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Christian missionaries find Japan a tough nut to crack


Special To The Japan Times

My local supermarket plays Christmas music. Yours probably does too. My neighbors have Christmas trees. So do yours, no doubt. At this time of year, in the major cities if not nationwide, you might almost think you were in a Christian country.

You’re not, of course. The trappings are deceptive — decorative, rather. Santa Claus is a jolly old fellow, and Christmas trees are nice. Why not enjoy them? ‘Tis the season!

But Christian missionaries find Japan a tough nut to crack. They always have, ever since the first of them, St. Francis Xavier, landed in Kyushu in 1549. His first impression, based on an initially friendly reception, was, “In my opinion no people superior to the Japanese will be found among the unbelievers.” Two years later, he left disheartened, calling Japanese Buddhism “an invention of the devil.”

Missionaries today use different language but express similar frustration. The Japanese have so eagerly embraced everything Western — from fads to philosophies, baseball to scientific method. Why not Christianity? Even China, officially atheist and repressive of anything outside state control, counts 52 million Christians. In South Korea, 30 percent of a population of 50 million professes Christianity. In Japan? Less than 1 percent.

One explanation comes from Minoru Okuyama, director, as of 2010, of the Missionary Training Center in Japan. That year, he told a global missions conference, “Japanese make much of human relationships more than the truth. Consequently we can say that as for Japanese, one of the most important things is harmony; in Japanese, ‘Wa.'” The Japanese, said Okuyama, “are afraid of disturbing human relationships of their families or neighborhood even though they know Christianity is best.” Chinese and South Koreans, by contrast, “make more of truth or principle than human relationships.”

A shrewd and outspoken samurai character in Shusaku Endo’s historical novel “Samurai” (1980) put a similar thought much more bluntly. His sullen response to a Spanish missionary’s evangelizing, circa 1610, was, “The Japanese don’t care whether God exists or not.”

Western Judeo-Christian civilization was built on God. Japanese civilization was not. The West is absolutist, its God embodying absolute power, absolute righteousness, absolute wisdom, absolute truth. Nothing like that exists in Japan. No wonder Xavier and his Japanese hosts misunderstood each other.

Slaughter is as old as history — older. Individuals, tribesmen, nations have always massacred rivals and enemies without agonizing over the morality of it. Jews, precursors of Christians, moralized slaughter. It was what Good had to do to Evil. “And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city” — so the Biblical book of Joshua celebrates the Israelites’ conquest of the Promised Land, God leading the way.

Christians, themselves survivors of atrocious persecutions under pagan Rome, inherited and honed the ethic whereby slaughter of the enemies of the one true God was a blessed undertaking. Pagans, Jews and Christian “heretics” fell to Christian fire and sword. When Islam’s rise beginning in the seventh century set jihadist against crusader, only the notion of another world could to some extent offset the horrors of the present one.

By the 16th century, the crusader’s zeal was muted. In his place there arose the missionary. Other worlds, “new worlds,” were discovered here on Earth — America by Columbus in 1492, Japan in 1543 by nameless Portuguese traders washed ashore in a storm. Xavier arrived six years later from Goa in India, having heard from the Portuguese that in Japan “much fruit might be gained for our holy faith, more than in any other part of the Indies, for they are a people most desirous of knowledge, which the Indian heathen are not.”

The missionaries who followed Xavier fared better than he did. Their connections with Portuguese merchants helped. Japan then was a chaos of petty fiefdoms, each at war with its neighbors. Turning Christian, the shrewder feudal lords discovered, brought worldly benefits. Foreign trade was one; foreign guns another.

Japan’s first Christian daimyo (feudal lord) was Omura Sumitada, who received baptism in 1562. His territory included a wretched little village called Nagasaki, whose true worth was soon revealed — it possessed a magnificent harbor. Omura grew rich and powerful beyond his hopes. Was this not Christianity proving its power? Beset by enemies, he appealed to the Portuguese for military help, which came, but with a price: Sumitada must repay his “great obligations” to God, said Padre Gaspar Coelho, head of the Jesuit mission in western Kyushu, by “extinguishing totally the worship and veneration of idols in his lands” and seeing to “the universal conversion of his vassals,” until “not a single pagan remained.”

No sooner spoken than done. The year was 1574. Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines were burned or demolished throughout the Omura domain; 60,000 subjects were baptized, by force if necessary.

The following decade saw Christianity take root. Daimyo, with whatever mix of religious and venal motives, were converting; so, voluntarily more often than not, were their subjects. By 1582, there were 200 churches serving an estimated 150,000 Christians. Missionaries who foresaw a Christian Japan were over-confident, perhaps, but not stupidly so. It could have happened. It would be hard to blame them for failing to predict what in fact occurred — “the most cruel persecution and torture of Christians ever witnessed on this globe,” wrote the German physician and chronicler Engelbert Kaempfer, stationed at Nagasaki with the Dutch East India Co. a century later.

Success turned the foreigners into swaggerers. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Japan’s most powerful warlord, felt provoked beyond endurance. When crew members of a Spanish galleon washed ashore at Shikoku boasted of their king’s power, Hideyoshi smelled imperialism. At Nagasaki he had 26 Christians, 17 of them Japanese, crucified. The next 40 years saw the wholesale slaughter of Christians throughout Japan. A typical scene was witnessed by the English trader Richard Cox in 1619: “Fifty-five persons of all ages and both sexes were burnt alive on the dry bed of the Kamo River in Kyoto, among them little children of 5 or 6 years old in their mothers’ arms, crying out ‘Jesus, receive their souls!'”

The “evil sect” — Hideyoshi’s words — never recovered.

Michael Hoffman blogs at www.michael-hoffman-18kh.squarespace.com.

  • juvus

    I wish more countries would push back against missionaries. I am NOT advocating slaughter, but don’t be so welcoming. They never bring anything worth receiving, especially on the African continent.

    When they come with bibles and say listen to me before I feed you, I wish more people would tell them to take their bible and their food and take a hike.

    • el noble

      So you dont believe in Freedom of Religion. Or it is just something against Christian Misionaries.

      • IslandAtheist

        Religion is child abuse. It destroys critical thinking skills and enslaves the minds of children. I’m against that.

      • David Marshall

        Many of the greatest thinkers in history have been deeply religious: if religion “destroys critical thinking skills,” how do you explain religious thinkers like Plato, Augustine, Lao Zi, Confucius, and the founders of modern science, most of whom were zealous Christian believers?

      • Harry Potter

        Its like saying many billionaires have had no degrees..The point is you need to quantify many since many many many more have had one.
        Thanks, Indian Pagan

      • phu

        This is a failure of logic: To suggest that people reject missionaries is to suggest they exercise their freedom NOT to have religion thrust upon them.

        I believe people should be allowed to practice whatever religion they want. But missionaries intentionally target people who do not understand the nature of what’s being done to them and recruit for their own purposes.

        An honest person does not need to hold a carrot in front of a starving man. He comes with a message, and if the person likes the message, great. When the food comes into the picture, it’s coercion, and you’re now somewhere between dishonest and unethical, depending on your motivations.

      • zer0_0zor0

        And the point is not whether one believes in any particular doctrine or not, but simply that one is aware and engaged.

        Doctrinaire teachings have the opposite effect of creating sheepish followers trying to uphold what has been ingrained in them as the sole correct teaching. The become disengaged from the world and disenfranchised from society at large–until they realize that they are missing something, that is…

    • Audwin Wilkinson

      True that. Religion is a contagious mental disease that only humans are susceptible to. It’s treatable, but the patients love their disease and are compelled to infect others with it. Pity. So many wasted minds.

      • Boey Kwan

        Please support your bias with credible evidence.

        To the atheists who want to down-vote me, I mean no offense, but Audwin Wilkinson should learn not to insult people’s beliefs.
        My father always said “State a problem, go find the solution.” AKA don’t just insult the situation from behind you computer screen.

      • Audwin Wilkinson

        I’ll insult bad ideas as bad ideas. Religion is a bad idea. It places blind faith over evidence and careful reasoning. There is no obligation to respect people’s beliefs. I don’t respect the beliefs of the KKK, Nazis, terrorists or those who share their beliefs. If you don’t want to be ridiculed, stop making ridiculous religious claims. If you’ve got evidence for your god, present it. If not, don’t bother others with your Bronze Age mumbo jumbo.

      • Guest

        I’ll totally admit the foolishness and absurdity of religious claims by KKK and extremists. There is no excuse, religious or otherwise, for brutal mass murder on the assumption that rewards in the afterlife are available if you hurt somebody else.
        And I hate it, when people who claim to believe in the protestant Christian God go around slaughtering people who disagree with their methods. Kings from the past, crusaders, yes, even missionaries.
        Honestly though, considering the main religion mentioned above… Have you tried searching for religious evidence? The credibility of the (Christian) Bible, from historic non-Christian records is astounding if you’ll keep an eye open for it.

        Make no mistake though; a true Protestant should not be slaughtering (or supporting harmful acts against others) just for a disagreement about belief. That’s stupid.

      • Guest

        Christianity is originally not supposed to be about hurting others. Some religions support hate or dissention; others say you have to work for your rewards. Christianity says you should love others and forgive; however, sadly it’s hard to find proper representations of Christian beliefs in the world.

      • Guest

        Christianity is originally not supposed to be about hurting others. Some religions support hate or dissention; others say you have to work for your rewards. Christianity says you should love others and forgive; however, sadly it’s hard to find proper representations of Christian beliefs in the world..

      • Boey Kwan

        I accidentally deleted my original response. That was clumsy.

      • Boey Kwan

        I’ll totally admit that religion often spurs on hate, slaughters, etc. Using religious excuses to support actions of the KKK or extremists is inexcusable and inhumane.
        I’ll apologize for the actions of my fellow Christians. In history they thought they could excuse murder for religion and racism. They’re not accurate representations of Christian believers — if they were, none of that bloodshed would be part of their curriculum.
        Have you ever tried looking into religious evidence, though? If you’ll just keep an eye open for it, you’ll find credible historic records from non-Christian sources (such as the Ancient Romans) which vouch for events that happened in the Bible.

      • Boey Kwan

        Side note: Christianity is originally not supposed to be about hurting others. Some religions support hate or dissention; others say you have to work for your rewards. Christianity says you should love others and forgive; however, none of the Christians are perfect. We just keep trying to be kind and good, because you know we’re all equals.

      • Audwin Wilkinson

        It’s a tragedy when anybody kills anybody over any idea, religious or otherwise. I studied the Bible in university. Before that, I was devout. I had one particular class, The History of the Bible. During that class, it became clear to me that the stories about miracles and divinity were fictitious. Made up by the theocratic rulers in order to control a gullible and illiterate mass of Bronze Age sheep herders. Academically and logically, that’s the only viable rational conclusion. That said, if you or anyone else can show me genuine, credible, demonstrable evidence for the existence of a god – any god – I will change my mind. I’ve been making that offer for about 20 years now and nobody has taken me up on it.

    • Michael Darmousseh

      Apparently you don’t know history at all and the things that missionaries have done for hundreds of societies. Introducing farming techniques, government, Christian ethics, and freedom from oppressive socities. You can disagree with their philosophy fine, but to say they don’t bring anything is wrong.

      • Chris Foley

        Apparently you’ve never read about the Spanish Inquisition. Since you’re talking about history here.

      • fullmetal

        But you can’t always expect the Spanish Inquisition.

      • David Marshall

        Huh? The Spanish Inquisitors were not missionaries. Mr. Darmousseh is correct. Sociologist Robert Woodberry argues that Protestant missions in particular laid the foundations for democracy around the world, by creating the institutions of civil society. Read his articles.

      • zer0_0zor0

        To what “institutions of civil society” might that refer? A bit of self-serving Protestant mythologizing, I gather. Luther can be credited with promoting literacy and printing in vernaculars, though, I’ll certainly grant that. But he wasn’t a missionary.

      • zer0_0zor0

        To what “institutions of civil society” might that refer? A bit of self-serving Protestant mythologizing, I gather. Luther can be credited with promoting literacy and printing in vernaculars, though, I’ll certainly grant that. But he wasn’t a missionary.

    • David Marshall

      Absolute bunk. The opposite is the truth. Almost every great reform in the past 1500 years was spearheaded by Christian missionaries:


      • zer0_0zor0

        What’s your affiliation?

      • Marcello1099


  • Tando

    “Equality in front of God“, was the Christian concept, which attracted many, especially poor people, because in the Far east not only this world but also the after world were hierarchically structured with no hope to escape your karmic fate.

    • Boey Kwan

      Well, honestly, that’s right.. But many people twist it and, even though they say they are Christian, they just want power.

  • SD

    Good for the japanese. These self proclaimed saviors are good for nothing. Islam and christianity are fighting for world domination. Stupid morons

    • Judging how my classmates talk about other religions,i wonder are they competing or just believing in what they believe in…

  • weicaiteo

    As people are equal, let the Japanese people to decide for themselves.

  • I am just glad Japan isn’t corrupted with islam

  • Tando

    One aspect that is easily overlooked is the fact, that Japan was one of the very, very few countries in Asia that was not colonized, thus enabling the country to modernize on its own terms. To this day Japan is the only fully developed country outside the western colonial powers. Expelling
    the Christian missionaries in the 17th century seems to have been a very wise decision.

    • David Marshall

      You’re a bit behind the times. Lots of other Asian countries are now “fully developed.” But Japanese developed by accepting western technology and rejecting western religion, and then by instituting a totalitarian state and trying to conquer East Asia. You’ll have a hard time finding other East Asians who think there’s was the ideal path.

      • Tando

        It is a matter of definition, what you call “fully developed”. Japan is still the only non western nation within the G8. Other Asian countries are catching up, but it doesn`t change the fact that Japan emerged as a global power, before and after WW2, without any precedent. And could you please mention any other country besides Japan and Thailand, which was not colonized. What Japan did to its neighboring countries is a completely different story.

      • GIJ

        The fact that Russia–a country where the economy crashes every single time oil prices go down–is a member of the G8 makes criteria for membership in that organization an utter and complete joke. Have you traveled to South Korea, Taiwan, or Singapore lately? They are all fully developed countries and no longer trying to catch up to G8 member states like Russia and Italy.

        Other Asian countries never colonized besides Japan and Thailand: China, of course, and also Iran, Afghanistan, Nepal, and Bhutan. None of them became a colonial power like Japan did, but none of them were ever formally ruled as colonial holdings of a foreign power.

      • Tando

        I admit that the degree of development is nowadays rather blurred and that the G8 reflects an outdated WW2 world picture. But are you serious about your claim that China was not under Colonial Rule. When Japan was forced to open in the middle of the 19th century, China had just lost two wars against England and France (Opium Wars). In 1900 a coalition of foreign powers defeated the Chinese Boxer Rebellion, and yes Japan was part of that coalition. I definitely don’t approve of Japanese aggression before WW2, but to be fair what about all the other colonial powers? Of course the British were only interested in spreading civilization to the rest of the world.
        As for other Asian nations that were not “formally” colonized, like Afghanistan or Thailand they seem to have been buffer zones between conflicting colonial powers.
        Next thing is, we are talking about the relation between colonialism and Christian missionaries, and I think you cannot deny the fact, that Christian missionaries were the groundbreaking agents to forward Imperial Interests.

      • GIJ

        “But are you serious about your claim that China was not under Colonial Rule.”

        Uh, yes I am. I’m not sure why you find this established fact so difficult to believe. The Western powers and Japan ruled small territorial concessions along China’s coast, but the rest of the country was an independent state and never colonized–not because it was strong, but because it simply had too many people. China was one of the original member states of the League of Nations in 1919–and not a member under the aegis of the British Empire like India was.

        In fact, the decision of the Western powers NOT to colonize China after 1900 and carve it up like a Christmas Day turkey as they had done to Africa was a major blow to imperial Japan and set the stage for all of Tokyo’s attempts at territorial expansion in China after 1931. It was the Meiji Era Japanese leaders more than anybody else who wanted to see Chinese territory divided among foreign powers after the Boxer Rebellion. But that didn’t happen, much to their disappointment.

    • zer0_0zor0

      That is partly due to the fact that Japan became–and still is–the center of Mahayana Buddhism in the world.

  • butterfly

    It seems to be said in foreign countries, Japan did oppression of Christianity. But the truth is a little different.
    バテレン追放令:The meaning of the “バテレン” is Father(padre) in Portuguese. That is the missionaries in Japan at the time. Toyotomi Hideyoshi was instructed to ban Christianity and Nanban trade in 1587. Why? The reason is, Christ missionaries had been complicit in human trafficking of Japanese. Gaspar Coelho of バテレン said as “We are just buying because there are sellers.” when Hideyoshi and he discussed about human trafficking. So Hideyoshi was instructed. This is the truth.

    • zer0_0zor0

      Well, the Christians were subversive politically and there is not question that the governments of the countries that sent them had imperialistic motives–even if what you say is true.

      In China, the missionaries were slightly more progressive for a time. Matteo Ricci, who first introduced Confucianism and the I’ching (易経) to German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz was against the ideological policy that all barbarians had to be converted to Christians, as he recognized Confucianism as a fully developed system of ethics compatible with Christianity.

      That was a highlight for Christianity, but there was a slight detraction in that Ricci, too, tried to garner favor with the government at the expense of the Buddhists and Buddhism in general. That is to say, his attempt to reconcile Confucianism with Christianity was conducted to a certain extent at the expense of Buddhism, attempting to promote Christianity at the expense of Buddhism.

      • butterfly

        Missionary story in China is very interesting. Thank you for telling me about.

        Well, the story in Japan is not why Christianity has not been popular in Japan, though. After missionary Xavier has left Japan, he confessed, “I was exhausted all of my energy and willpower. I was tested my limit.” in the round-trip letter with colleagues of the Jesuits. There are many anecdotes about it, such as he had trouble in reply to a question from the Japanese who had a doubt to the Christianity. (Though there is no reliable source of information about anecdotes.) The story is very fun because it represents well the sensibility of Japanese. After all, the Christianity does not fit for many Japanese.

  • David Marshall

    This is a rather melodramatic caricature. In fact, Christianity spread rapidly at first, not just because Japanese had to believe it — otherwise, 200 years of persecution would have totally snuffed it out in the first 20 years.

    “The West was absolutist?” Overwrought. The West was far more pluralistic and free than Japan was at the time.

  • Harry Potter

    Respect and Regards from India..Enjoyed reading how the Bhumiputras avoided church..Please write another one on how they fared against the mosque

  • Boey Kwan

    Please read to the end!! This isn’t preaching. I’m just stating facts.

    For those ‘power-abusing Christians’ I apologize; especially throughout history, there was always a constant abuse of power (Crusades, popes, so-called prophets), but they honestly weren’t Christians. I’m not saying that they didn’t believe in God, but they did not follow the truth.

    The point of Christianity is when a person believes in God’s love. Anybody who slaughtered or mistreated an innocent person were definitely not Christian, even if they thought they were. Maybe, I might want to share that love, and tell people they have hope. But I would never hurt some one for it, and I would NEVER force it down someone’s throat. *Note to ancestors: please get it right and stop hurting people.

  • Karigar Medha

    Shameless self righteous humbug, the Christian missionary system. “Soul harvesting” by hook or crook for the dead guy on a stick that the Roman Emperor Constantine appropriated. Born in violence, continues in violence, more mental & hidden these days