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.
Like 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.”