Unveiling: Japan’s Hidden Christians

Missiological Reflections on Endo’s Silence and the Sakura

Ohanami

I never really understood the mystique of Japan until my first ohanami (cherry blossom viewing). I remember riding my bike at night to a popular viewing spot quite far from our apartment. As I rode closer, silent Japan began to roar with music, laughter, and celebration. Upon arriving, I stopped in amazement. Businessmen looked like they had escaped their office prisons and were rejoicing in their newfound freedom. Ties loosened, shirts untucked, jackets hanging off their arms, singing and dancing and of course drinking. Hundreds of people were crammed in a grove of trees on blue tarps underneath the beautiful flowers. As if in an instant, Japan became a magical place, and it flowed from the sakura (cherry blossoms).

Wintertime has its own beauty in Japan, but unless you are a botanist, all the trees in the city look alike. I’ve lived in Nagoya for several years, and I still forget which tree is which, and what they will look like in the Spring. Without their blossoms, the sakura are just like other trees. But every year in late March or early April, there is a great unveiling that takes place. Every tree and every bush begins to express its true identity. A tree that you have walked past without noticing all year now beckons you to come picnic underneath its shade. What was for a while just a grove of trees now becomes the most meaningful place in the city. The most stoic salarymen in the world skip work to celebrate flowers.

Hidden

The church in Japan has grown slowly amidst long winters and short springs. There have been three waves of Christianity coming to Japan, each time as though it were the first, and each wave has seen a bit of flourishing and a lot of difficulty. Shusaku Endo’s eminent novel, Silence, reveals the traumas of Christianity by focusing on the end of the first wave. Martin Scorsese’s more recent depiction of this work has introduced a new generation to this story.

Silence is well-written while painfully slow and psychologically challenging. The story is compelling, but Endo drives home his central problem of the silence of God by helping you feel the silence. Some version of the word “silence” is used dozens of times throughout the book and is embodied by the darkness of the night, the incessant buzzing of cicadas, and the monotonous rolling of the sea. Silence is not empty or quiet for Endo. It is loud and ominous. His approach to narration is convoluted and odd, shifting from first person letters to third person storytelling to third person journal entries. By doing so, he helps us feel how Japanese Christians have often felt — disoriented, lost, and alone.

While Silence may introduce readers to a moment in history they otherwise would not have known, the story Endo shares is in many ways cyclical. Endo introduces the Kakure Kirishitans (Hidden Christians) who largely succumbed to the tortures of persecution and went into hiding. Keeping a kind of faith only by keeping quiet. Betraying Christ outwardly while maintaining a kind of private belief in him. But the story Endo is really telling is timeless. He had seen this same story relived with the rise of the Japanese Empire.

As Japan’s Empire came to force in the early 1900s, all professing Christians were required to profess Shinto beliefs that included veneration and absolute allegiance to the Emperor. These Christians were not required to give up personal belief in Christ, but they were all gathered into a state-controlled denomination that required idolatry. There was some resistance, but it was futile. The Christian organizers of this new denomination audaciously celebrated the union by making a Shinto offering at Meiji shrine in Tokyo. The church had agreed to become Kakure Kirishitans again. In Silence, Endo tells a cyclical story of the church hiding in Japan. The story repeated and will likely repeat again.

Emi Mase-Hasegawa, an Endo scholar, describes it this way:

The history of the Kakure Kirishitans in Japan is the history of suffering. They had to live a double life of being Shinto/Buddhist socially, and Christians personally. In such a cruel persecution of Christianity, the Kakure Kirishitans managed to survive in rural areas under the protection of a Shinto shrine and Buddhist temple. They were weak in faith, could not endure physical punishment and apostasized. They lacked courage to die as martyrs, and went through this form of recantation, but after that cowardly act, they went back to their miserable hovels and begged for forgiveness. Japanese Christians today are in a sense, descendants of converts who betray God again and again. (“Image of Christ for Japan,” 26)

Mase-Hasegawa sees Endo as retelling an age-old story about the Japanese and Christianity. Nothing is more important in Japan than being Japanese. And Japan will never accept Christians as fully Japanese. So for those who are Japanese and Christians they will either have to abandon their Japanese identity (social suicide) or hide their Christian identity (spiritual supression). Today, constitutional freedom of religion prevents overt persecution of Christians, but the pressures of society are relentless. Japan maintains what Makoto Fujimura calls a “Christ-hidden culture.” It is not that Christ or even Christians are entirely absent, but they are planted in a “mudswamp” as Endo would say. The Japanese share an expansive cultural commitment where one “hides the most precious reality of the inner journey, and often that individuality is so suppressed that it would be very difficult for Japanese to be conscious of it” (Silence and Beauty, 197). The legacy of Christians in Japan is one of hiding.

Unveiling

When I became a missionary to Japan, I was compelled to go in part because of statistics. Less than 1% of Japanese identify as Christians. Only 0.3% identify as Evangelicals. My calling to move to Japan was because there were so few Christians. This is the same call that Douglas MacArthur once issued after WWII asking thousands of missionaries to come to Japan. A call that led to hundreds of Western denominations sending missionaries to plant new churches and denominations and help rebuild Japan. There was initial growth in the church, but the percentages have not increased much since. The mudswamp seems to prevail.

However, the longer I live and serve in Japan, the more I realize that Japan is not a culture entirely without a church, Christians, or Christ. Rather, it is indeed a Christ-hidden culture. There is something decidedly Western about empirically noting a small percentage of Christians and then demanding more and more Western Christians come to solve the problem. I am a Western missionary, and I lead a team with many Western missionaries. I am not opposed to Western missionaries coming to Japan to serve. But if we think that will solve the puzzle of the mudswamp, we have ignored Japan’s long and complex history of Christianity.

What we seek first and foremost is a great unveiling. There are several hundred thousand people who identify nominally as Protestant Christians living in Japan, and probably many more who fear even that level of identification. But they are almost entirely silent. You would never know there were even that many because they are hidden like sakura in wintertime. When we pray for a movement of revival, we pray not simply for the unreached, but for an unveiling of Japan’s hidden Christians. We pray for the church to blossom in Japan.

Focusing attention on the percentages of Christians in Japan is effective for missions mobilization but it does nothing for provoking a movement. It is like trying to discern the percentage of sakura compared to other plants in Japan. It provides data, but the data itself accomplishes little. Instead we wait and we pray earnestly for winter to end and for spring to come. We support and inspire those hidden Christians who dare to bloom in all of their glorious glory like the beloved sakura. We long for Japan to celebrate a grander ohanami as the hidden Christians reveal the treasures they have in the gospel. Thousands gathering to them and saying “Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you!” (Zech 8:23). Stoic salarymen would skip work to enjoy the beauty of Christ revealed in the testimonies of these Christians.

We pray for a Christ-revealed culture, which will subversively fulfill all the Christ-hidden longings of the Japanese heart. Shame would be replaced with courage. Fear would be replaced with love. The secular idolatries of materialism and security would be abandoned. And Christ would be enjoyed in new expressions of Japanese worship. Festal kimono replacing the Western uniform of black business suits. The church would flourish throughout the land. “For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace…the trees of the field shall clap their hands” (Isaiah 55:12).