According to noted Japanese Christianity scholar Mark Mullins, "Christianity is probably the most documented and studied minority religion in Japan" (2006: 119). The Japanese history behind this Western movement is ripe with controversy. In time, it has been looked upon with varying degrees of fascination and even antagonism through nationalistic eyes.
In order to understand how this religion came about in Japan, it is imperative to take a look back into history. Christianity in Japan dates back as far as 1549, when Christian missionaries from Europe arrived (Bodiford 2006). This “Christian century in Japan” was successful by the hands of Jesuit missionaries during the expansion period of Portugal and Spain in Asia (Mullins 2006: 116). It is said that the numbers of Christian converts in Japan might have rivaled the numbers that are present in Japan today. However, this success was eventually quelled early under the Tokugawa regime (1603-1867) when Christianity was outlawed and Christian missionaries were expelled from the country. Nationalism was a major factor in determining the Japanese government’s apparent loathing for Christianity (Ikado 1961: 30-31). Fujio Ikado believes that this nationalism stemmed from Japan’s pride in showing the West what it was capable of.
Despite this shunning of Christianity for the next two centuries, many “hidden Christians” (kakure kirishitan) continued to pursue their faith in secret (Mullins 2006: 116). In the 17th century, many people were forced to step on fumie to deny their Christian faith (121). Of course, many hidden Christians did this to avoid persecution. After the Tokugawa period ended, in 1867 foreign missionaries were allowed to enter the country again, and Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox missionaries arrived in Japan after the country decided to open its doors to the West (117). After the government lifted the prohibition on Christianity in 1873, a period of time persisted during which the West was viewed as the region to emulate. Christian missionaries were very successful, and some even thought that Japan should adopt Christianity as the state religion in order to become a recognized member of the international community. However, this did not last long, and as the Meiji government developed, State Shinto and the emperor system created a sense of nationalism, and the plan shifted to gaining Western knowledge without adopting Christianity.
Christianity was not looked well upon in Japan during World War II. While it was declared as an official religion not too long prior to the war, many were suspicious of Christianity due to its foreign nature and connection to the country’s enemies (Durgin 1953: 13). According to Russell L. Durgin, “One-third of the 1,500 churches, as compared to but 10 per cent of all Buddhist buildings, had been partially or wholly destroyed." After the war, Japan’s new constitutionalreligious freedom and separation of religion and state tore down State Shinto and established a free-market religious economy (Mullins 2006: 118). Recently, Christianity has continue to struggle with shedding its “foreign” image, causing it to remain a minority religion. Today, about 1-2% of the population claims to be Christian (Protestant or Catholic) (Roemer 2009).
Memorial of 26 Christians who were rounded up and executed at Nishizaka in 1587. This event marked the start of martyrdom in Japan.
Written by: Travis Trosper Edited by: Katie Parish, Tayln Cox, and Dr. Roemer Photos by: Dr. Roemer and Katie Parish via Barb Smeir
Bibliography: Bodiford, William M. 2006. “The Medieval Period: Eleventh to Sixteenth Centuries.” In Nanzan Guide to Japanese Religions, edited by Paul L. Swanson and Clark Chilson, 163-183. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. Durgin, Russell L. 1953. “Christianity in Postwar Japan.” Far Eastern Survey 22 (2): 13-18. Ikado, Fujio. 1961. “The Origin of the Social Status of Protestant Christianity in Japan (1859-1918) (Continued).” Contemporary Religions in Japan 2 (2): 30-68. Mullins, Mark R. 2006. “Japanese Christianity.” In Nanzan Guide to Japanese Religions, edited by Paul L. Swanson and Clark Chilson, 115-128. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.