The Witness of the Japanese Christians

The history of a nation forms that nation’s people. This formation takes place in various aspects of the people’s lives. Their life, their thinking, and their beliefs are all shaped by their own history. The Japanese people are not an exception to this historical formation. They have had a long history which covers more than two millennia. Such a long history places a people in a more difficult and complicated existential situation. The purpose of this article will be: (1) to look into the present complicated situation of the Japanese people, and (2) to inquire into the question how the Japanese Reformed Christians can perform their witness for their own people.

The first consideration will be divided into two sections, namely (a) Japanese secular thought in general, and (b) present Japanese religions.


Materialism is a driving power which is about to overcome the mind of the entire Japanese nation. It is not a peculiarly communistic materialism, but it has become the basic security and drive of their daily lives. Their hearts arc set on the acquisition of goods as the final end of life. Materialism is also getting support from the side of “scientism.” Modern scientific development has made the people believe that science is almighty. Science has become a belief. This is a growing barrier to Christian faith in Japan.

Feudalism, traditionally manifested in the home, is rapidly dying out in larger city communities, although it still persists in the country areas. To the Church, whose evangelism must be extended more and more to rural areas, feudalism is an almost impenetrable wall. In a feudalistically formed Japanese family of the rural areas. a decision to become Christian radically affects the entire group. This fact virtually forces converts to become social martyrs in these areas. Feudalism in the social structure of these areas is probably the most profound barrier to an effective Christian evangelism.

Nihilism in our country is a great hindrance to Christian belief. It is the general spirit in a culture that despairs of any meaning to life. In Western culture, existential philosophy has served in a certain sense to articulate such threats of meaninglessness. Existentialists are inclined to choose meaning in the face of the possible meaninglessness of life.

In Japan, however, it is a different matter. One of the typical Japanese responses to nihilism is suicide. One may take his life out of despair because of the meaninglessness and unreasonableness of existence in this world. Another may kill himself simply out of boredom. Thus Japan has gained notoriety as one of the nations which has the most suicides.

Another response to nihilism appears in the distinctive Oriental method of facing nothingness. This response is to sink more deeply into it rather than leaping out of or beyond it. Japanese nihilism does not bring its devotees to religious solutions. Therefore, nihilism in Japan cannot help in leading men to Christianity. This philosophy in fact becomes a big barrier to Christian faith in my country.



It is almost impossible to count the many different kinds of beliefs found in Japan. Beliefs seem to grow in number like cell-division. We may, however. point to several main religions in our country which have led in influencing Japanese culture and mentality. These are Buddhism, Confucianism, and Shintoism.

Buddhism lies at the base of almost every aspect of Japanese life. It has become the cultural seedbed of Japan. Hence it is an important belief for understanding the cultural life of the people. Buddhism has many sects, but, at the risk of oversimplifying it, we shall point out contemplation of the reason for bitterness in life as its central teaching. Facing this fact of human life, Buddhism teaches people how to escape this bitterness. The way to do so is to develop the human mind and make human nature autonomous. Those who accomplish this development are saved and called Buddha. There is also a Buddhist sect which teaches its devotees to believe in Amitabha Buddha. By believing in him, they say, people are saved. This sect was influenced by Arianism in China.

Confucianism is an ideology about the world’s structure. According to this faith, the structure of the world is based on the five ethical relationships: king-subjects, father-son, husband-wife, brother-brother, and the elder-the younger relationship. These five relationships are the way of heaven. Human beings come to represent a passive, non-individual group of people bound-up in this moral structure. Confucianism teaches men how to unite themselves with the way of heaven. It also declares the unity between religion and politics, and between ethics and social rank.

Shintoism is the native belief of Japan with the other two beliefs being imported from India (Buddhism) and China (Confucianism). Shinto means “the way of the gods.” It has no definite founder. We trace it back to the period in which our ancestors worshiped nature. Shintoism has no fixed doctrines or creeds.

In Shinto shrines, the spirits of ancestors, emperors, national heroes, and soldiers killed in wars, are deified. The most characteristic element of Shinto is ancestor worship. Almost every Japanese family worships its ancestors. The Japanese have the idea that they owe some kind of responsibility to their ancestors. If a member of a family does a disgraceful thing, other members of the family feel that he has wronged their ancestors, and say that he owes their ancestors an apology. To Christians, this is ridiculous, but to non-Christians it is serious business. In this strange Japanese consciousness we can note the unhealthy spiritual condition of the Japanese. Traditional ancestor-worship is a great hindrance to Christian evangelism.


We have viewed the situation of the Japanese inner life mainly from the aspects of secular thought and general religious beliefs. These two aspects, as well as many other elements of human life, are interlocked and fused into each other. The Japanese people today find themselves in a very confused spiritual situation. Not only their lives but also their thoughts are complicated and snarled by the cultural and traditional background of Japan. This is the present situation in which converts to Christianity find themselves and in which they must bring their witness to the Japanese nation.

I am not prepared to discuss in detail the ways by which Christianity can overcome the secular thought patterns and beliefs of the Japanese people. I shall, however, attempt to show how individual Japanese Christians can make an impact through their witness in word and deed. On the one hand, the Reformed Christians in Japan must avoid limiting their witness to a bare gospel proclamation. On the other hand, they must make sure that their social actions are accompanied by a positive gospel message.

In order to avoid either one of these two extremes, we would do well to consider what other Reformed Christian groups in Japan consider their task of witnessing in the Japanese context. Carl Michaelson correctly writes concerning a particular conviction among the Japanese theologians of today, when he says:

“The point at which the Christian faith most closely touches Japanese culture is in the proclamation of the faith as ethics, when ethics is understood as the action of the Church in its contribution to the arrival of a Christian culture.”1


The predominant idea in this approach to the Japanese situation is based on “ethics” which implies that through the actions of the Church, a Christian culture can be brought into being in Japan. Thus the idea of Christian “ethics” in Japan is to be understood basically as a theology of culture. The Japanese theologians today, however, do not stop here. They know the weakness of the social program of the liberals in which Kagawa was a leading representative. This weakness was the tendency to identify Christianity with morals. The liberals thus weakened the significance of the doctrinal elements of the Christian faith. In order to cover this weakness, theologians in Japan today try to supplement “ethics” with “historical theology.” In this concept of “historical theology,” history is understood as the place where, and the moment when, God and I meet. This is a typical dialectical concept of history influenced by the Kierkegaardian concept of moment and decision.

We can in some measure sympathize with these Japanese theologians’ intention by which they try to root a Christian culture in the Japanese soil in order to build Christianity more solidly. We are, however, forced to ask some serious questions. One question is: What is their concept of Christian ethics? The second question is: Is the fundamental purpose of Christian ethics to bring Christian culture into Japan? The concept of their Christian “ethics” is neither simply the fulfillment of special moral acts, nor the performance of particular human acts. For these theologians, it is either the obedience of the whole person to a destiny under God, or the ability to understand the suffering of others as well as one’s own suffering. This concept does not, however, necessarily require that it is wholly based on the Scriptures. It is obvious that by these concepts of “ethics” a Christian culture will never come to the Japanese.

The performance of moral acts opens the way only for such a Christian culture to soften somewhat the hardness of the existing Japanese culture which has come mostly from Buddhism. I certainly agree that we must seek to introduce a Christian culture in Japan in order to see a rapid spread of the Gospel, but I have great suspicions that the above·mentioned concepts of “ethics” cannot do this. Further, the term “Christian culture” should imply the rooting out of all the other religious elements from Japanese cultural life. This should not necessarily mean the destruction of our distinctive nationality or the bringing in of western culture. It means rather to reconstruct the Japanese culture upon the basis of the teachings of Scripture and constantly to return to the Scriptures for our norms.


I am convinced that Christian cultural development wholly depends upon the cultivation of every area of human life through the influence of Christianity based on the Scriptures. Solid Christian ethics is not basically a theology of culture, but rather serves as the foundation for a culture which promotes every aspect of human life and creativity.

Christian culture must be developed in Japan. This means that the Buddhistic cultural background must be overcome by the Christian way of living in order that true faith can root in the Japanese soil. For this purpose, every aspect of Reformed cultural activity must flourish in our country. This is an important witness of Japanese Reformed Christians to the Japanese people.

The fundamental aim of Christian ethics is to witness to Jesus Christ through morally sanctified deeds. These deeds have their basis in Christian love. Every act which can be a witness for our Lord shines forth from our love toward God and toward man simultaneously. In loving God we love our neighbors. These are the fundamental ethical acts by which Japanese Christians can serve their Lord in order to bring many Japanese people to his kingdom. We must declare, therefore, that Christian ethics must have a deeper aim than merely to bring a Christian culture into Japan. Christian ethics must point the Japanese people to the way of salvation in Christ. It must be a visible part of our Christian witness.

Christian ethics cannot, however, fulfill its purpose apart from the teachings of Christ Jesus and salvation through him. Every theologian and Christian should know the importance of this teaching. Tn order to realize the fruition of Christian ethics, the majority of Japanese Christians are being taught that “historical theology” must go hand in hand with Christian “ethics.” But this term “historical theology” does not mean historical Protestant teaching. History means for these theolOgians something which is “becoming.” History for them is created by man. Christian “truth” is not a “given,” but on the contrary a “becoming” according to their idea. Christian “truth” appears in an event in the present in which God and I meet, and thereupon 1 decide the meaning. This “‘truth” is not the truth which Christians have received through the teachings of the Apostle Paul. The “truth” depends upon man, according to those who propagate this “historical theology.” Thus, they are re-creating both their divine origin and their world in their own image. In other words, they seem to lay claim to a philosophical self-exaltation at the cost of adherence to scriptural teachings. This infallibility of philosophy comes from a lack of a serious and true knowledge of themselves as sinners before God.


We certainly advocate that in order to evangelize the Japanese people, love and teaching must go hand in hand. We can never cooperate, however, with those who insist that “historical theology” is Christian teaching. Japanese secular thinking and present religious beliefs also declare the autonomy of the human will. Therefore, modern “historical theology” will be easily assimilated by the Japanese mind. But for us who have concern for people’s salvation from sin and condemnation, this false teaching becomes a very serious matter. In opposing “historical theology” and its adherents, we must declare the truth of the Scriptures which was, is, and will be true forever. We must teach the Japanese that the Christian truth can never appear in an event in the present when God and I meet in encounter. In other words, the Christian truth is the Word of God. It does not become the Word of God. The authority of the truth never appears in “becoming,” but solely rests upon that which God has revealed. This declaration of the authoritative truth is another important witness of the Japanese Reformed Christians.

It goes without saying that the declaration of truth must always be accompanied with Christian love towards. God. our brethren, and our neighbor in general. Even when we declare the truth of God, love must rule in our declaration. Otherwise our effort can be likened to “sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.” Only Christian love which “rejoiceth in the truth” (I Cor. 13:6) can melt the hardness of Japanese secular thought and beliefs. At the same time genuine biblical teachings must strengthen and solidify the softened hearts through love. Love and gospel proclamation must go hand-in-hand to gain men for Christ. This requires hard work for us. Nobody can love others without being taught how to love. Nobody can love others without cultivating the love which is already given to us by the Holy Spirit. In the process of cultivating our love, we are doing ethical acts which can lead the Japanese to Christ. In order to accomplish the aim of these ethical acts, there must be strong gospel proclamation which never compromises and never ceases to declare repentance and renewal of sinners’ hearts and deeds. This is the primary witness of Japanese Reformed Christians to their own country-men.

1. Carl Michaelson, “Japanese Contribution to Christian Theology” (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), p. 144.