Unlike in some other Asian countries, Christianity never flourished in Japan, and even today it accounts for less than 1 percent of the population.
Yet smallness alone is not important, said the Rev. Katsuki Hirano, a Presbyterian pastor and the chair of Japan’s School of Preachers.
“The smallness of the church doesn’t matter for us,” Hirano said. “Our responsibility is to preach the word of God faithfully. After that, God will do something, although we can’t predict what.”
Despite efforts to suppress Christianity in Japan dating back centuries, the religion has always somehow managed to survive, Hirano said.
“I think the lesson for American churches and pastors is, ‘Don’t be afraid to become a minority.’ The word of God is still living among us in Japan.”
Hirano is the senior pastor of Daita Church, a Presbyterian congregation in Tokyo, and chair of The School of Preachers, an organization that provides continuing education in homiletics to pastors throughout Japan. He is also the executive editor of Ministry, a magazine for pastors.
Hirano is the author of five books and has translated several works by American theologians into Japanese, including “The Concise Encyclopedia of Preaching,” edited by Will Willimon and Richard Lischer; “A Theology of Preaching,” by Lischer; and “The Word Before the Powers: An Ethic of Preaching,” by Charles Campbell.
Hirano spoke with Faith & Leadership while at Duke Divinity School for a consultation on Northeast Asia hosted by the Center for Reconciliation. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: Give us an overview of Christianity in Japan.
Today it’s less than 1 percent of the population -- 0.7 or 0.6 percent. We are a minority, and so there are many struggles in the daily life of Christians in Japan. Now the membership is getting older and older, and the church is shrinking. It’s not easy.
Q: Why did Christianity never take root in Japan as it did in Korea and in China?
Generally, Christianity was always persecuted by the government and was viewed as anti-government. Catholic missionaries came to Japan in the middle of the 16th century, but within 50 years, it was prohibited to evangelize people.
Under the Tokugawa policies, between 1603 and the late 1800s, Japan was closed to foreigners, and many Christians were killed. But for 250 years, Christianity survived underground. We call them the hidden Christians.
And after the closed policy was ended, when missionaries returned, they found that Christianity was still alive. But later, at the end of the 19th century, Japan had a military government that also persecuted Christians, because most Christians were anti-military government.
Today, many Japanese still view Christianity as not a Japanese religion but a religion from abroad.
When Protestant missionaries came almost 150 years ago, they built many hospitals and schools and social welfare programs and won the respect of many ordinary people in Japan. Christianity as a culture was respected, but it’s not easy to change a way of life.
It’s like the title of Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas’ book “Resident Aliens.” I love that idea, because in Japan, Christians are very [much] resident aliens.
Q: You are the director of The School of Preachers in Japan. Tell us about that.
The School of Preachers is not a building with classrooms but kind of a continuing education program for preachers and pastors. The seminaries are so small in Japan that it is very difficult to have a continuing education program.
The School of Preachers was founded 25 years ago. We now have 18 branches with more than 250 members all over Japan, representing more than 30 denominations.
Every branch meets once a month. They read a book on homiletics. They critique each other’s sermons. Also, about once a year we have a national meeting, and for the past four years have invited a homiletician from abroad to lecture. Almost all the preachers have fewer than 30 members in their congregations -- some just 10 -- but they are very eager to learn homiletics.
Q: How does being such a small minority shape the task of preaching and of training preachers?
We believe that what changes the church or the society is not the style of the church or the way the church evangelizes or how the churches are run but the word of God. So we train pastors how to hear the word of God through the Bible.
We are strongly influenced by the meditation movement, or the reflection movement. In World War II in Germany, there was a Confessing Church movement led by [Karl] Barth, [Dietrich] Bonhoeffer and others. In such a difficult time, they listened to the Bible as the word of God. They believed that to listen to the Bible as the word of God and to preach the word of God should change the world, should change the people. We are strongly influenced by Barth.
Q: Is being a Christian in Japan in some ways like being part of the Confessing Church movement, at least in the sense of being so different from the dominant culture?
Yeah. We don’t think that the number of Christians is important. What is important is how you obey and how you follow Jesus, honestly and faithfully. Christianity is not a majority in Japan. We’re always a minority. So the number of Christians or the percentage of Christians doesn’t matter for me.
Q: In some way, that must be really liberating . Is there an upside to being a small church?
Yeah. We pastors know that being a pastor is not the easiest thing. The average congregation has less than 30 members, so that means that we don’t get a good salary.
Christians in Japan are a minority, and a pastor is a minority of minorities. We don’t think that we have to get a better life. We decided to be a minority.
The smallness of the church doesn’t matter for us. Our responsibility is to preach the word of God faithfully. After that, God will do something, although we can’t predict what. We can’t manage the size of the churches, but God will do something through our preaching.
Q: You’ve studied in the United States and know American churches. What lessons can the church in America learn from the church in Japan?
I think the lesson for American churches and pastors is, “Don’t be afraid to become a minority.” The word of God is still living among us in Japan. We have that history and experience of the hidden Christians. They didn’t have any leaders. They didn’t have any buildings. But the word of God lived and survived 250 years underground.
Difficult times come. The most dangerous thing is that in Japan, like in the U.S., the church itself becomes secularized. It is very difficult to combat a materialistic world and a violent world, to move it toward the peaceful kingdom.
Christianity is very difficult. Christianity itself is hard to believe. Jesus is not easy to follow, easy to believe. So yeah, I imagine that in America, which calls herself a Christian country, it’s very difficult and very sad to see churches closing and membership shrinking.
But still, we are living in Japan with less than 10 people in a congregation. Sometimes, all of them are above 60 years old, but they pray and they donate money to build new churches. They believe that the next generation will come by the Holy Spirit.
Q: You mentioned at the outset that church membership in Japan is declining and the membership is aging. How is the church dealing with it? What are you doing to attract young members?
We have tried many things, learning from the U.S. For example, there is a contemporary worship movement and also some new-style preaching, with a slide show or something like that.
But we always say to the college of preachers, don’t be afraid -- just preach the word of God and love the people. Address the people in front of you. Love them. The responsibility of a pastor is to love the members.
In Japan, Christians always have to think about who we are, about our identity. In our secularized culture, the Christian is always a minority, so sometimes they tend to forget their identity.
Q: How does that shape your preaching?
You tell them that they are the people of God, and don’t be afraid of our difference or uniqueness.
Sometimes we tell them that we are not Japanese anymore. We are now Christian-Japanese, just as you have African-American or Asian-American. We have two citizenships. Our identity is not Japanese but Christian.
Q: I’m hearing Stanley Hauerwas in there.
Yeah, that’s right. I learned many things from Stanley Hauerwas.
That’s why we can cooperate or we can work with other countries in Northeastern Asia.
There are big tensions now, and nationalism is getting stronger and stronger. But I’m not Japanese anymore. Korean and Chinese and U.S. Christians -- we have the same language. We are not controlled by the language of politics anymore. We have the same language: the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed, the hymns, the Bible. That’s the same language.
Q: How did you happen to become Christian? Were your parents Christians?
Yeah, I’m third generation. After World War II, my grandmother was baptized in the Holiness movement.
Her husband was not a good husband, and she suffered a little from that. She went to church, and then she was baptized in the Holiness Church. But she couldn’t quit smoking her cigarettes.
Q: That’s hard to do.
It’s a hard thing to do in the Holiness Church, so she transferred to the Methodist Church. And she brought her four children with her -- one daughter and three sons -- and they were all baptized, and I’m the son of one of those children. Now I’m Presbyterian.