The Roots Of Christianity In Japan And Where Its Stands Today

When thinking about religions practiced in Japan, many will think of the Buddhist and Shinto faiths immediately. There is, however, a history of Christianity being practiced in Japan that traces back many centuries. 

Additionally, there has been somewhat of a tumultuous history of how Christianity has been viewed or practiced throughout the years in Japan.

Today, it’s not the most prominent religion worshiped in Japan, but it is one that still holds importance to many living in Japan. 

When Christianity Was Introduced To Japan

Christianity didn’t actually come to Japan until much later than it came to other regions of the world. It was only in 1549 when Japanese people started practicing Christianity, during a period where tensions were high within the country. 

Thus, many people in Japan would get baptized, and being open about their Christian faith allowed them to trade and enter relations with different Christian-based countries like never before.

Xavier Church in Yamaguchi

Christianity didn’t exist for very long in Japan before some swift changes were enacted. 

Those who were baptized into Christianity were referred to as daimyo, and several of them actually traveled to Rome to meet with the Pope in 1585. 

Francis Xavier

Francis Xavier is regarded as the first known Christian missionary to make their way to Japan. He traveled around the world, spreading the word of Jesus and his teachings to multiple countries.

He is also known for creating the Jesuits, also referred to as the Society of Jesus. Their goal was to spread Christianity as far and wide as they could. 

Stained Glass Featuring Saint Francis Xavier and Ignatius of Loyola

Francis’ arrival in Japan was met with interest and curiosity, and he was allowed to speak with the Japanese about Christianity with the help of translators.

At this time, Japan was intrigued by weaponry from Western countries, which could have likely been one of many reasons Xavier was welcomed so warmly. 

The Beginning Of The End

The Jesuits were not too kind to those who practiced Buddhism or Buddhist monks. They called them some very derogatory names and said very unkind untrue things about the monks, which wasn’t tolerated very well. They also ended up saying some pretty harsh things about Japan in general. 

Monk In Nara Japan

After their mission was over, the Jesuits didn’t really make much of a positive impact in Japan. In fact, shortly after they left, it was generally decided that Christian missionaries wouldn’t be allowed to preach again in Japan if they came.

That being said, Xavier came back and ended up being accepted after presenting one of the lords with various gifts. 

Christianity Banned In Japan

It was in 1587 when Toyotomi Hideyoshi decided that Christianity could not be practiced in Japan. This was right before the Edo period in Japan came to fruition. During this period, life was unsettled in Japan. 

Japan essentially cut off ties with other countries, including those previously put in place due to the growing prevalence of the Christian faith in Japan.

This would not change for a couple of hundred years when the country opened back up to the rest of the world. 

Statue of Toyotomi Hideyoshi near Osaka Castle

The Edo Period And Christianity

Hideyoshi did not take lightly those who still attempted to practice Christianity in Japan. There were several orders made under his rule and under the rule, after him that would see to it that Christians couldn’t practice in the country.

One of Hideyoshi’s major fears was that missionaries’ end goal was to colonize Japan, which he did not want to happen. 

For example, in 1597, he had 26 Christian people killed in Nagasaki. A few of them were foreign missionaries, and the rest were Japanese people who identified as Christians. These people would later be referred to as martyrs. 

Shrine Of The 26 Martyrs Official Website

shrine of 26 Martyrs of Nagasaki

The shogunate, who was responsible for the rule over Japan in the Edo period, would continue to propagate strict rules against Christianity, leading to one of the many ways Japan was isolated from the rest of the world until the 1800s. 

Hidden Christians

People who resonated with the Christian faith in Japan didn’t all decide to abandon it because it was outlawed. These people became known as Hidden Christians.

Being that they had no guidance, however, they had to come up with creative solutions to practice the faith appropriately. 

Sakitsu Church in Amakusa, Kyushu

These people would try to conceal their faith as much as possible, though sometimes, they would have no choice but to participate in practices of other faiths being practiced in Japan.

They believed that praying and asking for forgiveness would be able to settle the inner guilt that hiding their faith was causing. 

The Period Of Change

The ban on Christianity and the Edo period of Japan started slowly coming to an end in the mid-1800s, when Matthew Perry, a U.S. Commodore, came to Japan and helped to open the country back up to international trade.

This led to a treaty between Japan and America, and shortly thereafter, some Christian missionaries made their way to Japan. 

People living in Japan who believed in Christianity also started speaking up and declaring their right to practice the faith of their choice.

Kurosaki Church Official Website

Kurosaki Church Interior – Nagasaki Japan

In 1947, the Constitution in Japan answered the calls of these people, and the freedom to practice any religion in Japan was enacted. 

From the 1980s on, several popes would make their way to Japan in an effort to solidify the country’s newfound relationship with Christianity. 

Christianity In Japan Today

Even though religious freedom is still a part of Japanese culture, Christianity is not anywhere close to the most prominent religion practiced in Japan. Even though the number of known Christians in Japan is in the millions, it’s only about 1% of the entire population that practices Christianity. 

There are some Christian customs that many still practice in Japan as well, including wedding ceremonies. Furthermore, it seems that a small portion of younger people in Japan are becoming somewhat interested in Christianity. 

That all being said, Japan is a much more secular country than it used to be, which is a pattern seen in many other countries as well.

Buddhism and Shinto faiths are still somewhat prevalent and tend to be passed down more throughout families as a tradition or as a cultural heritage.

What Its Like To Be A Christian In Japan

MT Lee
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.