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The Silenced Christians of Japan

The shrine of 26 Martyrs of Nagasaki, a group of Japanese and foreign Catholics who were executed in 1597.
Posted December 9, 2018

The evangelisation of Japan continues to confound the church at large. Major Nigel Luscombe is currently serving in the Territory of Japan and shares insights into the reasons for the barriers to propagating the gospel message in that land.

Christians in Japan are currently in the minority with only 2.3 percent of Japanese identifying or affiliated with Christianity. This is a perplexing statistic when you look at other comparative Asian nations; for example, South Korea, which has embraced the preaching of the gospel. The question is: Why has Christianity had such a difficult path in Japan?

There is no one answer to this question. It could be the connection of how the European nations compelled Japan to open to the West and then forced unequal treaties on them, reinforced by the Western occupation of Japan after the war. It could also be the ‘voices’ that connected Christianity with the subjugation of the East, and as nationalism rose in Japan in the 1920s and 1930s, so Christianity was seen as a ‘Western’ religion. This may have negatively impacted the efforts of the church. Another big factor in Japanese national identity is that Buddhism allowed syncretism with the national religion Shintoism—so people can be both Buddhist and Shinto (Shintoism is not seen as a religion by many Japanese but the essence of who they are).

But there is also an answer to this question in the history of Japan, the history of the persecution of the church in Japan. For example, South Korea never persecuted Christianity, but Japan did—fully and violently.

In 1966, a Japanese Christian author by the name of Shūsaku Endō wrote an historical novel called Chinmoku—in English, Silence. The book is the story of a period in Japan when Christianity was not just banned, but Christians were hunted down and killed for their faith. Although only a novel, it is, nevertheless, based firmly in historical fact. In 2016, Martin Scorsese brought the reality of this persecution into the modern world with his film based on the book, Silence.

Silence is set in the 17th century during the Tokugawa Shogunate—the last feudal Japanese military government. It implemented the sustained persecution, torture and martyrdom of what was a growing Christian community in Japan.

In order for the Shogunate to identify these ‘hidden Christians’, they would force suspected Christians to trample on a ‘fumi-e’—a carved image of Christ (see box section). Often whole villages would be lined up and everyone made to trample on the fumi-e. For some, this was an annual ritual. The Protestant traders on Deshima Island in Nagasaki Bay were required to trample every year, but they had no issues declaring themselves as non-Christians, as they wanted to trade.

Those Japanese who refused to step on the fumi-e were imprisoned and killed by anazuri—which is by being hung upside down over a pit and slowly bled. Others were boiled alive in the hot springs, crucified or beheaded. Priests were sometimes told to watch their parishioners being tortured and that the torture would only stop if they would recant their faith.
The use of fumi-e did not stop until after 1856, when Japan began to open up to the rest of the world, and the Tokugawa regime was eventually replaced with what is known as the Meiji Restoration.

What makes this more poignant for me is that there is a fumi-e in the Territorial Commander’s office here in Japan. While I can’t see it most days, I know it is there. It reminds me of the price my predecessors and the Christians of Japan paid in this country for over 250 years, but it also speaks louder than just a reminder; the significance of the fumi-e challenges me in my faith.

In Matthew 10:32 it says, ‘Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven’. Now there is mixed feeling in Christianity about Christian icons, but the issue is not about icons, it is about declaring yourself Christian, or not—that was the point of the process. The Protestant traders wilfully renounced their faith because they chose money over convictions. Today, we see this same sentiment expressed as a mission drift away from the leading of the Holy Spirit that is in the church; or the leaking out of the love of Christ for the lost, as we continue as traders in ‘good works’ and say that this is the gospel.

Are the actions of the Japanese Christians who would step on the fumi-e and then seek God’s forgiveness any different? Was theirs, also, just a pragmatic response denying Christ so as not to be killed? Does Matthew 10:32 still apply? I can’t answer that, as it is up to God. To me there is a big difference between life and making money. Life allows opportunities for forgiveness and life gives opportunities for being a witness, even if it is only to your own family.

‘Chinmoku’ (silence) speaks to me of times when God has been silent in my life—though this is not completely correct as God was never silent; it was more that I couldn’t hear him. In fact, it was also that I couldn’t see God. For me the very presence of God is all that I need. We, God and I, don’t need to say anything, we just need to be.

Near the end of the book, a priest finally hears from God. After agonising silence, God says: ‘You may trample. You may trample. I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. You may trample. It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.’

After over 250 years of persecution, around 30,000 Japanese Christians eventually made themselves known in the Kyushu area after 1856—a number that surprised the church and surprised the Japanese authorities. It did not surprise God though!

Is God silent in the lives of the Japanese? No, but the blinding threat of the fumi-e of the past has been replaced by the deafening noise of a modern society amplified by the past, making it hard for people to hear God. Even though persecution for being a Christian stopped 160 years ago, there is still an unwritten fear and misconception about Christianity in Japan. After all, it must be bad to be persecuted so fully.

This is the challenge the church in Japan continues to face and the challenge we now find ourselves ministering in. But I know God has a plan for Japan. He will not see this country, I now minister in, stay in the enemy’s hands. My hope is that my work and the work of The Salvation Army in Japan will be worthy of the sacrifice of those who did not trample on the face of Christ.


By Major Nigel Luscombe (c) 'War Cry' magazine, 1 December 2018, p14-15 You can read 'War Cry' at your nearest Salvation Army church or centre, or subscribe through Salvationist Resources.