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The Spread of Christianity in Japan

By the Right Reverend John McKim, D.D., Bishop of Tokyo

New York: Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States, 1905.

Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2015

[The following article was written by request of a committee of prominent Japanese, headed by Count Okuma, under whose auspices a series of pamphlets has been issued to commemorate the semi-centennial of the Perry Treaty. In pamphlet form the article has had a wide circulation in Japan.]

ONE thousand years after the landing of Augustine the monk on the shores of England, and about the same length of time after the coming of the first Buddhist missionaries to Japan, St. Francis Xavier, the pioneer Apostle of Christianity to the Japanese, preached the Gospel of the "Lord of Heaven" to the people of Dai Nippon. As a result of his labors, and of those missionaries who came after him, the number of Christians at the beginning of the seventeenth century is estimated by Japanese annalists to have been nearly two millions.

Japan might have been a Christian Empire today but for internal dissensions, political intrigue and desire for worldly power and influence on the part of those early Spanish and Portuguese missionaries. (There were Christian churches in fifty-two of the sixty-four provinces of Japan.) The seditions caused by the friars made Christianity odious to the Shogunate and drastic measures were taken to extirpate our religion and to cause the name of Christ to be a hissing and a byword to all generations of loyal Japanese.

Edicts were published forbidding the people either to believe or hear the Gospel. The missionaries were hunted down and expelled from the Empire. The converts were ordered to renounce their faith under penalty of death. Rather than deny the Lord who gave His life for them, thousands of Christians gladly suffered martyrdom: the sword was uplifted, but their lips did not quiver: crosses were prepared for them and they said: "I believe." For more than two centuries the foot of the western barbarian was not permitted to pollute the sacred soil of the "Land of the Gods."

The Japanese are said by superficial critics to be fickle and vagarious; to be always in search of something new for the sake of its novelty; to change their religion as a man changes his coat; to be inconstant in their belief. Does not the history of Christianity in Japan brand these criticisms as unjust and untrue?

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there were no Christian missionaries in Japan; anyone suspected of being a Christian was made to trample on the cross and to suffer other indignities; and yet, in spite of all the efforts to root out the "evil sect," there were thousands of people calling themselves Christians when the Roman Catholic missionaries came again to Japan in the latter half of the nineteenth century! The majority of these Christians were descendants of the ancient converts. "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church." Does this look like instability of character or weakness of religious conviction?

The coming of Commodore Perry, in 1854, marked the beginning of a new era in the history of Japan, an era momentous for political, social, and religious progress and expansion. Soon after the return of Commodore Perry to the United States, after his second visit to Japan, preparations were made by several missionary societies to send their representatives to the newly opened ports.

The first missionaries who arrived were stationed at Nagasaki in 1859; among these should be noted the Right Rev. C. M. Williams, ascetic and saint, whose life is a benediction to all who know him; the Rev. Dr. Verbeck, "the man without a country," who guided and assisted in the organization of the Imperial University; the Rev. S. K. Brown and Dr. J. C. Hepburn, scholars and educators.

The old edicts against Christianity were still in force and enforced, the people feared to be seen in company with the missionaries, and those who dared to call at their houses were suspected and "shadowed." The religious teachers were believed by many to be political emissaries, and as such were to be avoided by all loyal people. No Japanese language teacher could be obtained at Kanagawa until March, 1860, and then only a spy in the employment of the government. A proposal to translate the Scriptures caused his hurried withdrawal.

Soon after the "Restoration," 1868, the standing laws of the former Government, which were posted on boards in certain conspicuous places in every town and village, were removed, in order to be replaced by those of the new Imperial Government. Among the new enactments was the following:

"The evil sect called Christians is strictly prohibited. Suspected persons should be reported to the proper officers, and rewards will be given."

These edicts were not removed until 1873.

So late as 1872, hundreds of Roman Catholic Christians were confined in prisons in different parts of the country. When inquiry was made of the Governor of Hiogo whether a Japanese bookseller would be permitted to sell the English Bible, the reply was that any Japanese bookseller who sold a Bible knowing it to be a Bible would have to go to prison.

The dislike and prejudice of more than two centuries could not be dissipated in a day. The anti-foreign feeling was still dominant. In addition to this national aversion to foreigners, the teachers of the old religions were naturally jealous of the return of the Church which once had proved such a dangerous rival, and did all in their power to excite opposition and hostility. If Christianity were merely of human institution it would have come to naught; the influences and powers arrayed against it were such that finite wisdom and strength could not have withstood them.

After thirteen years of patient and laborious effort the total number of converts reported by the English and American missionaries in 1872 was ten only. The Anglo-American missionaries were so wise and discreet, so ready at every opportunity to be of assistance in teaching their language and imparting information as to the customs, laws and learning of the Occident, that Government suspicion against them gave way to confidence. While the old edicts against Christianity were not officially revoked, they became more and more a dead letter, and for years previous to the giving of the present constitution in 1889, which grants freedom of religious belief to every Japanese subject, Christianity was as free from interference as it is today.

Missionaries are scattered over the Japanese Empire, many of them living alone, far away from the open ports. These men and women live as securely and as free from all rudeness and discourtesy as they would in their own countries.

What has Christianity done for Japan? In answering this question we must, in the first place, assert that the modern civilization of Japan is essentially Occidental. She has abandoned the hegemonic principles of Oriental countries and has placed herself in line with the leading nations of the West. It is generally acknowledged that the basic ideas underlying Western civilization are Christian in character.

In so far, then, as Japan has adopted and assimilated these ideas, just so far may she be considered a Christian Empire. While Japan gained much in the way of national progress by joining hands with Western nations, she sank lower in morality. The old religions had to a large extent become discredited and exerted but little moral influence. At the "Restoration" the government had recourse to Shintoism to improve the moral condition of the country, but Shinto could do nothing. Lessons in chauvinistic patriotism and loyalty, unaccompanied by a strong sense of individual responsibility for commercial probity and personal purity; had a baneful effect upon the people.

Advance in education has kept pace with the commercial progress of Japan; with the establishment of schools in every village and town of the Empire a natural ethical improvement was expected. This expectation has been disappointed. The Department for Education has proved itself to be the most dishonest and corrupt connected with the Japanese Government.

In 1890 His Imperial Majesty, alarmed by the low moral condition of the schools, issued a rescript on the subject of education in which he laid stress upon the necessity of ethical training; but the effort to encourage morality without religion was not encouraging.

The principal of a large Normal School said, not long ago, that he not only patronized houses of ill fame himself, but that he advised all his teachers to do so, and that he even gave them tickets, so that, at the end of each month, all the bills would be sent to him for payment and deducted from their salaries.

It is but four years since the Department of Education endeavored by rescript and legislation to hamper and restrict the operations of Christian schools; but those efforts brought out more clearly the necessity for such institutions, and showed that the principles of Christianity are strongly implanted in the minds of many who do not call themselves Christians. Many of the Prefectures, recognizing the importance of having men whose moral character is without question as instructors of their youth, have asked the Young Men's Christian Association to furnish Christian teachers of English for their middle schools.

The establishment of schools by Christian Missions has contributed more than is generally appreciated to the welfare of Japan. While a large proportion of the boys and young men educated in such schools have not become Christians, they have imbibed religious and moral principles which can never be forgotten and must influence them for good all their lives.

Graduates of mission schools have undoubtedly done the most effective work for the education of women. Even today, when the government is doing so much for the intellectual improvement of Japanese women, the Christian schools for girls do not take a second place. It is said that the Buddhists contemplate the establishment of a school for girls in Tokyo, and the chief reason assigned is that, of the many schools for girls in Tokyo, the majority are Christian and that they threaten the stability of Buddhism. It is impossible to exaggerate the influence, moral and religious, that these students in Christian schools may exert upon future Japan.

The only university for women in Japan was organized less than five years ago by a Christian Japanese, who is its first president. The only well qualified school for training young women as teachers of English in government schools for girls was established and is conducted by Miss Ume Tsuda, an earnest Christian, who for many years was a teacher in the Peeresses' School founded by Her Imperial Majesty, the Empress of Japan.

"It is not possible to understand the actual progress made in Japan in improving the condition of women without some consideration of the effect that Christian thought and Christian lives have had on the thought and lives of the modern Japanese. If Japanese women are ever to be raised to the measure of opportunity accorded to women in Christian countries it can only be through the growth of Christianity in their own country."

"As a direct effect of Christian thought upon the thought of the Japanese nation, it is interesting to notice the change in the meaning of one word. In the teachings of Confucius the highest virtue is benevolence, rendered into Japanese by the word jihi; in the teaching of Buddhism the highest virtue is mercy or jin. When Christian missionaries first came to Japan, there was no term in the language that covered the thought of love as it is taught by Christ; for lack of anything better the word ai, which indicated the love of a superior for an inferior, was made to do duty for greater thought; and now the old word ai, throughout the length and breadth of Japan is accepted and understood in its new meaning, a continual witness to the effect of Christianity upon the national mind. Is this a little thing in the education of a nation that has shown in the past so great a capacity for living up to its ideals?"

The crusade against the "social evil," which has been so vigorously conducted since the beginning of this century by Christian missionaries and Japanese anxious to erase one great blot from their country's honor, met with violent opposition from the supporters of this soul-killing vice. In several places the crusaders were brutally assaulted and severely injured. In not a few towns the local authorities not only gave no encouragement or assistance to the workers for purity but seemed almost invariably on the side of the brothel keepers.

A gradual change for the better has taken place, and the present attitude of the local authorities is for social righteousness. The fact that the number of women licensed to the profession of vice has been reduced more than one-fourth since 1901 is certainly not a small matter. In two prefectures licensed prostitution has been abolished. Houses of refuge have been provided for women leaving the Yoshiwara, and Christian women give themselves to the training of their fallen sisters, so that they may support themselves by honest industry.

"Deeds and charities, or faith and works, are the twin steeds that draw the chariot of civilization. It matters little whether they be thought of as running tandem or abreast, the two go together as a completed whole, and woe be to that Church of Christ, or class in society that long neglects one or the other." The teaching of Christ that all men are the children of one Father and that therefore all are brethren; that whosoever helps the least of God's creatures is doing Him a service, is the root incentive to all Christian activities. It has been said by reputable Japanese that the art of large giving for charitable purposes was but little practised before the advent of Christianity. The Japanese, being by nature a sympathetic and generous people, were not slow in following the example set by Christian givers, and contributions in times of disaster and for public and private charities are now as common as in Christian countries of the West.

The following are some of the educational and charitable institutions under Christian auspices in the Empire of Japan. There are thirty-one orphanages, four homes for discharged prisoners, three blind asylums, one home for the education of imbecile children, three houses of mercy, three leper hospitals, two homes for the aged, ten industrial schools, 183 schools for boys and girls, fourteen hospitals and dispensaries. As these works spring from a living faith, there are for the propagation of the Gospel 376 ordained Japanese priests and preachers and more than 600 unordained evangelists, in addition to the foreign missionaries. They are proclaiming Christ as the Light of the World in nearly a thousand towns and villages. The number of Christians in Japan at the close of 1903 is approximately 150,000.

Christianity has startled the old, almost moribund, religions from their slumbers and has awakened them to a sense of their limitations. Some Buddhists have turned theists; others say that Buddhism is not a religion, but a system of philosophy. Some Shinto scholars talk about a trinity instead of the interminable polytheism of their 8,000,000 gods; other Shintoists say that their system is not a religion, but an institution for the observance of ceremonial rites which keep alive the traditions of the past and teach loyalty and patriotism.

In imitation of Christian methods, we now see Buddhist Sunday schools, Buddhist Young Men's Associations and Buddhist organizations for works of charity. It is not exaggeration to assert that the influence of Christianity in Japan is one hundred times its statistical strength. The only religion that is a spiritual force in Japan is that of the God-Man, Christ Jesus.

I will close with the words credited to a Japanese statesman, a former member of the Cabinet:

"No matter how large an army or navy we may have, unless we have righteousness at the foundation of our national existence, we shall fall short of success. I do not hesitate to say that we must rely upon religion for our highest welfare, and when I look about me to see upon what religion we can best rely, I am convinced that the religion of Christ is the one most full of strength and promise for the nation."

Christian Missions have helped greatly to further philanthropic enterprises under Japanese direction. St. Luke's Hospital, Tokyo is a part or the work of our Church Mission. Its superintendent is R. B. Teusler, M.D. The nurses and most of the assistants are Japanese. St. Luke's is the only hospital in Japan properly equipped for the care of foreign patients. It also does much work among the Japanese. Its present building and equipment are entirely inadequate. Bishop McKim, and Dr. Teusler are asking for $12,000 for enlargement and improvement. Foreigners resident in Tokyo have already given about $2,000. The former United States Minister, the late Colonel Buck, was a warm friend of St. Luke's. An entertainment recently given under the auspices of Lady McDonald, wife of the British Ambassador, netted several hundred dollars for the Hospital Building Fund.

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