The original subject assigned to me for an article was really of a much more limited nature than the heading of this article indicates. I was to write on: Christianity in Japan Today. I dropped the word “Today”. This gives me a somewhat broader field which seems preferable. By and large our readers very likely know little about Christianity in Japan at all, and it is therefore not out of place to tell about the coming and history of Christianity. Besides under present war conditions there is no information available regarding Christianity in Japan today. It is not improbable, yes it is in the light of history even likely, that Christianity (such as it is) is undergoing a severe period of trial and persecution in the Japanese homeland at this very time. However, we have no definite information regarding the present situation. With this in view I chose to write more in general about Christianity in Japan.

In writing upon this subject it is well to bear in mind that we are using the term “Christianity” in a very general and loose sense of the term. From the distance, and from statistics, it is quite difficult to discover just what percent of that called Christianity is really in any sense worthy of the name.

Its First Coming.

Christianity first come to Japan (in the form of Roman Catholicism), in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. From the years 1492 to 1638 Japan’s doors were open to the foreigner. Especially the Dutch and the Portuguese visited Japan and were the chief traders. The Dutch, however, were interested merely in trade; they made no attempt to send missionaries, Protestant missionaries, to Japan. Portugal was then, as now, a Catholic nation, and the Catholic church sent priests and nuns to Japan. First a few, later more, although at no time was it a great number that were sent as Catholic missionaries. These missionaries labored chiefly on the island of Kyushu (one of the four main islands of Japan and densely populated). They labored chiefly among the higher classes, and sought the influence of the feudal lords and chiefs. They were in a measure successful and succeeded in the course of the century to establish churches. There were at the most perhaps several hundred thousand Catholic converts. The Jesuit missionaries did not hesitate to make use of their doctrine of accommodation, and this no doubt helps to explain their success.


In 1638 the Tokugawa Shogunate, firmly entrenched in power, issued an edict that completely closed Japan to the outside world for the next few centuries.

No Japanese were allowed to leave Japan, no foreigner was allowed to enter Japan’s harbors. The foreigners there were ordered home or put to death without mercy. The sole exception to this exclusion policy, and to Japanese isolation, was the permission granted the Dutch to maintain the privilege of entering the harbor of Nagasaki a few times of the year. The Dutch were the only ones who during these centuries of exclusion could gain any access to Japan at all. The foreign-religion, Christianity, also came under the ban. Various reasons may be adduced for this. First of all, the Tokugawa Shogunate wished to maintain and firmly secure unto itself its power. They saw that the foreigners were gaining political influence in other Oriental countries, and wished to forecome this. Christianity, coming from the foreigner, seemed to be a religion, therefore, that also ought to be banished, lest through it the foreigner gain influence. Secondly, the Jesuit missionaries interfered in Japanese local matters and so brought the wrath of the government upon themselves. Thirdly, the Buddhist priests had become antagonistic to Christianity, and used their influence against it. Fourthly, the communities where the Christian religion had a foothold were also those that had opposed the Tokugawa Shogunate’s power of centralization of government.

At any rate a furious persecution broke out such as the world has rarely seen. It was so systematic, so complete, that it is unique in history. Ruthlessly Christians were compelled to recant or be killed. The Christian religion was not only forbidden; it was exterminated! Jesuit priests that failed to leave were killed or went into hiding till they died. Every month each town had to report whether there were any Christians there. Once a year every family head had to testify under oath before the local authorities that there were no Christians in his family or under his roof. Every few years there was a public cross-trampling in every town; a large cross (representative of Christ’s cross) was marked on the ground and every citizen, old and young, compelled to trample on it or be killed. Many paid the supreme penalty. This persecution continued for over two hundred years! Yet, after Japan’s re-opening in 1854, the Catholic church still found descendants of those early Catholics that had not entirely forgotten Catholicism. Naturally they knew little of Catholicism, but they had been taught to look for the coming of the foreign men in priest’s apparel. It has been a marvel that even so much knowledge of Catholicism was maintained, for during the two hundred years after 1638 Japan persecuted every form and semblance of Catholicism with a ruthlessness the world has rarely seen.

Protestant Missions.

We are not Catholics, Roman Catholicism is a great deviation from historic Christianity, in how far there were converts to Catholicism during those early years that were truly Christians, we do not know. The day of Christ will reveal it. But up to the latter part of the 19th century Roman Catholicism was the only form of Christianity with which Japan had any real contact. (It is not impossible that Japan had some contact with Nestorian Christianity through China. Certain factors in Amida Buddhism, etc., seem to show that there may have been some contact with Nestorian Christianity.)

Protestant mission work did not begin in Japan until only about seventy-five years ago. Prior to the outbreak of the present war it was still limited to the large populated centers, e.g. Tokyo, which has some two hundred Christian churches.

After the re-opening of Japan by Commodore Perry in 1854, the Tokugawa Shogunate fell and the new clan-heads in power opened up Japan to the outside world. First Japan was opened to trade—she was willing to open her ports to all except opium and Christianity. Later Christian missionaries were allowed. There was a rather remarkable influx of Christian missionaries. By 1920, according to Japanese government statistics, there were 2,360 Christian evangelists in Japan. Of these some 800 were foreign missionaries, the remainder Japanese trained evangelists. Yet considering that Japan had some 80,000,000 population, the number of nominal Christians is very, very small. It is only a fraction of the population. We quote from Toyohiko Kagawa’s Christ and Japan, “Taking only the larger denominations into account, there are 160,000 Japanese Protestants. Even including the Roman Catholics, the total number of Christians scarcely reaches 300,000.” The Reformed Church of America, the Reformed Church in the U.S., the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., the Baptists, are among those that maintain missions in Japan. There are mission schools, hospitals, etc. The converts formerly were members of denominations modeled after the home denominations of the missionaries. Just prior to the war these churches cut themselves loose from the foreign influence, and even merged into one Japanese denomination.

What to Think.

What must we think of the strength of Christianity n Japan today? That is a hard question to answer. It is an indisputable fact that many of the missionaries that went to Japan were imbued with the modernism hat prevails in their denominations at home. Much of the Christianity is undoubtedly nothing but modernism and not worthy of the name Christianity. Even Kagawa himself, though Rev. Van Baalen has sought to maintain that he is a Christian, surely expresses himself in language that makes it hard to think of this Japanese Christian leader as other than a modernist. Kagawa speaks of the brotherhood of men, the Fatherhood of God, the Kingdom of God etc., in exactly the same way as a modernist would. If you remember that counting all in all there are only 300,000 nominal Christians out of the approximate eighty millions of people; if you further remember that the 300,000 include Catholics and modernists,—then certainly there are not many out of Japan’s hordes that can truly be called Christians.

What to think of the status of Christianity during the war? The foreign missionaries are either gone or imprisoned. The militaristic party in control of Japan is definitely antagonistic to Christianity in any form. (There can be no question of this. Korea’s experience, China’s experience etc., all point to this.) Very likely what Christianity there is, is undergoing a severe trial as being the religion of the foreign-enemy.