Christmas approaches. Christian or not, the mind turns to Christian themes.

What are the Christian themes? Love. Forgiveness. Meekness. Turn the other cheek. The kingdom of heaven.

Once upon a time Japan almost turned Christian. In 1549, a Basque missionary named Francis Xavier became the first to preach the word of Christ on Japanese soil. In 1638, a Christian-led uprising of starved peasants in the impoverished domain of Shimabara near Nagasaki was crushed with such genocidal fury as to bury the “pernicious doctrine” for 250 years.

The years between are known as Japan’s “Christian century.”

From the start, Xavier saw something proto-Christian in the Japanese character. The Japanese, he said, “are most desirous of knowledge. … It seems to me that among unbelievers no people can be found to excel them.”

The seeds he planted bore fruit. The doctrine appealed. It offered eternal life in a better world. Missionaries roamed the land, converting feudal lords one by one, commoners en masse. In the 1580s, there were some 200 churches serving 150,000 Japanese worshippers. Was this the wave of the future?

In 1582, there occurred an epochal event in Japanese history — Japan’s first diplomatic mission to Europe, sponsored by three Kyushu lords who had embraced the faith and sought relations with the pope. The ambassadors were cordially received at the Vatican and returned home after nine years. In 1613, a second mission followed, this one dispatched by Lord Date Masamune of Sendai. His motives were partly religious, partly commercial. Trade with Spain and New Spain (Mexico) was a tempting prospect. Though unbaptized, Masamune had been instructed in the faith and sympathized with it to the extent of welcoming to his remote northern domain Christian refugees, Japanese and foreign, from the mounting persecution soon to reach its climax.

His ambassador-in-chief on the mission that over eight years (1613-20) ranged from Mexico to Rome via Spain and France was a samurai named Hasekura Rokuemon (1571-1622), baptized in Spain as Francisco Felipe Faxicura. He carried a message from Masamune to Pope Paul VI: “In order to encourage my subjects to become Christians, I wish you to send missionaries of the Franciscan church. I guarantee that you will be able to build a church and that your missionaries will be protected.”

He was sincere no doubt, but on the wrong side of history. Decades before the Shimabara rebellion, Japan’s early Christian fervor began waning. The first official suppression occurred in 1587. Though lightly enforced, it warned of worse to come. In 1596, 26 Christians — six Spanish Franciscans and 20 Japanese — were crucified at Nagasaki. By the time the Hasekura mission returned in 1620, those Christians who had not undergone forced recantation or appalling martyrdom were on the run, a pitiful, ragtag band stumbling towards oblivion. Hasekura died in disgrace in 1622.

We meet him again, transfigured, in a superb novel — “The Samurai” (1980), by Shusaku Endo (1923-96). Baptized as a child, Endo years later told an interviewer, “There were many times when I felt I wanted to get rid of my Catholicism, but I was finally unable to do so.” The ambivalence this implies pervades his work. His Hasekura, the “samurai” of the title, seems closer to Endo than to the historical Hasekura. The fictional Hasekura is not the mission’s leader but a subordinate member of it, fumblingly inarticulate — Endo’s self-image? And his conversion to Christianity, like Endo’s, is not chosen but thrust upon him; he goes through with it sullenly and grudgingly, for the sake of his mission. His disgrace upon his return, as a member of a despised enemy sect, is tragically ironic.

Jesus disgusts him: “There he was on the cross, a naked, emaciated man, feeble arms outstretched, head hanging limp — and yet the southern barbarians (Europeans) call him ‘savior’! I don’t understand. The only man a samurai can call ‘savior’ is his lord.” A warrior’s lord personified power, strength, earthly glory. What did Jesus on the cross personify? Wretchedness, humiliation and impotence.

Later in the novel, in Rome, a conclave of high churchmen deliberate on how to respond to the Japanese mission. A certain Father Valenti has lately returned in despair from 30 years of missionary work in Japan. He advises rejecting the Date overtures. The cause is hopeless, he says. The Japanese will never be Christian.

“No one in this world,” he says, “is less suited to our faith than the Japanese.

“The Japanese,” he explains, “are fundamentally incapable of conceiving an Absolute Being, a Being who transcends man, transcends nature.” Japanese gods, Shinto and Buddhist, are of this world, not beyond it. There is no “beyond.” “This world” is all there is. Japanese Christians know not what they worship, Valenti argues — certainly not God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost of Roman Catholicism.

“It is easy,” Valenti continues, “to teach the Japanese the evanescence of this world. Of that they have a well-developed sense already.” So far so good — but where Christians see a problem (evanescence) demanding a solution (eternity), the Japanese see beauty. The Japanese, Valenti says — and he says it almost with horror — celebrate evanescence. Consider the cherry blossom. Does it not bloom only to wither and fall? And yet is there anything more beautiful, anything to which the Japanese soul is more responsive?

Love, forgiveness, turning the other cheek — one scans the native tradition in vain for examples. Self-sacrifice abounds, but in the form of death in battle, in obedience to no higher command than that of one’s overlord. Endo’s Jesus is a pitiful figure. He is the “suffering servant” of the Old Testament Prophet Isaiah, “despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows.” He is divine, in Endo’s view, not because of his power but because of his love — his infinite, all-embracing, all-forgiving love. Endo’s Jesus, in a sense, is the cherry blossom of Western culture. When Christianity came knocking on Japan’s door, Japan, hospitable at first, finally turned it away, saying, in effect, “We already have cherry blossoms.”

Michael Hoffman’s new book is “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan.”

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