Wednesday, 2 July 2008

PostHeaderIcon Different Japan: Christianity

Christianity in Japan

I've labelled this post 'different' as it is neither good or bad. I always find that Japan is constantly being labelled as "wacky, crazy and weird" by the rest of the world. This is occasionally true despite the saturation of "what will those Japanese think of next?" style youtube videos. However, I'll usually post about things that strike me as unusual and I feel this title is sufficient enough. Ironically, this entry is about something which has dominated Western culture for thousands of years but I feel it is still relevant.

A few weeks ago I was cycling around my small, rural town when I noticed a crucifix on top of a building. I've cycled down that road many times but I've never spotted it. It took me by surprise because my town has 3000 people in it and it is pretty far out in the countryside. I was aware that there were Christians in Japan but I didn't think there would be a demand for a church out here. It was certainly a small building and I doubt it's going to be packed on a Sunday morning but it's still there.

My previous knowledge of Japanese Christianity consisted of:
  • Portuguese missionaries landed in the west of Japan. They tried to spread the Jesus love.
  • They angered a lot of people. Some Portuguese died gruesome deaths and Christianity was banned for hundreds of years.
  • Christians got killed in Nagasaki at some point. It survived underground there for centuries and then a nuclear bomb was dropped on them.
I actually learned most of that in half a lecture at University a few years ago. It was on how successful the Dutch trading was around the world in the 15th/16th centuries. The Japanese liked the Dutch because they just wanted to trade some stuff rather than trying to covert them all. A favourite thing I remember on that course was how valuable pepper was in Europe at this time. For example, if you refer to someone as a Pfeffersack (a bag of pepper) in Germany then you are calling them wealthy. The first Dutch traders were in search of such Eastern spices when their knackered ship found itself washed up in Kyushu. They were a few decades later than the Portuguese and would instead export ceramics from Japan. Anyway, Christianity was banned after the missionaries were fairly successful and angered the local rulers. The Portuguese were told to "get tae" whilst the Dutch were allowed to stay and trade a bit more.

the end of the century they had failed to win over the elite who were cautious of the foreign influences. Despite there being numerous churches in Nagasaki they did not have the power to stop the rulers. Quite a few priests or what have The Portuguese missionaries arrived in Japan in 1549 and byyou were executed in Nagasaki. I read some of them were lowered into pots of boiling water, crucified or burned alive. That was the end of that then. However, for some reason that totally bewilders me... Christianity survived underground for over 200 years without any outside influence. Just to give you an idea of this length of time: Napoleon was prancing about Europe in 1808. It turns out that the religion did evolve and change over the time and some have called it nothing more than a cult to their ancestors. The idols soon evolved into those that were similar to Buddhist and Shinto ones and the prayers soon changed mean. They were given the name Kakure Kirishitan or Hidden Christian. Christianity in the country was aided after the Americans opened up Japan again in the middle of the 19th century. The Meiji Restoration that followed a few years later cemented this. I don't know what the deal was with it during WW2 but I imagine it wasn't looked on too kindly. Apparently the levels of Christians haven't risen too much since the end of WW2 but there are still around 2 million in the entire country (the population is about 130 million).

Although I find the history quite interesting and unique in its formation, I still find it unusual that Christianity survived in the country and that there are still so many practicing it here now. There is a woman in my English class who is a Christian. I discovered this when I was talking about Christmas a way back in December. I mentioned that to make it an easier transition for the converted pagans... the day of celebration was moved nearer to the winter solstice festival on December 21st. She freaked out a little bit and was asking me all these questions that I didn't know how to answer. I was too busy trying to figure out how this very Japanese woman could possibly be Christian. It could be the case that I'm the one at fault as I link Christianity too much with old Europe and its colonies around the world. A practicing Christian in a country that has no cultural or historical link makes me feel a little uneasy for some reason. Possibly because I just can't comprehend the situation.

It's possibly wrong for me to judge people like this but I can't help it. It's just the same when some bloke back home says he's a Buddhist. I see all religions in terms of their historical background rather than their... spiritual pros and cons. Each country or area in the world has been affected by a religion and many elements are deeply entrenched within their culture. Indeed, religion has played a major role in creating many nation's identities. Therefore, I find it unusual when a person strays away from this and starts to weigh up religions against each other before picking the most 'suitable' one for them.

History is amazing though. I'm just cycling down a street and I can pass something that makes me think how it got there. There's over two thousand years worth of history stored in that simple cross. I'm so profound me.

The top left hand picture is the very cross in my town. I tried to get some of the Japanese roof tiles in for a bit of contrast eh eh? The Japanese writing down the right hand side is:
日本(Nihon/Japan) and キリスト (Kirisuto/Christ)


Willow Moon said...

Thank you for your thought filled essay- may God find you in the Land of the Rising Sun- He is often found in the most unexpected places!

In Christ,
Cheryl AKA Haku Seki

Lisa0113 said...

I am american and Ive been looking up everything on Scotland for family history and such. but funny that I came upon this web site (long story) and I read your blog. I was once a student at a bible college and I had a friend who did a summer missions trip to Japan she taught english like you and I believe the same age group. but she was held with strictures about speaking of God or Jesus. However
that was 21 years ago and I dont remember the what happened to my letter from her but I do remember her saying there wasnt much freedom in that for even a missionary teacher. Just thought that would be some interesting information. I am quite perplexed do you know any more history on judeo christian influence I know China was under great persecution as well if not worse. back at the turn of the last century. But this is Japan your speaking of I will double check for that old letter but its been a very long time I probably dont have it any more. Maybe someone else might shed some light on the subject.

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About Me

I am a 24 year old Scotsman currently teaching English to Japanese schoolchildren. I live in a small town on the east coast of Kochi prefecture.