Christmas in Japan (East Asia)
A Brief History
The commonly accepted history is that Christianity was brought to Japan in 1549 by a Jesuit priest-- Francisco Xavier (1506 - 1552). The truth is, he was the first to bring western Christianity to Japan. However, eastern Christianity, Keikyo, arrived in Japan before Buddhism. Japanese-born American scholar, Ken Joseph, author of Lost Identity (2005) and Sakae Ikeda, a Kyoto University professor, contend that Nestorian Christianity came to Japan as early as the 5th century A.D.
Ikeda and Joseph base their assertion on the following: 1. Christian symbols found on the ruins of Hory-ji temples in Nara built in A.D. 607; 2. the Hata clan--thought to be descendents of a Nestorian tribe from Turkestan—seem to have had a great influence on Japanese early culture, which includes building 7th century Koryu-ji temples; 3. references to missionaries from Persia in Japanese historical records, who arrive in Japan in 738 AD; 4. graves in Gunma and Kyusha Prefecture that date to the 8th century and read: “Christ’s Grave “; 5. Christian influences in old Buddhist rituals and the presence of Hebrew words in old Christian folk songs.
So, if Japan once had a thriving Christian community, how did this come to be? And what happened to them? Japan was at the end of the Silk Road. It would take about 8 years to walk there from Jerusalem. It took only four years by horse. There was a time when Japan was very open to foriegners. Thus, by the 6th century, it became known as a place of refuge for many fleeing persecution, including Assyrians and Armenians. Japan had an advanced culture and a constitution-- long before the Magna Carte. The constitution was established by Prince Shotoku Taishi, founder of Japanese Buddhism, who accepted the Nestorian Christians.
In 1587, daimyō Toyotomi Hideyoshi issued an edict banning all missionaries from Japan due to European colonization and Christianization of the nearby Philipines. Further, it was growing too quickly, was intolerant of Shinto and Buddhist faiths and was involved in selling Japanese people as slaves.
While researching his book, Joseph came upon a map of 1600s Japan, that shows large portions of the country were then Christian. As much as 20% of the population were Christ followers. Joseph says there was a massive earthquake in 1597 that destroyed the city of Kyoto-- the city center was called the "City of Angels." Whereas the Buddhist priests required payment to bury the dead, the Christians did it for free.
Josephs says this dispelled the myth that people have to pay to please God. This undermined the power that the temples had over people's lives, which caused the Buddhist priests to panic. Since the emperor needed the priests' support to pay for his war in Korea, he decided to ban Christianity.
In the first wave of persecutions, 26 people were crucified including a 15 year old boy. One of the emperor's men tried to give the boy a chance to recant, as he did not want to crucify a teen. The boy refused, and was crucified with the others.
Ultimately, more bans were put into effect, which led to a Christian rebellion in 1630, that was quickly supressed ending with the death of thousands of rebels. According to historical records, in 1637, more than 37,000 Christians were killed in one day. Over the next 250 years, more than a million believers died for their faith. By law, any man from a Christian family had a note put by his name in the national registry, which would remain there for seven generations. Japan isolated itelf until the arrival of U.S. Commodore Perry in 1859. Freedom of religion was not restored until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Since then, Christianity has grown slowly. However, Japanese people have mostly rejected Christianity because they see it as the religion of white, Western men.
Joseph says there's a whole group of people who have been discriminated against because of their family names (these are they who had notations by their names in the national register). These people say it is because their ancestors were criminals. However, in actuality it was that their ancestors were Christians who died for their faith. Japan considers itself a ethnically pure and homogenous nation, but the truth is, some of their history has been erased.
This is good news to the people Joseph has spoken to, who now realize their ancestors were heroes. They come to realize that if their ancestors embraced and died for this belief, that there are people who look like them who accepted the name of Christ.
Japan has a very small Christian population, estimated at less than 2%. Although the people of Japan order their lives based on a blend of Shinto and Buddhist thought, 80% of Japanese claim to be non-religious. However, the Japanese people love festivals and gift-giving, so many have embraced the secular aspects of Christmas. Christmas is not an official holiday, but just as in Korea, many couples treat it as a romantic holiday like Valentine’s Day.
Christmas dinner for millions of Japanese people will be KFC. Yes, Kentucky Fried Chicken. Thanks to a clever marketing campaign by Takeshi Okawara, the manager of the first KFC in the country. He came up with the idea of offering a ‘party barrel’ of chicken for Christmas. The idea took off immediately and about 3.6 million Japanese families now partake of KFC as part of their holiday tradition. The Christmas meal can be ordered to include a Christmas cake and champagne. So great is the demand for KFC for Christmas dinner, that one must order their chicken meal up to 2 months in advance. For those who choose not to order in advance, they must wait in line for hours to obtain their KFC Christmas meal. In addition to KFC, Christmas cake is also a tradition for some families.
In Japanese they say "Shinnen omedeto, kurisumasu omedeto." The first part is translated "Happy New Year," "Kurisumasu omedeto" means Merry Christmas.
Pray for the Gospel to take root in Japanese culture and that it no longer be perceived as a western religion. Pray for unity among the more than 120 denominations. There are major divisions between Charismatic, Evangelical and Mainline churches with little communication or cooperation between them.