Japan: Christianity of the Silence
Photo: couple of years ago I visited Nagasaki memorial park and museum, praying and hoping that such crimes against humanity will never happen again. This article is my monthly column published in Dutch magazine de Nieuwe Koers summer edition 2020, titled Het Christendom van de Stilte
Every year summer the world remembers the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On August 9, 1945, the second of two atomic bombs — the only two ever used as instruments of aggression against essentially defenseless civilian populations — was dropped on Nagasaki. It devastated the oldest center of Christianity in the country. As Gary G. Kohls notes, not only was Nagasaki the site of the largest Christian church in the Orient, St. Mary’s Cathedral, but it also had the largest concentration of baptized Christians in all of Japan (1). This can only have further complicated the Japanese view of Christianity: How could the so called Christian America, destroy a city that had such a rich history of Christian culture and a large Christian population?
The Reason Why?
In 1548 Francis Xavier, the well-known Jesuit priest asked Anjiro, the first recorded Japanese Christian, how long will it take for Japan as a nation to embrace Christianity? And, Anjiro replied: “My people would not immediately become Christians, but they would first ask you a multitude of questions, weighing carefully your answers and your claims. Above all, they would observe whether your conduct agrees with your words. If you should satisfy them on these points by suitable replies to their inquiries and by a life above reproach, then, as soon as the matter is known and fully examined, the king, the nobles, and the educated people would become Christians. Six months would suffice; because Japan is a nation that always follows the guidance of reason.”
Almost 500 years has passed and yet Japan is one of the least evangelized nations in the world. Today, only 1.5 percent of the Japanese population is Christians.” Yoji Inoue, (a Catholic priest and the author of Japan and Jesus’s Face), criticizes the Western methods of transplanting Christianity to Japan. Inoue notes that Christianity came to Japan through missionaries, who carried in their blood the history of Western culture (2). Accordingly, Christianity was not accepted in the way something is generally accepted in Japan — it was rather forced upon the people.
Nuclear bombing of Japan did play a negative role in the growth of Christianity in post war Japan. General MacArthur, Chief Commander of the Occupation forces once said that “he could make the Emperor and seventy million people Christian overnight, if he wanted to use the power he has.” MacArthur’s faith in Christianity had become his political doctrine: Christianity equaled democracy. The Occupation Forces portrayed Japan as a sinful nation that needs to be liberated from its evil and according to MacArthur, only democracy and Christian missionaries could make that possible. However, this is the irony of it all, that those who proclaimed peace and democracy have often themselves committed crimes against humanity and used Christianity to justify their actions.
Regardless how small Christianity might be or seem in Japan, the Christians in Japan have contributed to overall aspects of Japanese society and culture. What is success when it comes to Christianity and evangelizing other nations? Numbers, or influence? Quantity or quality? of course theoretically we all go for both. Japanese Christianity in all her smallness, has contributed to art, education, and philosophy; many universities in Japan have their roots in Christianity; gender equality and labor rights movements trace some of their roots to it as well. If this were not so, Japan would not have had so many Christian novelists, writers whose books are read widely — by both Christians and non-Christians, the one that is very well-known in the western world is Susako Endo (1923-1996), the author of famous novel Silence! Christian musicians and painters impacted and still impacting the world. I remember that in 2014, Masaaki Suzuki Japanese organist was awarded honorary doctorate at Kampen Theological University in the Netherlands.
Christianity in Japan is a Christianity of silence, it is not a big show, it is not vast or great, but it is deep. I consider the combination of Japan and Christianity to be a tremendous gift to humanity as a whole and to the global church. Please pray for our brothers and sisters in Japan, let us also learn from them and be inspired by them. Wishing you a blessed summer holiday.
(1) Gary G. Kohls, “The Bombing of Nagasaki August 9, 1945: The Untold Story” http://www.lewrockwell.com/orig5/kohls8.html (August 6, 2007).
(2) Inoue, Yoji. The Faces of Jesus in Japan. Tokyo: Nihon Kirisuto-Kyodan Shuppankyi, 1994.