Esther Maxton

This paper discusses the impact of Japanese international and domestic politics on the Japanese government’s attitude towards Japanese Christians until the end of the Second World War. It reflects on the Japanese government’s reaction to the West’s politics and its effects on Japanese Christians.
Since the arrival of Christianity in 1549 until the end of the Second World War, both Protestant and Catholic missionaries had a contentious relationship with Japan. In the 16th century they were welcomed because their presence increased Japanese trade with the missionaries’ home countries. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Japan reluctantly permitted missionaries to reside and work in the country because the Japanese government desired good trade relations with the Western nations that had predominantly Christian populations. Although welcomed, missionaries were resented for propagating their faith because they feared the West’s economic expansion and political ambitions in Asia. The authorities were concerned that the Western nations could use missionaries to persuade Japanese Christians to assist in colonizing Japan. The late arrival of Christianity, in comparison to Buddhism that arrived in Japan in the fifth century, and the inflexibility of the Christian faith to accommodate Shinto and Buddhism, gave Christianity a foreign image. Consequently, consecutive Japanese governments were distrustful of Christianity, foreigners, and even Japanese Christians’ loyalty to the nation and the emperor. This paper also traces the close connections between politics and persecution of Christians in Japan. It discusses how fear of colonization and a desire for equality with the Western nation inspired successive governments from mid 17th century until the end of the Second World War to assert their power by suppressing Christians and impressing on all nationals the consequences of disobedience.

The 16th century commercial and religious expansion of Europe in AD 1549, brought Jesuit missionaries Francis Xavier, Cosme de Torres and Juan Fernandez to a war torn Japan through Portuguese ships. Shogun (military dictator) Yoshitreu Ashikaga (1536-1565) was losing power to the warring daimyo (warlords governing provinces). Daimyo of various domains reacted differently to the missionaries and their faith. Some welcomed them while others tolerated them because they came with Portuguese ships that brought weapons to help their cause. Conversion of a few helped the missionaries to establish their work. In 1582, three daimyo sent a Japanese ambassador to the Pope. Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582) who emerged the most powerful warlord in the civil war was tolerant towards missionaries as he imported weapons from Portuguese traders. He gave missionaries and their Japanese congregation freedom to preach and practice their faith.
The freedom to preach and practice faith came to an end in 1587 when Oda Nobunaga’s successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598) ordered all foreign Catholic priests to leave the country. Two reasons suggested by historians for Toyotomi’s sudden change of heart were in response to the West’s political ambitions in the East and Christian influence in Japan. Mullins and Drummond suggest that Hideyoshi heard reports of a drunken Portuguese sailor boasting that the king of Portugal planned on making Japan a Portuguese colony.[1] Concerned that the rumours were true, Toyotomi ordered the Catholic priests to leave the nation. Toyotomi’s fear was not unfounded because since the 16th century, Christian missions and colonization had close links. European kings and queens gave patronage to the missionaries who travelled on commercial ships. Although the missionaries and ships had different aims, close connections with the colonizing powers created an image of missionaries as colonization agents. The Second reason for Toyotomi’s sudden change in attitude towards Christianity suggested by Fujita and Furuya was because of the young Christian women’s refusal to have sexual relations with Toyotomi. He saw their refusal as disobedience, and was infuriated with the Catholics. Their boldness to refuse a daimyo was a sign of his subjects’ rebellion and a challenge to his power. The Buddhist monks who had helped him in the campaign took advantage of the situation and convinced Toyotomi he needed to assert his power over Christians. Toyotomi declared Christianity was not compatible with Japanese culture as it taught the subjects to be disobedient and dishonorable to their masters.[2] In 1597 he further asserted his power by crucifying 26 Christians, nine of whom were foreign missionaries, three Japanese Jesuits and 17 Japanese laymen.[3]
Toyotomi’s successor Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) and his successors stringently followed his policy of suppressing Christianity. They used Buddhism to keep a tight reign over all citizens. Everyone was ordered to register at the local Buddhist temple. The temple held all birth, marriage and death records. Christian families went through annual inspection to receive a tera-ukejo (a certificate from the temple) to prove their allegiance to Buddhism. The test required Christians to spit and step on fumie (an icon of Mary and Jesus). Those who failed the test were persecuted. The persecution forced Christians to go underground. Kakure Kirishitan (hidden Christians) performed all Buddhist temple rituals to show their obedience to the government but also developed different ways to continue Christian worship. They engraved crosses behind Buddhist statues and lanterns and believed they were bowing to the crosses rather than to Buddha.By 1639 the Tokugawa government had established full control over the nation. They introduced sakoku (national isolation) and forced all Japanese to sever ties with foreigners. No one was permitted to enter or leave the country. Only the Dutch were the only Europeans who were able to maintain trade with Japan by placing an ambassador on a man made Dejima island under the observant eyes of Japanese guards.

Japan’s self-imposed isolation by the mid-19th century created inconvenience for the growing western economy. The Japanese refusal to permit foreign ships to refuel at Japanese ports created travel difficulties for American and Europeans transporting goods. Finally in 1854 Commodore Perry of the US navy persuaded the shogun to open a few ports to foreign ships.
Contact with the West gave the Japanese an awareness on the development in technology in the world. The government set on a mission to modernize Japan through importing technology and hiring foreign experts to train Japanese. However, they also realized that by reconnecting with the West they could not avoid contact with Christianity. Almost three centuries of sakoku and negative propaganda of Christianity made the 19th century Japan suspicious of Christians. For years, the government and the temple taught, foreigners and Christianity were evil. The government’s decision to permit foreigners, who were followers of Christianity, to reside in the country infuriated some people. The Tokugawa government ignored the objections, opened the country, and hired foreigners to educate the Japanese in the sciences. However, Japan’s need for acquiring western technology did not change the government’s dislike for Christianity. They did not rescind the edict against Christianity, and did not permit missionaries to enter Japan. The ban on propagation of Christianity did not dissuade the Protestant missionaries from their purpose. They took advantage of the government’s job offers to the foreigners and entered the country.[4] When asked to appoint teachers for new universities, they recommended Christian teachers. Scholars argued whether missionaries by taking government jobs acted deceptively. The Norwegian scholar, Lande, considered it was an intrusion;[5] whereas the Japanese scholar, Natori, thought missionaries had the right to take the jobs as they were qualified, fitted the job description, and contributed to society.[6] They established reputable educational institutions, and used the Bible as their textbook to teach English.[7] They built friendships with their language teachers and students. The government, suspicious of the missionaries, put their language teachers under close surveillance.[8]
The presence of Christian foreigners in the country encouraged some kakure kirishitan to re-surface and claim they had always believed in the Catholic faith. Johannes Lures reports about 2,300 hidden Christians claimed to have continued their faith in Christ despite praying at Buddhist temples to avoid persecution by the authorities.[9] The discovery of hidden Christians surprised the Catholic Church as well as the government and the Buddhist priests. The government arrested the newly emerged Christians, persecuted and deported them to various parts of the country. In 1868 Japan went through a major political reform. The feudal government of the Tokugawa Shogunate came to end and supporters of the Emperor took power to establish a modern state. Even though the government changed, the persecution of Christians continued. Unable to quietly observe the persecution of Japanese Christians, missionaries urged their home mission boards to persuade their respective governments to help Japanese Christians. Under pressure from the missionaries, the American and the British consuls in Japan conducted their own investigations and found the reports to be true. The US and the European governments requested Japan to reconsider their treatment of Japanese Christians. The Meiji government (1868-1912) came to power dreaming of creating an industrialized modern state that was equal to the imperialist Western nations. In hope of revising trade treaties that highly favored the Western nations, in 1873 the Meiji government removed signboards prohibiting Christianity and stopped persecuting Christians, but officially Christianity remained forbidden.
Taking advantage of the relaxed laws, Christian missionaries established educational institutions, hospitals and churches. They preached the gospel and trained Japanese to evangelize rural areas where foreigners were forbidden. The Meiji government continued to search for a unifying belief that all Japanese could hold in high esteem. In the early 1880s, the state bureaucrats, in consultation with scholars of ethics, worked towards finding a method to build a society of social unity and order. The scholars of ethics argued that religion was ‘irrational and socially harmful’ as different religious beliefs divided the society.[10] Their views on religion gave the bureaucrats a legitimate reason to suppress its growing power.
In 1882, the government issued a directive that divided Shinto into two: Kyoha Shinto (Sect Shinto) and Kokka Shinto (State Shinto). The government made Kokka Shinto (that claimed the Emperor as a god) mandatory to follow claiming it was not religion but the culture of Japan. They claimed the Japanese tradition dictated that the emperor was the divine head of the nation and therefore worshipped.
The respite from persecution was short lived. In 1889, the Meiji government enacted a new constitution that gave freedom of religion to all and freedom to travel and reside outside the concession areas to foreigners. It permitted missionaries to preach in the whole country. However, a few months later in 1890, the government issued Kyoiku Chokugo (Imperial Rescript on Education, hereafter Chokugo), an edict on the moral education of the country. It appealed to all citizens to observe filial piety, live in harmony and, if necessary, to sacrifice their lives for the imperial state. This was the wish and tradition of their imperial forefathers and, therefore, the duty of all subjects. The Chokugo was based on kokutai (national polity) that asserted the Emperor was a living god. The Meiji government used the Chokugo to unite the Japanese under a state-sponsored and Emperor-centred civil religion-State Shinto. This cleverly written document promoted the Emperor as the traditional head of the nation demanding people’s obedience and submission to the Emperor in the name of Japanese culture and tradition. The Chokugo had two primary purposes: firstly, to promote nationalism by calling on all subjects to their cultural roots, i.e. Emperor worship, and secondly to remove Christian influence from education. In a document issued to all educational institutions, the students were instructed to recite the Rescript every day and bow to the imperial seal on the document and the Emperor’s portrait. The government argued that the moral essence of the document was ‘a public one’. Obedience to the state and to the Emperor ‘was presented as the highest secular obligation, one that transcended private ethics and religious belief’.[11] Schools were instructed to remove religious education from their curriculum and expected to take students to visit shrines to pay homage.
Since most Christian ministry was through educational institutions, the Chokugo was used to eliminate Christian influence on education. Christian schools that refused to remove religious education from their curriculum lost their government recognition and resulted in a drop in the number of students. Some schools had to close down. However, most schools removed religious education classes from the curriculum but continued them in buildings next to the schools.[12] Christian teachers at government schools were expected to bow to the Chokugo and the Emperor’s photo. Those who did not comply were labeled unpatriotic. Such environment forced Japanese Christians to think theologically and to decide whether bowing to the decreed objects equated to idol worship or were they only bow of respect. One such Christian was Uchimura Kanzo. In 1891 he was a teacher at Tokyo Dai Ichi Koto Chu Gakko. He was forced to resign because he did not bow to the objects in front of his students and colleagues. The incident was reported in newspapers and became proof to the government that Japanese Christians did not revere the emperor and could not be trusted. The incident reignited the seed of scepticism against Christianity sown in the seventeenth century. Tetsujiro Inoue, Professor of Philosophy in Tokyo Imperial University, declared Christianity incompatible with the Chokugo.[13]
The spark of nationalism ignited by the Chokugo was fuelled by Japan’s war with China in 1894-1895. Japan’s victory in the war generated a wave of patriotism, which was expressed through emperor worship. Japan’s victory over China was significant because Japan had adopted Chinese script, culture, Buddhism, Confucianism and Chinese medicine. For almost three centuries, the Japanese schools taught kangaku, Chinese language, classics and ethics. Japan’s victory over China was a proof that Japan had superseded their teacher. It also became a proof of the authenticity of their emperor’s divinity. Since Japan had restored the emperor as the head of the nation in 1868, the country had achieved a powerful position in global politics. While the West was impressed with Japan’s rapid industrialization and militarization, the Japanese were inspired through Chokugo to return to their traditional religion, Shinto. This resulted to a decline in Christian churches. By 1902, member denominations of the Cooperating Committee in Missions recorded a collective leakage of 65 percent in their church population.[14] Japanese Christians struggled to find ways to convince the country that denying the divinity of the emperor did not mean they were unpatriotic.

Japan’s international and domestic politics had a direct effect on the practice of Christian faith in the country. In 1902 Britain and Japan signed a treaty of cooperation and lent a helping hand to the Allied Forces in the First World War. Believing the West had finally accepted Japan as equal, the government relaxed pressuring Japanese Christians to conform to the Chokugo. In 1912 the government, for the first time, acknowledged Christianity as a legally practiced religion in the country by inviting Christians to participate in talks with Shinto and Buddhist leaders. The invitation was also a call for the Christians to accommodate the Shinto belief of the divinity of the Emperor. Until late 1920s while the government negotiated with the Western nations they relaxed religious practice laws in Japan. However, the government felt let down by the West. After the end of the First World War Japan felt they were given a smaller portion of the confiscated German territory. The Western nation’s refusal to include a clause for racial equality in the Versailles Treaty in 1919 further proved to Japanese that the Christian West did not see Asians as equals. Three years later Japan was forced to reduce their naval forces much more than their allied friends. A year later in 1924 Japan felt further humiliated by the US ban on Japanese immigration. Furthermore, even though the US and the Europeans had imperialistic ambitions in Asia, they did not support similar Japanese claim on China and Korea.
In early 1930s, the Tokko turned their attention towards Christians. They first dedicated their energies to understand the Christian faith. They attended churches and studied Christian theology to attain knowledge how Christianity could accommodate to state sponsored Shinto. Emperor worship was made a requirement for all Japanese and seen as a sign of patriotism. Even though the church did not believe in the divinity of the Emperor, in response to the growing nationalistic atmosphere, added bows of respect to the Emperor in all religious meetings. As nationalistic sentiments ran high in the 1930s, the presence of a shrine became a symbol of patriotism. Yuasa Hachiro (1890-1981), Doshisha College principal, was forced to resign in 1934 because he misread the Chokugo and removed a shrine from the college campus. Not all Christians supported shrine worship. However, by 1937 politics had affected relationships between the Japanese Christians and foreign missionaries. While the British and the Americans condemned the Japanese invasion of China, some Japanese Christians supported their army’s conquests. Some members of the Nippon Sei Ko Kai (the Anglican Communion in Japan) wanted the church to formally thank the Japanese army for victory in China.[15] In 1937, when Japan formally declared war with China, the pressure to conform increased on Japanese Christians. As the nation rallied behind the soldiers dying in China, citizens in Japan showed their patriotism by showing allegiance to the Emperor. Bowing towards the imperial palace at every gathering became a norm. Japanese Christians could no longer avoid the watchful eyes of the police and their neighbours and, therefore, were forced to incorporate Emperor worship into their daily lives. In March 1938, the Tokko office in Osaka sent a questionnaire to some Christian organizations and individuals in the Kansai area asking them to provide Christian views on the relationship between Christ and the Emperor, practices of ancestor worship and shrine worship.[16] Thus proving that the government still believed Christianity was not compatible with Japanese culture. The questionnaire was designed in such a way that the Christian leaders had to clearly state whether they believed Christ was a higher deity than the Emperor. It was an attempt by the Tokko to prove that because Japanese Christians did not worship the Emperor or other Japanese deities and was believed to be unpatriotic.
In 1940 the government enacted a Religious Organization Law that maintained an image of religious tolerance by giving foreigners permission to practice Christianity. Japanese Christians, however, were instructed to sever all ties with foreigners and discontinue all foreign financial help. In addition, the new law added more conditions to register churches as religious bodies. Churches could only register as a denomination if they had more than 5000 members, 50 churches, no foreigners in leadership, and received no foreign financial aid. Those Christians who did not comply to the new law were considered traitors. To instill fear among Japanese Christians, in July 1940 the government arrested four Salvation Army workers, the social reformer Toyohiko Kagawa who had worked as an advisor to the government to rehabilitate those affected by the 1923 Tokyo earthquake. His arrest proved to the Christian community that they were monitored and the government did not hesitate to arrest famous men such as Kagawa.[17] Even though all men were later released, their arrest served the purpose. Japanese Christians broke ties with churches and mission organizations in the West. They refused financial help from the West and learned to be self- reliant. As missionaries returned to their native countries Japanese Christians took leadership. Since most Protestant churches fell short of the government requirement to register as religious bodies, in June 1941, 33 Protestant denominations united to form the Nihon Kirisuto Kyodan (United Church of Christ in Japan). The government monitored the Church and prohibited recitation phrases such as ‘maker of heaven and earth’ from the Apostles’ Creed because the government expected the church to believe the Emperor as a higher deity.[18] In January 1942, Tomita Mitsuru, Presbyterian minister and President of the Nihon Kirisuto Kyodan visited Ise Shrine to pray for Japan’s victory in the war.[19] His actions, however, were not acceptable to all the Christians. The Holiness churches refused to change their beliefs or practices, as a result, they were persecuted. Some pastors were imprisoned during the war and a few died. At the end of the Second World War the Japanese church regained freedom to practice their faith.
Japan’s treatment of Japanese Christians therefore, was a reaction to domestic and international politics. The government pressured all citizens to conform to prescribed religion as they believed uniformity in faith would bring unity and protection from the colonial West. Pressure to conform resulted in some Christians trying to make Christian faith indigenous. Such efforts by some resulted in syncretism. The limitations of this paper did not permit me to engage in questions regarding Japanese practice of historic Christian faith. Similar to Joseph in Genesis 50:20 the Japanese Christians can say God has turned intended evil into good for them. Separation from the Western church and missionaries during the Second World War benefitted the Japanese church as absence of foreigners gave room for Japanese to create indigenous church leaders. The church learned to theologize and be financially independent.


[1] Mark Mullins, Christianity Made in Japan: A Study of Indigenous Movements (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1998); Richard Henry Drummond, A History of Christianity in Japan (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1971), 81-82.
[2] Neil S. Fujita, Japan’s Encounter with Christianity: The Catholic Missions in Pre-Modern Japan (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1991), 112-113; Yasuo Furuya, History of Japan and Christianity (Saitama: Seigakuin University General Research Institute, 2006), 27.
[3] M. Paske-Smith, ed., Japanese Traditions of Christianity Being Some Old Translations from the Japanese, with British Consular Reports of the Persecutions of 1868-1872 (Kobe: J. L. Thompson 1930), 54.
[4] Juichi Natori, Historical Stories of Christianity in Japan (Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1957), 198.
[5] Aasulv Lande, Meiji Protestantism in History and Historiography: A Comparative Study of Japanese and Western Interpretation of Early Protestantism in Japan (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1989).
[6] Juichi Natori, Historical Stories of Christianity in Japan (Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1957).
[7] James Curtis Hepburn (1815-1911), Presbyterian Church of America missionary, reached Japan in 1859. He opened a school in Yokohama that later on grew into a university and is now known as Meiji Gakuin. William S Clark (1826-1886) came to Japan at the government’s invitation to establish an agricultural school in Hokkaido. Other missionaries to arrive in Japan during the Tokugawa period were J. Liggins (1829-1912) and C. M. Williams (1829-1910) of the Episcopal Church of America, S.R. Brown (1810-1880), D.B. Simmons (1834-1889) and J.H. Ballagh (1832-1920) of the American Dutch Reformed Church.
[8] Irwin Scheiner, Christian Converts and Social Protest in Meiji Japan (Los Angeles, California: University of California Press), 15.
[9] S. J. Johannes Laures, The Catholic Church in Japan: A Short Story (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1970), 212.
[10] Richard M. Reitan, Making of a Moral Society: Ethics and State in Meiji Japan (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2010), 57.
[11] Andrew Gordon, A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 111
[12] Daniel C. Green, ed., The Christian Movement in its Relation to the New Life in Japan (Yokohama: The Standing Committee of Co-operating Christian Mission, 1903).
[13] Mark Mullins, ed. Handbook of Christianity in Japan (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 38.
[14] Daniel C. Green, ed., The Christian Movement in its Relation to the New Life in Japan (Yokohama: The Standing Committee of Co-operating Christian Mission, 1903), 61-65.
[15] Hamish Ion, The Cross and the Rising Sun: The British Protestant Missionary Movement in Japan, Korea, and Taiwan 1865-1945, Vol. 2 (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1993), 232-3.
[16] A. Hamish Ion, ‘The Cross Under an Imperial Sun: Imperialism, Nationalism, and Japanese Christianity, 1895-1945’, in Mark Mullins ed., Handbook on Christianity in Japan (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 69-100.
[17] Hamish Ion, The Cross in the Dark Valley: The Canadian Protestant Missionary Movement in the Japanese Empire, 1931-1945 (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1999), 260-1.
[18] Yumi Maruyama-Cain, ‘The Bible in Imperial Japan 1850-1950’ PhD Thesis, University of St. Andrew’s, 2010, 52.
[19] Ben-Ami Shillony, the Emperors of Modern Japan (Boston: Brill, 2008), 170.

Esther Maxton
Dr. Esther Maxton earned her doctorate from Oxford Centre for Mission Studies. She has taught Mission subjects at Union Biblical Seminary in Pune, India. She has also served as a missionary in Japan for 16 years. Currently she is working with the Free Methodist Church in the UK.