Written by Anthony Noel Haug, Pastor of Shimonoseki Christ Bible Church
Japan is a country whose history is deeply rooted in its religious tradition. Dating back to at least the sixth century,
Buddhism and Shinto have stood like two pillars in the background of the individual lives, society, and culture of Japan. Since World War II, there has also been many “New
Religions” that have been birthed in Japan.
Yet all of these find themselves subject to an even more encompassing religion known as “Nihonkyou “(Japanism).
Nihonkyou can best be described as the syncretized religion or worldview of the Japanese as a whole, based mostly on different
Buddhist and Shinto teachings that stresses Ancestor Veneration. The only absolute truth of Nihonkyou is that truth or religion
is subject to human relationships and the maintenance of harmony among its people. It is in this unique environment that Japanese
who become Christians find themselves in. Japanese who profess Jesus Christ as the true God and the Bible as the ultimate
authority in their lives find themselves facing four major conflicts in the daily expressing of their faith. It is victory
or failure in these four conflict areas that have either a positive or negative effect on their fellow Japanese as they develop
a counter-culture of Biblical Christianity. It is this Christian path of faith that we will explore in this paper!
The Path of Christian Faith in Japan
Japan is a land filled with mysteries, traditions, and unique
customs. Yet, throughout the history of Japan,
there is no denying that more than any other factor, religion has had the biggest influence upon the culture and daily life
of the Japanese. Throughout the greater part of Japanese history, or at least dating back to the sixth century, both Buddhism
and Shinto have co-existed in some form. Because of the deep roots and influence of these two religions upon the culture and
mindset of the Japanese, it is sometimes difficult to differentiate between what is Japanese culture and what is Japanese
religion. Along with the tenets of Buddhism and Shinto, there have been many superstitions and folklore traditions added to
the “religious melting pot” which is so deeply intertwined into the culture and daily life of the Japanese. Since
World War II there have also been myriads of “new religions” that have been birthed in Japan. Many of these have found their origin in the Japanese syncretized form of
Buddhism, soon breaking away to establish their own identity. Probably the largest and most aggressive of this group would
be the adherents of Soka Gakkai, an aggressive Buddhist sect that has risen to prominence in the last 50 years and which claims
17 million followers, although Shimazono Susumu, an associate Professor in the Religious Studies Department of the University
of Tokyo, projects that the true number of adherents is probably closer to three or four million. (Shimazono, 1993, p. 222)
It is also a paradoxical reality that Christianity has also enjoyed periods of influence in the Japanese society.
However, this influence has been limited in most cases by horrific persecution such as during the late 1500’s and 1600’s
when the Catholic revival sparked by Franciscan missionary Francis Xavier was driven underground by the systematic and unrelenting
control instituted by the Tokugawa Shogunate, (Mitsumori, 1997,pp.16-17) and also the propensity of both Japanese Buddhism
and Shinto to syncretized parts of the moral teaching of Christianity and other religions to enhance a conglomerated religious
faith that has been termed “Nihonkyou” (Japanism). (Mitsumori, pp.20-21) For the most part Biblically- based Christianity
(belief that the Word of God, Bible, is the ultimate authority in one’s life) represents less than one-half of one percent
of the Japanese population. (Mitsumori, p.22)
Mikiso Hane (1996) professor of history at Knox College, states:
Religion might be looked upon as a gauge to measure the values and attitudes prevalent in Japanese society, although
Japan did not undergo the kind of religious
fervor that gripped other societies in the past. However, even though Japan
has never experienced that kind of enthusiasm, some critics contend that religious sentiment under girds Japanese society.
In fact, the advocates of Japanism contend that Japanism itself is a religion of a sort. (p. 181)
Having spoken with literally thousands of Japanese about their religious beliefs, I believe that without a doubt religious
sentiment does indeed under gird the society, and upon closer observation one discovers that almost every thought, action,
and activity in the personal and community life are based upon the religious understanding of that individual or group. Although
the Japanese Constitution, which was adopted after World War II, guarantees explicitly the separation of State and Religion,
as well as the promise of governmental protection of the right of each individual to practice their faith of choice, (Takimoto,
1991,p.75) in reality this guarantee of unhindered pursuit of personal faith is largely ignored or, at best, misunderstood
in cases where the application of the individually held religious beliefs results in a perceived lack of participation in
the family or community-held Buddhist/Shinto events or ceremonies. At this point there immediately arises a strong reaction
to the absoluteness of a Christian placing Truth (the Bible) over and above the sacredly held communal harmony and togetherness.
In contrast Buddhism and post World War II Shinto (as opposed to State Shinto which was very narrow in its view of any other
religion) are very flexible in putting aside personally held beliefs and convictions for the. relational harmony of the greater
Japanese community. So the battle lines are drawn! What occurs when a Japanese becomes a Christian and seeks to follow and
apply the Bible in his or her daily walk, family life, business and neighborhood community?
It is of utmost importance that for one to really understand Japan
and its People, recognition of the extent of influence that Japanese religion, specifically the deeply rooted syncretized
Buddhist/Shinto beliefs which has contributed to Nihonkyou, has had and currently has upon the society as a whole is needed.
It is only with this knowledge that the courage, beauty, and power of a Japanese first choosing to follow Jesus Christ and
then living according to His Teachings (Bible) can be truly understood and appreciated.
Although thousands of volumes have been written about the teachings and practices of Buddhism and Shinto along with
the phenomena of the New Faith religions in Japan,
I will only give a short overview of their basic doctrines and practice. Ninian Smart, (as cited in Bocking, 1999, pp. 8-9)
an advocate of the Phenomenological Approach to the study of religion, states that there are at least seven different dimensions
that must be considered when studying or defining a religion. These are listed as follows:
1) Doctrinal (Scriptures, doctrines, creeds, beliefs),
2) Ritual (significant learned and repeated actions, services, processions, pilgrimages, symbolic ritual actions),
3) Ethical (right and wrong conduct; sense of honour/dishonour, relations with others),
4) Experiential (psychological and emotional aspects-ranging from the simple sense of belonging in a community of
believers, to individual visions, insights and mystical and ecstatic experiences),
5) Mythical (significant stories retold within the tradition, which locate the believer/community at the centre of
a meaningful, sacred and often dramatic history. (“Myth” is used in a purely technical sense here; it does not
6) Social (both the structure and organization within a religious group, and the relations between religions and the
rest of society),
7) Symbolic (the material aspects of a religious tradition; art, architecture, music, artifacts, sacred sites and
Taking into consideration the strong communal and ritualistic symbolic nature of Japanese Buddhism, Shinto, and New
Faith religions, it is far more beneficial for our study to focus on the four most pertinent dimensions, that being ritual,
ethical, social, and symbolic phenomena, in our understanding of Japanese experience of religion. The conglomerated Japanese
religion is far more communal in nature than soterioligical as opposed to Christianity, which is tied in its entirety to the
doctrines taught in Scripture, which contain a strong soterioligical emphasis. Although each of these have different tenets
and practices, it is not uncommon for a Japanese person to call him or herself a Buddhist while feeling free at the same time
to participate in Shinto or New Religion rites, ceremonies or vice versa.
The former State Religion of Japan, Shinto, can best be described in the following summarization:
Shinto is a general term for the activities of the Japanese people to worship all the deities of heaven and earth,
and its origin is as old as the history of the Japanese. It was towards the end of the 6th century when the Japanese were
conscious of these activities and called them 'Way of Kami (the deity or the deities)'. It coincides the time when the 31st
Emperor Yomei prayed before an image of Buddha for the first time as an emperor for recovery of his illness. Thus accepting
Buddhism, a foreign religion, the Japanese realized existence of a tradition of their own faith…According to the Shinto
faith, a human spirit is believed to remain forever like the spirit of Kami does…It reflects a faith in the spirit of
the dead who can visit this world if people make a ritual to revere the spirit, like the divine spirits visits this world
whenever people show their reverence holding festivals. There is also a faith in that Kami and ancestral spirits protect their
descendants as far as the descendants continue to hold festivals. It can be said that Shinto is not a religion, which centralized
its interests in the life after death, but in this world (Shinto, http://jinja.or.jp/english/s-0.html)
It is obvious from this definition that Shinto is pantheistic in its nature as noted by the teaching that all things,
including nature, inanimate and animate objects, contain a spirit that must be either appeased or avoided. A major emphasis
is that of ancestral veneration; the requirement to revere and worship the departed souls of deceased ancestors. The Bible,
however, teaches unequivocally that there is only One God who has existed from eternity in Three Persons-God the Father, God
the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Throughout the Bible mankind is commanded to worship only the God of the Bible. It is here
that the battle lines are drawn for the Christian. The very life of Christianity being that Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son
of God (referring to God the Son taking on the form and essence of humanity in Jesus Christ) is alone worthy of awe, respect,
and worship. (Gospel of John 1:1-3,14, Philippians 2:5-11) The Bible also teaches that God exists separate from creation as
the Creator. God is not a part of Creation He is the Creator! (Colossians 1:15-17, Romans 1:20-23) Therefore a Christian finds
it unnatural, uncomfortable, and sinful to worship the created rather than the Creator. It is with this understanding that
the Japanese Christian refuses to participate in the religious parts of a ceremony, be it a time of celebration or grief,
where one is required to show homage to a spirit or object other than Christ.
Japanese Buddhism is a conglomeration of practices of original Buddhism,
Japanese folklore, traditions, and ancestor worship. Although the main doctrine of Buddhism is self-denial, this is
rarely practiced among the general population in Japanese Buddhism. Upon closer observation, one finds that the average Japanese
Buddhist knows little of the actual teachings of his religion; rather the emphasis is on participation in specific rites and
festivals. Former Buddhist priest Zentei Ohori, states:
One cannot but suspect that Japanese Buddhism is influenced by the pantheism in Shinto. They walk hand in hand when
it comes to acceptance of each other, often mixing the gods that we Japanese worship…Buddhist priests are never angry
when their believers take part in local festivals where they offer sacrifices and goodies to gods that have eyes, but see
not, have ears, but hear not, and have limbs but can’t reach out to help the idol worshipper. (Kametani, Uenu, Ohori,
and Michitani, 1989, p.82)
In reality, the average Japanese who considers him or herself Buddhist is actually practicing a mixture of Buddhism
and Shinto. The focal point of worship is the home altar called the Butsudan (god shelf). The Butsudan is without question
the center of Japanese Buddhism. Within it is placed the Ihai, on which the deceased’s special posthumous Buddhist name,
called a Kaimyo, is written. The Ihai is believed to contain the spirit of the deceased. Daily offerings of prayers and food
are placed before the altar. (Takimoto, 1991, p. 91) Even if a Japanese person has no understanding of the deeper teachings
of Buddhism, but yet maintains the practice of the rites of the butsudan, he or she is considered a very serious Buddhist.
Over the past 20 years or so, there has been a huge increase in New Faith religions. Many of their teachings are taken
from different forms of Buddhism and other religions, including the Bible. They focus on prosperity and physical healing,
offering hope where there is much despair and disillusionment, especially among the young people of Japan.
Ron Sisco, missionary and author who resides in Japan,
quoted in the handbook Operation Japan, describes their agenda in this way, “ A common draw is the promise of inner
fulfillment through a variety of techniques of meditation, yoga, mind control, and asceticism.”(p. 12) Many of the adherents
of these New Religions are reacting to the hypocrisy and lack of fulfillment that they have observed and felt within the religious
and social structures of Japan.
I think that the key to understanding Japanese Religion is the recognition that no matter which of the faiths or religious
rites that are individually practiced, there is a deeper and more haunting reality of the existence of a more encompassing
religion which has been coined as Nihonkyou (Japanism). Mark Mullins writes that:
According to this view, the supreme sacred value to which all others are subordinated is to be a loyal member of the
Japanese society, from the smallest family unit to the country as a whole, and to work for the preservation and enhancement
of its harmony (Mullins, 1993,p.61)
The uniqueness of Nihonkyou is that it is not just a religion but also a worldview. Its roots can be traced back to
the 1600’s during the Edo period and then again in the late 1800’s during the
Meiji period. Foreigners were viewed suspiciously, anything non-Japanese was considered in a negative light and the society
as a whole was forced to obey authorities that continually espoused the doctrine of “Japanese Supremacy”. The
Tokugawa Regime even began a system called the Goningumi (5 person group), a system of control in which each neighborhood
was divided up into five families in which the leader’s responsibility was to report of any subversive activities or
appearances. This was originally set up to keep control over “kirishitan”, members of the early catholic movement
in Japan. (Sato, http://www.obstv.co.jp/heo/heodata/n288.htm)
Anyone discovered to be involved in perceived anti-Japanese or anti- government activities (including Christianity) was then
shunned by the community as punishment for their violation against the harmony of their village. It is this sacredness of
maintaining harmony and protectiveness of the uniqueness of “being Japanese” that remains even today in the psyche
of the average citizen and permeates their religious beliefs as well.
It is with this background and tradition that a Japanese must begin their search to understand Christ’s teachings
concerning True Harmony and Eternal Salvation. It goes without saying that the strong sense of communal religion is initially
a barrier in a Japanese considering whether to follow Christ. Underneath the “communal level” lies a great force
that demands adherence to the local beliefs and flow of society-both at home and in the community. This harmony is stressed
as much more important than truth. However, Christ taught that mankind must first seek God and Truth, and then allow the God
of Truth to lead each believer’s faith-even if it contradicts some of the currently held positions of that given culture.
This of course can cause temporary or even permanent misunderstandings resulting in an interruption of the harmony of family
or community relationships.
Due to the communal emphasis of Japanese Buddhism/Shinto in Japan,
a Japanese person considering trusting Christ as their Savior (God) is initially confronted with several dilemmas. These could
be divided into the following areas. (Although this list is not exhaustive, it does represent four major areas of concern
to the Japanese confronted with the claims of the Bible).
1) That a decision to believe in Christ conveys a decision against family or family held beliefs,
2) That a decision to believe in Christ and obey the Bible signals a turning away from family held beliefs/traditions
which is interpreted as a rejection of family and his or her ancestors. This is misconstrued as showing a lack of honor/respect
to the ancestors.
3) That a decision to believe and follow Christ signifies a choice to elevate truth over community. In other words,
placing Truth over surface harmony. (The Bible would explain this as the decision to seek true and lasting harmony by building
that harmony upon God’s truth-the Bible),
4) That a decision for Christ will cause a constant tension of “standing out in the crowd”. As the Japanese
proverb states” The nail that sticks out gets hammered.” This is a tried and proven reality of Japanese society
and traditionally Japanese have gone great lengths to not appear to be “going against the flow”.
When a Japanese does overcome these initial dilemmas as explained above and accepts
Christ as Savior (makes a decision to convert to Christianity), he or she then enters an entirely new arena that has
not always historically been the strongpoint of Japanese Christianity. The very nature of Japanese society and religion, harmony
and an emphasis on communal peace, can soon erupt into a war that strives for the very soul of the new convert. Depending
upon the results of these battles, the new Christian will rise to not only faithfully follow Christ and His Teachings, but
will eventually exert a courageous and life-changing impact on family, friends, and society as a whole. On the other hand,
a failure to address any one of these battles results sooner or later in the new convert being swallowed up into a type of
syncretized Japanese Christianity that becomes nothing more just another piece of the pie of called Nihonkyou.
.There are at least four areas of conflict that take place as a Japanese Christian begins to follow the teachings
of Christ. These battles occur on four different levels. They are 1) individual, 2) family, 3) social and employment relationships,
and 4) the spiritual dimension (which would be stated in the Bible as battle against forces that would seek to weaken one’s
commitment and worship of the God of the Bible).
The personal battle begins in the heart as a Japanese is confronted with what the Bible presents as God’s Will
for their individual lives. The Japanese Christian’s understanding of God’s Will becomes the foundation for their
own faith as well as their reaction to the conflicts with Nihonkyou.
The basic foundational truth that a new Christian begins his or her journey with could best be described using the
phrase “God Is, God Spoke, and God Came”(Cox, 1999, p.11). Specifically these three points are first of all, that
the One and only True God has always existed as a perfect and totally self-existing Being and that out of His abundance all
things were created. Secondly, that God spoke through His prophets and disciples and gave us the Bible, which explains in
its entirety His Will, including eternal salvation for those who accept Christ and eternal damnation for those who reject
Christ. Thirdly, that God Himself came to this earth and took the form of man in order to die for each person’s sins,
which keep us in separation from God. By placing one’s faith in this “Act of God” (Christ’s Death,
Burial, and Resurrection), forgiveness of sins and eternal salvation is able to be received by faith in Christ.
By accepting and applying these biblical truths, the new convert is recognizing that trusting upon any other religious
or secular institution for personal salvation is futile. He or she is living with the understanding that man cannot create
or become god; rather that man was created by God to share His love and direction for each individual life. These foundational
truths and practices directly contradict with the basic practice of Japanese ancestor veneration. As explained earlier, the
Japanese Buddhist teaching is that each Japanese upon death becomes Hotoke, a guiding spirit or god, which requires not only
respect but also worship. It must also be remembered that according to Japanese Buddhist teaching, the prayers of living relatives
help accelerate the ascension of the Hotoke from the Buddhist Hell to Buddhist Paradise. A failure to do so is said to bring
misfortune and curses upon the offending person and family. This area of battle initially cause great anguish and soul-searching
but is the key to actually becoming free of the restraints of Nihonkyou to follow freely the God of the Bible.
This leads to the second battle, which is with family and/or friends. Because some of the family or social activities
include areas of Shinto or Buddhism, there are selected activities that a Christian avoids. Specifically, this comes into
play in the different religious rites in times of celebration or grief.、specifically
with wedding and funeral ceremonies. At both of these times emotions run high, stress levels are near their limits and, of
course, there is great emphasis laid on the blessings to be gained or curses to be avoided dependant upon participation. It
is at these times that the greatest battles and actually greatest opportunities are given for a Christian to express and work
out his or hers faith. However, for the Christian, it is a great challenge to discern the difference in each case between
what parts of the ceremonies are non-religious versus what is religious. Due to the stress of communal harmony, which holds
that relational harmony is more important than a specific doctrine or teaching, the very fact of partial participation or
partial- withdrawal from the different rites creates turmoil. Even if cultural equivalents are practiced, this does not change
the senses of confrontation and loss of harmony.
The third area is the struggle within the Japanese society, specifically in the area of neighborhood and work relationships.
The Holy Scripture states that as a Christian begins to follow Christ’s teachings, he or she will be viewed as “out
of touch” with society. The Bible say in I Peter 4:4 that, “ And in all this, they are surprised that you do not
run with them into the same excess of dissipation, and they malign you.” This is truly the case for a Christian in Japan. When a Christian chooses to place a Scriptural conviction
on a higher level than the importance of maintaining the status quo of the flow of society, he or she is soon labeled as “tsukiai
ga warui”(one who is unsociable).
Whereas a typical Japanese depends upon the myriads of gods scattered throughout Japan both present in tales of folk lore and in the form of statues, etc, whose
identity and form can be visually confirmed, the Christian chooses to place his or her faith in the God of Heaven. Therefore
his or her assurance comes not through visual confirmation of seeing Christ, but through the reality and power of God’s
Word and Prayer. It is the invincibility of the Bible that has stood throughout the Ages as the primary faith builder of Christian
Faith-Japan notwithstanding. (Romans 10:17)
In a more practical sense, the testimony of a Japanese Christian at his or her place of work or in the neighborhood
makes a strong statement to contemporaries of one’s Christian faith and the level of his or her commitment. Ones participation
in the companies parties, agreement or disagreement with company work or moral ethics, division of company time versus family
and church activities and Christian fellowship all make a huge impact, either negative or positive, upon co-workers and neighbors.
The fourth area of battle is the spiritual battle which takes place as the forces of evil, defined as Satan and his
fallen angels in the Bible, strive to separate the Japanese Christian from his or her new commitment to Christ and the Bible.
The Christian looks to the Bible to give understanding and direction in this area of conflict. In the book of Ephesians 6:10-12
it is written,” Finally, be strong in the Lord, and in the strength of His might. Put on the full armor of God, that
you may be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against
the world-forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” In this particular
battleground, there is unfortunately little understanding that could be expected initially from the adherents of the Buddhist/Shinto
based Nihonkyou. Nihonkyou is tolerant of any religious belief as long as it does not impede one’s duties or obligations
as a Japanese. When the Japanese steps over the proverbial “line” and elevates his or her commitment to Christ
over his expected obligation to the beliefs, customs, and culture of Japan, he is looked upon as a traitor or “outsider”
the most feared position in Japanese society dating back to the enforcement of Goningumi during the Tokugawa Shogunate. It
is at this conjecture that the broad road of Japanese religions collides with the Absoluteness of Scripture. With the knowledge
that Christ has stated unequivocally that “He and He alone is the Way of Salvation”(Gospel of John 14:6) the Christian
in Japan finds himself involved in a daily battle to not compromise his or her beliefs but instead to continue to look to
the Word of God to give him or her direction through the maze of the syncretized religious environment. As victory is gained
in these areas of battle, it greatly encourages his or her friends and acquaintances to not only distinguish the difference
between Bibilical Christian Faith and Nihonkyou, but also to come to understand the Christian path as the most viable and
blessed way for the Japanese as a whole. The Bible teaches that true Harmony is based on Truth. It is with this hope that
the Japanese Christian fights the “good fight” trusting that these four battlegrounds will result in the true
harmony that is promised in the Bible through obedience to Jesus Christ.
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Inochi no Kotobasha, 1998.
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