My local supermarket plays Christmas music. Yours probably does too. My neighbors have Christmas trees. So do yours, no doubt. At this time of year, in the major cities if not nationwide, you might almost think you were in a Christian country.
You’re not, of course. The trappings are deceptive — decorative, rather. Santa Claus is a jolly old fellow, and Christmas trees are nice. Why not enjoy them? ‘Tis the season!
But Christian missionaries find Japan a tough nut to crack. They always have, ever since the first of them, St. Francis Xavier, landed in Kyushu in 1549. His first impression, based on an initially friendly reception, was, “In my opinion no people superior to the Japanese will be found among the unbelievers.” Two years later, he left disheartened, calling Japanese Buddhism “an invention of the devil.”
Missionaries today use different language but express similar frustration. The Japanese have so eagerly embraced everything Western — from fads to philosophies, baseball to scientific method. Why not Christianity? Even China, officially atheist and repressive of anything outside state control, counts 52 million Christians. In South Korea, 30 percent of a population of 50 million professes Christianity. In Japan? Less than 1 percent.
One explanation comes from Minoru Okuyama, director, as of 2010, of the Missionary Training Center in Japan. That year, he told a global missions conference, “Japanese make much of human relationships more than the truth. Consequently we can say that as for Japanese, one of the most important things is harmony; in Japanese, ‘Wa.’” The Japanese, said Okuyama, “are afraid of disturbing human relationships of their families or neighborhood even though they know Christianity is best.” Chinese and South Koreans, by contrast, “make more of truth or principle than human relationships.”
A shrewd and outspoken samurai character in Shusaku Endo’s historical novel “Samurai” (1980) put a similar thought much more bluntly. His sullen response to a Spanish missionary’s evangelizing, circa 1610, was, “The Japanese don’t care whether God exists or not.”
Western Judeo-Christian civilization was built on God. Japanese civilization was not. The West is absolutist, its God embodying absolute power, absolute righteousness, absolute wisdom, absolute truth. Nothing like that exists in Japan. No wonder Xavier and his Japanese hosts misunderstood each other.
Slaughter is as old as history — older. Individuals, tribesmen, nations have always massacred rivals and enemies without agonizing over the morality of it. Jews, precursors of Christians, moralized slaughter. It was what Good had to do to Evil. “And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city” — so the Biblical book of Joshua celebrates the Israelites’ conquest of the Promised Land, God leading the way.
Christians, themselves survivors of atrocious persecutions under pagan Rome, inherited and honed the ethic whereby slaughter of the enemies of the one true God was a blessed undertaking. Pagans, Jews and Christian “heretics” fell to Christian fire and sword. When Islam’s rise beginning in the seventh century set jihadist against crusader, only the notion of another world could to some extent offset the horrors of the present one.
By the 16th century, the crusader’s zeal was muted. In his place there arose the missionary. Other worlds, “new worlds,” were discovered here on Earth — America by Columbus in 1492, Japan in 1543 by nameless Portuguese traders washed ashore in a storm. Xavier arrived six years later from Goa in India, having heard from the Portuguese that in Japan “much fruit might be gained for our holy faith, more than in any other part of the Indies, for they are a people most desirous of knowledge, which the Indian heathen are not.”
The missionaries who followed Xavier fared better than he did. Their connections with Portuguese merchants helped. Japan then was a chaos of petty fiefdoms, each at war with its neighbors. Turning Christian, the shrewder feudal lords discovered, brought worldly benefits. Foreign trade was one; foreign guns another.
Japan’s first Christian daimyo (feudal lord) was Omura Sumitada, who received baptism in 1562. His territory included a wretched little village called Nagasaki, whose true worth was soon revealed — it possessed a magnificent harbor. Omura grew rich and powerful beyond his hopes. Was this not Christianity proving its power? Beset by enemies, he appealed to the Portuguese for military help, which came, but with a price: Sumitada must repay his “great obligations” to God, said Padre Gaspar Coelho, head of the Jesuit mission in western Kyushu, by “extinguishing totally the worship and veneration of idols in his lands” and seeing to “the universal conversion of his vassals,” until “not a single pagan remained.”
No sooner spoken than done. The year was 1574. Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines were burned or demolished throughout the Omura domain; 60,000 subjects were baptized, by force if necessary.
The following decade saw Christianity take root. Daimyo, with whatever mix of religious and venal motives, were converting; so, voluntarily more often than not, were their subjects. By 1582, there were 200 churches serving an estimated 150,000 Christians. Missionaries who foresaw a Christian Japan were over-confident, perhaps, but not stupidly so. It could have happened. It would be hard to blame them for failing to predict what in fact occurred — “the most cruel persecution and torture of Christians ever witnessed on this globe,” wrote the German physician and chronicler Engelbert Kaempfer, stationed at Nagasaki with the Dutch East India Co. a century later.
Success turned the foreigners into swaggerers. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Japan’s most powerful warlord, felt provoked beyond endurance. When crew members of a Spanish galleon washed ashore at Shikoku boasted of their king’s power, Hideyoshi smelled imperialism. At Nagasaki he had 26 Christians, 17 of them Japanese, crucified. The next 40 years saw the wholesale slaughter of Christians throughout Japan. A typical scene was witnessed by the English trader Richard Cox in 1619: “Fifty-five persons of all ages and both sexes were burnt alive on the dry bed of the Kamo River in Kyoto, among them little children of 5 or 6 years old in their mothers’ arms, crying out ‘Jesus, receive their souls!’”
The “evil sect” — Hideyoshi’s words — never recovered.