Christianity in Japan

From New World Encyclopedia

Christianity in Japan is a religious minority, which constitutes about 1 million[1][2] to 3 million persons.[3] Nearly all known traditional denominations of Christianity, including Roman Catholicism, [4] Protestantism, Orthodox Christianity[5] are represented in the country today.

Christianity was introduced to Japan by Roman Catholic Jesuit missionaries who arrived in Kagoshima in 1549, led by Francis Xavier. By 1579, six regional war lords and approximately 100,000 of their subjects had converted to Christianity. Towards the end of the sixteenth century, Franciscan missionaries arrived in Kyoto. The number of Christians had reached about 300,000 when the Tokugawa shogunate prohibited Christianity and expelled all foreigners in 1638. Many renounced their faith and others went underground. After Japan opened its doors to the West in 1853, many Christian clergymen were sent to Japan from Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox churches. When religious freedom was restored after the Meiji Restoration in 1871, approximately 30,000 underground Christians came forward. Christian missionaries in Japan did not win large numbers of converts, but did influence education and the trade union movement as Japan modernized its economy.

Though Christians make up only a small percentage of the population of Japan, Christian thought has been a powerful influence on the development of modern Japan. From the late 1800s, many Japanese men and women studied in Christian schools and universities in Japan, and went abroad to study in Europe and the United States. Many Christian-based concepts, such as the unique value of the individual, salvation, and human rights became important themes in Japanese philosophy and literature of the twentieth century.


The history of Christianity in Japan is commonly believed to have begun with the arrival of the Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier in 1549, but some scholars contend that there is evidence that Nestorian missionaries reach Japan by way of India, China and Korea in 199 C.E., and that Nestorian churches existed there in 400 C.E.[6]

Roman Catholicism

Francis Xavier
Saint Mary's Cathedral in Tokyo

Roman Catholic missionary activities in Japan began in 1549, carried out by Portuguese-sponsored Jesuits and later by Spanish-sponsored mendicant orders, such as the Franciscans and Dominicans. On August 15, 1549, the Jesuits [Francis Xavier|Francisco Xavier]],[7][8] Father Cosme de Torres, and Brother John Fernandez arrived in Kagoshima, along with a recent Japanese convert, Anjiro (Christian name, Pablo de Santa Fe). The warlords of Kyushu were interested in the weapons brought by Portuguese traders and open to the teachings of the Jesuits. Xavier left in 1551, but other Jesuits continued the mission. Oda Nobunaga became their patron and supported the establishment of the first Christian church in Kyoto in 1576, although he never converted to Christianity. By 1579, six regional war lords and approximately 100,000 of their subjects had converted to Christianity. When Nobunaga died in 1582, the Catholics reported 200,000 faithful and 250 churches in Japan. The three Christian princes of Bunga, Arima, and Omura sent an embassy to Europe, which arrived in Rome on March 23, 1585. The ambassadors witnessed the coronation of Sixtus V and were created knights and patricians.[9]

In 1597, as Christian influence was spreading in western Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi issued an edict banning Christianity and crucified 26 Franciscans in Nagasaki. After Hideyoshi’s death in 1600, Tokugasa Ieyasu became the ruler of Japan and allowed the missionaries to remain. In 1614, his government began to prohibit Christianity, concerned that Spain and Portugal were gaining too much influence within Japan. The Dutch, who were Calvinist, had set up a trading outpost in Japan and may have encouraged the suspicions of the Tokugawa shogunate against the Catholics. From 1613–1620, Date Masamune, the daimyo of Sendai, sent a diplomatic mission headed by Tsunenaga Hasekura to the Vatican in Rome. The mission was successful, but by the time Tsunenaga returned, the Tokugawa shogunate had begun to persecute Christians. In 1626, missionaries were ordered to leave the country, and Christians were ordered to renounce their faith or suffer terrible punishment. In 1637–1638, approximately 37,000 peasants and dispossessed samurai rose up in the Shimabara Rebellion (島原の乱, Shimabara no ran). Many of them were Christians and the rebellion took on a religious character. Eventually the rebellion was crushed, with heavy casualties to government troops, and all the rebels were decapitated. Following the rebellion, Christianity was completely suppressed in Japan, and the Tokugawa shogunate enacted a policy of “sakoku,” complete isolation of Japan from foreign influences. Christians were heavily persecuted, and an estimated 3,000 were killed. Many of the 300,000 Christians in Japan renounced their faith, while others continued to practice their religion underground.

In 1640, four Portuguese ambassadors who had gone from Macao to Nagasaki were called upon to renounce their faith, and when they refused they were executed without further trial. Thirteen of their followers were sent back to Macao with this message: "While the sun warms the earth let no Christian be so bold as to enter into Japan. Let this be known to all men. Though it were the King of Spain in person or the God of the Christians or Shaka himself [Buddha], whosoever will disobey this prohibition will pay for it with his head."[10]

Several groups of Jesuits and Dominicans who attempted to enter Japan between 1640 and 1647 were tortured and put to death. Drawn from the oral histories of Japanese Catholic communities, Shusaku Endo's acclaimed historical novel "Silence" provides detailed fictionalized accounts of the persecution of Christian communities and the suppression of the Church.

After Japan was reopened to foreign interaction in 1853, many Christian clergymen were sent from Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Churches, though evangelism was still banned. Under a treaty signed between France and Japan, in October, 1858, Catholic missionaries were allowed to reside in open ports and conduct church services for foreigners. In 1865, a group of 15 underground Japanese Catholics (Kirishitan) made themselves known to the French Catholic missionaries, informing them that there were approximately 30,000 (some reports say 50,000) of them in Japan. In 1867, 40,000 Japanese Christians near Nagasaki were forced into exile. They were allowed to return after the Meiji restoration. In 1871, freedom of religion was introduced, giving all Christian communities the legal right to exist and spread their faith. On August 11, 1884, an official decree proclaimed that there was no longer a state religion in Japan. In 1885, the emperor established friendly relations with Pope Leo XIII and with Spain.

Catholic orders established numerous orphanages and hospitals in Japan, and thousands of Japanese men and women received an education at Catholic schools, universities, and commercial schools. In 1896, Trappists came to Hokkaido and formed a Christian agricultural colony and developed industries such as milk production and cheese making. In 1905, the Island of Shikoku was given to the Spanish Dominicans.

In February 1981, Pope John Paul II paid a visit to Japan, during which he met with Japanese people, the clergy and Catholic lay people, held Holy Mass in the Korakuen Stadium (Tokyo), visited the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, the Hill of martyrs in Nagasaki, town of the Immaculate founded by St. Maximilian Kolbe in Nagasaki and other places.[11]

Protestantism in Japan

Protestantism appeared in Japan in 1859, with the arrival of American Episcopalian missionaries , the best known of whom was Channing Moore Williams. Divie Bethune McCartee, a U.S. consul and Presbyterian missionary, came to Japan in 1862. His gospel tract translated into the Japanese language was the first Protestant literature in Japan. In 1865 McCartee moved back to Ningbo, China, but other missionaries followed. The first Japanese baptism took place in 1864. The first Japanese Protestant church was organized in 1872, and inaugurated in 1875. During these early years, unable to evangelize, foreign Protestant missionaries devoted themselves to the translation of the Bible and worked as teachers either in schools they founded or in Japanese schools. A translation of the New Testament was completed in 1880, and of the Old Testament in 1887.[12]

During the late 1800s, missionaries flocked to Japan and church membership multiplied rapidly. The desire to learn English attracted many young Japanese to Christian schools. In December, 1889, the Protestants reported total number of Japanese converted to Protestantism was 31,181; there were 527 foreign missionaries and 135 Japanese ordained ministers. In 1908 the Protestants reported the following numbers:

  • Foreign Protestant missionaries in Japan—789
  • Japanese missionaries—1,303
  • Active church members—57,830
  • Peripheral members—10,554
  • Protestant churches—408
  • Sunday schools—1,066 with 84,160 children
  • Students in schools run by Protestants—3,604 men and 5,226 women
  • Publishing houses—7, with 1,974,881 volumes published in 1908

They also reported the growth of indigenous Christian movements that attempted to synthesize Christian concepts with Japanese traditional beliefs.[13]

When Japan opened its doors to the West, the Japanese at first responded favorably to Christian evangelization, but this was followed by renewed suspicion and rejection of Christian teaching. Protestant church growth slowed dramatically in the early twentieth century under the influence of the military government.

The post-World War II years have seen increasing activity by evangelicals, initially with American influence, and some growth occurred between 1945 and 1960. More recently there is some influence from Korean evangelists.

The Japanese Bible Society was established in 1937 with the help of National Bible Society of Scotland (NBSS, now called the Scottish Bible Society), the American Bible Society, and the British and Foreign Bible Society.[14] Its activities were severely restricted during World War II, when it had to renounce support from the United States and England. After the war, from 1945 to 1948, 2,390,000 copies of the Japanese Bible were produced in the US and presented to Japanese people, followed by "the 10 million Bible distribution movement" from 1949 to 1951.

By some estimates, there are 3,000 Protestant churches in Tokyo, and 7,700 Protestant churches in Japan.[15] Protestants in Japan constitute a religious minority of about 0.4% of total population (509,668 people). All major traditional Protestant denominations are presented in the country, including Baptists, the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, Pentecostals, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Lutherans, the Anglican Church, Methodists, the Presbyterian Church, Mennonites, the Salvation Army and some others.

Orthodox Christianity in Japan

Eastern Orthodoxy was brought to Japan in the nineteenth century by Nicholas of Japan (baptized as Ivan Dmitrievich Kasatkin),[16] who was sent in 1861 by the Russian Orthodox Church to Hakodate, Hokkaidō as priest to a chapel of the Russian Consulate.[17] Nicholas of Japan translated the New Testament and some other religious books (Lent Triodion, Pentecostarion, Feast Services, Book of Psalms, Irmologion) into Japanese, and eventually erected a cathedral in Tokyo. [18] In 1970, Nikolai Kasatkin was glorified by the Patriarch of Moscow and is recognized as St. Nicholas, Apostle to Japan.

It is estimated that the Church has some 9,000 adherents in Japan today. Holy Resurrection Cathedral, also known as Nicholai-do, in Chiyoda, Tokyo is the main cathedral of the Japanese Orthodox Church.

World War II

Though the efforts of Christian missionaries resulted in few converts, they were able to influence education and the trade union movement in Japan. The 1930s were a difficult time for Christians due to increasing nationalism and government enforcement of the patriotic duty of attending Shinto shrines. In 1940, the Japanese military government enacted the 1940 Religious Bodies Law recognizing Christianity as an official Japanese religion along with Shinto and Buddhism, but prohibiting church employees from receiving salaries from foreigners. Only Japanese subjects were allowed to serve as church executives. American mission boards were still permitted to pay the salaries of U.S. citizens working in Japan, and to aid the Japanese churches financially. Within six months, more than half of the 900 U.S. missionaries in Japan had left in response to this law and to the efforts of the U.S. State Department to evacuate American citizens from Japan.

Japanese Protestants responded by merging 42 Protestant denominations into one, leaving out only the Roman Catholics, Russian Orthodox, Episcopalians (who refused to recognize the validity of the ministerial orders of the other denominations) and the Seventh-Day Adventists (who accepted only a Saturday Sabbath). Before Japanese Christians agreed to the government requirement that they take part in Shinto shrine ceremonies, they received written assurance from the government that the observance was purely patriotic and in no way religious. The new church changed the term for “God” from “Kami” (the word for the Shinto divinities which had been adopted by early Christian missionaries) to the honorific “Kamisama,” “Ainokami” (God of Love) and “Shu” (Lord).[19]

Japanese Christianity today

Since World War II, the number of Japanese Christians has remained relatively stable[20]. Japanese Christians are a religious minority, constituting about 1 million[21][22] to 3 million persons.[23] Many of these live in western Japan where the early Catholic missionaries were active. Nearly all known traditional denominations of Christianity, including Roman Catholicism,[24] Protestantism, Orthodox Christianity[25] are represented in the country today.

There are no restrictions on evangelism or preaching about the gospel in Japan. Nevertheless, Japan remains largely unresponsive to Christian teaching. About 70 per cent of all churches have an average attendance of less than 30, though membership is double this figure.[26] Many people work on Sundays and do not attend church every week.

Some Christian customs have become popular among non-Christians in Japan, such as the celebration of Christmas with Christmas trees and gift-giving, and the celebration of Valentine’s Day. More than 60 percent of Japanese couples have “Christian”-style weddings, often presided over by an actor dressed as a priest, in which the bride wears a beautiful white dress.

See also


  1. CIA Factbook, Japan.
  2. U.S. State Department, 2006 Religious Freedom Report. Retrieved September 9, 2008.
  3. U.S. State Department, Religious Freedom Report. Retrieved September 9, 2008.
  4. Giga Catholic, Directory on Japan. Retrieved September 9, 2008.
  5. Orthodox Portal, Christianity is popular in Japan today. Retrieved September 9, 2008.
  6. OMF International, Christianity in Japan. Retrieved September 9, 2008.
  7. Catholic Encyclopedia, St. Francis Xavier. Retrieved September 9, 2008.
  8. Catholic Forum, Saint Francis Xavier. Retrieved September 9, 2008.
  9. Catholic Encyclopedia, Japan. Retrieved September 11, 2008.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Vatican, Vatican Official Site. Retrieved September 9, 2008.
  12. Catholic Encyclopedia, Protestantism, Article on Japan. Retrieved September 11, 2008.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Bible, JBS Brief History.
  15. Back to Jerusalem, What is God Doing in Japan? Retrieved September 9, 2008.
  16. Orthodox World, Saint Nikolai from Japan. Retrieved September 9, 2008.
  17. The Orthodox Church in Japan, 日本の正教会の歴史と現代 "History of Japanese Orthodox Charch and Now." Retrieved September 9, 2008
  18. Pravostok, Orthodox Portal. Retrieved September 9, 2008.
  19., Christianity in Japan, Time Magazine (May 5, 1941). Retrieved September 9, 2008.
  20. Japan Guide, Christianity in Japan. Retrieved September 9, 2008.
  21. CIA Factbook, Japan. Retrieved September 9, 2008.
  22. U.S. State Department, 2006 Religious Freedom Report. Retrieved September 9, 2008.
  23. U.S. State Department, 2007 Religious Freedom Report. Retrieved September 9, 2008.
  24. GigaCatholic, Directory on Japan. Retrieved September 9, 2008.
  25. Pravmir, Christianity is popular in Japan today, Orthodox Portal. Retrieved September 9, 2008.
  26. OMF, Japan. Retrieved September 9, 2008

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Cary, Otis. 1976. A History of Christianity in Japan: Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Protestant Missions. Rutland, Vt: C.E. Tuttle Co. ISBN 0804811776.
  • CIA Factbook. Japan. Retrieved September 9, 2008.
  • Drummond, Richard Henry. 1971. A History of Christianity in Japan. Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.
  • Elison, George, Fabian, Christovão Ferreira, and Shōsan Suzuki. 1973. Deus Destroyed; the Image of Christianity in Early Modern Japan. Harvard East Asian series, 72. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674199618.
  • Endō, Shūsaku. 1979. Silence. New York: Taplinger Pub. Co. ISBN 0800871839.
  • Giga Catholic. Directory on Japan. Retrieved September 9, 2008.
  • Handbook of Christianity in Japan. 2003. Leiden: Brill. ISBN 9004131566.
  • Orthodox World. Saint Nikolai from Japan. Retrieved September 9, 2008.
  • Paramore, Kiri. 2009. Ideology and Christianity in Japan. New York: Routledge. ISBN 9780415443562.
  • Pravmir. Christianity is popular in Japan today, Orthodox Portal. Retrieved September 9, 2008.
  • Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers. 1955. Religions in Japan: Buddhism, Shinto, Christianity. Rutland, Vt: C.E. Tuttle Co.
  • U.S. State Department. 2006 Religious Freedom Report. Retrieved September 9, 2008.

External links

All links retrieved December 10, 2023.


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