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RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Throughout their long history, the Japanese people have opened themselves to the Christian Gospel three times.
Each time they eventually rejected it or decided to hold it at arm’s length. Today, Christians comprise barely 1 percent of Japan’s population of 127 million people, despite decades of religious freedom — and powerful Christian movements in neighboring China and South Korea.
Could the national soul-searching resulting from the March earthquake/tsunami and its devastating aftermath — called Japan’s worst crisis since World War II by the nation’s leaders — become a time for the Japanese to reconsider the new life offered by Jesus Christ?
Yes, says Atsuyoshi Fujiwara, a Japanese Christian scholar who has carefully examined the history of the Gospel in his native land. But it will happen, he cautions, only if Christians work together “humbly and lovingly, nationally and internationally” to serve the Japanese during their time of suffering and recovery.
“The disaster has been terrible,” says Fujiwara, professor of theology at Japan’s Seigakuin University and founding pastor of Covenant of Grace Church in Tokyo. “We are talking about more than 25,000 people killed in Japan. Every day we are hearing new, heartbreaking stories of suffering people.
“Yet I deeply believe that God can bring good even from a painful experience like this…. I think that this post-disaster recovery has a chance to become the fourth encounter of Japan with Christianity.”
The first three “encounters,” according to Fujiwara, were the introduction of Christianity to Japan by Roman Catholic missionaries in the 1500s, the opening of Japan to Western powers in the 1850s and the nation’s defeat and rebuilding at the end of World War II. Each time, Japan faced wrenching social and political change: civil war in the 16th century, the end of the shogun era in the 19th, near destruction and despair in the 20th.
“On these three occasions, Japanese people were very open to Christianity in the beginning, yet eventually they rejected it, particularly in the first two periods,” Fujiwara notes. “Postwar Japan accepted full religious freedom and did not clearly say ‘no’ to Christianity. It appeared to be a promising solution to their problems. It also came with Western wealth and civilization, which were attractive to many people.”
As a faith personally embraced by large numbers of people, however, the Gospel of Christ has failed to spread widely in Japan, despite generations of prayers and ministry by missionaries and Japanese believers. Why? Church and mission leaders have been trying to find answers to that question for a long time.
The Japanese are religious people, Fujiwara stresses. They have a millennium-long tradition of Shintoism, Buddhism and Confucianism as their “spiritual backbone.” Christianity initially appealed to many Japanese, but they eventually decided it didn’t fit their psyche or tradition. The pattern of “initial acceptance and gradual rejection” was repeated several times.
“I think that rejection largely came as a nationalistic reaction to the West,” Fujiwara observes. “There was a slogan in the 19th century: ‘Japanese soul and Western technology.’ While accepting Western civilization, they wanted to keep the Japanese soul untouched. They certainly did not want to accept the Western soul — i.e., Christianity.”
People crowded into churches again as Japan boomed after World War II. “But they left like an ocean tide, saying, ‘We graduated Christianity,’ or ‘Christianity was good, but we are done with it,'” says Fujiwara. “They have to be touched by God. Their hearts must be penetrated by the Gospel so that they may start living as disciples.”
Christian institutions are still respected in modern Japan, particularly the many schools and colleges begun by missionaries. But the number of believers remains low as modern Japan has become increasingly secular.
“They really believe that in themselves they have what they need, which makes it very difficult to share the Gospel,” says International Mission Board missionary Gary Fujino. “What we need is for people to be shaken and realize that you need something outside of yourself — God.”
The triple trauma of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis may have accomplished that, according to Fujiwara:
“The foundation of the earth was shaken; the houses we lived in were washed out by the tsunami. The atomic power stations that we were told were safe exploded. Something we trusted was broken down. People are asking, ‘Why has this happened?’ ‘Can we still go on?’ If this could not open people’s hearts, what else could?”
Some cracks in the façade already were appearing before the quake. Japan, an aging society, has struggled for years with economic and social stagnation.
Books and periodicals about Christ have been hot sellers since last year, according to Japanese publishers. One of the top bookstores in Tokyo’s business district dedicated a special section to the topic. Two issues of a national magazine with cover stories headlined “What is Christianity?” and “What is Christianity II” sold out within weeks.
In the quake zone, meanwhile, more than 170,000 displaced people remain in shelters. Thousands more are living in their cars or in damaged homes with no electricity or water. As more of the neediest areas become accessible, Southern Baptist disaster relief teams are working with Japanese Baptist partners and IMB missionaries to provide such services as food and water distribution, blankets and warm clothing for the elderly and grief counseling.
As they join hands with other Christians to serve the hurting, Fujiwara prays their ministry will change Japan forever.
“My father, who died 20 years ago, was baptized by a Southern Baptist missionary in the postwar period,” he recalls. “I am deeply and forever grateful for that. I want you to imagine with me that our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren will hear stories like this: ‘The 2011 disaster was terrible, yet God brought good even through that. I remember your parents, grandparents and great-grandparents sacrificed, loved and cared for us at that time. The Gospel was brought to my family then.'”
Bridges is IMB global correspondent. Susie Rain, an IMB writer/editor based in Southeast Asia, contributed to this column.