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Japan: Strenuous economy

"Japan: Strenuous economy" Continued...

Issue: "Troops hunt for weapons," June 14, 2003

Many missionaries, mostly Protestant, came to reopened Japan in the late 19th century and lived in "foreign settlements" in Nagasaki and other cities. Today, Nagasaki's second-biggest tourist attraction, after the atom-bomb site and museum, is Glover Garden, location of some "exotic Western-style houses" built in the late 19th century. Tourists stare at the faded curtains and furniture as we look at videos of the Titanic's underwater wreckage: The display is cold and lifeless, and that's probably the way Christianity often appeared.

Probably the greatest 19th-century evangelistic success came through the efforts of Captain Leroy Janes, a Civil War officer who came to Japan at Tokyo's request to help Japan upgrade its army. By day he offered military instruction but in optional evening sessions he spoke of Christ to such effect that 35 of his best students, knowing they would face persecution, signed their names to a bold declaration. Their statement read, "In studying Christianity we have been deeply enlightened and awakened. The more we have studied it, the more filled with enthusiasm and joy we have become. Moreover, we strongly desire that this faith might be proclaimed over the whole Empire." The students agreed that their goal was, "with no concern for our lives, to make known the fairness and impartiality of this teaching."

The government quickly dismissed Janes, but his students became the leaders of Christianity in Japan and stood firm when anti-Christian Japanese demanded that officials "Destroy Heresy, Manifest Orthodoxy." One book, Tales of Nagasaki, called Christians insurrectionists because they saw God as "the Great Prince and the Great Father," which meant that emperors would have to be "little princes and little fathers." Christ, the book declared, "deceived the ignorant lower classes, making them follow himself until his evil design of murdering the sovereign of the country and seizing the country and people for himself being discovered, he was put to death by crucifixion. He was a most traitorous animal."

The book also charged Christians with saying that "the most unfilial and disloyal can go to the very top place in heaven if they only love the Lord of Heaven." That actually was true, and Buddhism used any footholds it could gain as it fought for its life in Japan against a dual threat: the Shinto nationalist emphasis that Japanese political leaders adopted in 1868, and the revival meetings (known in Japan as ribaibaru) that Christians regularly held. Japanese often make a strict delineation between uchi and soto (inside and outside, those who belong to the group and those who don't), and those who followed the Bible had to face the shunning reserved for those on the outs.

Christians such as missionary M.L. Gordon were in turn developing stronger critiques of Buddhism, and particularly "the most powerful, popular and progressive Buddhist sect," Jodo Shinshu. Gordon concluded that it differed hugely from early Buddhism. "Shakya [Buddha] taught also the doctrine of Nirvana, which is really annihilation," he wrote. "These Buddhists point the believer to the Peaceful Land in the West, with its myriads of pleasures, which appeal to the eye, ear, taste, and other senses. Is there not here an irreconcilable difference?"

Buddhists fought back high and low. A missionary in 1875 wrote that the biggest obstacle Christians faced was not Japanese criticism "but infidelity imported from Christian lands," as Buddhists circulated books by Charles Darwin and other scientists that "laid the Christian religion captive." Japan was emphasizing scientific and technological development, and Buddhists denounced the purported irrationality of Christianity. While carrying on intellectual battle, Buddhists also employed soshi, physical-force men (hired thugs) to disrupt Christian activities.

Other falloffs in Western biblical devotion hurt efforts in Japan. Missionaries who had been influenced by "higher criticism" to interpret the Bible in a liberal fashion often blew an uncertain trumpet. Some said that Amida Buddha and the Pure Land were figments of imagination, but so were Jesus and heaven. Such teachers certainly did not make Christian ideas worth dying for; if Christ did not live and die and gain resurrection, the Apostle Paul would be among those to tell Japanese that Christianity was not worth living and perhaps dying for. Rev. David Busk, vicar at Nagasaki Holy Trinity Church in Nagasaki, says his late 19th-century predecessors were "clergymen in black frock coats. They were very dignified. They were not martyrs."

The next half-century of Christianity in Japan proceeded on lines established by 1890. Perhaps 1 percent of the Japanese converted to Christ. Charles Eliot noted in his 1935 book on Japanese Buddhism that "the worshippers of Amida in Japan are numerous, prosperous and progressive, but should this worship be called Buddhism? It has grown out of Buddhism, no doubt: all the stages except the very earliest are perfectly clear, but has not the process of development resulted in such a complete transformation that one can no longer apply the same name to the teaching of Gotama and the teaching of Shinran? The phenomenon has, so far as I know, no precise parallel in the history of religions."

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