History of Christianity in Japan

Francis Xavier, the Jesuit missionary, brought Christianity to Japan in 1549. However the shoguns [Japan’s leaders] became convinced that this was to soften them up for European conquest. In 1612 as many as 300,000 Japanese Christians were persecuted and many were martyred. The country was closed to all foreigners for 250 years.

There was a positive response to the gospel in the late 1800s when Japan re-opened its doors to the West. But this was followed by renewed suspicion and rejection. Church growth slowed dramatically in the early 20th century as pressure from inside and outside the church stunted growth.

The post-war years have seen increased evangelical activity, initially from America, with good growth between 1945 and 1960, and more recently from Korea. In line with its pioneering ethos, OMF’s first workers moved into unreached territories in 1951, concentrating on Hokkaido and the Aomori Prefecture. Young people in particular responded, but rapid urbanization led to shrinking churches as new converts left for the cities. OMF today targets Japan’s cities, both mega-cities and smaller cities, though also has work in rural areas. OMF’s headquarters are in the greater Tokyo area.

Despite this heartening growth, the general population has remained absorbed in materialistic attitudes and confident in their own religions. A breakthrough has yet to come. Spiritually, Japan remains unresponsive to the gospel. Cultural pressures to conform and the intense work ethos squeeze out Christianity, particularly for Japanese men. About 70 per cent of all churches have an average attendance of less than 30, though membership is double this figure. This is because many people have to work on Sundays and are therefore unable to attend church every week. Nevertheless many of these people who cannot attend every Sunday are active in church during the week. It is said that 90% of Japanese Christians backslide. However, some of these people are ‘discovered’ many years later and are restored to fellowship.

The recent economic slow-down and the recurrent political scandals have shattered many dreams and shown the emptiness of materialism. There has been a renewal of spiritual interest, seen in the fast growth of sects and new religions. Aum is one that has gained notoriety overseas as well as in Japan. Many who have been brainwashed by cults take years to recover if they manage to escape their clutches.

There are no restrictions to witnessing or preaching the gospel.

Brief timeline

1549 Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier arrives and growth follows

1587 Foreign missionaries banned

1614 Government ban on Christianity, widespread persecution of Christians until 1640

1639 Japan enters long period of national isolation

1853 US Commodore Matthew Perry demands that Japan opens its ports

1859 Protestant missionaries arrive

1873 Government ban of Christianity lifted

1870s Missionaries produce Japanese translations of the Bible

1941 Government orders Protestant denominations to merge

1947 Religious freedom guaranteed by post-war constitution

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