Christianity has been met with varying levels of embrace in the past 450 years in Japan, but even now it has failed to catch on as one of the dominant religions.  This essay will attempt to show exactly why this is the case—first, that the religion of Christianity did not “mesh” well with the native Japanese religions of the time, and second, that the rulers of the time saw it as a threat and possible prelude to increased European influence in Japan.

Christianity was first introduced to Japan in the form of a Jesuit mission led by Francis Xavier, arriving to the Japanese isles in 1549 CE (Packet 167).  Christianity was actually embraced during this period, even so much so as to prompt some historians to label the years that followed Xavier’s landing as the “Christian Century”.  The people took to this new religion out of curiosity and to try something new, but also, as a recent exam question showed, because the extreme poverty and feelings of hopelessness of the common people at this time led them to seek redemption from a source outside of the traditional Japanese religions (EALC Midterm).  Even some of the daimyos and shoguns of the time actively supported Christianity, the most prominent among them being Oda Nobunga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi (although Hideyoshi’s support can be seen just as an offshoot of his intense hatred of Buddhism).  While Nobunga rose to power, in fact, “Christianity approached the status of a state religion” (Packet 167).

This period of tolerance, however, abruptly came to an end in the early 1600s, culminating in the total banning of Christianity by the Tokugawa regime in 1640 (Hendry 127).  When a young man named Amakusa Shiro led a popular Christian uprising at Shimabara in 1638, he and tens of thousands of his followers were massacred.  Why the abrupt change of attitude?

First, as Lande quite succinctly puts it, “Christianity was strange to the Japanese.” (Packet 167)  Most of the older Japanese religions were not mutually exclusive—one could be a Shinto kami worshipper as well as a believer in Buddhism at the same time without sacrificing the purity of either.  It’s been noted that even all three of the major Japanese religions of the time—Buddhism, Shinto, and Confucianism—“had managed to coexist with remarkably little friction.” (Packet 190)  Even today, it is commonplace for Japanese to still make pilgrimages to Shinto shrines at least once a year while still using Buddhism for funerals and formal ceremonies.  Other mixtures of the dominant religions occur in similar ways.  This contrasts with the “absoluteness of Christian claims” (Packet 167)—you either were a Christian or you were not a Christian, and the thought that you could be both Christian and something else at the same time was foreign to the missionaries trying to convert the Japanese.  They believed that “Christianity was believed to be the only road to glory and salvation.” (Packet 167)  Also, as stated earlier, many Japanese initially turned towards Christianity because they believed it proved new hope for them and a possible escape from their poverty.  But, later, many felt that “the Christian God seemed unable to save his adherents from pain and misery.  The fate of the crucified Jesus himself underlined the argument.” (Packet 167)  This lack of divine protection offered by the native Japanese religions served to turn some away from Christianity.

Second, Christianity was seen as a foreign threat.  The Japanese, and especially the Tokugawa rulers of the time, saw Christianity as a symbol of the “dangers of European colonialism” (Packet 167).  The Japanese have always been somewhat distrustful of the West, lasting until Commodore Matthew Perry forcibly “opened” Japan in 1853.  Christianity was thought of as a “foot in the door” through which the Western powers such as Great Britain, Portugal, Spain, and France were increasing their influence upon Japanese affairs.  The Japanese rulers saw this as a threat to their unquestioned control, and so they began their merciless persecution of Christianity—over the next two hundred years, “all families were to be registered at a Buddhist temple…Christianity was virtually eliminated from the country.” (Hendry 127)  They instead promoted Buddhism and Confucianism, especially Shinto as “National Learning”—undermining the “foreign” Christianity by playing to the patriotism of the Japanese people.

So, we can see that the failure of Christianity after 1600 was caused by two main points—the exclusiveness of the religion itself, and the Tokugawa’s desire to eliminate foreign threats and secure their own power.  The effects of this purge can be seen even today, as Christians still number less than 2 percent of the Japanese population (Hendry 127).  While “white weddings” and other Christian ideas have been imported to Japan, these can be seen more of the increasing Westernization and not of any embrace of Christianity itself.  All in all, it remains a fringe religion.


EALC 150 Article Packet.  University of Illinois, Fall Semester 2000.

EALC 150 Fall 2000 Midterm Examination.

Hendry, Joy.  Understanding Japanese Society (second edition).  New York: Routledge, 1996.

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