The Church In Japan

By Robert W. Nichols

Could you conceive of a day when there are only four preachers working full time in all 50 of the United States? Japan with one half the population of the United States and only two faithful gospel preachers is now in that position. With an official population of 126,549,976 crowded into an area smaller than California and only 0.7% of them professing Christianity, Japan is truly “white already unto harvest.” 

Francis Xavier, the famous Jesuit priest, provided the first image the Japanese had of Christianity. He arrived on August 15, 1549. His initial success was followed by persecution, banishment, religious wars, torture, imprisonment, and finally closure of the country for two and a half centuries. Hundreds were crucified and over 30,000 were killed at one time for holding to this corrupted form of Christianity. 

After a show of force by Commodore Perry, Japan opened its doors to the West in 1853. Protestant evangelistic efforts began in 1859 and have continued since then with individual converts remaining less than 1% of the population. Currently the average Protestant congregation numbers 17 and has less than one baptism per year.

On Tuesday, April 12, 1892, brother J.M. McCaleb of Hickman County, Tennessee, arrived in Yokohama to spend more than 40 years in Japan. Since that time more than a hundred families and single people have come to Japan to tell the story of Jesus, but few remained very long. Unfortunately, of these, only five preachers — Robert P. Nichols, W.C. Hinton, Charles Gentry, Robert W. Nichols, and Randy Reese — have not been involved in institutionalism or the sponsoring church arrangement. Now only two preachers, Robert P. Nichols and Robert W. Nichols are working with six churches in Japan.

What has been the major impediment to the spread of New Testament Christianity in Japan? It’s tempting to assume that because of their industry and technology, the Japanese are pretty much secularized. That’s a big mistake. While it is true that many do not believe in a specific religion, they do have a sense of religion, and engage in a wide variety of religious activities and the superstitions of Buddhism and Shintoism as “traditional customs.” For example, more than 70 million people recently took part in “Hatsu-Mode,” which is the New Years’ visit to a Shrine or Temple to pray for long life and happiness during the coming year. Nearly 75 percent of the Japanese people will visit family graves once or twice a year to appease their ancestors’ souls. All of which leads one to think that Paul’s statement to the Athenians might well be applied to the people of Japan, “I perceive that in all things ye are very religious (superstitious).”

Christianity seems to be one of the few forces from the West that actually threaten the Japanese identity. The true religion of Japan is Nihonkyo (Japanism) which defines a Japanese and makes him Japanese. Nihonkyo embodies the tendency to operate according to group and context, rather than universal principle. Christians arrive in Japan preaching a doctrine that is true for all circumstances. The Japanese think that is too universal, too abstract, and not concerned enough about the specifics of human relations. In short, it is too logical. If the demands of the community are in conflict with the demands of God, Christianity teaches men to follow God. This takes great courage in any society but Japanese think of this as part of the Western mythology about individual autonomy. For the Japanese, it is well-nigh unthinkable to forsake the group for principle or belief, no matter how deeply felt.

Christianity is considered un-Japanese. One woman said quite plainly, that she had a great deal of respect for the teachings of Christ, but she could never become a Christian because she was Japanese. For her, Christianity was too alien. It might work for Americans, but it was incompatible with being Japanese. Many Christians are afraid to express their faith to family and friends. On the way home from Sunday worship Christians will tell their friends that they have been studying English even when the worship was in the Japanese language. Concern about what others think truly guides and greatly dominates daily life and the decision making of the Japanese. The opinions of others are often taken more seriously than principles of right and wrong. A still untaught Japanese Christian stated it this way, “Human relations must come before the Truth in the Bible, and not the Bible before human relationships.” In Japanese thinking, religion is a “tool” for gaining one’s material goals and is subordinate to human relationships.

Today, the older generation is still worshiping the Emperor as a god, and many are telling local Christians that “religion is not for the living, but for the dead.”  The tide is changing, and among the younger generation, they are beginning to show an interest in “Western” Christianity. Mass meetings and mass appeals are not yet possible. Converts are made today by teaching them one by one in their own language. In Japan we are forced to remember that Christ did not say, “Go and address the great multitudes,” but, “Go and preach the gospel to every creature.”

We teach 45 to 50 weekly and 80 to 90 on a monthly basis, but they are not in one city. They are scattered over four political areas we would call “states” but the Japanese call “prefectures.” Each week we have been meeting in our home, in two homes of local Christians, the homes of three non-Christians, the Osaka national prison, a neighborhood association building, and a YWCA. We also meet monthly in another non-Christian home plus a meeting on a U.S. military base. We now have twelve regularly scheduled Bible studies meeting in ten different places. 

Sunday is our busiest day. On a typical Sunday we leave our home in the little town of Ichinomiya at 8:00 a.m. and pick up sister Moritani and brother Okamoto on our way to worship in Japanese at 8:30 in the city of Yamasaki. By eleven we are on our way to Japan’s third largest city of Osaka for both English and Japanese Bible study and worship beginning at 1:30 P.M. at the Umeda YWCA. For our third meeting place, we drive to the home of a Christian in the southern part of Osaka city. The fourth and final meeting place of the day is still further south of Osaka in the city of Matsubara. Evening worship in the Japanese language ends about 9:00 p.m. We still have more than two hours of driving to do before reaching home. The toll roads for this one day of driving cost 7,300 yen or $65 to $75 and gasoline is $3.60 to $4.00 a gallon, depending on the exchange rate. In this way we are able to teach what would be a nice small congregation in the USA. 

Not only is the need great, but Japan is one of the few countries in the east where preachers may enter freely, live where they please, and teach without hindrance of any kind. Japan’s doors are wide open to men who would preach the gospel. In recent years one or more souls are baptized into Christ for every ten Japanese Christians. The future of the Lord’s church in Japan is as bright as the promises of God.

1011-65 Azumi, Ichinomiya-cho, Shiso-gun, Hyogo-ken  671-4131 Japan,

Truth Magazine Vol. XLV: 4  p20  February 15, 2001