Christianity In Japan

Although some claim evidence of Nestorian influence on early Japanese Buddhism, Christianity's introduction to Japan is generally held to have been the arrival of the Spanish Jesuit, Francis Xavier,* with two Japanese converts on 15 August 1549. Under the patronage of the ruling warlord, Nobunaga, and his successor, Hideyoshi, the Roman Catholic faith spread rapidly. In 1587, however, Hideyoshi issued an edict banning all missionaries. Fierce persecution set in, with thousands dying for their faith, including twenty-six Christians who were publicly crucified. By 1640 only 150,000 secret Christians remained. For the next 250 years the Tokugawa line cut off Japan from the outside world until 1853, when the isolation was forcibly broken. Christianity was still forbidden to the Japanese, but the trade treaties drawn up with the West opened the door for missionaries.

The first Protestant missionaries, the Rev. John Liggins and Bishop Channing-Williams of the Episcopal Church, arrived in May 1859. Later that year two other American denominations sent missionaries: Dr. James Hepburn* (Presbyterian) and Drs. Guido Verbeck and S.R. Brown (Reformed Church). In 1860 the Baptists sent their first. Despite the edicts outlawing Christianity, the first convert was baptized in 1864, and the first church was organized at Yokohama in 1872. Catholicism's renaissance began with Father Girard's arrival in September 1859. The first church was established in 1862, and in 1865 thousands of secret Christians, descendants of the seventeenth-century Catholic believers, revealed themselves. Intense persecution followed, but was eased in 1873 when the edicts banning Christianity were removed. Ivan Kasatkin, later Bishop Nicolai,* founded the Eastern Orthodox Church and saw it grow to 30,000 members.

The main characteristic of the Protestant movement in the 1870s was the emergence of Christian bands: at Yokohama under the Rev. John Ballagh, at Kumamoto under Captain L.L. Janes, at Sapporo under Dr. W.S. Clark,* at Nagasaki under Dr. G. Verbeck,* and at Hirosaki, etc. From these bands came many leaders in the period of rapid growth from 1880 to 1889, notable Yuzuru Neeshima,* Kanzo Uchimura,* Masahisa Uemura, and Yoichi Honda. Mergers between denominational missions and their churches resulted in the Japan Episcopal, Presbyterian, Congregational, and Methodist denominations, and numerous interdenominational bodies were founded such as the Japan YMCA (1880), Scripture Union (1884), Christian Endeavour (1886), and the Bible Society (1890).

Although religious freedom was granted with the promulgation of the national constitution in 1889, the 1890s were marked by a reaction against Christianity, two contributory factors being the Imperial Rescript on Education and the realization that modernization did not require Christianization. With the rise of capitalism in the mid-1890s came modern social and labor problems. Newly arrived Salvation Army officers found in Gunpei Yamamura a leader for the work of freeing the indentured prostitutes and helping the poor in the slums. The catastrophic influence of liberal theology which had made its first appearance in 1885 was being increasingly felt in the church. A touch of revival came at the turn of the century and with it development of cooperative evangelism and inspirational conferences arranged by Barclay Buxton and Paget Wilkes* who in 1904 formed the Japan Evangelistic Band.

From 1900 to 1920, as Japan's industrial revolution was intensified, Christians became more involved in social work, the contribution of Toyohiko Kagawa* being the most outstanding. Through the preaching of Charles Cowman, Ernest Kilbourne, and Juji Nakada who had organized the Oriental Missionary Society in 1898, the Japanese Holiness Church came to birth in 1917. In Hokkaido the work of the Rev. John Batchelor, the “apostle to the Ainu,” was at its height, and on the main island the Central Japan Pioneer Mission was begun in 1925. The rise of militarism in the 1930s led to increasing curtailment of religious freedom until 1941 when thirty-two major Protestant groups were forcibly amalgamated into the United Church of Christ in Japan (called the “Kyodan”). In the war years many Christians suffered greatly for their faith, but many compromised.

In the postwar period, with the dissolution of State- Shintoism and emperor-worship, Christians began to reorganize, spurred on by a new wave of missionaries in a climate of unprecedented religious freedom. The Anglicans, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and some others soon seceded from the Kyodan, which set up a partnership with eight denominations for channeling financial aid and missionary personnel to churches and schools, the main ones being Meiji Gakuin, Aoyama Gakuin, Doshisha, St. Paul's (Anglican), Kanto Gakuin (Baptist), and the International Christian University. Other Kyodan-related ministries are the KyobunKwan (publishing), Avaco (audio-visual), and the Japan Union Theological Seminary.

The majority of the postwar Protestant Missionary force comprises the denominational missions of the Southern Baptist, American Baptist, Reformed, Nazarene, Christian and Missionary Alliance, Lutheran, Pentecostal churches, and numerous interdenominational faith missions, The Evangelical Alliance Mission (outgrowth of the Scandinavian Alliance Mission started by F. Franson* in 1891 and associated with the Domei denomination), the Far Eastern Gospel Crusade, and the Overseas Missionary Fellowship being the three largest. All engage in evangelistic work and founding churches, most of which have either a denominational link or membership in the Federation of Independent Churches. The prewar Holiness churches reorganized, the largest group forming the Immanuel Church under Dr. David Tsutada.

Cooperative ministries include Pacific Broadcasting Association under Dr. Akira Hatori, Japan Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, Japan Sunday School Union, and Word of Life Press. The main evangelical seminaries are the Japan Bible Seminary, Japan Christian Theological Seminary, Kobe Theological Seminary, Tokyo Christian College (liberal arts), and more than a score of Bible institutes.

The Roman Catholic Church has grown conspicuously, aided by many foreign personnel. Churches, hospitals, schools, and universities (e.g., Sophia, Seishin, Nanzan) are their main emphases, and about 50 per cent of Japan's total baptized church membership is in the Catholic Church. These, with Greek Orthodox, nonchurch Christians, conservative, liberal, and neoorthodox, and exogenous and indigenous sects (e.g., Tejimakyo, Spirit of Jesus Church) make up the Christian streams. Evangelicals nationwide have formed the Japan Evangelical Association, while ecumenically minded Protestants and Catholics have the Japan Ecumenical Association.

The Christian Church, with less than one-half of 1 per cent of the population, looks insignificant set against the vast majority whose customs and beliefs are deeply rooted in a Shintoism and Buddhism allied with materialism, and the resurgent religions such as the Soka Gakkai, but its influence is widely felt. With capable Japanese leaders at the helm, with a spirit of partnership between missionaries and the national church, with urban area evangelism expanding, and with an increasing number of Japanese missionaries going out, the Christian cause should continue to advance steadily.

O. Cary, A History of Christianity in Japan (2 vols., 1907); C.R. Boxer, The Christian Century in Japan, 1549-1650 (1951); J. Natori, Historical Stories of Christianity in Japan (1957); T. Yanagita, A Short History of Christianity in Japan (1957); C.W. Inglehart, A Century of Protestant Christianity in Japan (1959); D. Pape, Captives of the Mighty (1959); J.M.L. Young, The Two Empires in Japan (1961); J.J. Spae, Christian Corridors to Japan (1965) and Christianity Encounters Japan (1968); M. Griffiths, Take Off Your Shoes (1971).