has been met with varying levels of embrace in the past
450 years in Japan
, but even now it has failed to catch on as one of
the dominant religion
s. This essay will attempt to show exactly
why this is the case—first, that the religion of Christianity did not “mesh”
well with the native Japanese religions of the time, and second, that the
rulers of the time saw it as a threat and possible prelude to increased
European influence in Japan.
Christianity was first introduced to Japan in the form of a Jesuit
mission led by Francis Xavier, arriving to the Japanese isles in 1549
CE (Packet 167). Christianity was actually embraced during this period,
even so much so as to prompt some historians to label the years that followed
Xavier’s landing as the “Christian Century”. The people took to
this new religion out of curiosity and to try something new, but also,
as a recent exam question showed, because the extreme poverty and feelings
of hopelessness of the common people at this time led them to seek redemption
from a source outside of the traditional Japanese religions (EALC Midterm).
Even some of the daimyos and shoguns of the time actively supported
Christianity, the most prominent among them being Oda Nobunga and Toyotomi
Hideyoshi (although Hideyoshi’s support can be seen just as an offshoot
of his intense hatred of Buddhism). While Nobunga rose to power,
in fact, “Christianity approached the status of a state religion” (Packet
This period of tolerance, however, abruptly came to an end in the early
1600s, culminating in the total banning of Christianity by the Tokugawa
regime in 1640 (Hendry 127). When a young man named Amakusa Shiro
led a popular Christian uprising at Shimabara in 1638, he and tens of
thousands of his followers were massacred. Why the abrupt change
First, as Lande quite succinctly puts it, “Christianity was strange
to the Japanese.” (Packet 167) Most of the older Japanese religions
were not mutually exclusive—one could be a Shinto kami worshipper as
well as a believer in Buddhism at the same time without sacrificing the
purity of either. It’s been noted that even all three of the major
Japanese religions of the time—Buddhism, Shinto, and Confucianism—“had
managed to coexist with remarkably little friction.” (Packet 190)
Even today, it is commonplace for Japanese to still make pilgrimages to
Shinto shrines at least once a year while still using Buddhism for funerals
and formal ceremonies. Other mixtures of the dominant religions occur
in similar ways. This contrasts with the “absoluteness of Christian
claims” (Packet 167)—you either were a Christian or you were not a Christian,
and the thought that you could be both Christian and something else at
the same time was foreign to the missionaries trying to convert the Japanese.
They believed that “Christianity was believed to be the only road to glory
and salvation.” (Packet 167) Also, as stated earlier, many Japanese
initially turned towards Christianity because they believed it proved new
hope for them and a possible escape from their poverty. But, later,
many felt that “the Christian God seemed unable to save his adherents
from pain and misery. The fate of the crucified Jesus himself underlined
the argument.” (Packet 167) This lack of divine protection offered
by the native Japanese religions served to turn some away from Christianity.
Second, Christianity was seen as a foreign threat. The Japanese,
and especially the Tokugawa rulers of the time, saw Christianity as a
symbol of the “dangers of European colonialism” (Packet 167). The
Japanese have always been somewhat distrustful of the West, lasting until
Commodore Matthew Perry forcibly “opened” Japan in 1853.
Christianity was thought of as a “foot in the door” through which the Western
powers such as Great Britain, Portugal, Spain, and France were
increasing their influence upon Japanese affairs. The Japanese rulers
saw this as a threat to their unquestioned control, and so they began their
merciless persecution of Christianity—over the next two hundred years,
“all families were to be registered at a Buddhist temple…Christianity was
virtually eliminated from the country.” (Hendry 127) They instead
promoted Buddhism and Confucianism, especially Shinto as “National Learning”—undermining
the “foreign” Christianity by playing to the patriotism of the Japanese
So, we can see that the failure of Christianity after 1600 was caused
by two main points—the exclusiveness of the religion itself, and the
Tokugawa’s desire to eliminate foreign threats and secure their own power.
The effects of this purge can be seen even today, as Christians still number
less than 2 percent of the Japanese population (Hendry 127). While
“white weddings” and other Christian ideas have been imported to Japan,
these can be seen more of the increasing Westernization and not of any
embrace of Christianity itself. All in all, it remains a fringe religion.
EALC 150 Article Packet. University of Illinois, Fall Semester
EALC 150 Fall 2000 Midterm Examination.
Hendry, Joy. Understanding Japanese Society (second edition).
New York: Routledge, 1996.