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CHRISTIANS

Christianity’s long history in the margins

by Mariko Kato

Prime Minister Taro Aso may be a proclaimed Christian, but as far as the spread of the faith among the populace, it finds only a marginal presence.

Certain trappings of Christianity, however, have manifested themselves in modern Japan, particularly in terms of Christian-style weddings and the celebration of Christmas.

How does Christianity break down demographically and what recent issues affect the flock? Following are questions and answers:

How many Christians are there in Japan, and are they Catholic or Protestant?

There is no clear census on the exact number of Christians, according to the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, which monitors religious activity. The Christian community itself counts only those who have been baptized and are currently regular churchgoers — some 1 million people, or less than 1 percent of the population, according to Nobuhisa Yamakita, moderator of the United Church of Christ in Japan.

Protestants account for about 60 percent of the Christian population in Japan and Catholics the rest, Yamakita said, although nearly all known traditional denominations are represented. About 65 percent are women.

“Men tend to devote themselves to work, and go to church after they retire,” he said.

There are about 7,000 churches nationwide, and 30,000 missionaries and other ordained leaders, a 10th of whom are foreign, according to the government.

When did Christianity arrive and what was the extent of its propagation?

It is widely believed Christianity arrived in the mid-16th century with Portuguese and Spanish Roman Catholic missionaries, including the Jesuit Francisco Xavier. Some theorize, however, that Nestorian Christians arrived earlier.

Christianity was repressed during the 16th century, seen by the government as a threat to national security, with the shogunate fearing foreign traders and missionaries would destabilize the culture. It was banned in 1587. Those who continued to practice Christianity, called “kakure kirishitans” (hidden Christians), were persecuted if outed, even crucified, and are the subject of a Martin Scorsese film based on Shusaku Endo’s 1966 award-winning novel “Silence” due out in 2010.

After Japan reopened to world trade in 1853, Catholic, Protestant and other missionaries arrived, and Christianity was legalized during the Meiji Restoration. Christian movements campaigned for women’s rights, although they were again oppressed during the war, when the Emperor was considered a living god.

After the war, the faith was spread by missionaries and American soldiers as a liberal and modern concept, according to Yamakita, who is also a minister at Hijirigaoka church in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo. “We called it the ‘Three C’s Club’ — If you went to church, you were given Coca-Cola, chocolate and chewing gum. Men and women also partook in folk dances in a new, intimate way, and there was a casual atmosphere about it all.”

Do “hidden Christians” still exist?

Yes, although their religion deviated from Christianity.

Even after Christianity was legalized, descendants of the underground worshippers continued a blend of Christianity, Shinto and Buddhism. Nestled in remote areas of Nagasaki, the “hanare kirishitans” (“separated Christians”) generally practice a polytheistic religion in small communities.

Why does Christianity account for less than 1 percent of the population?

Some experts believe the way Christianity was propagated limited its acceptance, and today’s churches do not embrace their communities.

Michael Seigel, an associate professor of missiology and pastoral theology at Nanzan University, a Catholic school in Nagoya, said Christianity left a bad impression when it arrived in the 16th century.

“Missionaries were accompanied by the spread of firearms. While they were open to many aspects of Japanese culture, they were utterly intolerant of other religions. When feudal lords became Christians, temples and shrines in their domains were often destroyed,” he said.

When Christianity re-emerged in the 19th century, it was sometimes distorted in translation, making it unappealing, according to Seigel. He gave the example of the word “sin” and its Japanese counterpart, “tsumi.”

” ‘Tsumi’ means breaking a commandment, invoking a God who gives commandments and punishes those who break them. On the other hand, ‘sin’ in the Bible means ‘something diverted from the goal,’ which indicates God is trying to guide humans toward happiness and well-being,” he said.

According to Yasuo Furuya, a theology professor at Seigakuin University’s graduate school in Ageo, Saitama Prefecture, Christianity has traditionally only been promoted among the intellectual classes, remaining culturally detached from the rest of modern society.

“Churches are still inward-looking,” disinclined to take full advantage of Christmas or Christian-style weddings as opportunities to popularize the faith, he said.

“Some church leaders say, ‘Are you trying to cheapen a classy restaurant by turning it into a cafeteria?’ ” he said.

What recent Christian events have occurred in Japan?

Last November, the Roman Catholic Church honored 188 Japanese martyrs persecuted during the Edo Period at a beatification ceremony in Nagasaki attended by an estimated 30,000 people.

This year is also generally accepted as the 150th anniversary of Protestant missions in Japan, and a commemorative event is scheduled for July in Yokohama.

Apart from Nagasaki, are there any other places here connected with Christianity?

Jesus, believed crucified outside Jerusalem, had actually escaped to Japan — or so goes the legend that surrounds the village of Shingo, Aomori Prefecture, allegedly home to Christ’s grave.

About 30,000 tourists visit every year, many of them foreign, according to a spokesman for the village’s tourism industry. As the myth goes, an ancient document saying Christ lived in Shingo and a will describing how he escaped execution on Calvary and traveled to Japan were discovered in the 1930s.

The number of tourists increased when the film “The Da Vinci Code,” based on Dan Brown’s best-selling novel about the Holy Grail, was released in 2006, the spokesman said. According to the Shingo myth, Jesus married a Japanese woman named Miyuko and fathered three daughters.

“But there are not many Catholic visitors, and those who do come are generally not convinced,” said the spokesman, who asked not to be named, adding that many villagers are also skeptical of the legend.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays (Wednesday in some areas). Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to National News Desk