Japanese flag in front of Oura Catholic Church (built in the 1860s) in Nagasaki, Japan.
When asked about her religious beliefs, a Japanese friend and co-worker of mine replied with a smile and the standard, well-rehearsed explanation, "We [Japanese people] aren't religious; we don't really believe anything." In the same vein, I vividly recall an esteemed college professor and Asia expert stating that Japan and religion, specifically Christianity, are quite simply incompatible.

An extensive 2006 Gallop poll in which a mere 30 per cent of Japanese avowed a religion seems to confirm the widely-accepted understanding of an agnostic and even fatalistic Japan. Of this 30 per cent of believers, 75 per cent considered themselves Buddhist and 19 per cent considered themselves Shinto. Yet today, both of these traditional religions have become mainly ceremonial and do not play an active role in the daily life or moral outlook of most Japanese.

Is the adoption of Christmas and Christian-style weddings
simply a superficial result of Japan's interest in Western culture?
While for many this is the case, for others the outward imitation of
Christian holidays and sacraments seems to create an inward feeling for Christianity and an attraction to it.

At first glance, Japan is one of the most secular nations in the world. This is evidenced by a disturbing trend in suicides, abortion used as birth control, rampant pornography that businessmen shamelessly imbibe in supermarkets and on subways, and a general lack of hope. Bill McKay, research director for the 2006 Gallop Poll, explains: "There is a degree of fatalism in [the Japanese people's] sombre mood. Teens' perspectives on life tend to a sense of nihilism to an alarming degree. A note of hopelessness is found in the responses to a number of questions. And there is little evidence of eternal hope, although a considerable number do believe in some form of life after life." Masaaki Suzuki, founder of the Bach Collegium in Japan, once said (First Things, 2000) that the Japanese language "does not even have an appropriate word for hope. We either use ibo, meaning desire, or nozomi, which describes something unattainable."

Do a lack of hope and low numbers of believers mean that Japan and Christianity are indeed mutually exclusive?

A brief review of history indicates otherwise. In 1549 the great Jesuit priest Francis Xavier and fellow missionaries arrived in Japan with their sights set on evangelization. Remarkably, 10 per cent of the Japanese population became baptised, believing Christians. This mass conversion began to make Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the ruler of Japan, afraid that the missionaries were paving the way for colonisation. Consequently, he outlawed Christianity under pain of death. Many of the new converts risked their lives, taking their beloved religion underground.

Monument to the Catholic martyrs of NagasakiIn 1597 Toyotomi made an example of 26 Christians — six missionaries and twenty Japanese — by cutting off their ears and marching them from Kyoto to Nagasaki in the dead of winter. Upon their arrival in Nagasaki he had them crucified. During the underground years countless Christians were tortured and thousands were martyred for their faith. But when Christianity was legalized in 1873 a small but dedicated community of believers remained.

Nevertheless, in the 21st century Christianity often seems little more than a blip in Japanese history. Materialism attempts to fill the void of religion and the hope that traditionally accompanies it. The recently popularised tradition of Christmas in Japan poignantly illustrates this. For most Japanese, Christmas consists of date with a lover, fried chicken, Christmas cake, and presents. Opposed to bowing to the Christ child, Christmas enthusiasts bow to materialism, completely ignoring all religious origins and implications. When asked the reason for celebrating Christmas, about half of my teenage students responded that it had something to do with Santa Claus (his birthday, perhaps?), a quarter said to get presents, while only the remaining quarter knew it was related to Christ.

Another instance of the adoption of a Christian tradition hollowed of its religious significance is the prevalence of Western "church" weddings. It is estimated that as many as 90 per cent of Japanese weddings are conducted in this style. The bride wears a white wedding dress and is escorted down the aisle to her groom; rings are exchanged; a cross adorns the front of the chapel; Christian hymns are sung; Bible verses are read; and a "minister" — frequently a Caucasian English teacher earning some extra cash — presides. The vast majority of these newlyweds, however, are not Christians.

So then, is the adoption of Christmas and Christian-style weddings simply a superficial result of Japan's interest in Western culture? While for many this is the case, for others the outward imitation of Christian holidays and sacraments seems to create an inward feeling for the faith and an attraction to it. This may help to explain a recent discovery. Since the legalization of Christianity in the late 1800s, the number of believers had stubbornly hovered around one percent. The 2006 Gallup poll, however, disclosed that an astounding 12 per cent of Japanese who claim a religion are now Christian, making six per cent of the entire nation Christian.

However, there is no inherent reason why that should surprise us. Other Asians have taken to the Christian faith. The Philippines — thanks to a lot of help from Spanish colonizers — is the stand-out example with over 90 per cent of its population Christian, but South Korea is a substantial 26.3 per cent Christian, Vietnam 7.2 per cent, and even China has been reported to be approximately 5 per cent Christian. It is impossible to determine the exact percentage in China because many Christians there remain underground in fear of the communist security forces, which use discrimination, torture, and harsh jail sentences in an attempt to thwart evangelisation and conversions. Yet, like Toyotomi Hideyoshi's attempts to stifle Christianity in 16th century Japan, modern China's attempts are also in vain: thousands are said to convert daily.

Confronting, as it does, the problems of an advanced industrial society — a critically low birth rate, an ageing population and the unravelling of family ties that once bound society together — Japan has every reason to look for sources of hope beyond its old traditions. The Christian faith that won so many staunch converts nearly five centuries ago is an obvious candidate.

Jennifer Van House Hutcheson is a freelance writer who recently returned from Okayama, Japan, to her hometown of Atlanta, Georgia.