Japanese (legal) history, culture and “hidden” Christianity

[This is a research note for a documentary series being developed from Sydney analysing the world-wide spread of Christianity, which now attracts more believers in Asia and Africa than in the West. Christianity has not recovered from severe persecution in Japan during the 16th century, including martyrdoms in Nagasaki and Kyoto, but it has left surprising legacies – as noted even by the Gekkeikan sake company from southern Kyoto. The story reveals interesting points of intersection with Japan’s history, culture and law.]
Japan is a fascinating case study of a country in Asia that had an early and positive encounter with Christianity from the mid-16th century, but then severe persecution by Shoguns (generalissimos) seeking to maintain political control (Part 1 below). Western powers forced the country to reopen to the world from the mid-19th century and to allow Christianity to be promoted again. But the new government leaders pursued a strong secularist agenda to modernize the nation and rid itself of “unequal” trade treaties. This paradoxically fed into support of nationalist and militarist State Shinto, resulting in pressure on the Church as well as the Pacific War (Part 2). Christianity never took off in a big way in Japan, even after WW2 (Part 3), partly because it was too associated with America as a potential (& eventually actual) occupier, in contrast with Korea where Christianity and the West were seen by nationalists as potential allies against the Japanese as colonisers. Yet Christianity arguably has had a “hidden” influence through many centuries in Japan (Part 4). It can be seen as an example of how a small but dedicated following can have a disproportionate influence across many spheres – big and small (Part 5).

1. Japan’s “Christian Century” (1549-1638)
In 1549, when Saint Francis Xavier and two other Jesuit missionaries arrived in Japan’s south-west island of Kyushu, the country was truly at “the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Japan lay at the end of the Silk Road through China to Europe, like a teeming estuary of cultural influences, as pointed out by Japanese-American artist and now Fuller Theological Seminary teacher Makoto Fujimura in Silence and Beauty (2016, pp 28, 55-56).
Xavier was initially enthusiastic about the prospects for Christianity in a country with relatively high levels of literacy and curiosity, declaring: “no people superior to the Japanese will be found among the unbelievers”. And the (Catholic) church indeed grew strongly over the ensuing over much of the “Christian Century”, especially through samurai leaders (beginning with Sumitada Omura in 1563, lord of Nagasaki in Kyushu). By 1600, the beginning of the Tokugawa Shogunate, there were around 300,000 believers. But having finally consolidated political control, the Tokugawa Shogunate clamped down, virtually closing off the country to the outside world from 1612. It ordered the expulsion of all Catholic missionaries and prominent Christians in Japan, and Lord Arima renounced his faith and began persecuting Christians and martyring vassals who refused to recant. The first prominent martyrdom had already occurred under Shogun Hideyoshi Toyotomi, who first unified Japan in 1587 and banned foreign missionaries. In 1597 he had ordered six Franciscan priests, three Japanese Jesuits and 17 Japanese laypeople (including three children) to be maimed, marched hundreds of kilometers from a Christian enclave in Kyoto, and crucified in Nagasaki. Even after the Tokugawa Shogunate intensified persecution of Christians after 1612, they continued to resist. The most prominent example was the Shimabara Rebellion over 1637-8 (also on Kyushu Island), “the last large-scale armed clash in Japan until the 1860s” that resulted in the beheading of over 30,000 rebels, including many local Christians.
Rather than martyrdom of Japanese Christians, which could resonate with the samurai ethos of a noble death, Tokugawa leaders developed excruciating torture techniques and other measures to encourage apostasy. These included having Buddhist priests register all local residents and attest that they were not Christians. This was often done by fumi-e – requiring residents publically step on pictures of Jesus or Mary – as dramatically depicted by influential Catholic writer Shusaku Endo in Silence (1966), made into a movie in 2016 directed by Martin Scorsese. Christians ended up renouncing their faith, or went underground. After many generations surviving even without priests, most of the remaining “hidden Christians” resurfaced only after Japan reopened to the West from 1853, and especially from 1873 when the Meiji Government abandoned the official prohibition of Christianity, under pressure from Western powers.
2. Re-Opening to the World until the Second World War (1853-1945)
However, the Meiji Government and its successors were not supportive of religion – indeed, initially assets of powerful Buddhist temples were targetted. Rather, modern Japan provides “an early example of an elite Westernizing, secularizing project undertaken in defensive reaction against Western imperialism, preceding similar developments in Turkey, India, Indonesia and China” (Helen Hardacre 2018, p104). This project mobilized the bureaucracy to help “privatize” traditional Buddhism, in light with secularist leaders’ conception of religion as inappropriate for the public sphere, and media helped suppress society’s tolerance for new Buddhist movements especially when they grew strong enough to threaten the political elite. Secularism was also linked to growing nationalism and sacralization of the state, resulting in “State Shinto” based on the fiction that it was not a religion.
That broader secularisation project by political and other elites partly helps explain why Christianity never really regained momentum. This is despite being kick-started in the late 19th century by the “coming out” of thousands of Japanese “hidden Christians” professing a version of (antiquated and adapted) Catholic faith. (In June 2018, UNESCO added to its Cultural Heritage List 12 sites associated with persecution of now dwindling “hidden Christians” communities. ) That was followed by a wave of (initially French) Catholic and especially (American and British Empire / Commonwealth) Protestant missionaries, plus some rapid growth in conversions notably among displaced former samurai forced to seek out a new value system in Meiji-era Japan. But as the nationalists and militarists grew in power, pushing Japan into colonizing Taiwan (1895) and Korea (1905), occupying Manchuria, and eventually launching into World War II, Christian protestant churches (almost all) acquiesced in the decree forcibly amalgamating them from 1941 into the “United Church of Christ in Japan”. (Colonisation included imposing a modern Western-style legal system, and Alexis Dudden (2006) argues that it occurred partly to show that Japan had achieved full capacity under international law and therefore deserved renegotiation of its own “unequal” treaties with Western powers.)
Another reason often given for Christianity not taking off much over this pre-War period is that it was seen as too closely linked to potentially imperialistic Western powers (see eg Mark Mullins, Christianity: Made in Japan, 1998, pp170-2). By contrast, for Koreans colonized by Japan until 1945, Christianity linked to Western powers could be helpful for nationalists seeking to throw off the yoke of the Japanese oppressor. A further reason for the growth of Christianity in pre-War Korea was that some of its then conservative Protestant beliefs fit well with strong neo-Confucianist elite norms (regarding gender roles, shamanism, and exegesis of authoritative texts leading to a virtuous life: Mullins et al eds, Perspectives on Christianity in Korea and Japan (1995) pp17-19).
3. Post-War Japan (and Korea)
A positive association with the West, including its Christian tradition, may even partly explain the rapid growth of (especially Protestant Pentecostal) Christians in South Korea after the Korean War (1950-3). That is, to the extent it seemed Western, especially American, this could be seen as favourable given that American-led forces had helped and would continue to fend off atheist Communists in North Korea (and potentially China). By contrast, Japan developed more negative images of America, in particular, as a key rival in the 1930s and the bloody World War II. This comparatively negative association – influencing conceptions of Christianity as dangerously foreign – extended probably to some degree during the (US-led) Allied Occupation (1945-52), as well as the Cold War (with much political controversy especially over the 1950s-70s regarding US military bases in Japan and other aspects of the bilateral security treaty regime).
The other main reason for Christianity taking off more in Korea, especially over the 1950s-80s, is that its (especially more Pentacostal) variants arguably have adapted to traditional shamanistic beliefs and practices. These included a more this-worldly approach (promising tangible benefits for making offerings) and practices like mountain retreats and healing ceremonies (Phan, ed, Christianities in Asia (Blackwell 2011) pp227-8). Japan has also experienced post-War growth in “new religions” offering such attractions, but they have tended to be more Buddhist or syncretic rather than Christian. Some rapidly growing Korean Pentecostal churches have been extending their evangelism to Japan since the late 1970s, communicating more this-worldly messages. But they still face the challenges of seeming “foreign” (traditionally looked-down-upon Korean, rather than American) and so far seem to have attracted mainly Japanese residents of Korean background.
4. The Enduring “Hidden” Christian Influence in Japan
Yet Japanese Christians, although comparatively few (1-2% of a 125m population, compared to 30% of 50m South Koreans), have had a disproportionate influence on Japanese society. Fujimura (2016) even points out that the quintessentially Japanese tea ceremony, as promoted by the o-cha master Sen no Rikyu (1522-91), was probably influenced by the Eucharist rites. More generally, Fujimura suggests that core aesthetics of “hiddenness, ambiguity and beauty” have emerged from Japan’s original Christian Century, explaining the surprising impact of Endo’s Silence and other books exploring Christian themes. USydney A/Prof Rebecca Suter also shows, in Holy Ghosts: The Christian Century in Modern Japanese Fiction (UHawaii Press, 2015), the renewed attraction of Japan’s early Christians in contemporary popular literature, such as young Lord Amakusa of the Shimabara Rebellion. However, their allure lies perhaps more in being an “exotic” cultural phenomenon, as well as an encounter with the West that was not dominated by a superpower like 20th-century USA.
More tangibly, from the late 19th century, Christians in Japan (especially at first teachers, then missionaries from abroad, then local converts) worked assiduously at promoting education for all (including women – perhaps even more impactful in Korea), social welfare and peace or reconciliation (see eg Yasuko Claremont (ed) Citizen Power: Postwar Reconciliation, pp 26, 182-184). One example is Toyohiko Kagawa (1888-1960), a Protestant minister who became known (even in America) as the “Saint Francis of Japan” for establishing extensive networks for relief work and social reform from the 1920s (Mullins, in A. L. Park, D. K. Yoo (Eds) Encountering Modernity: Christianity in East Asia and Asian America, 2014). Others like Kanzo Uchimura (1861-1930), a scholar prolific author, moved away from established churches and created instead the Bible-study-based “Nonchurch Movement”, producing presidents of the elite University of Tokyo such as Tadao Yanaihara (both he and Uchimura lost their positions there for not toeing the militarist government line).
After World War II, when many missionaries responded to calls by US General Douglas Macarthur (leading the Allied Occupation), Japanese Christians have been influential not only in the many universities established and supported by Christians, such as:
– Tokyo’s Meiji Gakuin University, (antecedent schools including seminary) established in 1863/77 by (minister and linguist) Hepburn with US Dutch Reformed and Presbyterian Churches
– Tokyo’s Rikkyo University, (antecedent schools) established in 1874 by US Anglicans
– Kyoto’s Doshisha University, established in 1874 by local Joseph Neesima, who studied at (originally quite Calvinist) Amherst College
– Kansai Gakuin University, established in 1889 through Canadian Methodists and others (still affiliated with the United Church of Christ in Japan)
– Tokyo’s Aoyama Gakuin University, established in 1949 merging antecedents created by American Methodists
– Sophia University, established by Jesuits in 1913
– Fukuoka’s Seinan Gakuin University, established by Southern Baptists in 1916
– University of the Sacred Heart (Seishin), established by a Catholic order in 1916/1948, one of the oldest women’s universities in Japan (current Empress Michiko studied there and in Catholic schools )
– Tokyo Women’s University, established in 1918 by Inazo Nitobe (1862-1933) – educator, diplomat and author (notably of Bushido, 1900)
– Tokyo’s International Christian University [ICU] for liberal arts, established in 1949 through fundraising by Macarthur and others
– Nanzan University, founded by Catholics in 1949
Christians have also been prominent in pre- and post-WW2 literature, politics (eg 8 prime ministers including Aso in 2008-9 and Hatoyama in 2009-10 ), the legal world (eg Tokyo University law dean / education minister / Supreme Court chief justice / ICJ judge Kotaro Tanaka, but also the Christian widow who brought a famous constitutional case seeking to uphold the post-War prohibition of state support for religion), and small-scale projects that make a difference. A striking example of the latter comes from the little Bethel church in rural northern Hokkaido. Their members supported the establishment of the “Bethel House” program in 1984 to help schizophrenics by (counter-culturally) integrating them into the local community.
5. Broader Reflections
Overall, it is possible that Japan fits Robert Woodbury’s model of the “The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy”. His study presented many historical case studies as well as convincing econometric evidence showing show that “conversionary protestants” have had the biggest impact on establishing post-WW2 democracy, because those missionaries promoted mass printing and education as well as social movements / NGOs, moderating some colonial abuses and dispersing elite power. Japan probably scores quite highly on the key independent variables (years exposed to protestant missionaries, their numbers per capita in 1923, perhaps less so “percentage evangelised” as Christians by 1900) as well as (perceived) post-War democracy levels (1950-94). This would also constitute a little-known or “hidden” influence of Christianity on contemporary Japan.
There is the complication that a new Constitution was introduced by Macarthur and others during the Allied Occupation, along with further measures to entrench and encourage democracy after the pre-WW2 militarist turn. But it quite widely accepted that many elements within Japanese society were (and have remained) supportive of such initiatives to restore and enhance democracy.
At a deeper or more spiritual level, are there other reasons why Japan remains quite unusual among major Asian countries in not experiencing significant growth in Christianity? Endo thought it was because the Japanese have tend to see more the “paternal” or disciplinarian side of God, reflecting a background culture emphasising duty and “doing what’s right”, rather than the more maternal and unconditionally loving side. But more contemporary Japanese Christians, like ICU’s mathematics Prof Hiroshi Suzuki, suggest many others reasons for the persistent paucity of Christians in Japan, including:
– religion being seen as resulting in wars (including WW2) or as “the opiate of the masses” or unnecessary for material prosperity and a moral or honorable life
– a conception of respecting or loving others by not doing wrong to them (Confucius), rather than pro-actively doing them good – even to enemies (Jesus)
– a tendency to judge people by their acts (or perceived hypocrisy)
– favouring “common sense” over critical thinking by an individual
– strong concern for family and other in-groups (including small, like-minded church communities)
– practicalities of a busy life (traditionally long hours for “salary-men”, but now also women working increasingly but in part-time and insecure jobs)
– alternative religions (mentioned already above) – both old (eg the Jodo Shinshu branch of Buddhism since the 14th century, with some limited parallels with Christian concepts) and new (Soka Gakkai lay Buddhist organisation and related political party especially since the 1960s, other “new religions”).
A more positive perspective might be that Japan points the way to a belief in Jesus that is not widespread but deep and committed, rather than pervasive but weakly-rooted (as has been true perhaps in the West, and maybe more recently Korea).

Author: Luke Nottage

Prof Luke Nottage (BCA, LLB, PhD VUW, LLM LLD Kyoto) is founding co-director of the Australian Network for Japanese Law (ANJeL), Associate Director (Japan) of the Centre for Asian and Pacific Law at the University of Sydney (CAPLUS), and Professor of Comparative and Transnational Business Law at Sydney Law School. He specialises in international dispute resolution, foreign investment law, contract and consumer (product safety) law.