The usual dating of Japan's first contact with Christianity is 1549 when Francis Xavier, a Jesuit priest, arrived in Japan. His stamina, zeal, and willingness to suffer resulted in thousands of conversions in just two years. By 1600, there were about half a million baptised Christians in Japan. However, a period of intense persecutions where thousands of Japanese Christians were martyred followed. Christianity was banned and Japan entered a period of national isolation from 1639—1854. Japan reopened its doors in 1854 and the ban on Christianity was lifted in 1873 (but not until more persecution had been carried out). After 1873 many Anglo-American Protestant missionaries arrived in Japan.
During WW2 the church was again persecuted as the state sought to control it. After the war ended, there was an influx of evangelical missionaries, with a strong emphasis on evangelism and church planting. It was during this post-war period that OMF (our organisation) began work in Japan, in 1951. (Adapted from OMF International's 31 Days of Prayer 2015, an internally circulated book.)During the sermon at our church yesterday we heard some more history:
Twenty-six Christians were martyred in Nagasaki in 1597 and as result many Christians went into hiding. These Christians and their descendants continued to practice their faith secretly. Two and a half centuries later missionaries discovered a large number of these hidden Christians in Nagasaki in a place called Urakami.*A large church, the largest Catholic church in all of East Asia at that time (1925) was built in Urakami after that ban was lifted. The area became the centre of Christianity in Japan. The church apparently had 12,000 members in 1945 and about 8,000 of them died when the atomic bomb dropped in that city exploded only 500m from where many of the members were gathered for mass that day.
The church has been rebuilt and is again a church with many members. Fascinatingly we were told yesterday that the Archbishop of the church is a direct descendent of the hidden Christians and was also a survivor of the bombing in 1945. Amazing.
The point of the sermon was about "kingdom reversals" where what we expect is often not how things turn out in God's way of doing things (see here for a bit more explanation of that term).
From the above it does seem that Christianity should have been stamped out in Japan. But God had other plans, plans that even involved someone whose ancestors continued to be faithful to God despite incredibly trying circumstances (e.g. can you imagine being in a church of 12,000 people and having 75% of them die at once?).
I'm reading a fantasy novel to my family at the moment, it isn't my genre of choice, but I have to admit that it's shed some light on my faith. I never expected that such a genre would help me understand God and my faith better, but it has! It's easy to live in this world and get a set idea of the way things should work, but in the end our creator has more than one paradigm, many more dimensions that he works with. We should anticipate being surprised at how he choses to work.
*Here's a bit more detail on the late 1600s and early 1700s in Japanese Christianity if you're interested:
In 1587, in an era of European colonization and Christianization of the nearby Philippines, Toyotomi Hideyoshi issued an edict banning missionaries from the country due to the religion's growing power, intolerant behavior towards Shinto and Buddhism, and involvement in the sale of Japanese people as slaves overseas. In 1597, Hideyoshi proclaimed a more serious banning edict and executed 26 Christians in Nagasaki as a warning.
Intent to bring Japan under complete control, the succeeding Tokugawa Shogunate further hardened the country's anti-Christian stance, accusing the religion of obstructing the authorities, antisocial behavior and intolerance towards the established religions. After a rebellion on the Shimabara Peninsula that involved many Christians in the late 1630s, thousands of rebels were executed and a full ban on Christianity became strictly enforced. Only small pockets of Christians, known as the "Hidden Christians", continued practicing their religion in secret. (This is from here).