Christianity in Japan

I spent this past semester studying Japanese in Kyoto, Japan. While I was there, I got to learn about Japanese Christian culture. Japan is not a very Christian country with only a small percentage of its population being Christian. However, there are a lot of interesting stories about Christians in Japan. In the 16th century, Christianity was growing quite avidly.

Under Portuguese missionaries serving under Saint Francis Xavier, Christianity started to spread. Francis himself even said that of all the people they have met around the world, no one has taken to Christianity like the Japanese. There were even quite a few Japanese samurai and regional lords who were Christian.

This changed near the end of the century when a man known as Hideyoshi rose to power. Hideyoshi hated Christians like many powerful lords did, seeing it as a foreign menace that was growing. Hideyoshi was also a devout Buddhist. Hideyoshi banned Jesuit missionaries and forced many Christians to give up their faith. He even crucified 27 missionaries in 1597.

This worsened under the next ruler, Tokugawa, who made Christianity itself illegal in 1614, perhaps out of fear of it spreading and uniting against him. Christianity remained illegal for close to 279 years resulting in over 500 recognized martyrs by the Catholic Church. It only became legal again after America forced the country to open its borders. 

Now that's the bad news. Christians in Japan have historically been heavily persecuted in Japan. I even saw a historical landmark at a graveyard lauding a man who was instrumental in wiping out Christianity. But, there have been some amazing stories of faith happening during this period. There were many Christian and Catholic Samurai, and even some influential lords, that started to flourish under the first Unifier of Japan, Nobunaga, a man who cared little about religion and saw no harm in it spreading (from what I gathered).

One samurai, Takayama Ukon, had over ten thousand followers, and he was one of the few that was allowed to escape to the Phillipines (because he was a strong military ally under Hideyoshi and Nobunaga) with his life and some followers. If you go to the Philippines today, you can see a statue of him, as he has been given the status of one of the Blessed (One step below a Saint in Catholicism. Many others also received the Saint title, namely the Matryrs.).

During this period of persecution, a number of stalwart Christians fled to the Island of Fukue, just off the coast of Nagasaki. Because it was illegal, they passed down their faith verbally generation to generation, with only a few Japanese/Latin bibles, which they hid. They also had some hidden symbols of faith, like in the picture below of a Buddhist lantern that has a little figure at the bottom which represents the Virgin Mary. These lanterns can even be found in Kyoto and elsewhere in Japan. On Fukue, there are dozens of churches, some active and some historical landmarks, but it is a place where the often-forgotten history of Japanese Christianity is enshrined, and a beautiful place I got to visit.

Ethan is an old stock Canadian who spends alot of time in Asia, or cooking with Dan son after church. He hopes to be a an elementary school teacher/househusband. Visiting this place and living in Japan has made me so incredibly thankful not just to be surrounded by a thriving Christian community here at Redemption, at UCM, and in Vancouver, but to also be in a country that supports not just my faith, but all faiths, because when we get down to the brass tacks, persecution sucks. I’m so incredibly patriotic to have this belief enshrined in my country as it lacks in so many other countries. A lot of Christians have suffered in Japan historically, and to this day there are still lingering effects of prejudice against Christianity in Japan. However, they have started to move forward, and I pray someday that we will see an explosion of faith like we are seeing in Korea and China in Japan.

I invite you all to join me in a prayer for an explosion of faith in Japan, and a prayer of thanks that we live in a country that doesn’t persecute us, because it’s an incredible gift, and one I will never forget.

Ethan Faris

Ethan is an old stock Canadian who spends a lot of time in Asia, or cooking with Dan Son after church. He hopes to be an elementary school teacher/househusband.