Christianity Inside of Japan

Christianity in Japan dates back to the sixteenth century with the arrival of Portuguese missionaries. Christianity is still practiced today by about one percent of Japan’s population.

When you think of Christianity the chances are that Japan is not a country that will first cross your mind. In actual fact, the country has a fascinating past with the religion of Christianity that dates all the way back to the 1500s and even extends to the modern-day.

The main altar of Saint Ignatius Catholic Church, Kojimachi, Tokyo

Christianity in Japan exists peacefully alongside many other religions and accounts for approximately one or two million citizens, making up a total of roughly one percent of all Japanese population.

The history of Christianity in Japan

Christianity first arrived in Japan in 1542 when a group of Portuguese missionaries made it to western Japan, specifically Kyushu. They arrived bringing both gunpowder and their faith. 

Their arrival was welcomed by those in power at the time in large part to the weapons that they had bought with them and as such the missionaries were accepted as part of the package deal. 

Over time the missionaries were able to convert some of the Japanese people to Christianity, particularly amongst the upper class in western Japan.

As such, the religion was openly practiced and accepted with one believer even seeking an audience with the emperor.

Christian museum in Nagasaki dedicated to its martyrs

However, things all changed for Christianity in Japan in 1587. Missionaries were suddenly banned from Japan in a move to help protect the country. This was because of the political agendas of the believers during a period of colonization which had already been seen with countries such as the Philippines. 

Not only was colonization a significant risk and a reason for banning new Christians from entering the country, but the believers’ unfavorable attitude toward other religions, such as Buddhism, and connection to slave trades were also reasons that missionaries were banned. 

The great buddha hall of the Kotaiji temple in Nagasaki

The topic of Christianity in Japan became far more serious when in 1597 a strict ban was imposed and in Nagasaki 26 believers were killed as a warning to others. After this, a new wave of anti-Christian propaganda was issued, claiming that Christianity stood against authority and was even considered to be antisocial. 

However, Japanese Christians were not easy to silence. In the 1630s many rebels were captured and killed and after this, a complete ban against religion was enforced in the country.

Amakusa Shiro Statue at Ruins of Hara castle in Shimabara, Nagasaki, Japan. He led the Shimabara Rebellion1637-38, an uprising of Roman Catholics against the Shogunate

However, many still continued to practice their faith and became known as “hidden Christians”.

With the number of Christians has grown since the Meiji restoration, there are now about 1-2 million practicing believers of Christianity in the country today. This accounts for roughly one percent of the entire country.

Baptist Church in Osaka Japan

The vast majority of Christians can be found in the West of Japan, reflecting the original landing destination of the 16th-century missionaries.

Yet it wasn’t until the Meiji restoration period that Christianity was once again allowed to be practiced freely and openly. The number of practicing believers has been growing ever since that time and is still a recognized religion in Japan today.

Christianity today

However, there are many churches scattered across the country, not just in the west that are still in use today. They are the sites for modern-day practicing Christians.

Crowded streets of Tokyo

However, there are many other ways that Christianity has pervaded into modern Japanese culture, even in a secular manner. For example, the worldwide commercialization of holidays such as Easter and Christmas has led to the acknowledgment of them in Japan.

Although these holidays are not recognized days off in Japan they are still widely celebrated with many buying season-related gifts for loved ones and participating in light displays and handing decorations. 

Christmas tree at Tokyo Midtown office and shopping complex

Another way that Christian traditions are integrated into Japanese culture is with weddings. The Christian custom of wearing a white wedding dress and exchanging vows has become very popular with modern-day Japanese couples on their wedding day.

To sum up

Christianity exists in Japan as both a religion and as a set of secularized customs. Although originally permitted into Japan as a way to secure gunpowder, Christianity has managed to create a permanent part of the Japanese culture, even throughout religious bans and executions of Japanese Christians.

Kobe Seiai Church, a protestant church in Kobe, Japan

Today one percent of the Japanese population believes in the Christian faith and there are a number of churches across the country to allow them to practice their religion openly. The faith is no longer seen as a threat against rulers or even other religions.

There are many other ways that Christianity exists today in Japan such as through the commercialized holidays like Christmas and Easter which allow people to express their faith and admiration for their faith and those near and dear to them by buying presents, especially during Christmas holidays.

The Hara Castle Ruins in Nagasaki are a significant relic of the Shimabara Rebellion today. During the Edo Period, an insurrection took place on Nagasaki’s Shimabara Peninsular from 1637 to 1638. It primarily affected common people, the vast majority of whom were Catholic Christians.

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My fascination with Japan began several years back at a roadside bonsai stand while on vacation. I became more interested in the where and why's more than the trees themselves. My love of Bonsai led me to further research my interest in the gardens where they originated from and the places and people that surrounded those little trees. My curiosity was well rewarded upon visiting Saitama where the National Bonsai Museum was located and Omiya Village the bonsai mecca for lovers of this ancient art form. Exploring many towns and villages and even making my way to Japan's furthest southern prefecture of Okinawa. I hope to share my love of this wonderful and exotic place with all those who want to know more about Japan.