Thursday, April 14, 2011

Japan: a fourth Gospel opening?

Listen to an audio version of this post at

Throughout their long history, the Japanese people have opened themselves to the Christian Gospel three times.

Each time they eventually rejected it or decided to hold it at arm’s length. Today, Christians comprise barely 1 percent of Japan’s population of 127 million people, despite decades of religious freedom — and powerful Christian movements in neighboring China and South Korea.

Could the national soul-searching resulting from the March earthquake/tsunami and its devastating aftermath — called Japan’s worst crisis since World War II by the nation’s leaders — become a time for the Japanese to reconsider the new life offered by Jesus Christ?

Yes, says Atsuyoshi Fujiwara, a Japanese Christian scholar who has carefully examined the history of the Gospel in his native land. But it will happen, he cautions, only if Christians work together “humbly and lovingly, nationally and internationally” to serve the Japanese during their time of suffering and recovery.

“The disaster has been terrible,” says Fujiwara, professor of theology at Japan’s Seigakuin University and founding pastor of Covenant of Grace Church in Tokyo. “We are talking about more than 25,000 people killed in Japan. Every day we are hearing new, heartbreaking stories of suffering people.

“Yet I deeply believe that God can bring good even from a painful experience like this. … I think that this post-disaster recovery has a chance to become the fourth encounter of Japan with Christianity.”

The first three “encounters,” according to Fujiwara, were the introduction of Christianity to Japan by Roman Catholic missionaries in the 1500s, the opening of Japan to Western powers in the 1850s and the nation’s defeat and rebuilding at the end of World War II. Each time, Japan faced wrenching social and political change: civil war in the 16th century, the end of the shogun era in the 19th, near destruction and despair in the 20th.

“On these three occasions, Japanese people were very open to Christianity in the beginning, yet eventually they rejected it, particularly in the first two periods,” Fujiwara notes. “Postwar Japan accepted full religious freedom and did not clearly say ‘no’ to Christianity. It appeared to be a promising solution to their problems. It also came with Western wealth and civilization, which were attractive to many people.”

As a faith personally embraced by large numbers of people, however, the Gospel of Christ has failed to spread widely in Japan, despite generations of prayers and ministry by missionaries and Japanese believers. Why? Church and mission leaders have been trying to find answers to that question for a long time.

The Japanese are religious people, Fujiwara stresses. They have a millennium-long tradition of Shintoism, Buddhism and Confucianism as their “spiritual backbone.” Christianity initially appealed to many Japanese, but they eventually decided it didn’t fit their psyche or tradition. The pattern of “initial acceptance and gradual rejection” was repeated several times.

“I think that rejection largely came as a nationalistic reaction to the West,” Fujiwara observes. “There was a slogan in the 19th century: ‘Japanese soul and Western technology.’ While accepting Western civilization, they wanted to keep the Japanese soul untouched. They certainly did not want to accept the Western soul — i.e., Christianity.”

People crowded into churches again as Japan boomed after World War II. “But they left like an ocean tide, saying, ‘We graduated Christianity,’ or ‘Christianity was good, but we are done with it,’” says Fujiwara. “They have to be touched by God. Their hearts must be penetrated by the Gospel so that they may start living as disciples.”

Christian institutions are still respected in modern Japan, particularly the many schools and colleges begun by missionaries. But the number of believers remains low as modern Japan has become increasingly secular.

“They really believe that in themselves they have what they need, which makes it very difficult to share the Gospel,” says International Mission Board missionary Gary Fujino. “What we need is for people to be shaken and realize that you need something outside of yourself — God.”

The triple trauma of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis may have accomplished that, according to Fujiwara:

“The foundation of the earth was shaken; the houses we lived in were washed out by the tsunami. The atomic power stations that we were told were safe exploded. Something we trusted was broken down. People are asking, ‘Why has this happened?’ ‘Can we still go on?’ If this could not open people’s hearts, what else could?”

Some cracks in the fa├žade already were appearing before the quake. Japan, an aging society, has struggled for years with economic and social stagnation.

Books and periodicals about Christ have been hot sellers since last year, according to Japanese publishers. One of the top bookstores in Tokyo’s business district dedicated a special section to the topic. Two issues of a national magazine with cover stories headlined “What is Christianity?” and “What is Christianity II” sold out within weeks.

In the quake zone, meanwhile, more than 170,000 displaced people remain in shelters. Thousands more are living in their cars or in damaged homes with no electricity or water. As more of the neediest areas become accessible, Southern Baptist disaster relief teams are working with Japanese Baptist partners and IMB missionaries to provide such services as food and water distribution, blankets and warm clothing for the elderly and grief counseling.

As they join hands with other Christians to serve the hurting, Fujiwara prays their ministry will change Japan forever.

“My father, who died 20 years ago, was baptized by a Southern Baptist missionary in the postwar period,” he recalls. “I am deeply and forever grateful for that. I want you to imagine with me that our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren will hear stories like this: ‘The 2011 disaster was terrible, yet God brought good even through that. I remember your parents, grandparents and great-grandparents sacrificed, loved and cared for us at that time. The Gospel was brought to my family then.’”


Nathan said...

Great article! It's a great comfort to know God's love prevails even in the darkest times. It would be amazing to see that hope spread throughout Japan.

Milton said...

Yep, it may help change peoples minds as to their self sufficiency, but I think only temporarily. Japan probably only had 10% of the deaths that would have occurred without being a Smart human Guided and guarded country. That will also figure strongly in minds. Christians should be there at such a time as this but the rest of the community are doing a wonderful job and we are not out shining them!
What really needs to be addressed to make any headway for Christianity in Japan is bigger.
It is about TRUTH and the Identity of the Japanese being fully compatible with that. The reality they realise they fit right into, true in good times or bad. Not just for the desperate in hardship. Sure in those situations that they are ready to listen and we should be there. But it MUST hold true past that. Christ focused on that too but our religion must rely on more than passing misfortune. Many academics, doctors *etc are very highly represented in the Japanese Church. This may indicate the truth factor but perhaps moreso the identity that goes with its international image as aspiring to good or right living attractive to such people's big world view. So a main point;
A large barrier to Christianity taking root here is the Japanese near absolute failure to Japanise it and link it into society as a part of the Japanese culture. Russians, Greek and the European Roman Catholic success was through this. Almost every church here looks like a western culture center and they have next to no Japanised cultural traditions. Though this is possibly good in attracting the above* minority likely to relate to Christianity.
We run to some extent as if still a crypto religion with the mentality of kakure kirishitan, as if an inconvenience and not an asset to society. Isolating from society rather than engaging it. Many missionaries running scared of the local religions perpetuate and intensify isolation. They over fear getting too close and rather put a big "Batsu" X mark on it and keep a distant from it. The religious history of Japan provides not a barrier but an opportunity to Christianity.
It should be engaged like Paul did the Greeks on Mars hill and his own Jewish heritage. Draw connections links and then corrections and conclusions. “Convert”. don't Tear down. Japan's Jewish historical religious links and other historical incidents provide a .. an AWESOME foundation to Christ being seen as a fulfillment of truth and a return to roots, not a people plastered with western identity. A few folk make good use of this which should be made a coordinated national Christian project to bring truth and reconciliation of the Japanese history with the full true world history. Because if Christians can't provide and stand on truth they have no right to stand for anything.
No one will rush to Japanese Christianity against their own culture until it is seen as being “Inescapably True” and/or compatible.
The only time a many Japanese converted and with conviction enough that many died for it was when Christianity came and was also associated with Truth and superior knowledge.
Japanese are well open to truth as proven. but the Church fails to fulfill that key aspect of Christianity for Japanese me, the ONLY aspect.
Once, 10% of the country converted and it is lame to assume the conversions were heartless or merely political in view of the Martyr toll and how with no support but the conviction of its believers at the time it was crushed in Nagasaki that centuries later 40,000 Christians in hiding remained to express their hidden faith again. Such history provides massive wasted opportunity. Why not public martyrs festivals Japanese style? Use the Japanese sense of seeking to appease wrongs to those killed unjustly to connect with society and the faith of those who died for it. Their work of Martyrdom need not be wasted now even centuries later.
Until Churches are as quick and confident to help now as secular groups were we will remain Kakure Kirishitan.