Think about potential objections to Jesus Christ. Why do people reject him?
In the few intentional conversations I’ve had with Japanese people about Jesus, I have only heard one objection. Something like, “I can’t believe; I’m Japanese.”
Now I’m sure there are other reasons people in Japan reject Jesus. There are certainly deeper issues beneath the surface of this objection. To date, it is the only one I have heard verbally expressed from the lips of a Japanese person. It is almost as if being a Christian and being Japanese are popularly viewed as mutually exclusive. Not only that, but the two are so obviously incompatible that if a person mentions his or her Japanese identity, the hearer should then respond: “Oh, I see. Now that you mention it, being Japanese does make it impossible for you to believe in Jesus and be saved.” Game over. Case closed. You cannot pass. The door is shut.
Except it’s not. That a Japanese nationality or ethnicity is a hindrance to faith in Christ is a misconception based on misunderstandings about both the Christian faith and Japanese history. I think people use it as an excuse to not engage further with Jesus Christ. That’s nothing new. People of all cultures look for easy-outs when it comes to dealing with Jesus. But, national and/or ethnic identity is an invalid excuse. Here is a demonstrable fact: In the history of the world, there has never been a religion more globally encompassing and culturally adaptable than Christianity. It’s not even close. There is no ethnic, national or cultural identity that precludes someone from faith in Christ.
The Christian faith entered Japan over 200 hundred years before the United States of America even existed. It is true that Christianity’s influence has been comparatively greater and more visible in the U.S., but it’s presence dates back longer in Japan–to the mid 1500’s. I once heard a secular historian state that the church in Japan was larger in 1590 than it was in 1950. Then, there were an estimated 300,000 Japanese Christians. That means there were more Christians in Japan than there were Europeans in the “New World” at that time. Obviously, something changed. Here’s a little background info.
Japan in the 1400-1500’s was led by local warlords or “daimyo” who owned much of the land and set up their own laws and local armies. Cities and villages were responsible for defending themselves–one of the roles of the samurai. At the time, Japan was sort of like a petri dish for civil conflict, piracy and strife. Eventually, these things made the journey across the Sea of Japan, straining relationships with China and Korea.
This is when Francis Xavier and the Jesuits arrived on the scene, introducing the Christian faith to Japan. Some may take issue with the form of Christianity they introduced, Christianity began sinking its roots into Japanese soil nonetheless. And, it really seemed to flourish for a season. Many were drawn by the honor and practical application of Christianity.
Then, in the late 1500’s a daimyo named Hideyoshi began rising to power, conquering and/or uniting warring clans. At first, he enacted policies to stop the spread of Christianity. But, his stance softened, and policies were only loosely enforced. Many of the early Christians were daimyo or samurai with significant influence; some became Hideyoshi’s generals.
Hideyoshi ordered an invasion of Korea with the aim of eventually taking down the Ming dynasty in China and establishing Japan as the greatest power in East Asia. The Japanese army quickly defeated the Koreans until the Chinese army intervened, bringing the attempted invasion to a standstill. Instead of retreating back to Japan, Hideyoshi ordered a second offensive. However, it soon became clear that they could not defeat China and Korea. So, Hideyoshi began turning on the Christians again. He crucified 26 Christians (20 of whom were Japanese), including three children.
Hideyoshi died in 1598, and there was a great civil battle in 1600. Tokugawa Ieyasu emerged victorious, kicking off what would become known as the Tokugawa Shogunate, lasting until 1868. Still fresh off a defeat in Korea/China, Japan largely soured on everything international. Thus, the Tokugawa period is famously marked by isolation. With a few exceptions, Japan largely cut off interaction with other nations.
Internally, the Tokugawa clan viewed Christianity as a threat to their own power. It was not expelled because of its foreignness; rather, Tokugawa did not want other clans in Japan uniting against his. They rightly saw that Christianity had the potential to bring enemy clans together with a strength and unity that would rival their own. They did not want competing allegiances. So, Tokugawa immediately enacted laws against Christianity. In the 1630’s, his successor followed suit and enacted stricter laws. The Shimabara Rebellion in 1637-1638 was a last attempt to push back against these laws and others, but it failed. Over 125,000 troops came in, defeated the rebels and executed those involved.
Christianity was officially outlawed. Those who refused to recant were tortured and killed. Japan withdrew further into isolation, ensuring that foreign Christians would not enter the country again for over 200 years. Although a small underground church remained, the rapid spread of Christianity in Japan came to an end.
Here is why I think this matters: Christianity can and even has flourished in Japan. It was uprooted, primarily because it was viewed as a threat, not because it was culturally incompatible. But, Christianity is a threat (and asset) to every culture. Japan isn’t unique in that way.
I have heard some lament how hard it is for a Japanese person to come to faith in Christ. Some missiologists call it the difficult mission field in the world in terms of seeing people turn to Jesus. Difficult, yes, but not impossible. The Japanese don’t have genetic immunities to Christ. That can be proven from both history and the Scriptures.
I don’t know why God has directed the history of Japan the way that he has. I don’t know why so many Christians were martyred on Japanese soil, nor do I understand why so few believe today. But, I trust that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. I have great hope that Lord who guides history could again do what He did almost 500 years ago. He could do far more.
We desire to see Japanese people come to faith in Christ, because we think that will bring them joy like they’ve never experienced before. “In his presence there is fullness of joy; at his right hand are pleasure forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). We want to see a gospel movement spread throughout the country–and beyond. We pray for a day when it’s clear someone can be Japanese and a follower of Jesus Christ.