470 Years of Christianity in Japan (1549-2019)
With missionary zeal, Saint Francis Xavier arrived in Kagoshima, Japan on 15 August 1549 and spent the next two years preaching the gospel to local communities throughout this western region of Japan.
The saint had traveled from his missionary outpost in Goa, India after learning about the existence of Japan. He had been told about the sophisticated culture of the Japanese people and, intrigued, endeavored to visit this land and bring Christ to the people there.
Initially, Xavier did not have much success. While in Goa, he and his fellow Christian missionaries gained great respect especially from the poor and lower classes who appreciated the care given to them, regardless of their station in life. However, in Japan, the very act of appearing low in status and wearing ragged clothes while trying to make their way into Miyako (present-day Kyoto) only served to bring suspicion and derision on the missionaries there. Xavier and fellow missionaries were often mocked or gazed at with complete bemusement by the locals.
Xavier decided to return west to Yamaguchi and hit upon the notion that in order to gain the respect of the Japanese people, he should dress and behave differently. He shed his ragged clothes, donned fine clothing, and appeared as an official dignitary from the Kingdom of Portugal. In this manner, Francis went to a local leader, Ouchi Yoshitaka, ruler of Yamaguchi, paying homage and bringing gifts from the West. He realized that getting the permission of the local lord to do missionary work was essential and to attain this he needed to make an impression. Xavier succeeded and was thus able to wander throughout the region enjoying greater success in baptizing the local population while earning their respect. By the time he left Japan in 1551 he had baptized some four or five hundred people.
One of the biggest lessons for Xavier if missionary work was to be successful was the absolute need for missionaries to understand, learn, and adopt the cultural norms of the country they resided in. Being sensitive to the customs, language, and culture of the country was necessary for developing ways to inspire people to want to be baptized. The lessons Xavier learned still apply today. To help people find God and hope for salvation one must truly love the people, embrace their customs and ways of doing things and, by so doing, infuse and manifest the gospel of Christ in the lives of the people so that they might truly believe they, too, can have eternal life with God. Baptisms and the growth in number of local Japanese priests and missionaries rapidly increased in the years after Xavier’s departure from Japan, so much so that, were it not for the ensuing bloody persecutions of the Christians in the 17th century, Japan most likely would have become a Christian country.
Yet, despite devastating persecutions, Christianity grimly survived for the next 250 years. Local communities particularly in Nagasaki and Kagoshima secretly continued to practice their Christian faith in underground locations till they were discovered in the 19th century, when Japan opened up again to the World. These communities have become famously known now as the “Hidden Christians” of Japan. Has it ever been any other way in the history of the Catholic Faith? Ordinary faithful people magnificently sacrificed their lives for God in the face of terrifying persecutions, and, though all was seemingly lost and futile, they in fact successfully planted the seeds for future generations of Christians to be born. In spite of the terror-filled attacks on the body of Christ’s Church, the Holy Spirit encouraged and gave strength to those who remained faithful and through them we see the beauty of their love for God. By their example of steadfast love for God, we too are inspired and can believe that God continues to love Japan. We may therefore hope that Japan too can become strong in the Faith once again.
Succumbing to fever, Xavier died in 1552 on Sancian Island off the coast of China and was canonized in 1622. He is the patron saint of all missionaries and is also known as the Apostle of Japan (and the Apostle of the Indies). Today, with Christians of Japan and with the faithful who attend Mass at St. Ignatius Church, we can believe that the spirit of Saint Francis Xavier continues to live with us and, knowing this, we can be encouraged as were the people of Japan in the 16th and 17th centuries. Called to action by Pope Francis, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope John Paul II, in Japan now we are at the beginning of a new Evangelization. God is faithful and does not abandon those he loves.
Saint Francis Xavier
Marking the 470th Anniversary of Saint Francis Xavier’s Arrival in Japan by Neil Day