Japan’s Christian History

History of Christianity in Japan: Lessons to be Learned By Darryl Record, MA Christian Apologetics Written in 2005 for a Graduate Level Class at Biola University

Thesis: The present malaise of Christianity in Japan can primarily be traced to the European and North American liberal and Unitarian theologies which were common to Buddhist anti-Christian apologists and liberal missionaries around the turn of the 20th century. These Western concepts continue to make many, but not all Japanese Christians unable to withstand persecution and vulnerable to recidivism.  Despite the fact that Japanese collectivism is a barrier to Christianity, history shows that it is not insurmountable if the foundations of Christianity are presented in a credible way.

Introduction According to Operation World, 2001, Christians comprise only 1.56% (1,976,742) of Japan.  From this 1.9 million “Christians” one must subtract many groups such as 282,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses, 240,000 Moonies, 96,000 Mormons, and others who reject the essentials of Christianity (e.g. creation, inspiration of the Bible, deity of Christ, and salvation by grace instead of works) (Johnstone & Mandryk, 2001).   Despite its religious  freedom, modern economy, and Western educational system, Japan continues to be referred to by  some as the “graveyard of missionaries,” because many missionaries have spent their lives there and have made few if any converts.  This paper will explore the reasons that Christianity has not made greater gains in Japan and to consider solutions to these problems in the hope that Japanese Christians and foreign missionaries can utilize this understanding to strengthen their respective churches and ministries.  The lessons we can learn from the history of Christianity in Japan can also be applied in many other mission fields in Asia. Exploring the reasons for Christianity’s lack of growth in Japan is a broad topic but because of its eternal significance, it needs to be studied.  On the surface, one could argue that Japanese collectivism is the main reason why Christianity has not taken root in Japan.  However, this paper will demonstrate that at different time periods, Christianity has both thrived and withered in Japan.  Collectivism has been a stable feature of Japan for many centuries. The strong focus on the collective in both China and Japan stems largely from Confucianism and, to a lesser extent, from Buddhism. Confucianism, founded by Confucius (551-479 B.C.) during the Han Dynasty, became a system of  social ethics more than a religion. Confucianism persisted as a great and pervasive ethical tradition,  western societies, politics and economics have been influenced by industrial, business and trade groups, but in China, such matters, as well as the general conceptions of family and cultural life, still have Confucian roots. Those values today blend with the needs of the village economy. (Winfield, 2000: 329) This project will break the various history of Christianity in Japan into several eras which exemplify the various factors that have both supported and  discouraged the growth of Christianity in Japan. These factors are then analyzed in greater detail and hypotheses were formed in terms of, “lessons learned.” These hypotheses can be tested in two ways.  First modern ministries that are successful can be studied to see how they are dealing with issues such as liberalism and division.  Second, other ministries can be encouraged to adopt these “lessons” and their success can be judged in the future. The main goal of this project is to increase the understanding of the situation of Christianity in Japan so that steps can be taken to help it to grow once more.

Japanese Christian History

Entrance and Extinction 1549-1640 The Christian History of Japan provides the background for understanding both the present status and trends of Christianity.  Surprisingly, the history of Christianity in Japan spans more than 400 years.  The first missionaries were Jesuits who reached Japan in 1549.  In the mid-seventeenth century, the Japanese government began to see Christianity as a threat.  They forced all citizens to become Buddhist, expelled the missionaries and systematically persecuted the Christians to extinction by 1640. (Thelle, 1987: 5).

Return, Revival, and Rifts 1859-1889

In 1859, Japan once again opened its doors to the West and accepted missionaries.  The Catholics returned and were able to regain Christians who had been faithful to their faith for generations since the time of the persecution.  This time, Protestant missionaries entered.  However, the Christians still carried some baggage of being considered by the masses as part of a “heretical and evil religion.” (Mullins, 1998: 21).  The first Protestant churches were inter-denominational in that Congregational, Reformed, and Presbyterian missionaries joined to form the “Church of Christ.”  There desire was to be the “body of Christ in Japan,” and thereby avoid the pitfalls of denominationalism.  This church eventually formed fifty branches but, sadly, they split along denominational lines. (Mullins, 1998: 15)   Still, Christianity grew rapidly during this period.  There were those who projected that Japan would become fully Christian in a short time.

Pressure and Compromise 1889-1945

However, when the Meiji government established the new constitution in 1889 which was based around official Shinto and emperor worship, this growth spurt was slowed.  From that point until the end of the Second World War, the state systematically restricted the activities of the church. Growth continued from the 1900’s until 1930.  Protestant churches grew from 50,785 in 1901 to 193,937 in 1930.  Catholicism also grew from 56,321 to 92,798 during the same period (Mullins, 1998: 18). In the 1930’s the Meiji government became totalitarian.  Shinto became an institution of the state and participation in its rituals was defined as patriotism.  In 1939, the government passed the Religious Organizations Law, which gave it the power to disband any religious organization that taught things in conflict with state policy. All denominations were officially forced to recombine by the government.  Due to this pressure, Protestant and Catholic denominations eventually, “instructed their members to participate in the rituals of civil religion.  By the late 1930’s most churches had also created some form of theological rhetoric to legitimize the Imperial Way, including support for Japanese military expansionism.” (Mullins, 1998: 20)  This “United Church of Christ in Japan,” went as far as to raise funds for to purchase a warplane for the military in 1943. (Mullins, 1998: 21). Post-war Growth 1945-1971 After WWII, Shinto was placed on a level playing field with all other religions in Japan. The churches separated once again into their pre-war denominations.  During  this period Christianity grew again.  Following General Douglass MacArthur’s call for missionaries to Japan, many American missionaries came to Japan.  From 1942 to 1960 Protestantism  grew from 190,000 to 400,000 while Catholicism grew from 100,000 to 323,000 during the same period.  Since 1971 the church in Japan has stagnated into almost no growth (Lee, 1999: 46).

Buddhist Opposition and Persecution

Although Buddhism is often presented as a purely Japanese religion, Mahayana Buddhism was imported to Japan from China by Tao-sheng (A.D. 360–434).(Geisler, 1999). Siddhartha Guatama (Buddha) was born in India in 560 BC and lived there until he died of food poisoning in AD 480. (Geisler & Brooks, 1990: 134).   Tokugawa shoganate, Oda Nobunga, attacked the Buddhist strongholds and brought the religion under his control in the sixteenth century.   When the Jesuit missionaries arrived, in the 1500’s, the political structure of Japan was closely controlled by the shogunate.  The state operated under the philosophy of Confucianism but used Buddhism for political reasons to suppress Christianity (Thelle, 1987: 8). Buddhist temples, under supervision and financial support of the Shogun, became the government’s primary agency for Christian persecution.  All Japanese were required to register at the temple.  This registration certificate was necessary for “weddings, travel,changes of residence, and to employ servants.  In order to receive the certificate, the Japanese had to trample on pictures of Christ or the Virgin Mary in order to prove that they were not Christians (Thelle, 1987: 8).”  This time of persecution resulted in the martyrdom of 250,000 Christians. (Thirumalai, 2003: 119).  Further demoralization of the Christians came through the Christian retractions of Fabian Fucan, a former Jesuit and through other anti-Christian tracts written by Buddhists (Thelle, 1987: 9). Because of Buddhism’s favored position within the Tokugawa government, the morality of the Buddhist priests declined.  They became infamous for corruption and sexual debauchery (Thelle, 1987: 18).  When the Christian missionaries returned in 1859, the people were sufficiently disenchanted with Buddhism and desired Western learning so Christianity could grow, despite the fact that the treaties forbade, “interference,” in Japanese religious matters by foreigners.  Even though the foreigners were allowed to practice Christianity, Japanese were still persecuted for doing so.  Until 1873, signs were posted in Japan which read, “Evil religions like Christianity are strictly forbidden. Suspicious persons should be reported to the proper office. Rewards will be granted. (Thelle, 1987: 13).”  In 1866-1868, Japanese Christians were severely persecuted through deportation to other provinces and the decapitation of Japanese Christian leaders. (Thelle, 1987:10). As soon as the anti-Christian signs were removed and the government allowed open evangelism, many Protestant missionaries began apologetics-evangelism.  Japanese Christians moved their messages out of the church and into the public arena.”They appealed to the public in great open-air meetings, or apologetics lectures in public halls. So-called theater meetings were held all over the country; they were a very popular way of addressing the public, drawing large audiences in cities and towns.  A missionary described the situation: “The apologetic age is begun; no other topic will draw the multitudes together in Japan like discussions on Christianity.  The masses are appealed to as judges, and surprised that they are of so much importance, they gladly accept the honour (Thelle, 1987: 56).” Because Protestant Christians challenged Buddhism in the public arena with such confidence, the number of Protestants in Japan increased by 600% from 1882-1892 (5,634 to 32,334) (Thelle, 1987:54). This new confidence and growth of the, “evil religion” forced the Buddhists to respond.  Buddhists priests began to purchase boxes of Bibles and commentaries and to study Christianity so that they could argue against it.  Others went so far as to become the students of missionaries and even to be baptized so that they could infiltrate the Christian church and learn its secrets as ammunition for future counter-Christian apologetics works.  Buddhist seminaries integrated anti-Christian apologetics intontheir curriculum.  As a result, new anti-Christian literature started being distributed. Once Buddhists realized that their apologetics literature was not successfully stemming the tide of Christian expansion they began to adopt, “more aggressive methods, including violent obstruction of Christian work, intimidation, social pressure, and ostracism.” (Thelle,1987: 13).  Their slogan in 1883-1885 called for the, “extermination of Christianity.”  Once the government became more open to westernization after 1885, this onslaught subsided for a while.  However, once the nation became nationalistic in 1889, Buddhists, were able to attack Christianity once again on the basis of not being loyal to Japan. (Thelle, 1987: 93).

Darwinism and Liberal Theology

Direct Buddhist attacks on Christianity both in the arena of ideas and even their violent and social persecution of Christians were unable to successfully defeat the Christian movement.  The most damaging attacks on Christianity did not originate in Japan but rather in Europe and North America.  In 1872, the first delegation of Japanese Buddhist priests, traveled to France, England, Germany, Holland, Switzerland, Italy, the Middle East, and India.  Others went to the United States.  On these trips, the Buddhists were able to gather their most effective anti-Christian apologetics materials.  They brought back critical theology from Europe and books such as Self-Contradiction in the Bible, by Henry Ball along with the works of Voltaire and Renan.  Others brought back the philosophies of Comte, Mill, and Spencer; and the evolutionism of Darwinism and Huxley.  This new ammunition brought new confidence to the Buddhist apologists (Thelle, 1987: 78-85). These new Buddhist attacks were difficult to defend against because at the same time,  “American liberal theology, represented by the Congregational Andover Theological Seminary, and German liberal theology, represented by the so-called Tubingen School,” as well as Unitarian Universalism began to be introduced in the 1880’s by various Christian missions such as The Evangelical Protestant Missionary Society (TEPF).  TEPF, “wanted liberal Christianity to engage in missionary work on a declared liberal basis (Thelle, 1987: 177).”   After a little while, higher criticism and liberal theology were being advocated by some of the most influential Japanese Christians. (Thelle, 1987: 179-180).  When liberalismjoined forces with the “Japanization” movement, the belief that Christian theology was unchangeable vanished. One leader, Yokoi, “advocated consistently that the central concern of Christianity was not doctrines, asceticism, worship, or rituals, but religious and ethical life. With his weakening of the doctrinal aspect of Christianity and his emphasis on benevolence and love, moral and religious life, Yokoi inevitably had to acknowledge similar  ideas in other religions (Thelle, 1987:180).” Once liberalism became popular in Japanese churches, orthodox Christianity based on the doctrines of Divine inspiration, inerrancy of the Scriptures, and the historical Christ began to fade.  The foundations of Christianity were eroded by these beliefs so much so that Christians began to remold the doctrines of Christianity to suit their own desires.  It is little wonder that when the government required emperor worship, the Christians quietly submitted, because they no longer had any Biblical basis for resisting.  When faced with the choice between persecution and compromise, the Japanese church chose the latter. Christianity did grow rapidly after the war, but without any foundation of truth, the main draw of Christianity was the temporary comforts that it could provide to Japanese in their post-war poverty and discouragement.  Once the nation became prosperous, Christianity ceased to grow because the number of people leaving the church equaled the number that was entering (Lee, 1999: 46).

Indigenous Christian Movements

Indigenous Christianity grew out of disenchantment with Western missionaries.  Denominationalism was the prime source of their disappointment.  Uchimura Kanzo, the founder first indigenous movement, the Nonchurch Movement, spoke of this in 1890.”The sectarian bigots revive on a heathen land their own petty jealousies, for which their forefathers fought and burned one another. Nothing is more ugly and repugnant to Japanese eyes than these sectarian quarrels and jealousies; worse the Japanese seekers find themselves puzzled by the maze of conflicting teachings of different Christian bodies (Mullins, 1998: 24).” As a result of this confusion, several leaders in Japan decided to go off on their own and start their own forms of Japanese Christianity.  While is praiseworthy that each of these leaders took ownership of Christianity not just as a world religion but also developed a robust Japanese expression of Christianity, it appears that the founders of these religions moved to the limits of essential Christian doctrine, and in most cases beyond.  Even though it could be assumed that the primary driving force behind the theology of these indigenous movements was the contextualization of Christianity to Japanese culture, its real foundations are on American and European theological liberalism and Japanese nationalism (Thelle, 1987: 179).   Due to the doctrinal erosion of liberalism, these leaders were freed to incorporate non-Christian elements into their Christianity.  Some returned to a veneration of Buddha and Confucianism along with Christ.  Others were influenced by Darwinism and Unitarianism (Mullins 1998: 75).

Emperor Worship

Even though Japan is thought of as a homogenous society; before the Meiji Restoration, Japan was divided into a weak federation of feudal domains.  The Meiji Dynasty successfully united all of these parts into a unified nation-state.  Using the emperor’s name, the government confiscated the lands of the samurai feudal lords and abolished the hierarchical social structure in which samurai, farmers, craftsmen, and merchants were separated. The masses were empowered and became upwardly mobile because of the emperor.  Finally, the emperor “blessed” the people with a constitution which made all people citizens in a modern nation.  Because the average Japanese person benefited so much from the Imperial Way, they began gratefully began to see the  emperor as divine.  The government used this gratitude to form an indigenous Shinto/emperor worship civil religion.   State Shinto drew on past Shinto beliefs and made the emperor a direct descendent of the founding sun goddess, Amaterasu.  Even though the emperor declared that he was not divine following WWII, many Japanese people continued to believe in his divinity.  State Shinto is slowly regaining power in Japan.  (Lee, 1999: 46). The fact that Japanese identity owes so much to the emperor system makes it difficult for Japanese people to become fully devoted to Christ.  Their loves for Jesus and Japan are often equally strong.  As one indigenous Christian leader said, “I love two J’s and no third; one is Jesus, and the other is Japan. I do not know which I love more, Jesus or Japan.”  (Lee, 1999: 33).  This underlying conflict in the heart of Japanese is one of the reasons that Japanese Christianity has not continued to grow.


After the war and the disavowal of divinity by the Emperor, many Japanese turned to Christianity because it offered hope that they did not have within their traditional society. However, within a generation churches either stopped growing or even shrank.  The reason for this was that many people began to leave the church and return to more popular beliefs. [T]he conversion of individuals who were first, generation Christians could not be sustained if the family members were not Christians.  In short, recidivism has become a major issue of evangelism, because two out of three first-generation converts leave the church at the first signs of family conflict, company disapproval, or community opposition (Lee, 1999: 46).

Cultural Barriers

In Japan, there is a saying, “The nail that sticks out, gets hammered down.” This illustrates that members of the culture are not expected to stand out.”  Japan is has a very collectivistic society (Gudykunst et. al, 1996: 23-25). Japan’s collectivism makes it difficult for Christianity to grow because in order to become a Christian, one must acknowledge their individual sins and need for personal salvation.  Even though, salvation may happen in groups, each individual must make their own commitment.  Secondly, because Christians are such a minority in Japan, becoming a Christian guarantees that one will “stick out.”  The fear of the consequences of “sticking out,” keeps many Japanese from becoming Christian. Another aspect of Japanese collectivism that impedes the acceptance of Christianity is the Confucian concept of truth.  “        It is clear that Confucius did not espouse individual wisdom, or purport that “man” individually could discern truth.. . . In other words, the determination of truth is a top-down process in a direct, linear form. Politeness is stressed over candor; people should say they are ill instead of coldly refusing invitations (Winfield et. al, 2000: 333).”   This impedes Christianity because it is essentially a truth based religion.  I Corinthians 15 places the validity of the Christianity under one simple test of truth—the resurrection.  In addition, Christianity requires a personal decision to follow Christ and a personal belief or faith in the truth of the gospel message.  Because Japanese tend to value politeness over honesty, short term missionaries have often been led to believe that a Japanese person has “accepted Christ,” after a short evangelistic conversation.  Sadly, it is more likely that they merely went along to avoid a confrontation but no real decision was made.  These issues need to be addressed in any evangelistic effort.  Evangelistic programs which combine the development of personal and community relationships with other Christians along with a solid multi-faceted truth component have been able to overcome this obstacle.  The Alpha Course is an example of such a program which has had some success in Japan. The fact that the collectivism of Japan impedes the growth of Christianity does not mean that collectivism is inherently anti-Christian.  Acts 2: 43-47 demonstrates that the first Christians were very community oriented.  Furthermore, Christians in more individualistic cultures are often admonished by on the basis of these passages to: “pay more attention to the needs of others,” or to “think about the Body instead of only your own needs.”  In fact, Christian collectivism would strengthen the Church and actually prevent recidivism.  The fact remains that collectivism brings stability of values and beliefs within a culture.  If the culture is predominantly Christian, collectivism will tend to maintain the Christianity. However, if the culture is non-Christian, collectivism will maintain the status quo.  If Japan were to become predominantly Christian, its collectivism would cause it to remain a Christian stronghold for centuries. Rev. Hideki Kita (MA in Missions), argues that one of the reasons that Christianity did not take root in Japan is that missionaries failed to focus on the poor.  In Korea, the missionaries served the poor and built orphanages.  In Japan, the missionaries focused on the Samurai class.  As a result the common people of Japan came to believe that Christianity was only for the elite while the Koreans believed that it was for the masses (Personal Conversation, 11 April 2005).

Successful Churches

After studying the history of Japanese Christianity, one could easily become discouraged.  However, there is reason for hope.  While many of the more liberal churches in Japan are in decline, there are other churches that are growing rapidly.  These churches are under the direction of Japanese pastors rather than foreign missionaries.  If missionaries are present, they are there to partner with and support the Japanese pastor rather than in a supervisory role.  Most importantly, each of these growing churches has a strong Biblical theology which rejects liberalism (Snider, 1985).

Decline of Buddhism

Buddhism in Japan is also declining.  “Many temples are deserted, temple grounds are overgrown with weeds, and in some cases temple doors are closed as priests have died or gone elsewhere.” (Snider, 1985: 22)  In some cases, Buddhists priests have accepted Christ and left the priesthood to preach Christianity (Wakabayashi & Terry 1989). This decline only indicates that Japanese are less committed to Buddhism and not that they are moving toward Christianity.

Lessons from History

There are three main lessons that we can learn from the Christian history of Japan.  First, the fact that despite persecution, Japanese Christians remained faithful in secret from 1600‘s to the 1860‘s demonstrates that even systematic persecution could not destroy the faith of the Japanese Catholics (Mullins, 1998).   Unfortunately, these “secret Catholics,” were, “isolated groups [who] imperceptibly drifted from Catholicism into a syncretic folk creed tinctured with Buddhism and Shinto.” Eisonas, 1991 as quoted in Lee, 1999: 369).  Even so, they still were able to maintain their faith.  Rather than impugning their record, it should highlight the need for missionaries to ensure that their disciples are well grounded in the essential doctrines of Christianity so that these people will remain true to the faith even if they are isolated and persecuted.  These “crypto-Christians,” should serve as an example for all those who leave the faith because of social pressure in the modern time. The Christians of that time were systematically persecuted to extinction yet, they were able to continue in the faith and maintain it for generations. The second lesson is that the rise of denominationalism and division within the Body of Christ weakened the cause of Christianity from within and ultimately disenchanted some Japanese Christians.  Denominationalism is dangerous on the mission field because it confuses local Christians about which are the essentials of Christianity.  When the indigenous leaders rejected the petty denominational doctrinal disputes, they also rejected many essential doctrines.  Of course, Calvinists and Charismatics may disagree on issues such as tongues and predestination but they agree on essential doctrines creation, the inspiration of Scriptures, and the deity of Christ. These essential doctrinal agreements must be emphasized so that non-Christians will see the unity. The third lesson is that, compromise is costly. It was liberal theology and Darwinism that weakened the church.  This led many churches to compromise on the issue of emperor worship.  In the face of potential persecution, the church willingly submitted to emperor worship and nationalism.  As a result, the Japanese church as a whole lost the respect of the Japanese people.  It is my contention that the present stagnation of Christian growth in Japan is because of the disenchantment with liberalism rather than Biblical Christianity. When the church was boldly proclaiming the truth of Christianity through apologetics in the 1870’s, revival took place.  When the church compromised its faith, it declined. In the modern context, Churches in Japan may be able to build on this foundation and use more evidence-based apologetics in their evangelism and discipleship.  This might help to counteract Darwinism and liberal theology.  It might also help to strengthen the faith of the believers so that they will be able to withstand persecution because they know that Christianity is true. Apologetics might also embolden the Christians to share their faith because they would be equipped to confidently proclaim the Christian message as true with evidence to support their claims.  It should be noted, that in Japanese culture, the credibility of the speaker is of equal or greater importance than the strength of the message.  Still, the quality of the message is important so we must earn the right to be heard and then speak the truth with wisdom and love.
It is my prayer and hope that Japanese Christians and missionaries working in Japan will be encouraged by the knowledge that the culture of Japan is in fact compatible with the Gospel.  The successes of the 1870’s demonstrate that when the Gospel is seen as true, it will be accepted by Japanese people.  The decline of Buddhism combined with the recent economic decline may provide an opening for Christianity to grow once again.  The key is to roll back the influence of liberal theology and Darwinism on the Japanese churches, religious schools, and universities.  While this is not an easy task, there are many apologetics resources now that can help them do just that.  When Christian community becomes united around the truth of God’s word, denominational disputes will be put into perspective and the church will be able to confidently share these truths within their own communities.  Spiritual awakening in Japan could be just around the corner.


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