At the behest of American sailor Matthew Perry, Japan's seclusion ended in 1853, and foreign missionaries once again turned their eyes toward Japan. In 1871, the Meiji Restoration allowed for freedom of religion, and Christianity was no longer outlawed.
With a new influx of missionaries - both Protestant and Catholic - the church began to grow within Japan, a nation in the midst of industrialization and great societal change. Christians brought considerable contribution to Japan - the first Presbyterian missionary, James Hepburn, developed a system of romanizing the Japanese language, which is still the form most commonly used today. The founders of several universities, such as Doshisha and Hokkaido University, were Christians as well. The latter in particularly is known for its famous slogan, "Boys be ambitious for Christ!"
Japan seemed poised for the same explosive growth that had occurred in China and Korea. But the church was quickly strangled by the emerging nationalism of the 20th century, in which allegiance to the Emperor and the Japanese identity became as pervasive as an actual religion. Christianity was marginalized - though not outright persecuted - as an external threat to Japanese national identity.
This, I would suggest, is at the heart of why Japan has been so slow to embrace Christianity in the modern era. The Japanese people have a very clearly defined sense of self that has been preserved in the face of considerable change; and particularly in comparison to neighboring countries, which have often had less pride in themselves than the Japanese. In many ways, this has beneficial to Japan and has allowed the country to maintain its customs and culture far beyond the point where most other developed countries have been diluted by immigration and other foreign influence. But as long as the Japanese self-conception exists, it presents a major obstacle to the Gospel.
As we know, Japanese nationalism hit its peak during World War II. Finally defeated at the end of a costly and bloody war - Japan's first defeat, actually, at the hands of a foreign power - one would expect that this particular obstacle to the Gospel might finally have been broken.
But the Japanese identity didn't disappear; it merely changed, to be reflected in the desire for success and prosperity. The national consciousness of Japan was as determined as ever to prove that the island nation could match and even exceed Western countries. Japan quickly rebuilt from the war and became a manufacturing powerhouse, filling the void left by European countries laid waste by World War II.
As is often the case, success breeds contempt for the Gospel, and the latter half of the 20th century showed slow growth for faith in Japan. Japan had come to worship success, money, and materialism over any sort of God, as Buddhism and Shinto became minor rituals - equivalent to the majority of Americans who nominally profess Christianity, but rarely give faith much thought outside of a Christmas Eve service, or maybe Easter.
Japan's prosperity didn't last, though - since the collapse of the bubble economy in the late 80s, Japan has existed in a bizarre sort of twilight state. The economy doesn't do well, but everyone seems to be doing fine, at least on the surface; there's not much homelessness or outright poverty, and there are plenty of part-time jobs going around. Overall, life in Japan isn't bad, at least not on the surface. An aging, shrinking population and high national debt seem to have little effect on the average person.
Yet Japanese society is rife with problems. The difference between Japan's problems and those faced by North America and Western nations is that Japan effectively sweeps its problems out of view. The government is stable, but corrupt and run by incompetents and squabbling
factions. Young people are pessimistic and hesitant to enter the
miserable working conditions of white collar life. Families are
strained, with fathers who work late hours and children whose lives are
ruled by mandatory school club activities. Modern Japan is a nation that's overworked, stressed out, with little breathing room (in the literal and metaphorical sense) and little hope or optimism for the future.
This is where we find Japan today: at the end of its rope, and in need of rescue. In other words, Japan is ripe for the Gospel.
Next time we'll look in more depth at the various issues facing modern Japanese society - and what the Church can do about it.