Earlier this year, the thugs of the Islamic State murdered a Japanese hostage named Kenji Goto, a thoughtful and even saintly Christian journalist. Goto had for years campaigned for humanitarian causes worldwide, and he found himself in Syria in a vain attempt to rescue another Japanese hostage.
Although we rarely think of Japan as a promising land for Christianity, such a case reminds us that believers do exist there. Goto himself was a convert to the United Church of Christ. Between 2008 and 2010, Japan had two Christian prime ministers in close succession, one Catholic and one Baptist, and astonishingly, these were the seventh and eighth Christians to hold that office over the past century.
Nevertheless, the number of Japanese Christians is tiny—barely 1 percent of the population, far fewer than in neighboring Asian lands. That fact teaches some comparative lessons about the religion’s appeal outside the West.
Christianity has a deep history in Japan, and that story is essential to understanding present realities. In the century after 1560, a European Catholic mission won stunning successes in the country before being rooted out in a savage persecution. The faith was banned for centuries, although some hidden believers survived in remote regions. Only in the late 19th century was it once more legal to practice Christianity, and believers were long regarded as suspect because of their foreign creed.
We might think that past persecutions explain the extreme weakness of Christianity in modern-day Japan. But the faith also suffered extreme and persistent violence in other countries where it eventually flourished. Korea is a case in point. Japanese Christians have faced no legal disabilities since the collapse of the militarist regime in 1945, and two generations should be ample time to rebuild from persecution. So why has Japan not followed the example of Christian growth in South Korea or China, or several other countries in the region?
In Korea and China, Christians won their greatest successes during eras of dictatorship or military rule, when there was massive disenchantment with mainstream politics and approved social values. Christianity represented an authentic counterculture, a refuge from oppression, and a voice for human rights. That gave the churches a firm foundation on which to build when restraints were lifted and repression eased.
For all the flaws of the Japanese political parties, the country has been faithfully democratic since 1945 and has never generated the same kind of mass disaffection. A thirst for alternative values might draw some intellectuals or elite cultural figures to Christianity, but not in the way it has elsewhere.
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