Any Good News?
When people talk about the percentage of Christians in Japan, they usually say it is less than 1% (Source: "Christianity in Japan," Wikipedia). Yet over the years since 1960, there has been a small, steady increase, so that in 2013 the figure was reported at 2.4% (Source: "Japan Percent Christian," TheGlobalEconomy.com). Of course, for nations in which Christian churches are numerous and where a sizable percentage of their population claim Christian faith, this small increase may seem rather insignificant -- only a drop in the bucket.
However, let us consider an additional encouraging fact. In 2001 when Gallup Poll conducted its survey, the results were substantially higher than previously estimated: 6% claimed Christian faith (Source: "More People Claim Christian Faith in Japan," The Christian Post, March 19, 2006). Particularly among Japanese youth, there seems to be signs of breaking from the traditional religions.
The Gallup Organization also said that researchers were surprised by the high numbers of teens who claimed the Christian faith, while the traditionally dominant religions, Buddhism and Shintoism, though still claimed by many adults, suffered declines among teen-agers. (Source: Gallup poll of Japan finds Christianity on the upswing," ChristianExaminer, June 8, 2006).Why are these statistics important? Because Japan has depicted by many as a graveyard for missionaries, as resistant to the good news of the Gospel. Yet the small, steady increase in percentage of the overall population which claim Christian faith and the increasing openness of youth are surely reasons to encourage those who labor in the harvest field of Japan.
We can also draw encouragement from the history of Japan. "How so?," you ask. Let me explain.
When was the beginning of Japan's Christian history? Do you think it was the arrival of St. Francis Xavier, the first missionary to Japan in 1549? (Source: St. Francis Xavier: A Modern View of His Life and Work). If so, you're among the vast majority. But, no, go way, way back another 1,000+ years!
Yes, that's right. According to the Keikyo Institute, some artifacts and writings indicate that as early as 198 A.D., there were indigenous Japanese Christians (Source: "About the Keikyo,"The Keikyo Institute). Indigenous Japanese Christians! This evidence debunks the myth that Japan has a very short Christian history which was imported from Europe.
Similarly, a team of American and Japanese researchers who contributed to the production of a two-part DVD entitled, "God's Fingerprints in Japan," confirm that the Nestorian Christians (or Keikyo) brought Christianity from Constantinople to Japan via the Silk Road over 1,000 years before the arrival of Western Christianity (Source: "God's Fingerprints in Japan," Aloha Ke Akua Ministries, 2008).
In The Nation of the Cross (Juujika No Kuni, Nihon), Ken Joseph, Jr., asserts that Assyrian Christians (Nestorian Christians) settled in Japan by the 5th century (Source: Japan, "The Nation of the Cross," by the 700 Club, Christian Broadcasting Network). Likewise, he attributes the arrival of Christianity to persons from the Middle East (Assyria), not from Western nations. Indeed, if you think about it, Christianity is not a western religion, because the birthplace of Christianity is Israel, the Middle East.
Moreover, early Japanese documents reveal the Japanese name given to Creator God, Amenominakanushi, which means the God in the Glorious Center of Heaven (Source: "God's Fingerprints in Japan," Aloha Ke Akua Ministries, 2008). Amazingly, a rare genealogy scroll owned by the Rev. Shoko Abe family has been preserved over 80 generations and dates back to the founding of Japanese society. That scroll begins with the name of Amenominakanushi and a creation story similar to the creation account in the Bible (Source: "God's Fingerprints in Japan," Aloha Ke Akua Ministries, 2008).
Wow! Within the Japanese culture, there is a Japanese name for God and a creation story which agrees with the Biblical account. So then, God is truly the God of the Japanese people too (Source: "God's Fingerprints in Japan," Aloha Ke Akua Ministries, 2008). Japanese don't have to become Western in order to become Christian. Japanese believers do not have to give up their Japanese-ness.
What happened after that? From a map dating back to the 1600s, Ken Joseph, Jr., reports that "large portions" of Japan became Christian, and that 3 million of the population of 15 million were Christian (Source: Japan, "The Nation of the Cross," by the 700 Club, Christian Broadcasting Network). What? Wait a minute! One in 5 were Christian? 20%? Fact: Japan has not always been resistant to the gospel. That is good news!
So, what happened between the 1600s and the present? Why such a small percentage of Christians in modern history?
Persecuted Church in Japan
Did you know that Japan has one of the longest persecuted church histories in the world? If you said, "yes," then you are among the few who know this little known fact.
It was in 1587 (only 38 years after the arrival of Francis Xavier) that the first official edict against Christianity was issued (Source: "Japanese Martyrs," Catholic Encyclopedia, 1910.) A decade later, 26 Christians were martyred together in Nagasaki in a public spectacle (Source: "List of the 26 Martyrs of Japan in Nishizaka, Nagasaki," Twenty-six Martyrs Museum, Nagasaki).
How many perished for their faith? Information from Dutch travelers and from missionaries estimates 3,125 martyrs, plus 200,000 to 300,000 more who were ordered to kill themselves (Source: "Japanese Martyrs," Catholic Encyclopedia, 1910.)
Did the persecution and martyrdom of believers stamp out Christian faith in Japan? No! Despite torture, imprisonment, loss of property, poverty, exile, and slaughter, Japanese believers persevered unto death. Some survived as hidden or secret Christians referred to as "Kakure Kirishitan" (Source: "Japan's 'Hidden Christians'," The Japan Times, 2007, December 23). After two centuries of persecution, secret Christians were still found to be practicing their faith (Source: "Japanese Martyrs," Catholic Encyclopedia, 1910.)
There is not in the whole history of the Church a single people who can offer to the admiration of the Christian world annals as glorious, and a martyrology as lengthy, as those of the people of Japan. (Source: "Japanese Martyrs," Catholic Encyclopedia, 1910.)Pope Francis, speaking in St. Peter's Square, commended Japanese Christians who survived during centuries-long persecution (Source: "Persecuted Christians Should Follow Japanese Example, Says Francis," Catholic Herald, 2014, January 15.)
In 2008, the Catholic Church beatified 188 Japanese martyrs who died during the early persecution between 1606 and 1639 (Source: "188 Japanese Martyrs Beatified," Catholic Online, 2008, November 25).
Why has the public been so unaware of the Christian history of Japan? Perhaps the greatest reasons are that many historic documents were destroyed during the centuries of persecution and that the practice of Christian faith went underground during that era. However, some historic documents have surfaced. In the 1940s, an Italian missionary priest discovered and transported some 10,000 documents from the Oita Prefecture to the Vatican (Source: "Vatican, Japan to Catalog 'Lost' Archive of Christians' Persecution," The Japan Times, 2014, January 29).
Where does that leave us today? I propose to you that it shows us what is possible in Japan. It shows us that centuries of persecution could not kill off all those who remained true to their faith. It shows us a remnant of the faithful who survived. It shows us overcoming, persevering faith. It reveals the blood of the martyrs on the land which cries out to God (like the blood of Abel). It shows us that revival is possible!
[Written by Kristyn Kuroki, YWAM Japan National Office, and posted 2015 March. Photos taken by Kristyn Kuroki. First photo is of the Glover Garden Water Fall in Nagasaki. The second photo is of the Kansai Bible Institute.]