Whatever qualifies as a “Christian country” these days, Japan would not likely be seen as one in anyone’s mind. Only 1% of the Japanese population, split evenly between Catholics and Protestants along with small pockets of Eastern Orthodoxy, claim to be believers in Christ. Yet the fact that Christ is worshiped here by anyone at all, however few, is testimony to the invincibility of the Church, which is guaranteed by Christ Himself.
Now 51, I came to Japan in my late twenties, at a time when I was not practicing the Catholic faith in which I had been raised as a child. I had several motives for coming here: to teach English for a living after having done it as a volunteer in America, to travel and see the world, to do something new and leave the low-paying dead-end job I had at home. To be honest, there was the prospect of meeting Japanese women – many of whom I’d heard had a liking for Western men.
Returning to the Catholic faith was the farthest thing from my mind at that time. A traditionally Buddhist – in reality, a predominantly secular – country would hardly be a likely setting for a fallen-away Catholic to return to the Barque of Peter.
But nothing is impossible with God – and while my return to the faith may have seemed unlikely to occur in the Land of the Rising Sun, the faith’s existence in this land is even more logically nonsensical. But here it is.
First brought here by Portuguese Jesuit missionaries in the mid-1500s, Catholicism spread in Japan at a pretty good rate – at first. By the end of that century, though, it had been banned, and the faithful were heavily persecuted. Missionaries from abroad were killed or expelled, and by the mid-1600s there were no priests left in the country. Japan had closed itself off completely from the rest of the world – no foreigners at all, clergy or otherwise, would be allowed into the country for over 200 years.
Against this backdrop, Christianity in Japan should have disappeared, but God’s will was for it to be kept going. That’s where Japan’s “Hidden Christians” come in.
For over two centuries, these Christians practiced their faith in secret despite having no priests or bishops. By the grace of God, they made do – performing baptisms, handing down Scripture and Sacred Tradition orally. They engaged in creative trickery to help keep the faith alive, disguising Catholic images as Buddhist and singing prayers and hymns like Buddhist chants. Even the authorities’ attempts to force them to renounce Christianity were turned into occasions of secret worship – fumi-e, in which the Japanese were forced to stomp on images of Christ or the Virgin Mary, became for Christians a hidden celebration of the Lord’s suffering and mercy.
By the 1860s, Japan had been forced to reopen by Western powers, soon leading to freedom of religion. Before long, Catholic priests (mainly from France) began arriving. Assuming that Christianity had been stamped out in Japan and that they would need to engage in start-from-scratch proselytizing, these newly arrived priests were surprised to find a startling number of believers.
A two-century lack of clergy had taken its toll: the faith of many of the Hidden Christians had (inevitably, perhaps) mixed with Buddhist and Shinto traditions, from which emerged a Christianity in many ways differing from orthodox Catholicism. In time, though, a great many of the Japanese believers were catechized in the authentic faith and came to accept it.
In short, the survival of the Church in Japan was remarkable. If Christ’s promise that nothing will prevail against it needed any proof, its presence in Japan is it.
Japan seems to be one of the last places where a fallen-away Catholic like me would return to the Church. But given that by all rational accounts, Catholicism should have vanished from Japan long ago and yet is still here, it’s quite fitting that this is where my faith returned and is now stronger than ever.
Today, though very much a minority religion, Catholicism’s presence in Japan is quite noticeable. Every major city has numerous Catholic churches, and even smaller cities and towns usually have at least one. There are four Catholic churches in Hakodate, where I live along with my wife, a Japanese convert to the faith. Rich in history, this northern Japanese city features an eclectic blend of local and foreign influences. Besides the four churches, there is a Trappist monastery as well as a Trappistine convent, whose cookies are well known throughout Japan as travel souvenirs.
At the base of the city’s 1,000-foot-high mountain, the top of which offers one of the best night views in the world, are three beautiful historical churches within a short walk of each other – one Anglican, one Russian Orthodox, and Motomachi Roman Catholic Church, built shortly after Christianity came out of hiding about 140 years ago. Most who set foot inside Motomachi Church are tourists, but it has a full house of worshipers every Sunday as well.
Catholicism has made a particular mark in Japan on education. Many parishes operate their own preschools, and Catholic secondary schools and universities are fairly numerous and renowned. Here in Hakodate there is LaSalle, a respected combined junior high and high school. Several members of the faculty, including the principal, are Christian brothers.
What lessons can Catholics in the West take away from the history and current situation of Catholicism in Japan?
For one thing, both my own reversion to the faith in Japan and the faith’s survival here tangibly illustrate that all things are possible with God. There are no limits to His grace and power.
Japanese Christianity also shows us that no trial, however unbearable or fatal it may seem, can bring down the Catholic Church. There are distressing Church-related stories in the U.S. news seemingly every day. Sexual scandals, liturgical abuses, dwindling Mass attendance, a dearth of vocations to the priesthood and religious life, a decline in the quality of authentic Catholic education, the dissidence of many clergy and religious – all of this may tempt a Catholic into wondering how the Church will survive.
But the faith’s presence in Japan and (in its own small way) my own return to the faith while living here are reminders that nothing will destroy Christ’s Church, no matter how badly human beings treat it.
Catholicism’s history in Japan also reinforces that the laity must be, and will be, the main driving force behind the renewal and re-strengthening of the faith in modern times – just as Japan’s Hidden Christians, all laypeople, kept the faith alive and resisted all efforts to stamp it out.
The faith and courage of the Hidden Christians made it possible for those in Japan today, including my wife, to say “yes” to Christ and His Church. They stepped up to the plate and kept Catholicism from dying in Japan despite having no priests at all. Can their example and legacy, when reflected on deeply, possibly fail to inspire faithful lay Catholics in restoring authentic Catholicism and combatting heterodoxy (clerical and otherwise) in our own time?
Please pray for today’s Japanese Catholics – as well as for the Japanese people in general. In my two decades here I have on innumerable occasions experienced their kindness, patience, humility, modesty, and industriousness. My wife and I have often said to each other that the Japanese as a group, if baptized, would be among the best Christians in the world. May they be guided to Christ by the Holy Spirit, and may those of us living the faith here be worthy instruments in His work.
Ken Foye is an American Catholic living abroad, teaching English writing, reading, presentation, discussion, and conversation classes at a four-year university in northern Japan. He is an Oblate of St. Benedict and is married to a Japanese convert to Catholicism. Among his academic research interests is the inclusion of faith and religion discussions in the English language classroom.