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Japanese Theology: What Can Be Learned (Part 2)


(You can find part one of this essay here)

Christianity is often presented as the religion of the superpowers, and it has become a visibly dominant religion in many leading nations. From the 4th century onwards, Christianity became the religion of the Greco-Romano world, with the consequence that Greek and Latin became the “language” of God. Thus Hellenic views on Christianity overruled other forms of Christianity elsewhere. Continuing into the 15th / 16th century, the rise of the Spanish and Portuguese nations expanded Roman Catholicism across the entire colonized world, and thus Spanish/Portuguese Christianity became visibly dominant on the surface of the planet. The emergence of the reformation in the 16th century, and its collaboration with the Western and Northern European governments, caused a reformed and protestant theology to dominate certain parts of the world.

For the past two hundred years or more, Anglo-American Christianity and its relationship to the expansion of British and American territorial interest has had important results. English became the language of evangelical religion. Christianity took a commercial course and dominated the worship and literature industry worldwide. Today, anyone who wants to study theology anywhere in the world cannot bypass American and English Christian literature and writers. Church history means reformation history; theology means Anglo American Evangelical or Dutch Reformed theology. This dominant manifestation of Western Christianity has caused two different major reactions in the non-western world; 1) Almost total acceptance and implementation of this Western Theology with slightly native cultural influences. For instance, Evangelical Christianity in the Philippines is simply an American-influenced Christianity, and the Korean Protestant Christianity is based on Reformed Theology; in Africa, American prosperity teaching preached by the satellite TV stations inspires the Pentecostalism. 2) Instead of total surrender to imported Christianity, the second reaction is the creation of Christianity with an indigenous theology. There are relatively few countries that have created their own Christian theology. Japan tried to belong to the second group. In his book Japanese contribution to Christian Theology published in 1960, Carl Michelson indicated that even though Protestant Christianity was relatively young in Japan, Japan was apparently the first country to develop its own significant theology Michelson, 1960).

Since the entry of Protestant Christianity into Japan during the Meiji Period, native Japanese Christian scholars tried to address how to bridge Japanese native religions and culture with Christianity by creating a Japanese or Asian theology. These kinds of attempts for contextualization were often criticized either by the Western missionaries or by Japanese theologians who were strongly influenced by Western theology.

These tensions have always existed, but unfortunately the acceptance of the idea of an indigenized Christianity in Japan was delayed due to the horrific nuclear bombings of Hiroshima / Nagasaki and eventually the capitulation of Japan in 1945. The entry of American missionaries endorsed by General McArthur was in certain degree a blessing for the devastated post-war country, as the missionaries brought humanitarian aid and education, but on the other hand, it delayed and discouraged the indigenization of Christianity until late sixties.

Early Cultural Theological Tensions

Japanese people struggle with various issues that Western Christianity is often unable to deal with. One of them concerning the current state of their ancestors: where are they currently? This question will be asked almost by every Japanese who is evangelized by a western missionary. Of course, the missionaries must try to answer as gracefully as possible, but in the end, hell will surely be mentioned. Once a Japanese woman told a missionary trying to evangelize her that she would rather spend eternity in hell with her ancestors than in the paradise preached by the Christians. If the Christian God has no solution to the fact that her ancestors did not have a chance to know Jesus, she would rather spend all eternity in hell. There have been theologians who tried to explain the issue of hell in a Japanese context, but they were often misunderstood by other Christians.

The other aspect of Christianity with which the Japanese have struggled is the claim that the Bible is the infallible word of God. For instance, Hiromichi Kozaki (1856-1928), a Japanese theologian, believed that the evolution theory and the Bible could be harmonized and this influenced his understanding of the Bible. For Kozaki, faith and reason are not in conflict with each other, but rather mutually interdependent, which results in what he called reason sanctified by the Holy Spirit. This brought him to suggest that the Bible is inspired by God, but this does not mean that its words are literarily infallible (Furuya, 1997). This of course was criticized by Western missionaries, and well as Japanese theologians such as Masahisa Uemura (1861-1925), whose theology was strongly influenced by Western theology and creeds.

Another aspect that the Japanese did not appreciate and some still do not understand the religion is the lack of bridges between Christianity and the other two main religions, Buddhism and Shintoism, as well as Confucianism. In the early protestant period in Japan, theologians did try to create dialogue, but unfortunately they were either misunderstood or they went too far in their interpretations. Danjo Ebina (1886-1937) tried to combine Confucianism and Shintoism with Christianity. According to him, Christianity was a universal truth, valid for the Japanese practicing a Confucian way of life as well as for those who pursue Shintoism. He believed that when Shintoism is purified, it becomes Christianity. Throughout his life he was constantly criticized for his views. Yet, according to him, he remained a follower of Christ until the end of his life.

Furthermore, independent Japanese churches, especially the pre-war Japanese churches, had a negative attitude towards denominational differences. This attitude is visible even today. They are still skeptical about such denominational and doctrinal differences. For instance, Uchimura Kanzo (1861-1930) was the one who started the mukyokai or the non-Church movement. The mukyokai is the Christianized version of mushukyo, or non-religion, as described in chapter six. Uchimura Kanzo believed that the true form of the church is non-church. He did not endorse the idea of an organized church, and believed that there is no organized church in heaven, quoting Revelation 21:22. He believed that bishops, deacons, preachers, and teachers exist only here on earth. In heaven, he thought, there would be neither baptism nor communion; neither teachers nor students.  In 1926, he wrote:

I am blamed by the missionaries for upholding Japanese Christianity. They say that Christianity is a universal religion, and to uphold Japanese Christianity is to make a universal religion a national religion. Very true! But do not these very missionaries uphold sectional or denominational forms of Christianity which are not very different from national Christianity? Is not Episcopalianism essentially an English Christianity, Presbyterianism a Scotch Christianity, Lutheranism a German Christianity, and so forth? Why, for instance, call a universal religion “Cumberland Presbyterianism?” If it is not wrong to apply the name of a district in the state of Kentucky to Christianity, why is it wrong to apply the name of my country to the same? I think I have as much right to call my Christianity Japanese as thousands of Christians in Cumberland Valley have the right to call their Christianity by the name of the valley they live in (Mullins, 1998).

Gradually theological studies were formed in pre-war Japan. Evangelical theology was promoted by Masahisa Uemura (1861-1925). He was an advocate of Evangelical theology with American flavor. He is also the founder of rgw Tokyo Theological Seminary. Uemura was a strong opponent of Ebina’s theology. Japan has known far many great theologians, men like Shigehiko Sato (1887-1935), Seigo Yamaya (1889-1982), Setsuji Otsuka (1887-1977), Tokutaro Takakura (1885-1934) and many others, the majority mentored by Uemura. For instance, Tokukaro Takakura’s book Evangelical Christianity, published in 1924, became a bestseller. Takakura was a disciple of Uemura and continued his mentor’s legacy and theological views. Takakura introduced Evangelicalism with a German flavor, and is specifically known as the man who introduced Calvinism to Japan. During the twenties, German theologies became influential in Japan. Shigehiko Sato introduced Luther to Christians in Japan. Takakura believed that Catholicism, Liberalism and cultural Christianity are influenced by pagan elements, which does not represent pure Christianity. Thus he opposed the liberalism and humanism that he saw as “sneaking” into the Christian message.

During the Meiji period, Social Christianity also became popular among some Japanese theologians. This was a combination of socialism and a Christian message. Toyohiko Kagawa (1888-1960) is one of the well-known figures in this movement, known for his labor movement activities in Japan and supported by Christian students of that time. Leaders such as Shigeru Nakajima (1888-1946), Yonetaru Kimura (1889-1949) and Enkichi Kan (1895-1972) influenced the Social Christianity movement. Shigeru Nakajima organized the National Alliance for Social Christianity in 1933. One of the important teachings of Nakajima was the difference between community and associations/organizations. Church or labor union companies are all examples of associations, with sets of rules and regulations. Associations are based on sets of rules, but communities are based on personal, human relationships in which only love makes the community grow. The emphasis is on doing good and helping the poor and the suffering. Even though the name of this movements was “Social Christianity,” the movement strongly opposed the ideas of Marxism. It had its own unique ideologies, with Christ as an abstract concept for the concrete process of socialization, which Nakahima called redemptive love. He believed that a society where selfless love is practiced is the society closest to the Kingdom of God. The process in which society grows towards such selfless love is then called socialization. Since the concept of “Christ” for him is the same as socialization, and since Jesus is the only person who fully manifested this “Socialization” or Christ, he is called Jesus Christ to redeem us from sin. The root of sin is in selfish and egoistic social motivations, and salvation can only be realized through Jesus Christ and following his example of selfless love.

Japanese Christianity was also influenced by Karl Barth’s theology, known as Dialectical Theology: God can only reveal Himself vertically from heaven into his Children. Of course, Jesus Christ is the centre of such revelations, at which the Bible acts as a place to come to know God. Theologians like Yoshitaka Kumano were the promoters of this theology among the Japanese. Bart’s theology was welcome in Japan because the Japanese saw a degree of intellectualism in Barth’s theology. Japanese Christianity has often desired an intellectual and inspirational theology.

There are many theologians whose names deserve to be mentioned here. However, I would like to particularly discuss some Japanese theologians who worked in the post-war period and developed significant theological ideas that influenced Christianity in Japan.  Post-war Japan was home ot great theologians like Kazoh Kitamori (1916-1998), who introduced the theology of the pain of God. The essence of the gospel is in the redemptive pain and suffering of God and human pain is a symbol of the pain of God. Kitamori compares the pain of God with the concept of tsurasa, a characteristic in Japanese literature. Tsurasa means to suffer in order to save others from pain. In Kitamori’s eyes, God the father suffered by sacrificing His son in order to redeem humanity. This is a tsurasa love, going through pain for the sake of another. Seiichi Yagi is another theologian who promoted intercultural and inter-theological dialogue with Buddhism. Yagi looks for similarities between Christianity and Buddhism.

Theological differences were not the only causes of dispute between the foreign missionaries and the Japanese believers. The ethnocentric arrogance of the missionaries made Western Christianity unbearable to many Japanese believers. Matsumura Kaiseki (1859–1939), an early convert of the Dutch Reformed missionary James Ballagh and a member of the Yokohama Band, illustrates the tensions that existed between missionary teachers and their students. Matsumura, who had returned to Ballagh’s school to assist with the teaching and supervision of the students, recalls that on one occasion he explained to Ballagh that all their missionary work would be of no avail if they continued to treat the Japanese as no more than cooks or helper boys. In response, Mr. Ballagh’s wife accused Matsumura of being possessed by the devil because of the things he said (Mullins, 1998). He was dismissed from his position at the school and was isolated from the missionaries. Soon Matsumura started his own independent denomination, called The Way.  Joseph Kitagawa explains:

“More often than not, European and American missionaries attempted to westernize as well as Christianize the Japanese people and culture. Japanese converts were made to feel, consciously or unconsciously, that to decide for Christ also implied the total surrender of their souls to the missionaries. The task of evangelism was interpreted by most missionaries as transplanting the Western church onto Japanese soil, including the ugly features of denominationalism—an unhappy assumption, indeed” (ibid).

Indigenized Christianity

From approximately the second half of the 20th century onwards, Japanese Christians sought to develop a Japanese Christianity, a Christianity that was not based on German or American doctrines only. I personally believe that this attempt was a revival of an earlier movement from the mid-Meiji period, which had been slowed for various reasons, such as Japan’s involvement with the war, the capitulation of Japan and the entry of thousands of American and Western missionaries after the war. I believe Japanese Christians have often hoped for an indigenized version of Christianity but did not fully get the chance to create it. After the war and the rebuilding of Japan, the time was ripe for such indigenization.

According to Kiyedo Takeda, indigenization can be classified into five major forms: 1) the buried type, in which the religion is buried and lost through compromise, 2) the isolation type, isolating and refusing to compromise, 3) the confrontation type, 4) the grafting type, fusion maintaining confrontation in the background, and 5) the apostasy type, paradoxically seeking for indigenization through apostasy (Odagaki, 1997). Takeda herself chose the grafting approach, in which Christianity could confront Japanese indigenous culture by burying itself in and being fused into Japanese soil, while at the same time maintaining a posture of confrontation, as suggested by the parable of the grain of wheat (ibid).

Various theologians before and after the war promoted an indigenized form of Christianity. They argued that if Jewish Christians could use Jewish texts as their canonical resources, why could they not also draw on Buddhist and Shinto literature? Some believed that these sacred books (e.g. the Buddhist scriptures and Shinto texts) also referred to Christ and foreshadowed His coming—that Christ was the fulfillment of these sacred and ancient Japanese scriptures. Of course, not all of the indigenous movements believed this sort of thing. A majority of indigenous theologians, including Uchimura Kanzo, believed in the canonical books of Western Scripture. Among the indigenous movements and their founders were the Non-church Movement, founded by Uchimura Kanzo (1901); The Way, founded by Matsumura Kaiseki (1907), Christ Heart Church, founded by Kawai Shinsui (1927); Japan Ecclesia of Christ, founded by Koike Tatsuo (1940); Original Gospel Tabernacle, founded by Teshima Ikuro (1948); and Okinawa Christian Gospel, founded by Nakahara (1977). Of course many other movements were developed which certainly deserve to be mentioned, but cannot be discussed here due to space limitations. This list is only an indication of the many communities that were established in reaction to the problematic strategies of the foreign missionaries.


FURUYA, Yasao. (editor) (1997) A history of Japanese theology. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

AMA, Toshimaro. (2005) Why are the Japanese non-religious? Japanese spirituality: being non-religious in a religious culture. Lanham: University Press of America.

MULLINS, Mark. (1998) Christianity Made in Japan: A Study of Indigenous Movements. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press

Samuel Lee is founder & president  of Foundation University in the Netherlands (www.fedu.eu). He is a sociologist with Japan as his area of interest and is a member of the Japan Evangelical Mission Association (JEMA). He maintains a website about Christianity in Japan and has authored two books:

This post was originally posted at his personal blog.

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