conversion, and the number of Christians increased dramatically in the early years. But just 60 years after his arrival, the religion was outlawed. The ban lasted about 260 years, and during that time Christians faced ruthless persecution and oppression, including torture and executions. There were numerous reasons why Christianity was suppressed in Japan between the 17th and mid-19th centuries. But the main reason was probably that Christianity was not simply a religion at the time, but a social and economic force with the potential to shake the very foundations of Japanese politics and society.

The main driving force behind Christian proselytization in 16th-century Japan was the Society of Jesus. To help them efficiently continue their missionary activities and to support and expand the Christian community in Japan, the Jesuits were heavily involved in the "Nanban" trade between Japan and Europe. This involvement in economic activities brought enormous benefits to certain daimyo (feudal lords), but also involved missionaries in the supply of arms. The missionaries were not simply men of religion, but political figures with significant economic and military influence. They quickly became a powerful faction that was impossible to ignore.

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Some of these early missionaries seriously considered requesting Spanish and Portuguese forces to subdue Japan. In fact, there was probably never a serious plan for military conquest of Japan in these countries, but there were not a few missionaries who emphasized the need for military force in defense of the Church and its activities. Not surprisingly, many people involved in the government of the country at the time harbored distrust and distrust of Christians.

The missionaries were also extremely intolerant of existing religions in Japan, considering Buddhism, for example, as a kind of pagan idol worship propagated by the devil. They had no doubt that Christianity was the only true faith and that all other religions were wrong. Some missionaries encouraged Japanese Christians to burn Buddhist temples and destroy statues hidden in caves by Buddhist priests. This can be confirmed by documents written by the missionaries themselves.

It's easy to get the impression from sources like Endō Shūsaku's novel.quietly, recently filmed byMartin Scorsesethat persecuted Christians are simply victims. But the violence was not entirely one-sided. It was certainly not the case that Christianity was suppressed despite Christians' desire for peaceful coexistence with other religions. Today, in the 21st century, we take it for granted that different religions respect each other and live in harmony. But at the time of the first Christian missionaries in Japan, such thinking was not so common.

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How Christianity Helped "Teach" Japan to Modernize

When Christian missionary work in Japan became possible again after the ban was lifted in the second half of the 19th century, numerous missionaries came to the country again, this time mostly Protestants. Japan at the time was experiencing a period of rapid political change as the country rushed to modernize. What people wanted was to learn scientific knowledge and the languages ​​of the outside world. Since the missionaries readily used education and language classes as proselytizing opportunities, the needs of both sides were well matched. But for the Japanese at the time, Christianity was little more than a useful tool to modernize and "civilize" Japan. It was an aspect of western culture, something alien rather than something that could be made Japanese.

Since the late 19th century, the religion has been known as Christianity in Japanese.Kirisu Tokio, a re-coined translation from English replacing the earlier term,Kirishitan, a phonetic translation of Portuguese. A new set of terms translated into Japanese was introduced: 教会Kyoukaifor "church", missionSenkyōfor "mission" and martyrjunkyōshafor "martyr". The concept of religionschūkyōaround the same time it was introduced as a normal Japanese word for "religion". All of these terms used the same kanji 教kyou, meaning “teaching,” emphasizing the educational rather than the doctrinal aspects of the religion. This fact suggests what modern Japanese hoped for from Christianity and religion in general.

Some Japanese intellectuals at the time believed that Christianity played a key role in instilling moral values ​​in Western societies and their development into powerful, modern states. Many thought it would be a good idea for Japan to also introduce religion to catch up with the West. Ōkuma Shigenobu (1838-1922), the founder of Waseda University, also valued Christianity as a means of moral education, although ultimately he regarded it as merely a useful fiction. The Japanese wanted practical teachings that would help Japan become a modern and civilized country, and this led to a strong tendency to view Christianity from the narrow perspective of education and public morals.

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In fact, the relationship between the Japanese people and Christianity is still quite short. As I mentioned earlier, the Jesuits came to Japan in 1549 and the ban on Christianity did not begin until 60 years later and lasted almost 260 years. From the second half of the 19th century, Protestants and Russian Orthodox Christians also came to Japan, but during the Russo-Japanese War and World War II these "Western religions" came under renewed pressure of rejection. True religious freedom has only been guaranteed in Japan since the current constitution was promulgated after World War II. In this sense, ordinary Japanese have only been in contact with Christianity for about 150 years. Perhaps a broader and more complete engagement with religion lies in the future.

(Originally written in Japanese. Banner photo: A church wedding in Japan. ©maayannmaayan/Pixta.)


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