The Non-Church movement of Japan, which began in the late 1800s, is a part of this nation’s history that is seldom told. It’s one of those stories that makes us wonder: what if? What if the missionaries and Japanese Christian leaders of the time got behind Kanzo Uchimura, the founder of the movement? What would the Japanese church look like today if the philosophy and practices of the non-church movement in the early 1900s were embraced by many Japanese Christians, rather than just a few?
Early influences on Kanzo Uchimura
Kanzo Uchimura attended the Sapporo Agricultural College (now Hokkaido University) where he became a Christian as a result of the ministry of Dr. William Clark. Kanzo’s Christian zeal was fueled by regular student-organised meetings in college’s dorms, where the students took turns as “pastor, priest and teacher, even servant for the day.”
Three-and-a-half years after graduating from the Sapporo Agricultural College Kanzo went to the US. His idealism of the perfect and pious American world was punctured when he and his friends were robbed in San Francisco and also cheated of their money by men who said they were deacons. He realised that Christendom was not a heaven made on earth. His time in the US shaped his thinking about institutionalized church versus the non-church Christianity.
While in the US he studied at Amherst College, a private liberal arts college. The president, Dr. Seelye, took an interest in Kanzo. Dr. Seelye discipled him and gave him much pastoral care. While there Kanzo also had opportunities to meet Dr. Clark for the first time. These two men, Dr. Seelye and Dr. Clark, were Kanzo’s greatest spiritual guardians and inspirations. However, Western Christianity did not impress him.
In 1888, back in Japan, Kanzo was appointed the President of Hokuetsu Gakken, a government and, yet, a Christian high school. He introduced controversial teaching methods—inviting Buddhist monks and Shinto priests to present their teachings to the students. This riled up the American Board missionaries and, with the help of a Japanese clergyman, they collaborated to get rid of Kanzo as the president of the school.
Incompatibility of Western-style Christianity with Japan
Kanzo realized the incompatibility of Western Christianity with Japanese culture. He questioned whether Japan should use the Western church as the model of Christianity. He felt he had been abandoned by missionaries and Christian leaders and was not able to identify with any denominational church.
In his book, How I Became a Christian, he wrote, “We must try to serve our God and the world with gifts and boons peculiar to ourselves. God does not want our national characters attained by the discipline of twenty centuries to be wholly supplanted by American and European ideas. The beauty of Christianity is that it can sanctify all the peculiar traits which God gave to each nation.”
Japan’s non-church movement
This led him, in 1893, to start a new indigenous movement of Japanese Christianity called Mukyōkai. This word means Non- or No-church and has been mistaken as the non-existence of a church or even worship services; however, Kanzo never suggested that, rather, he was against institution and clergy. “Mukyōkai sees church as a community of believers studying the Word of God regularly.”1
Although much maligned and misunderstood by the evangelical world in Japan,2 Mukyōkai is much admired for their advocacy for peace as a pacifist group against militancy. They refuse to bow to the National Flag or sing the national anthem (both of which have strong connections with Shintoism). In 2018, Mukyōkai had around 1,400 members in Japan with 38 groups, counting many intellectuals. 3
Japanese people, to this day, generally associate Christianity with the West. Perhaps one of the reasons for this is that the church and missionaries have neglected the importance of understanding Christianity from a Japanese perspective (contextualise) and in not encouraging the Japanese leaders to grow the church in Japanese ways (indigenize). Kanzo tried his best to contextualise and indigenize the gospel.
The gospel in Japan needs to integrate and anchor Christianity in the Japanese culture. Missionaries in Japan need to encourage indigenized endeavors so that the Christian faith is not being seen as foreign. Together with leaders and believers in Japan, we can seek culturally relevant bridges and solutions, reaching all segments of the Japanese society with the glorious gospel.
By Louis Lau, an OMF missionary
1. Louis Lau, “An Analysis of Mukyōkai (Non-Church) through the Life and Influences of Her Founder, Kanzo Uchimura” An Analysis of Mukyo kai Non Church
2. Due to their stance against mass evangelism, rituals and creeds, paid clergymen, leadership structures, denominations, and sectarianism preferences and sacraments.
3. Mukyōkai is listed as part of the Protestant grouping. JMR Report 2018. Published in 2019 by Japan Mission Research.