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How Is Christianity Regarded In Japan?

by Justin Sevakis,

Chris asked:

After watching Strawberry Panic! and Maria sama watches over us, I was wondering how popular Christianity is in Japan. I know that the majority of the Japanese are irreligious, but how do they react to someone who is Christian?

While there aren't a TON of Christians in Japan, there are still quite a few. Most estimates place their numbers at 2-3 million people, which would comprise roughly 1% of the population. There are also quite a few famous Japanese Christians in Japanese history, including actor Toshirō Mifune, writer Ayako Miura, and no less than eight former Prime Ministers (including Taro Aso, who is Roman Catholic).

The first known evidence of Christianity in Japan dates back to 1549, when a Portuguese Catholic mission arrived, and enjoyed a brief period of popularity, winning about 100,000 local converts before it was outlawed by ruler Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1587. There was lots of slaughter and bloodshed, and a lot of books have been written about this period of history. (One of the fictional ones, Makai Tensho, was adapted into the OVA Ninja Resurrection.) For centuries, the Kakakure Kirishitan ("hidden Christians") quietly kept the faith alive, worshiping in secret rooms and passing along scripture verbally, often at great personal risk.

But I digress. The point is, Christians were persecuted up until the ban was lifted in 1873. But a lot has happened since then. Lots of aspects of Christianity have wormed their way into Japanese culture, particularly in the years since the American occupation. Christian weddings are extremely common. Everyone seems to have some passing familiarity with pieces of Christianity, though it's rare to have studied it directly. Most of that knowledge seems to have been absorbed through popular culture. While the traditions are different, Christmas is celebrated as an unofficial holiday (and pretty much everybody knows why the holiday exists, even if they're foggy on the details). African American traditional Gospel music has had a major influence on Japanese pop music.

That said, they're still a pretty significant minority. While Japan is known and identifies as a secular society, for many their personal belief systems are still influenced by a mixture of Shinto and Buddhism, which are the origin of most Japanese folklore and spiritual traditions. Most Christian churches count an average attendance of less than 30 people, and most Christians seem to reside in places where missions were established.

Most people in Japan are pretty live-and-let-live when it comes to spiritual matters. People tend to be fairly reserved about their beliefs and the beliefs of others. If you seem a little over-the-top with your spirituality some people might look at you a little funny, but that happens everywhere. However, many regard Christianity as something that came from abroad, so there's always a chance that judgments about faith will get mixed with nationalism.

There aren't many stories where foreign Christians living in Japan are given much grief about their beliefs, but there ARE stories about Japanese families becoming upset when a family member converts. Christian beliefs are not compatible with Shinto and Buddhist traditions, and many Christians won't take part in traditions like praying to shrines to departed family members, or visiting a temple at New Year's. This can cause a lot of friction among family members, close friends and neighbors, especially during emotionally trying times, such as following the death of a loved one.

But in terms of day-to-day life, most Christians seem to get along just fine in Japan. While the community is small and very aware of its minority status, it does so without persecution or much judgement on the part of others.

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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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