People who know me pretty well know that I have a few quirky obsessions: Theology, Church History, linguistics, paleozoology and (what comes to a surprise to a lot of people) a love affair with all things Japanese.
Perhaps it was the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles“, or the anime series, “Ranma ½” that did me in. In my sophomore year in high school I took Japanese as my chosen language course, I had intended to go a second year, but it didn’t work out. A few years ago I was introduced further into the wide world of anime. I found myself in love with that cultural delicacy known as sushi, and drawn toward craving Japanese dishes I have never tasted. I have for years had my heart set on visiting Japan at some point while I’m still young enough to enjoy traveling, a traveling experience as intense as my desire to visit Ireland (if not greater) and to visit the Holy Land (the Church of the Holy Sepulcher specifically). And the list goes on.
But there is an entire field of obsession that brings my love of Christianity and my love of Japan together, the topic of Japanese Christianity, or perhaps, Christianity in Japan.
It is well known that Assyrian Christians were the first to take the Gospel to China, we have archeological evidence from around the 8th century to prove this. These “Nestorian” Christians planted churches and Christianity was generally well received, though within a couple centuries seems to have receded into the mists of history. This Assyrian-Chinese Christianity adapted to the Chinese culture, churches were constructed in typical Chinese fashion, as pagodas. There is also, perhaps, some evidence of Buddhist-Christian syncretism having taken place.
In the 16th century a Jesuit priest, Francis Xavier, came to Japan to spread Christianity among the Japanese. The Jesuit mission was fairly well received, with many Japanese converting to Catholicism.
However within a century the Japanese Shogunate officially outlawed the Christian Faith, and those found to be Christians were treated harshly. The Portuguese and Spanish missionaries were deported, and while some remained behind, the native Japanese Christians were largely left to fend for themselves.
The Shogunate employed the tactic of the Fumie, a wooden image of Christ or the Virgin which suspected Christians were told to trample upon and break, those who refused to trample upon the Fumie were arrested for being Christians. All sorts of tortures were employed to get Christians to renounce their faith. The most famous of the Japanese martyrs are known as the Twenty-six Martyrs of Nagasaki, some were Jesuit priests, but most were Japanese, the youngest was a thirteen year old boy, Louis Ibaraki–all of them have been canonized by the Roman Catholic Church, and are also remembered on the calendars of the Anglican Communion and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (their Feast Day is February 6th). All twenty-six of them were crucified together on a hill in Nagasaki, today there is a memorial which remembers them.
Due to the persecutions the Japanese Church went underground, and hid all evidence of their faith, presenting their Christianity in the guise of Buddhism and Shintoism. Over the next two hundred and fifty years they would largely forget the Latin and Portuguese they spoke liturgically, but continued to due to tradition.
Then in the 19th century, during the Meiji Restoration, Japan reopened its boarders to the West, and a period of cultural revolution ensued. Amongst the radical changes taking place within the Empire was an influx of both Catholic and Protestant missionaries.
Despite well over a century of missionary activity, the Japanese seem to be particularly resistant to Christianity, today only about 1% of the Japanese population is said to be Christian.
Missiologists have long struggled to understand why the Japanese seem so particularly resistant to missionary efforts. And there have been many who have taken to task to try and make Christianity more substantially Japanese, by removing Christianity of particular Western cultural trappings. Many Japanese Christians have likewise struggled with the conflict between Christianity and Japanese identity.
It is within this mesh and matrix that I find particularly interesting. In the late 19th century, during the latter part of the Meiji Era, a Japanese Christian, Kanzo Uchimura, along with several others started the “Non Church Movement” which essentially removed much of the “external” aspects of the Christian Religion–Sacraments, rituals, clergy, church buildings, etc.–and sought a non-institutional loosely affiliated network of home Bible study groups, using a traditional master-disciple method of operation. It is one of the more popular Christian movements in Japan.
But is that kind of thing actually healthy? When discussing what aspects of “Western” Christianity can be dropped for the sake of cultural adaptation, it becomes a pretty muddied area.
I like to believe, quite strongly, that a thoroughly Japanese Christianity can exist, one that doesn’t need to look like an American or a European Church, but one that when all is said and done looks like a Japanese Church. Where the Japanese are not only allowed to continue to be Japanese, but are encouraged to do so; but without sacrificing the fundamental essence of the Christian Tradition.
This goes deeper into the very function of Christianity, how do we do Christianity? What is the essence of the Christian Way? What does it mean to be Christian? What does it mean to be the Church?
Do we have to totally eradicate Liturgy all together? Or perhaps we can construct an authentically Japanese Liturgy.
Do we have to remove the Sacraments? If we do, aren’t we essentially denying our identity as Christians? After all the Sacraments aren’t merely ritual tokens, but fundamental channels and communicators of God’s Gracious Action in the world and in the Church-at-work-in-the-world.
Exactly how much do we have to change Christianity to adapt before it stops being Christianity altogether? Both pragmatically as well as theologically?
At the same time, I’m not arguing for a “take it or leave it” mentality, so much as for an honest pursuit of a Japanese Christianity that is both authentically Japanese as well as authentically Christian. Something that resonates both within the Japanese themselves, as well as being authentically linked to the broader Christian Tradition.
I think such an honest pursuit will help foster a deeper meditation of our own “Western” Christianity, as well as show us how Christianity can develop in other cultures.
In the end I have more questions than answers.
I think I should also offer, here at the end, that I am less concerned with “winning Japanese souls” (with the idea higher numbers) so much as I am with a serious interest in the proclamation of the Gospel of the Kingdom, such that it truly resonates within the Japanese psyche and it remains true to what it is. Less concerned with building new churches, and more concerned with establishing genuine Ekklesia. It’s not about getting the Japanese to “play on our team”, but about sincere Kingdom-building with a evangelically faithful and resonantly meaningful call for the Japanese to participate in the Church’s Kingdom-mission in the world.
After all, we believe, that,
“…He is our peace, He who made both one and broke down the dividing wall of hostility, through His flesh, abolishing the law with its commandments and legal claims, that He might create in Himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile both with God, in one Body, through the cross…” – Ephesians 2:14-16
All the cultural boundaries that keep men from true Koinonia with God and each other have been torn down by Christ, we are no longer “Jew nor Gentile”; it follows that there is neither Westerner nor Easterner, European nor Japanese, etc. That, indeed, in Christ, there is now only one new humanity–His–and that He is establishing it within His Church, and all people, everywhere, are called to participate in His “Kosmic” Revolution.