Category Archives: Japan

Saints in Waiting – the Christian Martyrs of North Korea

Korea has the fourth-highest number of Catholic saints in the world. Why? Because present-day Christianity in Korea – particularly the Catholic stream – was molded from the blood of its martyrs, thousands and thousands of them. Probably more so than just about anywhere else.

Christians were also at the forefront of the resistance against the Japanese occupation, that ended in 1945, and they helped lead the fight in the 1980s for democracy in their country. Today, Christians comprise about 30% of the South Korean population, and a vibrant Christian expression is everywhere.

By contrast, North Korea is once again a land of martyrs.

It is sadly ironic that former US President Jimmy Carter, after meeting North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung, reportedly pronounced him “friendly” towards Christianity.

Yes, he was friendly when he thought Christians might help prop up his regime, and garner some international support. That’s why he occasionally sent North Korean “Christian” leaders to travel abroad for international conferences.

My wife is Korean, and a while ago some North Korean Christians came to Australia for talks. A pastor friend met them.

“They said that North Koreans couldn’t worship any more, because the Americans had bombed and destroyed their churches during the Korean War,” our friend told us. “They also said that North Koreans didn’t really need religion, because they had Kim Il Sung.”

And in a crazy way it was true that North Koreans didn’t need Christianity. After all, they already at that time had the father (the late Great Leader Kim Il Sung), son (his successor Dear Leader Kim Jong Il) and spirit (juche – the doctrine of self-reliance that supposedly inspires the populace).

Yet Christianity has persisted, even though any friendliness that might have been shown to the faith by Kim Il Sung was not replicated by his son. He was a tyrant. In the words of the National Association of Evangelicals, North Korea is “more brutal, more deliberate, more implacable, and more purely genocidal” than any other nation.

As many as 100,000 Christians are in concentration camps, enduring regular torture. Executions are common.

Prisoners unable to contain their horror at executions are deemed disloyal to the party and are punished with electrical shock, often to death. Others are sent into solitary confinement in containers so cramped that their legs become permanently paralyzed. Eight Christians working in a prison smelting factory died instantly when molten iron was poured onto them, one by one, for refusing to deny their faith.

Yet something remarkable is happening. A growing number of North Koreans are escaping, to China or South Korea, and many of them are turning to Christianity. There at last they find hope.

So while no decent person in a million years would wish on North Korean Christians their present sufferings, it is possible to see in them the seed of a future renaissance.

German doctor Norbert Vollertsen was stationed in North Korea in 1999-2000 for the relief agency German Emergency Doctors. Later he interviewed hundreds of North Korean refugees in China and South Korea. His message: what has been going on in North Korea for more than half a century bears a strong resemblance to the World War II Nazi genocide against Jews.

“Like the Jews then, Christians in North Korea face their executioners praying and singing hymns,” he related.

But as the church father Tertullian reportedly said at the dawn of Christianity: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Vollertsen, whose reports have made him a legendary figure in Japan and South Korea, found out that as a result of this Communist campaign of persecution an underground church was growing rapidly. “I am sure that once North Korea is free, Christianity will boom there in a way that will even dwarf its growth in the South.”

A Cross We Must Bear?

My weekly Bible study group has been using a fascinating book titled “Cries from the Cross” by Erwin Lutzer, senior pastor at Chicago’s Moody Church. It is a short work, but full of riches, as Lutzer examines the last words of Jesus, cried out in anguish as He hung on the cross.

We concluded our studies recently with the book’s Epilogue, “Taking the Cross into the World,” where the author reminded us that the cross represents the great reversal of values of the world.

Cries from the CrossFor example, he relates, in the early centuries after Jesus, Christianity “captured” North Africa, thanks to the “love of the Christians that defied explanation.”

Thus, when Christians found dead bodies abandoned in the street they washed them and gave them a decent burial. “The pagans were impressed with these unexplained acts of love,” writes Lutzer.

It reminded me of Shusaku Endo’s great novel “The Silence” (soon to be released as a movie by Martin Scorsese), with his strikingly similar depiction of the attraction of Christianity for 16th-century Japanese peasants:

I tell you the truth – for a long, long time these farmers have worked like horses and cattle; and like horses and cattle they have died. The reason our religion has penetrated this territory like water flowing into dry earth is that it has given to this group of people a human warmth they never previously knew. For the first time they have met men who treated them like human beings. It was the human kindness and charity of the fathers that touched their hearts.

And yet – Christianity was later eradicated from both North Africa and Japan through oppression and force of arms. Remnants remain in both places, but they are small and without much influence.

Is it truly enough just to have a love that defies explanation? Do Christians not need something more? Like our own armies? Or is regular persecution simply the cross we must always bear?

One of the members of my Bible study group commented during our discussion that God surely has a purpose in allowing the depravities of ISIS that we are witnessing in the Middle East.

Really? I hope so. For it is at times like these that I am thrown back on Isaiah:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.

“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

When Silence Would Have Been Better

Jesuit theologian William Johnston did a fine job of translating Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo’s masterpiece “Silence” into English. The book is now set to become a movie, directed by Martin Scorsese. I am sure sales will soar.

Johnston died five years ago. I met him several decades earlier, in 1982. Here is an anecdote from our meeting.

SilenceBorn in Belfast, in Northern Ireland, Johnston later traveled to Japan as a Catholic missionary. It was there that he became enamored with Buddhism, particularly Zen, to the extent that he wrote a book titled “Christian Zen.” He also became a teacher at Tokyo’s Sophia University, a very fine Catholic institution.

I had arrived in Tokyo in 1976, and was also attracted to Zen Buddhism. As a journalist, I began writing about it, and with Buddhist scholar John Stevens I co-authored a book, “Zen Guide.”

Doing research for this book, I several times attended Zen meditation sessions at Sophia University that were run by Johnston and other Catholic priests there. (I should mention that my co-author John Stevens was pretty scornful of attempts to fuse Zen and Christianity, so none of this made it into “Zen Guide.”)

Here is how I described it in another book of mine, “Journey Out Of Nothing:”

I attended one of the services, and was underwhelmed. A dozen-or-so participants sat on tatami mats in a small room, spent a short time in meditation, and then a priest recited a short liturgy, said a prayer and gave a brief homily. I could not see the point of it all.

After the service a group of several young Spanish and Latin American priests prepared a delicious meal – including squid cooked in its own ink, which I was able to taste for the first time – and we ate together, and drank Spanish red wine.

The handsome young Latin priests were a lively bunch, noisy and cheeky (a Catholic friend later told me that most of them ended up marrying Japanese girls). And I should confess that we were all drinking a lot of that excellent Spanish wine.

This was in 1982, and the Falklands War between Britain and Argentina was then raging. At one point in the evening a Spanish priest turned to a young Argentinian priest and in a loud voice pointed at me and shouted repeatedly (in English): “He’s British. He’s British. Don’t you want to fight him?” It was meant as a humorous attempt to rile his colleague, but it came across as something of an aggressive taunt. (I was not British. I’m now a naturalized Australian. Back then I was a New Zealander.)

The young Argentinian was clearly embarrassed, as the Spanish priest wouldn’t stop. He kept shouting, “He’s British,” and pointing at me. I too became embarrassed. I was sitting right by William Johnston, so to try to defuse the situation I turned to him and said the first words that came to me: “I suppose as an Irishman you support Argentina in the Falklands.” It was meant as a light-hearted quip.

His immediate response: “As a human being I support Argentina.”

To which I replied: “Oh, as a human being I support the British.” As I said, we had all been drinking a lot of red wine.

Johnston looked at me for a moment with what seemed to be stunned silence, and then he launched into one of the most aggressive tirades of abuse against the British that I have ever heard. I forget the details, but I know it encompassed his upbringing in Belfast and the discrimination he encountered there, followed by his later years as an Irishman in Liverpool. I recall that at one point he was even fuming about British actions in the 16th century during the Spanish Armada.

Now it was I who was stunned into silence. I was not a Christian and had in fact been raised in an anti-Christian household. Yet, somehow, I still had something of an old-fashioned image of men of the cloth – possibly from hardly ever having met any – that they were quiet, humble, hard-working, peaceful and eternally gracious. I was quite shocked by this torrent of abuse.

I was a spiritual seeker back then, but fortunately I was still deeply into the Zen phase of my journey towards Jesus. I suspect that, had I been investigating Christianity, then that tirade from Johnston, the former missionary, would have lost me. It was only some years later, in 1993 that I found Jesus (or should I say that He found me?) here in Australia.

New Movie Spotlights Christian Persecution – Too Late for Mideast Faithful

A forthcoming new film from famed director Martin Scorsese is set to confront the movie-going public with the issue of the persecution of Christians.

It is “Silence,” based on the celebrated 1966 historical novel by Japanese Christian writer Shusaku Endo, who was nominated for the Nobel Prize.

Silence“Silence,” Endo’s masterpiece, is set in seventeenth-century Japan and tells the story of an idealistic Portuguese missionary trying to help his Christian brethren in Japan, while the authorities work to eradicate the religion.

It is based on real people and real events, and it is striking to read of the cruelty that was employed by the Japanese shogun – military leader – and his officials, so determined were they to rid Japan of Christianity and all that it stood for.

A favored torture method was to hang a Christian upside-down over a pit of excrement, with a tiny cut behind the ear sending blood – one slow drop at a time – running down the victim’s face. Merciful death could take a week.

At other times a Christian was tied to a pole that was secured in the sea. High tide would come up just to the victim’s neck, then the water would abate. Again, death was slow.

Now we are seeing something similar happening in Iraq and Syria, with Christianity under attack from a merciless campaign of genocide by the criminals of ISIS.

It is difficult to obtain reliable news from the region, but it is clear that ISIS has already blown up and destroyed churches, monasteries and historic sites, such as the tomb in Nineveh where, according to tradition, the prophet Jonah was buried. Hundreds of thousands have fled.

Nineveh is part of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, and large numbers of Christians lived and worshipped there for nearly 2,000 years. It is now possible that not one Christian remains.

The seventeenth-century Japanese authorities were equally relentless and brutal as they forced hundreds of thousands of believers to renounce their faith. They achieved almost total success in uprooting Christianity from their homeland.

Yet when the country was opened up again to the West, 200 years later, visitors were amazed to discover scattered remnants of secret believers, still covertly practising their faith.

This might be some cause for comfort, as we witness the holocaust now taking place in the Mideast. But we must also remember that, despite all the intense efforts of missionaries over the past 150 years, fewer than one per cent of Japan’s population today are Christian.

Yes, a remnant of secret believers might linger in ISIS-controlled territory. But I repeat what I have already written – the events that we see unfold before us in the Middle East today are a tragedy of monumental proportions.

The new Scorsese movie may well spark outrage among the general public about the persecution of Christians. I hope it does. But it will come too late for the faithful of Iraq and Syria.

A Believer Sings the Truth

It’s funny the memories you carry through life.

I lived in Tokyo for seventeen years, and a powerful memory from my years there is that it was the place where I discovered Country and Western music.

This was because I listened regularly to the Far East Network, the US armed forces radio station, which at that time provided the only English-language radio programming available. It broadcast a lot of Country and Western music, and I became a big fan. In particular, I came to love Johnny Cash.

One day I borrowed from a public library a Johnny Cash LP record called “A Believer Sings the Truth,” and made a cassette tape of it. I listened often. It was Cash at his hard-driving, rockabilly best. It was also – though I didn’t realize it at the time – a celebration of hard-core Southern Baptist fundamentalism.

I wasn’t a Christian in Japan, and there was no apparent Christian influence on me there. I have often wondered how it was that, on arriving in Australia from Tokyo in 1993, I so unexpectedly felt the urge to turn up one Sunday at my local Baptist church, and so quickly gave my life to Jesus. Could it have resulted from a regular listening to Johnny Cash?

“A Believer Sings the Truth” is surely one of the great Christian recordings, and I don’t understand why – as far as I can learn – it has never been put on CD. At the time I didn’t pay much attention to the lyrics. Or so I thought. But was I picking up more than I realized?

From lyrics like these?

I was dying,
And the time was flying,
And I heard Him calling me.
My will was bent,
And I did repent,
And His sweet love set me free.

Or these?

And the dead of all the ages
Who believed on Him will rise.
And I’ll be one,
I’ll be one,
In the first resurrection,
When He comes.

Or these?

When the tribulation darkens the way,
That’s when you get on your knees and pray.

Or these?

Yes, I know when Jesus saved me,
Saved my soul.
The very moment He forgave me,
He made me whole.
He took away my heavy burdens,
Lord, He gave me peace within.

Or these?

I was lifted one night
By God’s blinding light
And it shook me right out of my sleep.
As His love entered in
It washed away my sin
And I praised Him down on my knees.

Several writers have speculated that the immense popularity in Japan of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach is, in some subtle way, bringing some Japanese to the Lord. Could Johnny Cash have done the same for me?

The Reality of Evil

As Christianity faces extinction in the Middle East, under attack from a merciless campaign of genocide by the criminals of ISIS, it is distressing that the response of the West has been so weak.

Even Christians appear shell-shocked by events, and do not seem to know what to do, other than pray and donate to relevant charities.

Probably they simply do not know what to do. But I suspect that many of us simply cannot comprehend that the appalling evil we hear about is actually a reality in the twenty-first century.

SilenceA new movie might be about to change such notions.

Martin Scorsese is one of the world’s greatest living directors. He seems to make a new film every two or three years, and often it is a massive hit. His last movie, released in 2013, was the hugely popular “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

That was not a Christian movie. But his next one, due for release late this year or early in 2016, might be.

It is “Silence,” based on the celebrated 1966 historical novel by Japanese Christian writer Shusaku Endo, who was nominated for the Nobel Prize.

“Silence,” Endo’s masterpiece, is set in seventeenth-century Japan and tells the story of an idealistic Portuguese missionary working to help his Christian brethren in Japan in the face of attempts by the authorities to eradicate the religion.

Sadly for much of the time he feels that God is remote, and not answering his prayers – hence the novel’s title.

It is based on real people and real events, and it is striking to read of the cruelty that was employed by the Japanese shogun – military leader – and his officials. The book portrays the torture in some detail, and I assume the movie will do the same.

A favored method was to hang a Christian upside-down over a pit of excrement, with a tiny cut behind the ear sending blood – one slow drop at a time – running down the victim’s face. Death could take a week.

At other times a Christian was tied to a pole that was secured in the sea. High tide would come up just to the victim’s neck, then the water would abate. Again, death was slow.

I do not know how graphic Scorsese will be in depicting the barbarity of the seventeenth-century torturers. I hope he is unflinching. The world needs to see the reality of evil. It is just this manner of evil that is occurring now, in our own time.

Persecuted Japanese Christians the Theme of New Scorsese Movie

Renowned movie director Martin Scorsese has released initial details of his forthcoming movie “Silence,” which has as its theme the persecution of Japanese Christians in the 17th century, and God’s silence in the face of suffering.

Starring Andrew Garfield, Liam Neeson, Tadanobu Asano, Adam Driver and Ciarán Hinds, it is based on the celebrated 1966 historical novel of the same name by Japanese Christian writer Shusaku Endo.

It tells the story of two Portuguese Jesuits who journey to Japan to investigate the well being of a fellow priest.

Speaking at a press conference in Taiwan, where he has been filming the movie, Scorsese told journalists that he had been wanting to make the movie for many years.

“The subject matter presented by Shusaku Endo was in my life since I was very young,” he said. “I was very much involved in religion. I was raised in a strong Catholic family.”

Under the guidance of Portuguese missionaries, Christianity began to flourish in Japan during the 16th century, even gaining the endorsement and protection of the country’s military rulers, the shoguns.

But suspicions that the missionaries might be spies eventually led to a change of heart by the shoguns, and a period of harsh persecution began, with the aim of the total eradication of the religion from Japan.

This saw the emergence of the kakure kirishitan (hidden Christians), who maintained their practices in secret for more than 200 years. Much of Endo’s novel is based on these underground groups and their efforts to hold onto their faith in the face of some of the worst persecution of Christians that the world had witnessed since Roman times.

The Scorsese movie is set for release in late-2015 or early-2016.

Spiritual Warfare – Why Won’t the Japanese Embrace Christianity?

My novel “The Maria Kannon,” second in the Brother Half Angel series of thrillers, is set in present-day Japan, where I lived for 17 years. It tells the story of a US marine who flies to Japan to meet his long-lost sister, only to discover that she has been murdered in church.

Maria Kannon - Smashwords Cover Jan 2013Like all the books in the series, this novel has Christian persecution as a dominant theme. It is also about the Maria Kannon, a statue of a Buddhist deity that was once revered by persecuted Japanese Christians.

Several hundred years ago Christianity was a major force in Japan. But no longer. This is a major concern to mission groups worldwide. Why don’t the Japanese today embrace Christianity?

So I was interested to read some recent comments in the Japan Times newspaper. Columnist Michael Hoffman wrote:

The Japanese have so eagerly embraced everything Western — from fads to philosophies, baseball to scientific method. Why not Christianity? Even China, officially atheist and repressive of anything outside state control, counts 52 million Christians. In South Korea, 30 percent of a population of 50 million professes Christianity. In Japan? Less than 1 percent.

One explanation comes from Minoru Okuyama, director, as of 2010, of the Missionary Training Center in Japan. That year, he told a global missions conference, “Japanese make much of human relationships more than the truth. Consequently we can say that as for Japanese, one of the most important things is harmony; in Japanese, ‘Wa.’” The Japanese, said Okuyama, “are afraid of disturbing human relationships of their families or neighborhood even though they know Christianity is best.” Chinese and South Koreans, by contrast, “make more of truth or principle than human relationships.”

In response, Ian Walker of the Japan Christian Link organization wrote:

There is much to be encouraged by in Japan in the 21st century. People are coming to understand that the very essence of Christianity is a relationship — something the Japanese value highly. People are realizing that the choices they make are key: Do you spend your time investing in relationships with family, friends, colleagues and those in need, or waste it on pachinko [Japanese pinball], porn, materialism, etc.

I have my own explanation that I gave in my book “Journey Out Of Nothing: My Buddhist Path to Christianity.”

It is not generally known that in the late 16th century many Japanese had become Christians. In fact, Christianity was becoming such a force that in the early 17th century the ruling shoguns (military rulers) banned it outright.

From that point Christians were persecuted, and subject to the most horrendous punishments. To ensure the eradication of the religion, the authorities introduced a practice known as fumie.

A fumie – “stepping-on picture” – was a picture of Jesus or of the Virgin Mary. For more than 200 years government officials regularly traveled through the country, to even the smallest village, forcing residents to trample on these pictures. Those who refused were assumed to be Christians and were tortured until they renounced their faith. Those who would not do this were cruelly executed. Crucifixion, sometimes upside down in the sea, was one method.

Another example: according to Japanese tradition, the country’s emperor was a god. Emperor Hirohito formally renounced his divinity in 1945, after Japan’s defeat in World War II. However, his son Akihito, who became emperor in 1989, subsequently participated in a highly secretive religious ceremony, one purpose of which, according to some experts, was to join symbolically in sexual union with the sun goddess and attain divine status.

I concluded: “The level of spiritual warfare in Asia is high.”