Written by: FEBA South Africa
Article source: JOY! Magazine

“I wonder if Jesus is calling me to be His friend, although I am Buddhist?” writes one FEBA Japan listener. At the heart of this message lies the conundrum many Japanese face when confronted with the Good News: how to embrace a way of thinking that goes against their very culture.

Christianity in Japan
Christianity has been in Japan since the 16th century. In 1549, a Jesuit priest called Francis Xavier brought the Gospel into the country and initially found great success. When he departed a few years later, he left at least 2000 Christians behind. However, the new religion did not sit well with everyone; many leaders considered it a poorly veiled attempt at preparing the ground for a European invasion.

A dark history
A dark time followed. In 1597, 26 missionaries were crucified in Nagasaki. Christians went “underground” and became kakure kirishitan (“hidden Christians”), while Japan got rid of foreign missionaries and effectively closed its borders in 1603. In 1612, about 300 000 Japanese Christians were persecuted through torture/execution, as well as forced recantation – they were made to step on fumi-e, wooden tablets engraved with the image of Christ, to prove they denounced the faith. The government issued an edict officially banning Christianity. It took 250 years to reopen its borders, with missionaries allowed back in 1873. So why, after 150 years of evangelisation, is only 0,8% of the population Christian?

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A ‘missionary graveyard’
Japan’s evident resistance to the Gospel has earned it the name of a “missionary graveyard”. It is not that missionaries die there, but their motivation often does. Japanese religion is a mixture of Shintoism, which is as old as Japan itself, and Buddhism, which entered the country in 525. Shintoism centres on the worship of kami, supernatural forces linked to natural features or locations, and the honouring of ancestors. There is no god above any other, no regular religious services or holy scriptures; instead, it emphasises values such as purity and familial piety. In 1872, when the government decreed religious freedom, they did so on the condition that all Japanese must observe Shinto rituals as a sign of respect for the emperor. As a result, Shintoism and Buddhism have become so interwoven with Japanese culture that it is difficult to separate the two. Indeed, many Japanese who describe themselves as non-religious – roughly a third of the population – still observe Shinto or Buddhist rituals. For a Japanese person, becoming a Christian therefore means turning their back on their culture.

Turning their back
This plays into another aspect of Japanese culture, which is encapsulated in the Japanese proverb: “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” Politeness, hierarchy, and uniformity are highly valued in traditional Japanese society, and those who dare to draw outside the lines are often treated as outcasts. Those who want to follow Christ find it difficult to break away from these deeply ingrained social mores. In the words of a FEBA Japan listener, they “live by pandering to the values around them, not Jesus”.

Cults vs Christianity
In the past 30 years, Japan has seen the rise of several cults, including the Aum Shinrikyo group, which carried out 42 terrorist attacks in the early 90s. In 2022, former prime minister Shinzo Abe was publicly assassinated by a man who claimed his family had lost everything because of the Unification Church, with whom he believed Abe had links. This kind of exposure caused a certain wariness around organised religion; many even confuse Christianity with these harmful cult movements, because they know so little about what Christianity entails. As one missionary put it, “It’s not that most people have heard the Gospel and rejected it … they haven’t heard the Gospel even once.”

THE PROBLEM
In his three-part documentary for Radical on Christianity in Japan, available on YouTube, Steven Morales sums up the problem as follows: “The reason Japan is so hard to reach with the Gospel is that they believe so hard in something else.”

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A struggling society
Despite a strong economy, Japan faces many social issues. They have a declining birth rate, and consequently, an aging population. More than 25% of the population are seniors. Depression and loneliness are prevalent. About 1,5 million people live as hikikomori (social recluses). They have no personal contact with the world outside, but live entirely online.

FEBA in Japan
FEBA Japan has been broadcasting for more than 50 years. Due to Japan’s laws on religious equality, Christian programmes may be produced in the country but not broadcast from within its borders. As a result, FEBA Japan produces about 20 programmes in Tokyo and sends them to Jeju Island, South Korea, from where they are transmitted back into Japan for 75 minutes a day. They receive some 300 emails and handwritten letters from listeners every month, with an estimated listenership between 300 000 and 500 000.

Exciting new content
“We are trying to figure out how to continue sharing the spirit of seeking the Lord with people who have difficulty going to church,” says Assistant Director Nagakura. To this end, FEBA Japan hopes to start airing exciting new programmes soon. One will host prominent theologians, asking them questions on listeners’ behalf; a second will read essays by Japanese Christians who live abroad; a third will share sermons by Japanese preachers from 150 years ago! The team is also exploring various methods of evangelism.

The harvest in Japan is plentiful
People need the hope that only God’s love and grace can bring. Please pray that many will tune in to FEBA Japan’s programmes, so that they can find the answers they seek, like the listener who wrote, “I thank you for your warm programmes every night. I wrote to you about my emptiness. I asked why I was created and how I could believe in God. Believe it or not, I was baptised and I’m now a Christian.”

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Date published: 25/05/2024

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