Japan is a functionally secular country in which less than one percent of Japanese are evangelical Christians. At first glance, Japan looks like the future of Europe and America, if these regions continue on their current path toward secularization. Unlike in America, where most people know the basic concepts of Christianity in some form – or at least famous Bible stories – there is almost no cultural consciousness of Christianity in Japan. The average Japanese person is probably only familiar with ritualistic prayer, the occasional Catholic trappings, a guy named Jesus, and a cross.
The people of Japan are among the most unreached people groups of the world; they might be the largest unevangelized group, period. Unlike the countries of western Europe, Japan is not a post-Christian society; it is, rather, the world's most advance pre-Christian society. While in western countries, Christians are likely to be ridiculed or intellectually attacked for their faith, this is rare in Japan. Japan has a different, but no less serious problem: apathy.
In the United States or France, for example, many people are outright hostile to Christianity; Japanese almost never are. They simply don't care. Japan is a nominally Buddhist country, syncretistically blended with the indigenous Shinto religion. In practice, few Japanese are religious at all, only observing certain rituals, such as visiting a shrine at New Year's, or festivals such as Obon, that have lost their original religious significance and have essentially become cultural in content, the way that most Americans celebrate Christmas without much thought to the content of these religions. Japan's sense of ethics and morality is almost entirely rooted in social mores rather than a transcendental religion.
Christianity was introduced by the Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier in the 16th century, and for a time the Gospel spread quickly before persecution nearly destroyed the Japanese church. The faith outlawed, Christianity was nearly destroyed, surviving only in an underground form for several hundred years. When Japan's seclusion from the outside world ended in the mid-19th century, Protestant missionaries visited the country for the first time. The church grew, but it never reached anywhere near the explosive influence it had in China or Korea during the same time period. The nationalistic regime of the early 20th century and World War II squelched the Protestant church, and even after World War II – when General MacArthur famously called for the evangelization of the island nation – the church has remained miniscule.
Why is Christianity so slow to grow in Japan? This will be a unifying theme throughout this series of posts, as we attempt to see what the church has done wrong - and right - in attempting to evangelize one of the most challenging cultures in the world. There are, in fact, a variety of factors that contribute to the Japanese situation - ranging from collectivist societal pressure, the connotations of Christianity with subversion and ritualism rather than a relationship with the Creator, and more.
Yet despite the many setbacks to the faith in Japan, I think there's good reason to believe that Japan's Christian boom has yet to come. In following posts, we'll look at the Christian faith in Japan, past and present, and see how it relates to the church outside of Japan – and why we should be optimistic about the future of Christianity in Japan.