Why did you decide to write about this topic of Christianity in Japan?
I’ve lived in Japan for 25 years and had a lot of culture shocks. What prompted my book was speculation about how the first Europeans handled that culture shock, particularly as they were introducing Christianity – a monotheistic religion – to a polytheistic society where there are many kinds of truths.
How is Japanese culture different to Western culture?
Japanese are much easier with mystery, ambiguity and silence. Westerners have very big egos, think they know the answer to everything and insist on their own way! Japanese are quieter and more humble. It’s a cultural characteristic connected to Buddhism.
Why were Christians in Japan ‘hidden’?
It began in the 16th century when the first missionaries arrived from Europe. They thought Japan was the most likely country in Asia to turn Christian. They had pretty good success and even converted one or two feudal lords. However, because of the dangers of colonialism, the Japanese leadership turned against the missionaries. They wanted to exterminate Christianity from the whole country. At its peak there were 400,000 Christians in Japan. After the persecution, as far as the authorities knew, there was not one single Christian left.
However, when Japan opened up again to the West after 250 years, it was discovered there were groups of hidden Christians nobody knew about who had been practising in secret for seven generations!
Each group of hidden Christians were completely isolated because of the terrible persecution. There was no common means of establishing a core religion. So each of them developed in different ways. Some of them kept close to the original and some veered away a lot, as after seven generations the missionaries’ original words and prayers had become garbled. By the 20th century some of it was complete nonsense and bore no relationship to Christianity, it was more like a Japanese folk religion.
What’s the situation now?
One per cent of Japanese are Christians. That’s after huge amounts of money being poured into missionaries, Christian schools and universities. So there’s an extraordinary resistance of Japanese culture to Christianity.
Is it fair to say Christianity is struggling in Japan?
A lot of the elite are favourable to Christianity and well-established churches. However, part of the problem is the Japanese see Jesus as just one of 8 million Kami (gods / spirits / deities).
This is also a central problem in Shûsaku Endô’s novel Silence. One of the reasons he calls Japanese culture a “mud swamp” is because there’s no concept of monotheism and one single truth. So it’s very difficult for Christianity to take root in Japanese culture.
In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians (SPCK) is out now To read our review of Martin Scorsese's new film Silence, visit premierchristianity.com/ blog