A Fresh Encounter with Jesus
Atsuyoshi Fujiwara has been a pastor and scholar in Japan since 1999. Immediately after the March 2011 disaster, he joined volunteers in relief work and believes the Japanese church's rapid response is a key reason why some Japanese are giving Christianity a fresh look.
A professor of theology at Seigakuin University and founding pastor at Covenant of Grace Church in Tokyo, Fujiwara recently published Theology of Culture in a Japanese Context: A Believers' Church Perspective (Wipf and Stock). He is helping to plan the third theological conference at Fuller Seminary to examine the Christian response to Japan's triple disaster. Christianity Today senior editor of global journalism, Timothy C. Morgan, interviewed Fujiwara by e-mail.
You say that Japan has had three separate encounters with Christianity. What went wrong with each of them?
Each period was different. Yet there was a pattern: Christianity came in chaotic periods when Japan lost peace and order.
Sixteenth-century warfare preceded the arrival of Jesuits and the Roman Catholic mission. Then, after 250 years of the Shogunate era, Japan's isolation ended in 1844, and Western missions groups arrived. After World War II, Christian missions increased.
Initially Japan accepted Christianity, yet gradually rejected it when the nation recovered peace, order, and confidence. The Roman Catholic mission was remarkable. We had numerous Christian martyrs. In the latter two periods, Christianity became more success-oriented around the idea that "Japan needs democracy and Christianity to be successful." When Japan became successful without Christianity, it abandoned it.
What occurred after the 2011 disasters that triggered what you call Japan's fourth encounter with Christianity?
After the disaster, churches and organizations naturally worked together beyond denominational walls to deliver foods and supplies. We realized that we were "Christians" to 99 percent of the Japanese people.
Before the disaster, Japanese churches had been isolated from society without participating in regional festivals and activities, which were often connected to Shintoism and Buddhism. The churches were trying to be "pure." Yet after the disasters, they came to be strongly involved in relief works while keeping a pure motivation of helping people. People saw the genuine motivation of Christian volunteers. Now churches are trusted.
What would authentic Christianity in Japan look like?
It would be prophetic and priestly. This is applicable to any society. In Japan, it should challenge Japanese nationalism and the part of culture that tries to be independent from God and refuses to confess that Jesus Christ is the Lord. Authentic Christianity also loves and embraces Japan despite its fallenness. It forms healthy culture by transforming it and producing alternatives.
What aspects of Japanese culture resonate most deeply with the Bible's "God so loved the world" message?
Suffering is a key area in Japanese culture—though by no means exclusively Japanese. In 1946, the late Japanese theologian Kazoh Kitamori published an important book, The Theology of the Pain of God.
In the 1960s, theologian Paul Tillich said that substitutionary atonement did not make sense to many Americans. But the Japanese can still understand it. Parents still make sacrifices for children today. The suffering of God for and with us is a great message for the Japanese.