Japan and Christianity

The struggles of Christianity in 1930s Japan
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Matsumoto Shunsuke 'Nikolai Cathedral' (Wikimedia Commons)

Francis Xavier, the first Occidental missionary, with two brothers of his order, and the first three Japanese whom he had converted and baptized, landed August 15, 1549, in Kagoshima on the southern Island of Kjushu of the Land of the Rising Sun . Even today the Japanese Catholics consider that day the most important holiday of the year. As a result of his zealous preaching and his many debates with the Buddhist bonzes, our saint was able to make from 1,500 to 2,000 converts in the southern part of Japan, in the course of his two and one-half years' stay . His successors enjoyed even greater success, due to the fact that Sumitada was the first Daimio to submit to Baptism. Up to the year 1640, which marks the dreadful end of this at first auspicious missionary period, it is estimated that 677,000 people, and according to other sources even as many as from 1,500,000 to 2,000,000 Japanese, embraced Christianity. Historically reliable sources of information are not available for this period.

This first dawn of Christendom in the Land of the Rising Sun was soon followed by dark clouds and heavy thunderstorms. During the middle ages and the beginning of the modern missionary period, religious, spiritual, cultural endeavors were often closely allied with political domestic conquests of foreign countries by the Europeans. Hence missionary work had to share the mistrust of, yea even the hatred against, Western colonization and territorial aspirations in a very great measure. Japan, which even at that time was carefully guarding its cultural and political independence, recognized in Christianity a danger to its cultural and national life. In the Shinto cult, the native religion, as also in Buddhism, the foreign religion which had been introduced in Korea and China, the people and its political leaders saw the essence of Japanese civilization, and its strongest union with the divinely instituted line of emperors, the fountain of their peaceful art and nature-bound piety. The Shinto-kannushi, the religious servants of the "Road of the Gods," which is the name of Japan's national religion, as well as the Buddhist bonzes became alarmed at the success of the Christian missionaries with the people and some Daimios, and stirred up the mistrust of those Daimios and Shogunes who already hated foreigners. It was quite easy to convince the masses of the people of the imminent danger of subjugation by European rulers, which the inhabitants of the nearby Philippines, southeastern Asia and even India had already experienced, because one could go back to the alleged threat of the captain of the stranded Spanish ship, San Filipppe, that his king would revenge with a fleet any harm done the Spaniards . The converted countrymen were already looked upon with a suspicious eye, as not being quite trustworthy from the national point of view. The storm broke with the crucifixion of twenty-six Japanese martyrs, February 5, 1597 . One wonders even today at the fervor and devotion with which Japanese from all walks of life, and at all ages, remained true to Christianity even unto death.

The production last year in Japan by Japanese non-Christian actors of a picture whose final filming of the crucifixion I attended, will I hope during the coming winter bear witness also in Europe and America, and in other non-Japanese countries, not only to Japanese customs and the beauty of Japanese landscapes, but above all to the splendid devotion of these Japanese martyrs.

Sad to say, the national and domestic jealousy and rivalry of the European sea powers of that time, their confessional differences, as well as the deceitful dissensions of the different missionary orders relative to their methods and tactics of procedure, contributed not a little to stifle the young seed of Christendom which had just sprung into existence. Probably the most effective reason for the annihilation of Christianity was its sharp contrast to the already mentioned religious cults of Japan, as well as to their national-ethical-social fundamental ideas, the incompatibility of Christian monotheism with the gods Kami, the protectors of the land of the gods and of the Buddhas, as told by Jyeyasu in his edict of banishment of Christian missionaries in 1614. The heroic struggle of Christian converts ended in 1640. At that time the Land of the Rising Sun closed its doors entirely to all foreign immigration. Only a few Dutch business men were permitted to live on the small Island of Desima, which was then still separated from the mainland. But even they were forbidden to set foot on the mainland under penalty of death. Whoever desired to enter Japan had to perform the ceremony of the so-called Fumi-e, that is, stepping on a picture (of a cross or of the Blessed Virgin) as a sign of recanting, renouncing Christianity. In the archaeological museum of Ueno- Park, in Tokyo, such crosses are still to be seen. No Japanese was allowed to leave the country under penalty of the same severe punishment.

Nearly eighty years have passed since the reopening of the Land of the Rising Sun for European- American commerce and civilization in 1853. In 1859 the first Catholic missionaries were again permitted to enter the country. Soon Protestant and Russian Orthodox preachers of the faith followed. The laws against Christianity put into force at the beginning of the seventeenth century were repealed on February 19, 1873. The constitution of the year 1889 granted full liberty of religion and conscience. During these past sixty years the Christian missionaries have therefore been able to save Japanese souls without endangering their lives. And what have they accomplished? The population of Japan proper today is about 64,700,000. Of that number, according to the statistics of 1931, only 96,323 are Catholics. Of that number, 54542 are in the diocese of Nagasaki, the heart of Japanese Christendom in the seventeenth century, for the most part descendants of the old Christianity. The yearly increase of Catholics was: 1929-1930, 2,368; 1930-1931, 2,724 souls. The World Missionary Atlas of 1925 gives the number of baptized Protestants in Japan proper as 154,971; those under Christian influence as 9,729. Of the approximately 21,000,000 inhabitants living in Korea, 104,236 are Catholics. According to the same source of information, the number of Protestants in 1925 was 182,289 baptized, and 88,088 under Christian influence. Formosa shows 6,400 Catholics out of 4,600,000 inhabitants; Protestants, according to the same source, are for 1925 about 18,260 baptized (today about 20,000) and 2,879 under Christian influence. The Russian-Orthodox Mission, which had been active in Japan since the year 1861, had as its founder, who later became Archbishop Nikolai Kassatkin, a clear-headed, far-sighted leader, who recognized the national sensitiveness of the country, and whose fame is even today attested to by Japan's most beautiful church, the Nikolai Cathedral of Tokyo. The number of Russian Orthodox Christians in all Japan may be about 40,000 at the present day. As the last group, we might mention the Old Catholics (Hanares), who number between 30,000 and 40,000 souls who have remained independent. Hence out of a total of about 91,000,000 people, we find about 200,000 Catholics, 360,000 Protestants, 40,000 Russian Orthodox, and 40,000 Old Catholics, altogether about 650,000 Christians . So for every 140 people in Japan, there is one Christian.

Even these few figures point to the fact that Japan belongs to the most difficult mission fields of the world. Besides that, it occupies first place among the nations of our planet in regard to increase of birth rate. It can register about 1,000,000 births per year. What are then the real reasons why Japan has up to date refused Christianity? The Land of the Rising Sun since the reign of its illustrious Emperor Meiji (185o-i912), who is responsible for Japan's position amongst the major powers, has become the strongest political power in the Far East, by virtue of its successful wars against China, 1894-1895, and Russia in 1904, as well as through its participation in the World War, and also due to the part it played in the League of Nations. For her economic leadership she has won outlets for her exports in lands as distant as India and the South Sea islands, and recently in Manchuria. This unprecedented politico-economical rise in the course of a few decades fostered still more the Japanese philosophy of life, his desire for imperialism and capitalism, for earthly possessions and gratification. The appreciation of the metaphysical, transcendental or the supernatural is not great with the Japanese. Enjoying the beauty of his country, happiness of his family, love of sports and, above all, a high sense of national feeling, which finds the guarantee of its own happiness in the supremacy of its country, seem to completely satisfy the cravings of the Japanese. Since the Japanese naturally is unable to solve the problems and tragedies of life and the devious ways of destiny, he chooses only too often, due to his peculiar sentimentality, to commit suicide.

Being more inclined toward the practical, real, pedagogic, the Japanese mind is less interested than we might suppose in the metaphysical, philosophical, speculative fundamentals of Christian teaching. The Japanese converts, especially those under Evangelical influence have a very strong desire to see their ideal of an independent Japanese Church entirely under their own control come true. The power of attraction of Christianity suffers very much also due to its many-sidedness. The many differences of the various Protestant denominations of the Western countries, as recorded in history, do not arouse the interest and love of the Japanese. With the fundamental idea of Christianity and of Christian ethics, they love to merge Japanese-Asiatic reasoning and custom, especially the elements of their ancient ancestor worship.

A leading newspaper, the Japan Times of Tokyo, reported last August 3 in large letters, while I happened to be in Japan, the result of a canvass among the working women and girls of the capital ranging in age from sixteen to twenty-five years, relative to their position as to the belief in God . Nearly one-half of those questioned (49 percent) admitted being atheists, the rest believing mostly in Buddhism and Shintoism, only a few being Christians . Traveling in the country, one finds the piety of the Japanese people demonstrated by their many pilgrimages to Fuji-No- Yama and the other holy mountains, and reflected by the large Buddhist Feasts of the Temple with their colorful processions. The intellectual circles of Japan on the contrary are quite opposed to a thorough study of anything religious including Christianity. The Japanese, with his unusual eagerness for learning, interests himself very much in the history of European nations and the history of the Christian religion. Their dark pages make it only too easy for him to gain the impression that Christianity does not rate any higher than other religions of the world. Being unusually proud of his own civilization and morals, the Japanese believes that he finds in his own religions, as well as in his inherited ancestor worship, a better foundation for the child's love of its parents, for loyalty to the emperor and for the greatness of Japan than Christendom could offer .

A sharp contrast exists between the Christian conception, that the nature of man tends only too easily toward evil and is spoiled from youth on, and the Japanese moral consciousness, that the Japanese soul is fundamentally good and does not need morals as such. The spirit of sacrifice, of the virtue of purity, which Christianity demands for the moral relations between both sexes, does not appeal to the Japanese nature and his free enjoyment of life in harmony with the beauties of nature. The law of chivalry of Bushido, the Japanese code of honor, is unable in various antiquated and jealously guarded regulations to harmonize with Christian morals and ideas. In weighing his own against the Christian religion, the materially minded Japanese is only too easily guided by the question, which for us is hard to understand, what can I gain by changing my religion? The nationalist, imperialistically minded Japanese fears again today the invasion through Christianity of a too powerful foreign influence and of foreign, even if only spiritual, forces, and thereby an impairment of his national self-consciousness, of his control in the Far East . The idealistically inclined Japanese might decide in favor of Christianity if he could discover in its practical application by the Western nations the treasure of a true social adjustment, of a real pacification and reconciliation of nations, as well as of a religion of true energetic love.

Japan never forgot the words of recognition and admiration which its first Christian missionary expressed for the natural virtues and splendid characteristics of the Japanese people. Unfortunately, however, this nation- and this is my sincerest conviction, based on my two trips for study purposes into the Land of the Rising Sun, and on my literary studies as well as my frank discussion with Japanese students- has to this day not decided for the reception of Christianity, because the white races and Europe and America, the so-called Christian nations of the Occident, have realized the true spirit of Christianity only too little. Or else it is the very vigor and well-directed organization and energy of Christianity which does not appeal to the Japanese soul, which loves to enjoy things religious in the peaceful, scenically often wonderful remoteness of its Buddhist or Shinto shrines. A certain atmosphere, similar in general to the Christian spirit, does prevail in Japan. But we cannot designate it as genuinely Christian. To prove the supreme truth of Christianity to the syncretistically minded, educated Japanese is unusually hard in a country whose religions, from the still secretly practiced phallus worship to monotheism, pantheism or monism, shows as many contradictions as can be found in the cultural sphere and in the attitude toward life in the land of democracy in the shade of its contradictory morals.

Even though the government today makes various friendly gestures toward Christianity, even though it shows a better understanding for the educational value of the Christian religion, still fundamentally it clings even today to its decree of August 3, 1899, No. 12, which rejects any religious influence. Thereby the Christian mission is naturally denied the most important and most successful task, to seize the easily influenced soul of the child. To convert the adults remains, according to experience, always a very difficult problem. In Japan, the Christian mission is confronted with the hard task of a struggle from soul to soul. A movement of the masses, as in some parts of India proper and Central Africa, as well as in the South Sea with numerically great success, could not be achieved in Japan up to date. In the open country, where the individual person true to the old Japanese spirit lives in strong dependence upon his family and his community, the Christian mission has found only very few points of support . It is almost entirely a mission confined to the cities. Here in the free atmosphere of the metropolis and centers of industry, with its many emancipated beings, it is easier for the individual, free from family ties, of relatives, domestic considerations and obligations, to decide for himself. Here the important questions regarding the meaning of life very often force one to take a definite personal stand, which the Shinto cult and Buddhism can hardly offer.

I was able to convince myself in a little less than one year during my various trips in Japan, as far up as Asahigawa, of the vital energy with which even today both high-culture religions, Shinto and Buddhism, are imbued, of the deep influence upon the masses of the people, and its nationally cultural selfwill, which these two religious structures exercise through their colorful happy Feasts of the Temple, as, for instance, Bon Matsuri, which is celebrated in the middle of August, a sort of Feast of All Souls, through their possessions, pilgrimages and especially through the wonderful art of their shrines and temples in most cases located in magnificent landscapes. It seems to me that here in the Land of the Rising Sun Christianity will be able to gain adherents not so much through the logical value of its ideas and its intellectual wealth, as rather through its intuitive, meditative, one might say mystical characteristics.

To be sure, I am convinced that Japan can be won over to Christianity only by native sons. They alone will know how to gradually transform the character of the foreign religion, which Christianity there still has in the eyes of ever so many millions, into Japanese spirituality, through wise adaptation and understanding, and to gradually allow Christianity to become the national religion. Just when Japan will become even a Christian diaspora country, much less a totally Christian country, and the rising sun will flood a Christian cross on Fuji-Yama's heights with its splendor and morning glow, remains hidden in the unfathomable depths of Divine Providence.

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