Headlines like these have become common: “Is Washington in Japan’s pocket?” “Big Three auto makers play second fiddle to Japan,” and “Why Johnny can’t read, but Yoshiro can.” Japan’s emergence as a global power has captured the interest of the world.

But for all the media fascination with how the Japanese think, work, educate, and become successful, Westerners hear almost nothing about the role of Christianity in Japan. No wonder Christians find it strange that at a time when Japan has reached international prominence, news of its churches seems scarce.

What has happened to Japan’s church? Even Christian leaders in Japan refer to an “invisible church” in a highly visible land. Indeed, the number of Christians in Japan is astonishingly small. Despite the presence of a number of historic denominations and independent groups, most counts reveal that Christians make up less than 1 percent of Japan’s 123 million residents. This is all the more striking in light of the burgeoning Christian population of one of Japan’s closest neighbors, South Korea, where Christians make up almost a third of the population.

But smallness in this case does not mean insignificance. The country that pioneered the transistor and microchip and excels in producing compact cars is home for a church that, while small, is growing in influence. The Japanese, for all their much-publicized consumerism and materialism, are showing a renewed interest in religious matters. Amid the people’s searching, evangelical churches continue to attract attention and respect in a land long dominated by Shinto, Buddhism, and syncretism.

Macarthur’s “Macedonian Call”

Japan’s churches—and the country’s religious milieu—cannot be understood apart from the land’s rugged geography. Japan is actually a mountainous chain of islands, a half-moon archipelago separated from the Asian mainland by the Sea of Japan. For more than 200 years, beginning in the early seventeenth century, the serenity of the mist-shrouded valleys, tiny fishing villages, and thriving cities was undisturbed by foreign contacts (see “Two Centuries of Silence,” p. 29).

Despite the arrival of missionaries in more modern times, Japan has never been dominated by any “foreign” religion—not Confucianism, Buddhism, or Christianity. This is true even in such metropolises as Tokyo, where Western influence is evidenced by McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants, and by young people decked out in punk fashions. The highly nationalistic, native folk religion of Shinto still forms the most visible religious influence.

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Even so, the current state of Japan’s religious life—and the influence of Christianity—cannot be understood apart from a dramatic moment after World War II. When Gen. Douglas Mac-Arthur, supreme commander of the Allied Powers, took charge of Japan’s postwar reparations, he recognized both the country’s spiritual void and the threat of communism (especially in the wake of the emperor’s renunciation of his deity). MacArthur took an unprecedented step: He appealed to the worldwide Christian church to send 10,000 missionaries and 10 million Bibles. While hundreds of missionaries, not thousands, responded, this “Macedonian call” brought a wave of missionaries to Japan’s shores.

One of the first to arrive was Yutaka Akichika, a Nisei (a person born in the U.S. of parents who emigrated from Japan). It was “a time of unlimited opportunities, when people were spiritually hungry and open to the Word of God,” he remembers. At his first evangelistic meeting in front of Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station, 19 repented and accepted Christ. Street meetings would draw hundreds of people, who also eagerly accepted Christian literature. The Pocket Testament League was able to distribute millions of copies of the Gospel of John.

At the same time, the door to China closed and a number of veteran missionaries serving there came to Japan. Among them was a missionary from the Evangelical Alliance Mission (TEAM), Arthur Nelson, who was born and raised in China. He led mass street meetings across Japan and, with a portable electric generator, showed Moody Science Films, which were a great attraction. Even American GIs regrouped and served as missionaries under the auspices of the Far Eastern Gospel Crusade (SEND International). Interestingly, almost all of today’s evangelical church leaders were brought to Christ in the years right after the war. The hundreds of missionaries who came to Japan found the Land of the Rising Sun ripe for harvest. Missionaries today still wonder, though, what Japan would be like had ten thousand responded to MacArthur’s call.

Japan’s Best Seller

Whatever might have been, it is generally agreed that the comparatively tiny number of Christians in Japan has a disproportionate impact on society. Christians are strongly represented among the intellectuals of Japanese society. Many educated Japanese have a clearer concept of the history and tenets of Christianity than of Buddhism.

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According to an opinion poll conducted by the Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK) in 1985, the number of people who claim to be Christians may actually be closer to 2 percent. In a recent survey, the Roman Catholic Church’s Public Relations Office found that 33 percent had attended a church service at some time, and that in major cities, such as Tokyo and Osaka, over 30 percent of the homes had Bibles and Christian literature. Moreover, an astonishing 43 percent under the age of 30 had their own Bibles.

Amazingly, the Bible is Japan’s best seller. Translations have multiplied. The evangelicals’ New Japanese Bible has a distribution of over five-and-a-half million. In 1989 alone, sales reached 700,000.

Indeed, Christian publishing in Japan is big business. Much of the world’s best Christian literature is available in Japanese translation. Evangelicals also have their own newspaper, the Christian. Some groups, such as Every Home Crusade (EHC), are trying to blanket communities with tracts and pamphlets. EHC has already distributed 135 million pieces of Christian literature, with 380,000 responding to an invitation to enroll in a Bible-correspondence course. Organizations like New Life League distribute printed material at minimal or no cost. This is all the more significant in a country that boasts 100 percent literacy.

While it is not possible to have Christian broadcasting stations in Japan, the gospel nevertheless reaches many homes by radio and TV. Purchasing time on commercial stations is expensive. Pacific Broadcasting Association’s five- or ten-minute “Light of the World” programs, however, are aired on more than two dozen commercial stations. These broadcasts have the potential of reaching as many as 95 percent of the population. Satellite broadcasting is also opening a new horizon for evangelism. Billy Graham’s Hong Kong Crusade late in 1990 (CT, Jan. 14, 1991, pp. 42–44), for example, could be seen via satellite in 60 locations across Japan.

Christian schools, started when the missionaries arrived in Japan in the nineteenth century, have been another channel of Christian influence in a land where education is prized. While most colleges have lost their original Christian fervor and commitment, chapel and group activities offer ample opportunity for evangelism. Organizations such as Campus Crusade for Christ, Kirisutosha Gakusei Kai (a group similar to the U.S.’s InterVarsity Christian Fellowship), and the Navigators find campuses a rich harvest field.

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Training of pastors has kept pace. Almost a hundred theological schools, with an approximate enrollment of 3,000, dot the Japanese landscape. Fourteen schools now participate in the Association of Evangelical Theological Seminaries. And during these days of unparalleled prosperity in Japan, many campuses are expanding or renovating. The establishment of Tokyo Christian University, a four-year university accredited by the Ministry of Education, has been hailed as a victory for evangelicals here. The school is expected to play a major role in the training of missionaries who will serve in all parts of the world, but especially Asia.

The Price Of Prosperity

But with all the activity, what explains the small size of the church in Japan?

The reasons are several, but the main factors relate to Japanese culture and religion.

Materialism, for example, is a constant temptation in Japanese society. Japan’s pursuit of wealth can be explained largely by the people’s lingering memories of abject poverty following World War II. When the people discovered that hard work brought rewards, that it was possible to achieve a higher living standard and become a member of the expanding middle class, desire for wealth became a national obsession.

Indeed, Japan’s economy has known unparalleled growth for almost a decade. Personal savings per household average ¥11 million (about $80,000). Hunger is unknown.

The new-found prosperity has come with a price, however. The term workaholic appropriately describes the average Japanese male. In addition to long work hours, much time and energy is consumed in commuting. With skyrocketing land prices, “bed towns”—to which workers return for little else but sleep—are being pushed farther into the countryside, necessitating hours of commuting time in trains that are notoriously overcrowded. During rush hours, transit companies employ extra hands to push people into the overflowing trains. Workers reach their places of work frustrated and tired.

It is true that compensation for Japanese workers is excellent. Housing subsidies are standard, commuting expenses are borne by the company, and lifelong employment is guaranteed. Bonuses typically add the equivalent of two to five months’ salary each year. But such rewards do little to encourage interest in church. At the end of a long, tedious week, sleeping late on Sunday mornings is a temptation few Japanese want to resist.

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Beyond the rigorous schedule, a Japanese Christian worker faces other dilemmas. Company policies often dictate that employees place themselves second to company interests, that they be prepared to die (from overwork) to advance the cause of the company.

There are, however, Christians in Japanese workplaces who do bring transformed priorities into the routine. Masanobu Sakaguchi, employed by the Marine and Fire Insurance Company (Kaijo-Kasai Hoken), is an example. When Sakaguchi became a Christian, he found that his company’s demands made it almost impossible for him to participate actively in church life. Growing increasingly troubled, he left his managerial post and devoted himself to the company labor union as its new head, where he unapologetically wielded his Christian influence.

After several years as a labor-union leader, Sakaguchi returned to the company headquarters, where he was invited to head a task force that would present recommendations for improving management practices. And while the recommendations Sakaguchi eventually brought to the company called for radical changes, all were accepted, leading to a remarkable revitalization of the company. Sakaguchi himself was appointed chief director of his department. “This is something I could do only because of my faith,” he says of his career.

The high value assigned to career and company loyalty leads to other, more subtle pressures on Christians in the workplace. “The nail that sticks out is hammered in,” the Japanese proverb cautions. Hong Kong resident Ton Cho Yu, a Christian businessman living in Japan for the past two years, observes that emphasis on group allegiance is sometimes oppressive: “A person’s life mirrors to the minutest detail the lives of those around him. This applies even to clothing and one’s way of speaking. For Christians, who are not imitators of the lifestyles of the people around them, but imitators of Christ, this makes faith particularly difficult.”

Such pressures to conform and compete affect Japan’s citizens from the earliest years. Competition begins in kindergarten. In the lower grades, students come under pressure to do well and to pass the various examinations that will determine their futures. High-school and college entrance examinations are referred to as “examination hell.” Cram schools, found throughout the country, supplement public education and allow students to prepare for the exams. But surveys in large cities such as Tokyo and Osaka show that cram schools, which meet on evenings and weekends, keep students from attending Sunday school.

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In addition, Communist leadership controlled the national Teacher’s Union until recently. And Japan’s Ministry of Education exerts a strong influence; teachers must adhere to, and comply with, ideological guidelines drawn up by the government. Such guidelines place a premium on traditional Japanese values, which sometimes clash with Christian values.

Christians And The “God Shelf”

Many see a renewed spiritual hunger among the Japanese, however. Awareness of the shallowness of ambition and affluence may be leading the Japanese into a search for truth. One spokesman for NHK notes, “It used to be that people turned to religion because of poverty, disease, and war. But it seems that affluence has the same effect.”

Unfortunately, such openness is hampered by another obstacle to Christianity’s spread: the nation’s strong ties to traditional religious practices. When asked about religion, many Japanese will reply that they are Buddhist. But they usually have little interest in classical Buddhism; Shinto claims many adherents as well. In fact, religious surveys show that a majority of Japanese claim to be Buddhist and Shinto at the same time. At a previous New Year’s observance, 80 million Japanese flocked to Shinto shrines. These same people would not hesitate to arrange for Buddhist weddings or funerals, however.

Practiced for over 2,000 years, Shinto had no founder and has no clearly formulated doctrines or sacred texts, which allows it to mingle freely with Buddhist beliefs and practices. Unfortunately, many Japanese with strong religious needs turn to assorted amalgams of superstition, Shinto, Buddhism, Christianity, and so on. These are often known as “new religions.”

One influential religious group popular in Japan is the Buddhist lay movement, Soka Gakkai (known in the U.S. and elsewhere as Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism). It emphasizes chanting, personal happiness and prosperity, and harmony among humankind. While Soka Gakkai initially held great appeal for the lower class, postwar prosperity has seen the spread of the faith among the middle class. The Soka University has assembled an impressive faculty and opens the door to higher education, while the Komeito party (Japan’s number-two opposition party) represents Soka Gakkai interests in the political arena.

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One of the biggest religious issues for every Japanese Christian is ancestor worship, which grows out of Shinto belief. Ancestor worship often puts new Christians in tension with family and relatives (see “The Japanese Church’s Most Critical Issue,” below). When one member of the clan wishes to escape from the obligations, usually the entire family registers strong opposition. This sometimes creates resentment toward Christianity.

It may also lead believers to various forms of syncretism. The Japan Central Committee of the Roman Catholic Church, for example, has come out with a handbook for Catholics on how to deal with matters related to the dead, especially ancestor worship. Consider the following question and answer from the handbook:

“Question: I am a Catholic believer but the rest of my family is Buddhist. Can I fold my hands before the altar [god shelf], ring the bell and offer rice and prayers?

“Answer: Even though the deceased was not baptized, to pray for this person who lived an upright life is the sacred responsibility of family members. When folding your hands before the altar, for instance, you should pray in your heart: Lord, grant him/her eternal peace. Ringing the bell and offering rice is an expression of your love and respect towards your ancestors.”

From all indications, such compromise has not produced positive results.

The High Cost Of Growth

Another obstacle facing the Japanese church is the exorbitant cost of land. The escalation of real-estate values is the country’s most pressing domestic issue. High prices for land not only keep the average Japanese from acquiring his or her own home, they also prevent the average church from moving from temporary, rented quarters to property of its own. How can a small congregation of 20 or 30 launch a building project requiring millions of dollars? Big cities, where receptivity to the gospel is the greatest, feel the pinch the most. Land prices in Tokyo, for example, average $7,550 per square meter. Assuming that the land purchased would be kept to the minimum of 330 square meters, its cost would still be a staggering $2.5 million—to which the cost of the building itself must be added. Even in Hokkaido, Japan’s sparsely populated northernmost island, a 330-square-meter parcel of land would cost $375,000.

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Of course, a building does not a church make. Indeed, some argue that the high cost of land has helped Japanese churches avoid being tempted by the building-centered approach to ministry common in some affluent countries. Renting halls for worship services has provided one solution. Some even suggest that land prices make it more economically feasible for Japanese churches to send missionaries to other countries than to invest in church buildings in their own land, a solution congenial to Great-Commission-minded Japanese evangelicals.

Whatever the factors, churches have mounted impressive missionary efforts. Approximately 300 missionaries from Japan serve in 36 countries. According to Minoru Okuyama, general secretary of Japan’s Antioch Mission (an international missionary-sending agency), this represents a 124 percent increase over the past ten years.

Problems With Authoritarianism

The smallness of Japan’s church has to do with more than external factors. Tensions within the church itself also provide partial explanation.

Authoritarianism, for example, presents a barrier to many Japanese. Like the country’s industry, the church is often overorganized and controlled by someone (in this case, the pastor) who governs with an authoritarian paternalism. Followers are taught that it is Christlike to keep opinions to themselves. Because the Japanese people already live in a regimented, production-oriented society, they are sometimes reluctant to join yet another institution, even if religious in character.

Not surprisingly, Christian groups that de-emphasize such control attract interest. A slogan used in Plymouth Brethren church circles has met with warm response: “Our church has no pastor, takes no offerings, and is not organized.”

Japan also has a “No Church Movement,” an intriguing group established about a century ago by Uchimura Kanzo in reaction to a church structure he believed called for obedience to human authority rather than God. Saburo Takahashi, a prominent No Church Movement leader today, argues that “the church should draw believers to God. But in actuality, the church has usurped the authority that belongs only to God.” He defines the movement’s guiding principles: only Christ, only the Bible, only by faith. Some see signs of a rapprochement of the established church with the No Church Movement.

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There are also a number of initiatives for unification among evangelical church groups, such as a merger effort under way between Association of Independent Churches, SEND International, Overseas Missionary Fellowship, and churches associated with Liebenzeller Mission.

The Possibilities Ahead

What is on the horizon for tomorrow’s church in Japan? Writing in a Japanese publication, a Japan Youth Corps participant, Yutaka Ikema, recently made note of Japan’s “pride in saying, ‘We have gotten this far apart from the heritage [of the] Western Christian nations.’ Such self-confidence appears to be increasing, which will make it more difficult to reach [the] Japanese for Christ.”

But the church also shows strong possibilities for growth in the nineties. The Japan Church Growth Institute predicts that by 2000 the total number of believers could reach 1.3 percent. Already believers number 3 percent in the province of Okinawa, where the population is 1.3 million. Okinawans have set a goal of increasing the percentage to 10 percent.

Denominations that emphasize aggressive evangelism have also shown growth. The Evangelical Free Church, for example, increased from 5 churches in 1957 to 45 in 1987, while average church attendance rose during that period from 122 to 4,097.

These are exciting days for evangelicals in Japan. While discord has for decades troubled Japan’s largest denomination, the ecumenically oriented and liberal United Church of Christ, evangelicals are setting aside their differences to band together. In 1968, the Japan Evangelical Association (JEA) formed and was seen as the beginning of official cooperation among evangelicals. JEA now has 38 denominations along with 12 independent church groupings. Thirty-two parachurch ministries have also joined. Member churches have a membership close to 100,000. JEA is now a full member of the Evangelical Fellowship of Asia and the World Evangelical Fellowship, JEA’s activities include the sponsoring or cosponsoring of regional minicongresses on evangelism throughout 1990 and 1991, which will culminate in the All Japan Congress on Evangelism in June.

These positive signs of cooperation are not limited to Japan, but they extend to all of Asia and the rest of the world. The time is coming when the church in Japan will play a significant role in reaching Asia with the good news of Christ.

Christians in Japan are keenly aware of the fact that church leaders around the world are not all sympathetic about the slow growth of the church in Japan. Certainly the lack of numerical growth has been a disappointment to missionaries and pastors here. Japanese Christians are sensitive to the criticism that the churches in Japan are exclusive rather than outgoing, and that there exists in Japan a sense of self-satisfaction. Such attitudes, of course, must be changed.

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At the same time, Japan’s churches thank God for what he has done in postwar Japan. Reports of “revivals” and rapid growth in other countries, as challenging and wonderful as they are, are no cause for self-pity as believers look at the present scene in Japan. They lift their eyes in praise for what God has done and for what he is yet to do in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Christianity’s first recorded penetration of Japan came with the arrival of the Spanish Jesuit Francis Xavier in 1549 (although some historians point to evidence that emissaries from the fifth-century Byzantine Nestorius influenced early Japanese Buddhism). Under the patronage of the ruling Japanese warlord, Nobunaga, and his successor, Hideyoshi, the Roman Catholic faith spread rapidly. Thousands of Japanese converted. Soon fierce persecution erupted, however, and many Christians were martyred. Twenty-six were crucified on a single day in 1597, at a site now marked by a shrine in Nagasaki.

Hideyoshi ordered the expulsion of all foreign missionaries, but his decree was not rigidly enforced at first. But when a group of Christian peasants took up arms against government forces in 1637, Japan’s ruling elite, the Nobunaga shogunate, crushed the rebels and prohibited Christianity entirely. Despite such oppressive policies, groups of hidden Christians managed to maintain their faith in secret for over two centuries, cut off from all clergy and from all contact with foreigners.

In 1859, Japan reopened itself to Western contact, allowing foreigners once again to reside in the country. Protestant missionaries arrived immediately. The first Protestant convert was baptized in 1864, and the first Protestant church was established in Yokohama in 1872.

These early efforts were carried out under considerable harassment, but in 1873 the government lifted its edict prohibiting Christianity. Missionaries were no longer restricted in their ministry. By 1909, approximately 600 Protestant churches were established. This figure rose to 2,120 by 1950. During World War II, the government forcibly amalgamated all Protestant groups into the United Church of Christ in Japan. This group emerged as the voice of the Protestant church and affiliated with the World Council of Churches. It represented about 75 percent of the Protestants.

Evangelical groups, which had to start from scratch after the war, have now grown to the point that they make up almost half of all Protestants. Over 7,000 Protestant churches can be found throughout the archipelago. The growth of several of the church groups and denominations that entered Japan after World War II has been striking.

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