Christianity in Japan

Christianity in Japan
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Christianity is a minority religion in Japan, with less than one percent[1][2][3] claiming Christian belief or affiliation. Nearly all known traditional denominations of Christianity, including Roman Catholicism, Protestantism and Orthodox Christianity are represented in Japan today.

The root of the Japanese word for Christianity (キリスト教 Kirisuto-kyō?) comes from the Japanese katakana transcription of the word Cristo (キリスト kirisuto?), Portuguese word for Christ, and the Japanese word for doctrine ( kyō?, a teaching or precept).[4]


Christian culture

Japan remains one of the most secular nations in the world according to the World Values Survey. While there may be up to 3 million Japanese Christians,[5] Christianity in Japan is spread among many denominational affiliations. 70% of Japanese churches have an average attendance of less than 30, though membership is double this figure.[6]

Christian holidays

Christmas in Japan is celebrated as a commercial and secular festival, but is not an official holiday. It is a time for Christmas lights[7] and Santa Claus, parties, gift exchanges, and eating things like Christmas cake (a Japanese creation). Rather than being a family or religious occasion, Christmas is a time to spend with friends and a significant other. Christmas Eve is celebrated as a couple's holiday on which romantic gifts are exchanged. Valentine's Day in Japan is also celebrated, but the tradition is reversed – women give men a gift of chocolate, and on White Day the favor is returned. Gifts are not exclusive to romantic relationships; in fact, it is somewhat customary for women to give their male co-workers chocolate. It is not as common for couples to go out on dates together; that element seems to be reflected in Christmas Eve instead.

Christian expression

Christian weddings have become prominent as an alternative (or addition to) traditional Shinto ceremonies. Architecturally resembling churches, wedding chapels have sprung up across Japan, with employees dressed as priests officiating.[8]

Black gospel music has had an enthusiastic reception in Japan. Stylistic elements from this genre are employed in many J-pop songs.[9]

Major denominations

Roman Catholic Church in Japan

Catholicism in Japan exists in communion with the worldwide Roman Catholic Church under the authority of the Pope in Rome. Presently there are about 509,000 Catholics in 16 dioceses in Japan. The patron saints of Japan are Francis Xavier and Peter Baptist.[10]

Arriving in Japan in the middle of the 16th century, Catholicism was the first known organized denomination to establish a presence in Japan, and the only major source of Christianization in Japan until the fall of the shogunate and the Meiji restoration. Christianity was proclaimed initially by the Society of Jesus, joined later on by the less cautious Franciscan order. In 1570 there were 20 Catholic missionaries in Japan, the most famous of whom was Francis Xavier, who arrived in 1549.[11] Nagasaki became the center of Japanese Catholicism, and maintained close cultural and religious ties to its Portuguese origins. These ties were severed once Christianity was outlawed; at this point, Catholicism went underground, its rites preserved by the Kakure Kirishitan, or "hidden Christians", who continued practicing their faith in secret. Some Japanese Catholics were killed for their faith, thus becoming martyrs. Many of these martyrs have been canonized by the Church, and their feast is still kept by Catholics as a universal memorial on February 6 each year.

In 1981, Pope John Paul II paid a visit to Japan, during which he met with Japanese people, the clergy, and Catholic lay people, held Holy Mass in the Korakuen Stadium (Tokyo), and visited the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, the Hill of Martyrs in Nagasaki, town of the Immaculate founded by St. Maximilian Kolbe in Nagasaki, and other places.[12]

Protestants in Japan

There are at present about 500,000 Protestant Christians in Japan. Dr. James Curtis Hepburn, M.D., LL.D. (March 13, 1815 – June 11, 1911) was the first Protestant missionary to Japan.[13] In 1859, Hepburn went to Japan as a medical missionary with the American Presbyterian Mission.[13] He opened a clinic in the Kanagawa Prefecture, near present-day Tokyo. He later founded the Hepburn School, which developed into Meiji Gakuin University, and wrote a Japanese–English dictionary. In the dictionary's third edition,[14] published in 1886, Hepburn adopted a new system for romanization of the Japanese language (Rōmajikai). This system is widely known as Hepburn romanization because Hepburn's dictionary popularized it. Hepburn also contributed to the Protestant translation of the Bible into Japanese. Hepburn returned to the United States in 1892. On March 14, 1905, Hepburn's 90th birthday, he was awarded the decoration of the Order of the Rising Sun, third class. Hepburn was the second foreigner to receive this honor.[15]

Presbyterian minister Divie Bethune McCartee was the first ordained Protestant Christian missionary to visit Japan, in 1861–1862. His gospel tract translated into Japanese was the first Protestant literature in Japan. In 1865 McCartee moved back to Ningbo, China, but others have followed in his footsteps. There was a burst of growth of Christianity in the late 19th century when Japan re-opened its doors to the West. Protestant church growth slowed dramatically in the early 20th century under the influence of the military government during the Shōwa period. The post-World War II years have seen increasing activity by evangelicals, initially with American influence, and some growth occurred between 1945 and 1960. The Japanese Bible Society was established in 1937 with the help of National Bible Society of Scotland (NBSS, now called the Scottish Bible Society), the American Bible Society, the British and Foreign Bible Society.[16]

Eastern Orthodox Christianity in Japan

It is estimated that the Japanese Orthodox Church has some 30,000 adherents today.[17] The current primate of Japan is Daniel Nushiro, Metropolitan of all Japan and Archbishop of Tokyo, who was elevated to the primacy in 2000.[18] The primate's seat is the Holy Resurrection Cathedral in Chiyoda, Tokyo. Originally founded in 1891, the cathedral has been known as Nikolai-do in honor of its founder Nicholas Kasatkin, now venerated as St. Nicholas of Japan. The cathedral serves as the seat of the national primate of Japan and continues to be the main center of Orthodox worship in Japan.

Eastern Orthodoxy was brought to Japan in the 19th century by St. Nicholas (baptized as Ivan Dmitrievich Kasatkin),[19] who was sent in 1861 by the Russian Orthodox Church to Hakodate, Hokkaidō as priest to a chapel of the Russian Consulate.[20] St. Nicholas of Japan made his own translation of the New Testament and some other religious books (Lent Triodion, Pentecostarion, Feast Services, Book of Psalms, Irmologion) into Japanese.[21] Nicholas has since been glorified by the Patriarch of Moscow in 1970, and is now recognized as St. Nicholas, Equal-to-the-Apostles to Japan. His commemoration day is February 16. Andronic Nikolsky, appointed the first Bishop of Kyoto and later martyred as the archbishop of Perm during the Russian Revolution, was also canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church as a Saint and Martyr in the year 2000.

Jehovah's Witnesses in Japan

In 2008 the number of Jehovah's Witnesses was 218,091 active publishers, united in 3,177 congregations; 332,986 people attended annual celebration of Lord's Evening Meal in 2009.[22] Before 1945 they were banned in Japan. Many Jehovah's Witnesses were jailed; one of them, Katsuo Miura, was in the Hiroshima prison during the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.[23]



Ken Joseph argues that Christianity, in the form of Nestorianism, existed in Japan before the arrival of Xavier.[24]

Missions to Japan

The first known appearance of organized Christianity in Japan was the arrival of the Portuguese Catholics in 1549. Francis Xavier arrived in Japan with three Japanese Catholic converts intending to start a church in the Nagasaki area. The local Japanese people initially assumed that the foreigners were from India and that Christianity was a new "Indian faith". These mistaken impressions were due to already existing ties between the Portuguese and India; the Indian city of Goa was a central base for the Portuguese East India Company at the time, and a significant portion of the crew on board their ships were Indian Christians.[25] Later on, the Roman Catholic missionary activities were exclusively performed by Portuguese-sponsored Jesuits and Spanish-sponsored mendicant orders, such as the Franciscans and Dominicans. Francisco Xavier (a Catholic Saint),[26] Cosme de Torres (a Jesuit priest), and John Fernandez were the first who arrived in Kagoshima with hopes to bring Christianity and Catholicism to Japan. Xavier and the Jesuit order was held in good esteem and his efforts seemed to have been rewarded with a thriving community of converts.[27] At baptism, these converts were given Portuguese "Christian names" and encouraged to adopt Western culture. This practice contributed to suspicions that the converts were in reality foreign agents working to subvert social order.[note 1][27] Under Oda Nobunaga, the Jesuits enjoyed the favor of the shogunate, but the situation began to change once Toyotomi Hideyoshi's suspicions were aroused against Christianity.

Persecution under the Shogunate

Under Hideyoshi and then under the succeeding Tokugawa shogunate, Catholic Christianity was repressed and adherents were persecuted. During these times, many Christians were killed in Japan, some by crucifixion; most famously, the twenty-six martyrs of Japan were tortured and crucified on crosses outside Nagasaki to discourage Christianity in 1597. Following a brief respite that occurred as Tokugawa Ieyasu rose to power and pursued trade with the Portuguese powers, there were further persecutions and martyrdoms in 1613, 1630, and 1632. By this point, after the Shimabara Rebellion, the remaining Christians had been forced to publicly renounce their faith. Many continued practicing Christianity in secret, in modern times becoming known as the "hidden Christians" (隠れキリシタン kakure kirishitan?). These secret believers would often conceal Christian iconography within closed shrines, lanterns or inconspicuous parts of buildings. For example, Himeji Castle has a Christian cross on one of its 17th-century roof tiles, in place of a mon, indicating that one of its occupants was a secret Christian.[28] Drawn from the oral histories of Japanese Catholic communities, Shusaku Endo's acclaimed historical novel "Silence" provides detailed fictionalised accounts of the persecution of Christian communities and the suppression of the Church.

The opening of Japan

After Japan was opened to greater foreign interaction in 1853, many Christian clergymen were sent from Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox churches, though proselytism was still banned. After the Meiji Restoration, freedom of religion was introduced in 1871, giving all Christian communities the right to legal existence and preaching. Since World War II the number of Japanese Christians has been slowly increasing.[29]

Notable Japanese Christians

During the first Catholic missions from the 17th century, several high ranked people converted including Dom Justo Takayama and Hosokawa Gracia. Among the original twenty-six martyrs of Japan, Paulo Miki is the best known. Catholics venerate him as one of the patron saints of Japan.

Christianity in the Meiji-period saw several major educators and Christian converts as follows:

  • Kanzo Uchimura (内村鑑三 Kanzō Uchimura?) (1861–1930), a Protestant, a headmaster of a head of the First Higher School. He was also the founder of Nonchurch movement, one of the earliest indigenous Japanese Christian movements. His autobiography Why have I become a christian? (余は如何にして基督信徒となりし乎 yo wa ika ni shite Kirisuto shinto to narishi ka?), focusing on his conversion influenced young generations in those days.
  • Joseph Hardy Neesima (Jō Nījima) (新島襄 Niijima Jō?) (1843–1890), a Protestant and the founder of Doshisha University.
  • Nitobe Inazō (新渡戸稲造 Nitobe Inazō?) (1862–1933), a Protestant and the founder of Tokyo Woman's Christian University.
  • Umeko Tsuda (津田梅子 Umeko Tsuda?) (1864–1929), a Protestant and the founder of Joshi Eigaku Juku (today Tsuda College).

In the 20th century, two major contributors to Protestant Christian theology emerged in Japan: Kosuke Koyama (小山晃佑 Koyama Kōsuke?), who has been described as a leading contributor to global Christianity, and Kazoh Kitamori (北森嘉蔵 Kitamori Kazō?), who wrote The Theology of the Pain of God (神の痛みの神学 kami no itami no shingaku?). Social rights activist and author Toyohiko Kagawa ((賀川豊彦 Kagawa Toyohiko?), who was nominated for both the Nobel Peace Prize and the Nobel Prize in Literature, has also become known outside Japan.

Mitsuo Fuchida (淵田美津雄 Fuchida Mitsuo?) (3 December 1902–30 May 1976) was a Captain[30] in the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service and a bomber pilot in the Imperial Japanese Navy before and during World War II. After World War II ended, Fuchida became a Christian and an evangelistic preacher.[31] In 1952, Fuchida toured the United States as a member of the Worldwide Christian Missionary Army of Sky Pilots. Fuchida spent the rest of his life telling others what God had done for him around the world. In February 1954, Reader's Digest published Fuchida's story of the attack on Pearl Harbor.[32] He also wrote and co-wrote books including, From Pearl Harbor to Golgotha (aka From Pearl Harbor to Calvary). His story is told in God's Samurai: Lead Pilot at Pearl Harbor (The Warriors).[33]

Chiune Sugihara (杉原 千畝 Sugihara Chiune?, 1 January 1900 – 31 July 1986) was a Japanese diplomat who served as Vice Consul for the Japanese Empire in Lithuania. In 1935 he converted to Orthodox Christianity[34][35] while serving in China as a diplomat. During World War II, he helped several thousand Jews leave the country by issuing transit visas to Jewish refugees so that they could travel to Japan. Most of the Jews who escaped were refugees from German-occupied Poland or residents of Lithuania. Sugihara wrote travel visas that facilitated the escape of more than 6,000 Jewish refugees to Japanese territory,[36][37] risking his career and his family's life. In 1985, Israel honored him as Righteous Among the Nations for his actions.[36][37]

The 20th century also saw two Christian novelists of renown: Ayako Miura (三浦綾子 Miura Ayako?, 1922–1999) was a Protestant writer known for her works, one of the most influential being Shiokari Pass (塩狩峠 shiokari tōge?, 1968)[citation needed]. Shusaku Endo (遠藤周作 Endō Shusaku?) was a Catholic novelist renowned for his works focusing on Christianity in Japan, including Silence (沈黙 chinmoku?).

Christian Prime Ministers

While Christians account only for 1% of the population, there have been seven Christian Prime Ministers in Japan.

Roman Catholic

  • Hara Takashi – leader of the 19th government and the 10th Prime Minister.
  • Shigeru Yoshida – leader of the 45th, 48th, 49th, 50th, and 51st governments and the 32nd Prime Minister.
  • Taro Aso – leader of the 92nd government and the 59th Prime Minister.


  • Viscount Takahashi Korekiyo – leader of the 20th government and the 11th Prime Minister.
  • Tetsu Katayama – leader of the 46th government and the 33rd Prime Minister.
  • Ichirō Hatoyama – leader the 52nd, 53rd, and 54th governments and the 35th Prime Minister.
  • Masayoshi Ōhira – leader of the 68th and 69th governments and the 43rd Prime Minister.


  1. ^ In the source, this claim is made of all of Xavier's converts in general across Asia, including Japanese converts as well

See also


  1. ^ Mariko Kato (February 24, 2009). "Christianity's long history in the margins". The Japan Times. "The Christian community itself counts only those who have been baptized and are currently regular churchgoers — some 1 million people, or less than 1 percent of the population, according to Nobuhisa Yamakita, moderator of the United Church of Christ in Japan" 
  2. ^ "Christians use English to reach Japanese youth". Mission Network News. 3 September 2007. "The population of Japan is less than one-percent Christian" 
  3. ^ Heide Fehrenbach, Uta G. Poiger (2000). Transactions, transgressions, transformations: American culture in Western Europe and Japan. Berghahn Books. p. 62. ISBN 1571811087. "... followers of the Christian faith constitute only about a half percent of the Japanese population" 
  4. ^ Kodansha's furigana Japanese Dictionary. Japan: Kodansha Inc.. 1999. 
  5. ^ US State Department 2007 Religious Freedom Report. (2007-09-14). Retrieved on 2011-06-15.
  6. ^ OMF International – Japan, the Land of Contrasts. Retrieved on 2011-06-15.
  7. ^ Shizuko Mishima, guide. Christmas in Japan, Japan travel section of Retrieved 2010-01-27.
  8. ^ Interfax (January 31, 2007), Christianity is popular in Japan today
  9. ^ Ron Rucker, Gospel Music Explosion – in JAPAN??!!. Retrieved January 27, 2010.
  10. ^ Giga-Catholic Information – Catholic Church in Japan. Retrieved on 2011-06-15.
  11. ^ New England Journal of Medicine (1970). "James Curtis Hepburn, M.D., 1815–1911 (Hepburn of Japan)". Retrieved 2010-09-24. 
  12. ^ Apostolic Journey to Pakistan, Philippines I, Guam (United States of America II), Japan, Anchorage (United States of America II) (February 16–27, 1981), Vatican Official Site
  13. ^ a b James Curtis Hepburn: H: By Person: Stories: Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity. (1906-03-04). Retrieved on 2011-06-15.
  14. ^ Hepburn, James Curtis (1886). A Japanese–English and English–Japanese Dictionary (3rd ed.). Tokyo: Z. P. Maruya. Retrieved 2009-07-25. 
  15. ^ "Japanese Order for Missionary" (PDF). New York Times: p. 13. March 15, 1905. Retrieved 2009-07-25. 
  16. ^ JBS Brief History. Retrieved on 2011-06-15.
  17. ^ "Православный храм откроется в еще одном городе Японии" (in Russian). Interfax Russia. 2009-12-07. 
  18. ^ "東京の大主教、全日本の府主教ダニイル "Daniel, Archbishop of Tokyo and Metropolitan of all Japan"" (in Japanese). The Orthodox Church in Japan. 2007-02-01. Retrieved 2007-08-25. 
  19. ^ Equal-to-the-Apostles St. Nicholas of Japan, Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist web-site, Washington D.C.
  20. ^ "日本の正教会の歴史と現代 "History of Japanese Orthodox Charch and Now"" (in Japanese). The Orthodox Church in Japan. 2007-02-01. Retrieved 2007-08-25. 
  21. ^ Orthodox translation of Gospel into Japanese, Pravostok Orthodox Portal, October 2006
  22. ^ 2009 Yearbook of Jehovah's Witnesses. pp. 31–40.
  23. ^ Tomiji Hironaka. “I Was Determined to Die for the Emperor”. — Awake! 1992, Feb. 8.
  24. ^ Rob Gilhooly (2001-07-24). "Religious sites, relics indicate Christ beat Buddha to Japan". The Japan Times. 
  25. ^ Leupp, Gary P. (2003). Interracial Intimacy in Japan. Continuum International Publishing Group. p. 35. ISBN 0826460747. 
  26. ^  "St. Francis Xavier". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. 
  27. ^ a b Gonzáles, Justo L. (Jan 2004) The Story of Christianity, 3rd edition. Prince Press/Hendrickson Publishers. Volume 1, pages 405–406
  28. ^ Guide to World Heritage Site Himeiji Castle. Retrieved on 2011-06-15.
  29. ^ Japan Guide on Christianity in Japan. (2002-06-10). Retrieved on 2011-06-15.
  30. ^ Capt. Mitsuo Fuchida (1902–1976) at. (1941-12-07). Retrieved on 2011-06-15.
  31. ^ Wright, Mike. What They Didn't Teach You About World War II. Presidio Press, 1998. ISBN 0-89141-649-8
  32. ^ Fuchida, Capt. Mitsuo. "I Led the Attack on Pearl Harbor". Reader's Digest February 1954; Vol. 64, No. 382.
  33. ^ Goldstein, Dillon and Prange 2003
  34. ^ Sugihara: Conspiracy of Kindness . Interactive Timeline (text-only). PBS. Retrieved on 2011-06-15.
  35. ^ A Hidden Life: A Short Introduction to Chiune Sugihara. Retrieved on 2011-06-15.
  36. ^ a b Chiune and Yukiko Sugihara. Retrieved on 2011-06-15.
  37. ^ a b Chiune (Sempo) Sugihara. (2011-01-06). Retrieved on 2011-06-15.

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