Westerners who have been to Japan find it a confusing place to say the least. Although it seems, on the face of it, to be Westernised it soon becomes apparent that the matter is more complex than that. The Japanese have, on the one hand, enthusiastically and successfully embraced occidental values such as democracy, science and technology. They would also love to master English but find it a battle. (See addendum 1 below). The adoption of Western practices do not, however, extend to all spheres of life. Not only do the Japanese cling to their cumbersome and impractical script and refuse to adopt the Roman alphabet (see addendum 2 below), but they steadfastly reject the proselytizing efforts of Christian missionaries.

This wasn’t always the case. Shortly after the first Europeans, Portuguese traders, arrived in Japan in 1543, they were followed by Roman Catholic missionaries. The latter thought at the time that Japanese were an easy target and could be converted without much effort, an impression that was no doubt encouraged by the de facto ruler of feudal Japan, the daimyo Oda Nobunaga, who received the Christians cordially and allowed them to carry on with their proselytizing activities. But he may have had ulterior motives. According to H. Paul Varley (Japanese Culture 3rd Edition), Nobunaga apparently hoped to enlist the support of the Christians in his struggle against the Buddhist sects that opposed him. Nobunaga’s successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, was initially also kindly disposed towards the Christians but soon had a change of heart. That may have been brought about by the conduct of the Christians themselves. The two Catholic sects that operated inside Japan, namely the Jesuits from Portugal and the Spanish Franciscans were actively engaged in undermining each other. Hideyoshi’s order of 1587 that the missionaries leave Japan were simply disregarded by them. When a Spanish ship was subsequently shipwrecked in Japan and Hideyoshi’s officials confiscated it’s cargo, the skipper told them that their actions would result in a Spanish invasion based on the intelligence reports it had received from spies in the Franciscan movement. The Franciscans, of course, denied this. According to them the Jesuits, not the skipper, had concocted the story of the spying and the conquest to cast them in a bad light. Hideyoshi, however, wasn’t interested in who was to blame. He rounded up six missionaries and twenty Japanese converts and had them crucified in Nagasaki in 1597.

A brutal persecution of Christians followed, particularly after the issuing of an 1614 edict banning Christianity. It resulted in the execution of around five to six thousand adherents over the following years and only subsided around 1640. As a result, the Christian community withered and never regained their former numbers. What is left of it today remains confined to the western part of Japan – where the missionaries were active. Needless to say, the traumatic events of those years remain etched in the minds of modern Japanese Christians. One of them, Shusaku Endo, wrote an engrossing historical novel relating to the events, more specifically regarding the Jesuit priest Christovão Ferreira who had apostatized in 1633. The novel, Silence, (which was recently made into an excellent eponymous film) deals with a number of themes. As the name of the book indicates, one relates to the so-called problem of evil – the failure of a supposedly omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent god to prevent evil. Another is an investigation into the inability of Christianity to take root in Japan.

The latter aspect has long baffled outsiders and cries out for an explanation. The neighbour of Japan, South Korea, has more in common with it than any other country. Both are strongly Buddhist (in the case of Japan also Shinto) and neither of them were ever a colony of any Western country. (Korea, though, was a colony of Japan between the years 1912 and 1944). Yet a large number of South Koreans, namely thirty percent, belong to the biggest religion in the country namely Christianity whereas in the case of Japan only around one percent of the population identify with the Christian religion.

One reason why the Japanese did not initially convert to Christianity may have been the persecution of adherents by the authorities. But that still does not explain everything. In ancient Rome many joined the Christian religion in similar circumstances. They were seemingly attracted by the martyrdom that went with it. In modern day Japan one would furthermore expect that with the freedom of religion presently guaranteed by the Constitution, many people would succumb to the aggressive proselytization by Christian missionaries and, like their South Korean counterparts, convert. Yet it is not happening. What is the reason?

There are no shortage of explanations for this phenomenon. One common one advanced by Christians is that the Japanese are not interested in the truth. But it is a bogus explanation. The Bible does not propagate truth as a value at all. On the contrary, it says the exact opposite and praises faith instead. Jesus, for instance, told his disciple Thomas, who did not believe in the resurrection, “…blessed are they who have not seen, and yet have believed.” (John 20:29). Moreover, George H. Smith convincingly argues in his book Atheism: The Case Against God, that religious belief is a form of epistemological skepticism. Adherents of this school of thought, which was founded by the Greek philosopher Pyrrho around 360 BCE, maintained that knowledge is not possible. It is, however, an absurd view to hold since one contradicts oneself in doing so. How can such a person claim that knowledge is impossible when such an assertion itself requires knowledge?

A variety of different reasons for the failure of the Christians to convert the Japanese have been advanced by an anonymous author. See in this regard the following article: http://www.projectjapan.org/pj/Article/Entries/2013/8/16_Why_Is_Christianity_Not_Widely_Believed_in_Japan.html .Some of these reasons do contain a grain of truth, but the way that they are presented they are not very persuasive, even if, as the author recommends, they are considered cumulatively. I do not wish to examine the reasons in any detail, save to say that the grounds that, according to the author, caused the Japanese to reject Christianity did not prevent other nations from embracing the religion on a massive scale. For instance, the distinction made between corporatism and individualism by the author is also found in Korea. According to him Japanese culture is “relative” while Christianity is supposed to be “absolute”. It must be seriously doubted whether this is correct – particularly in view of the difference of opinion among Christians on matters pertaining to their religion and the manner in which they twist or reject it’s fundamental principles. In other instances again, it would seem as if the author confuses effect with cause when he blames the politicians and the educational system for Christianity’s dismal performance in Japan. Where he may be closer to the truth is in his claim that the emphasis placed by the Japanese on ancestor worship, together with the traditional filial piety that accompanies it, places a damper on the acceptance of Christianity in the country. These aspects I shall consider later.

There is also some truth in his contention that politics has something to do with the small number of Christians in Japan but not in the way the author thinks. Some light is shed on the tantalizing problem by Karel van Wolferen in his highly regarded study of Japan The Enigma of Japanese Power. He writes that the authorities in the country have always regarded Christianity as a threat. This is not so in the case of the traditional Japanese religion Folk Shinto where a multitude of kami (divine spirits) are said to exist and are worshiped by believers. Although kami may be living persons (as the Emperor Hirohito was during the Second World War) they are more often than not inanimate or imaginary objects such as rocks, trees or ancestral spirits. The second most important religion of Japan, Mahayana Buddhism, is also acceptable to the authorities. It tolerates polytheism while many of it’s adherents also practise Shinto.

Japanese politicians find on the other hand the Christian belief in an omnipotent God who is superior to both Emperor and Shogun to be a danger to the status quo. Van Wolferen suggests that that was the real reason why Christian missionaries were banned from the country shortly after they became active. It also explains why the authorities remained hostile towards Christianity thereafter – even during the time of the so-called Meiji Restoration in the nineteenth century after Japan had been forced to open it’s borders to the West. This hostility was encouraged by the writings of a philosophy professor named Inoue Tetsujiro who wrote in 1893 that Christianity is “…absolutely anti-national…” It was expected of Christians to relinquish their belief in a supreme God and individual responsibility – demands that were naturally unacceptable to them. The government and Emperor (in 1923) meanwhile did their best to persuade the Japanese public not to have “dangerous thoughts” . By this they meant Christianity and socialist ideology. It did not exactly help the Christian cause that the first socialist party and trade union in Japan were founded by members of that religion. It would accordingly seem as if the political climate is such that the Christianity will never thrive in Japan.

There is another factor that impedes the spread of Christianity in Japan. This, paradoxical as it may seem, is that the Japanese are too tolerant. The Japanese Prime Minister, Yasuhiro Nakasone, for instance boasted on national television in 1984 that the Japanese are far more “flexible” than the Westerners because they, as polytheists, are able to practise more than one religion simultaneously such as, he said, Shinto, Buddhism and Christianity. But this is of course nonsense. It is well known that Christianity, being an intolerant religion, will never permit such a thing. Nakasone is, however, not the only Japanese who wants to be all inclusive. At one of the universities students were asked to indicate their political orientation on a questionnaire. The ideologies listed included for instance Marxism, anarchism, liberalism, nationalism, ideology-free and “others”. More than half of the students indicated that they supported more than one political philosophy, some of which were in conflict with each other. Two students ticked off 10 items and one claimed that he was in agreement with all the ideologies. He only excluded “others” from his list.

A valuable contribution regarding the inability of the Christian religion to take root in Japan is an essay by Richard L.Rubenstein entitled Japan and Biblical Religion which appeared in 1988 in the volume Biblical v. Secular Ethics. Rubenstein, a professor of Religion, points out that according to the Shinto religion the Japanese emperor descends directly from the supreme god, Amaterasu-omikami, something that gives the concept of filial piety a special meaning. In contradistinction thereto, the Japanese find the idea of an omnipotent and transcendental god who adopts a non-Japanese group and enters into a covenant with them (see Exodus 6:6-7) not only unacceptable but also contrary to their expectation of a supernatural being. Rubenstein is also of the view that although the Emperor Hirohito renounced his status as living god under pressure from the Americans after the Second World War, that did not change the perception the Japanese had of him. Christians, of course, condemn those who believe that the emperor is divine since it contravenes the first Biblical commandment (Ex. 20:3).

Moreover, the natural family, says Rubenstein, has little or no significance in Christianity. Emphasis is instead placed the father-son relationship and it’s symbolism. Religions influenced by Confucianism, such as those in Japan, take the opposite view and value filial piety highly. The fifth Biblical commandment which enjoins children to honour their parents (Ex.20:12), does seem to encourage filial piety, but is fatally contradicted by other passages in the Bible, particularly by the instruction issued by Yahweh to Abraham to sacrifice his own son (Gen. 22:1-19) and the teaching of Jesus that his followers must turn their backs on their parents and hate them (Luke 14:26 and Acts 5:29). Even baptism, Rubenstein points out, conflicts with filial piety. By being baptised, one is not only reborn, as the Christians believe, but the implication is that it destroys all existing familial relations in the process (See Rom.6:3-4). It is under the circumstances not strange that so few Japanese are prepared to convert to the Christian religion.

Christianity, of course, will only make headway in Japan if the natives are dissatisfied with with what they believe in. From my own observations during my travels in the country, however, there is little evidence of this. Rubenstein too remarks that Shinto plays a far more important role in Japanese society than one expects. Numerous multi-national companies such as Toyota and Mitsubishi have Shinto shrines where employees can pray. National shrines, such as the one at Ise and the controversial one at Yasukuni (where war criminals have been deified as kami), swarmed with worshipers when I was there and I got the impression that the Japanese take their religion seriously and do not require a substitute.

That the Japanese are recalcitrant and refuse to adopt their relatively sophisticated religion. must be a bitter pill for Christians to swallow. Contrary to what they have always thought, the Japanese are not interested in being “saved”. Instead they cling to Shinto, a primitive religion which dates from the Stone Age, lacks a theology and deifies inanimate objects. Speaking for myself, however, I want to congratulate the Japanese for holding on to their traditions. It is not that I think that there is any truth to Shintoism or Buddhism. But there is a certain rationality in the Japanese rejection of Christianity. For although religion is bullshit, it is surely better to believe in one’s own bullshit than another man’s bullshit, not so?


One of the greatest sources of frustration for a foreigner in Japan is communication. The Japanese children are taught English at school, but the teachers are barely able to speak the language. Very few people are accordingly prepared to attempt a conversation with an English speaker and even fewer are fluent in English. Nevertheless, a number of English words have somehow managed to infiltrate Japanese, a fact which greatly upset the language purists in Japan. I constantly read in the Japan Times how the Japanese were unsuccessfully admonished by these self appointed guardians to keep their language pure. One would accordingly expect the English words to be instantly recognizable when two Japanese converse. Don’t you believe it. The words have been Japanized to such an extent that they sound completely different from the original.

Japanese words generally end on a vowel, except for a few that end on an -n. The word “cheese” therefore became “cheesu” in Japanese. (The country, I must point out, had no dairy products before it made contact with the West.) The word “nonsense” was likewise changed to “nonsensu” and “hotel” to “hoteru”. I quickly had to find out what “coffee” was in Japanese when I arrived in the country for the first time, lest I’d be compelled to drink green tea in the first “resutoran” (restaurant) that I entered. It turned out to be “kohi” because there is no “f” sound before an “e” in Japanese. Other words that have been unrecognizably changed are inter alia “high-class” (hai kurasaru) and “strike” (sutoraiki). The fact that the Japanese workers can scarcely be persuaded to take their annual leave, let alone stop working because of some labour dispute, probably explains why they have no indigenous word for downing tools.

The few Japanese who do speak English, I discovered, have great difficulty not mixing up the letters “R” and “L”. One fellow told me that the colour of his car is “brue”. Another informed me that he is flying to “Rondon” and then to “Lome”. The “lice farmers” were often in the news because of their demonstrations against cheap imports.

What was more amusing, however, was the use of English in signs displayed in public. At the one shop where I arrived to buy something, a sign against the window informed me that it was “more closed”. Then there was a ryokan (Japanese inn) that displayed a large sign with the following instruction: “All guests are requested to be united in bed before midnight.” More eye popping was the entry on the menu in the restaurant in Tokyo (which means “Eastern Capital” in Japanese) where the owners boasted that “All vegetables served in this restaurant are washed in water passed by our head chef.” General Douglas McArthur apparently became much loved as the de facto ruler of Japan after the Second World War and was passionately supported by the Japanese when he ran for president of the USA. One banner displayed on the streets of Tokyo at the time read as follows: “We play for Dagrass MacArser’s Erection”. Notices prepared by the authorities are at least grammatically correct although anything but clear. One at a rest room at Haneda airport warned visitors: “Do not throw foreign bodies in the toilets.” A certain shop had a display sign on the pavement that proclaimed “Ladies Outfatters”. Women’s clothing were indeed sold inside but for those who were really interested in buying, an arrow on a notice board pointed to the upper story informing prospective clients that “Ladies can have fits upstairs.”

I said that very few Japanese can speak English. It would, however, be a capital mistake to assume that no Japanese can do so. The story (probably apocryphal) is told of the woman who was invited to a dinner party. Upon her arrival she was approached by the hostess who requested her to sit next to the guest of honour, a certain Mr Ishibashi (whose name means “stone bridge” in Japanese) who had just arrived from Japan, and keep him company. “Goodness,” she thought. “How am I going to converse with someone who cannot speak English?” When she eventually sat down, she started to communicate with Mr Ishibashi in a Pidgin English. “Lika soupie?” she wanted to know when the first dish was served. He nodded solemnly. “Lika fishie?” she inquired when the fish was served. Again Mr Ishibashi replied in the affirmative by nodding his head. And so it went during the rest of the dinner until the hostess got up and introduced Mr Ishibashi as someone who had studied at the University of Oxford and invited him to address the guests. Mr Ishibashi thereupon gave a speech in the most beautiful English imaginable. The jaw of the English woman who sat next to him dropped in astonishment while she blushed a scarlet red. When Mr Ishibashi sat down, he leaned towards her with a smile on his face and asked: “Lika speechie?”


During a sojourn in Japan during the 1980’s, I went to see the various sights and in doing so paid a visit to one of the many Shinto shrines that dot the archipelago. Inside there were various inscriptions in the Japanese script but I was of course unable to read it. Fortunately there was a very friendly Oriental man on hand who appeared to be a tourist. Assuming him to be Japanese, I turned to him and asked him whether he could speak English. To my relief he replied in the affirmative and undertook to translate the inscriptions. I cannot remember what they were about but after some time he stopped and explained to me that was unable to read certain of the signs as they were unknown to him. It turned out that he was actually Chinese and, like me, had no knowledge whatsoever of the Japanese language. It struck me as bizarre that someone could read a written language but not speak or understand the verbal equivalent. The situation, I soon discovered, is not unique. One finds the reverse situation in India and Pakistan. Hindi, a language which is spoken in India, is written in the Sanskrit script while in the case of the Pakistani language Urdu it is the Arabic alphabet. The two languages, which are almost identical, are mutually intelligible to the speakers thereof even although they cannot read each other’s writing.

In the case of Hindi and Urdu the situation is the result of political and religious differences between India and Pakistan and the efforts that are made by the authorities to accentuate these differences between the two communities – perhaps even to create artificial ones. The Japanese, on the other hand, adopted the Chinese system of writing in the fifth century because of the high regard in which they held the Chinese civilization. (They similarly imported Buddhism at the same time from China).

The writing that the Chinese man was able to translate for me is known as Kanji. The Japanese simply took over the characters (or logograms) that the Chinese had been employing for a period of 1800 years and applied them to their own language. In China, where the system is known as Hanzi, a total of 85,000 characters are known to exist. The Japanese reduced the total number to 50,000 but few of these are in actual use. The characters, I must point out, represent words – that is why there are such a large number of them. While the system works well for Chinese, it is not true in the case of Japanese. The two languages belong to different language families – Chinese to Sino-Tibetan while Japanese and the languages spoken in the Ryukyu group of islands (which include Okinawa) are called Japonic. Chinese and its sister languages are monosyllabic and tonal in nature – a mere alteration in the tone or pitch of a person’s voice changes the meaning of a word. Unlike Japanese which is polysyllabic and highly inflected, Chinese lacks grammatical inflections. Moreover, the structure of sentences in the two languages differs radically. In Chinese it is object – verb – subject while Japanese has the sequence as subject- verb – object. The two languages are accordingly as different as chalk and cheese and the fact that English has more in common with Russian and Sanskrit than Chinese with Japanese, shows one how big the differences between the latter two languages are.

To surmount the problems with the writing of Kanji the Japanese devised a unique supplementary system called Kana. (It is that which tripped up my Chinese acquaintance in his translation.) Kana is a syllabary and accordingly much closer to an alphabet than Kanji. As the name indicates, a syllable is represented by a sign. There are two forms of Kana in Japanese; Hiragana which is used for grammar unknown in Chinese such as declensions and conjugations and Katakana for the writing down of foreign words in Japanese (such as “Shakespeare” or “Beethoven”.) There are 46 signs in each of the two syllabaries – 92 in total. Lastly, a fourth system known as Furigana has been introduced as an aid for the readers of Kanji. It consists of explanations in Kana how certain words should be pronounced and is also used for writing Chinese and Korean names.

Japanese is written in columns from top to bottom and from right to left. There is no punctuation and there are no spaces between the words. It is accordingly up to the reader to make sense of what has been written. (The latter by the way, was also the position in Latin written during the classical period and for that reason the word “to read” in Latin also meant “to pick out” because by reading one was also required to pick out the words in the text.)

As can be imagined, it is a matter of impossibility to teach the Japanese schoolchildren 50,000 Kanji characters, 92 Kana signs, Furigana and the 26 letters of the Roman alphabet to the extent that they will have mastered all of it by the time that they leave school. The question of what they require and what they should be taught appears to have become a political football. When I was in Japan during the eighties, the total number of Kanji characters that the schools were required to teach the children was set by the Government at 1860. There was, however, talk of lowering the number by 100 to 1760 in order to ease the burden on the children. The Opposition, who later came to power, wouldn’t hear of it and instead increased the number of characters so that school-leavers are now required to master 2136 by the time they enter the adult world. Even so, it is still debatable whether 2136 Kanji characters are sufficient to equip a Japanese adult to read as widely as he or she would wish. Some of the literature that was written before the Meiji Restoration in 1860 used a far larger number of logograms. Someone who knows only 2136 characters will simply not be able to read a book in which the author used, for example, 4000 different logograms.

The other problem is that many Japanese have an imperfect command of Kanji. This is not strange given the complexity thereof and the fact that a single line in a character can completely change its meaning. (Kana signs, by contrast, are far less confusing.) This problem can become acute in those occupations where workers are primarily engaged in manual labour and forget what they were taught. I was inclined to believe the stories that I heard at the time that some Japanese are functionally illiterate.

Despite these problems, the Japanese cling to their archaic system of writing. Although the consensus is that it is the most complicated in the world, they won’t hear of reforming it. According to them one cannot change tradition, let alone abolish it. I think, however, that it is absurd to spend so much valuable time in school merely teaching children to read and write. Surely the time can be put to better use. One way that the problem can be addressed is by writing everything in Kana. That will be adequate to represent all words in the Japanese vocabulary and it will go some way towards addressing concerns about tradition. Kana is after all uniquely Japanese whereas Kanji is a Chinese import. The other possibility is simply to abolish the whole system and adopt the Roman alphabet. This option was seriously considered by General Douglas MacArthur when he was the ruler of the country in the aftermath of the Second World War but he ultimately decided against it.

What is perhaps called for is a Japanese statesman with the insight and drive of Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The example of Atatürk is instructive and has much to recommend to it. Until 1928 Turkish was written in the Persian script (which is an adapted version of the Arabic alphabet). It was, however, initially intended for Semitic languages (like Arabic) that consist almost exclusively of consonants. Turkish, by contrast, belongs to a different language family and is rich in vowels. To address the problems that inevitably occurred, the alphabet was expanded until it later had a multitude of letters. Atatürk, who wanted to westernize the country, simply decided to adopt the Roman alphabet and despite a great deal of opposition, introduced the new system by way of legislation on 1 January 1929. It is a modified version of the Western alphabet with 29 letters and is written, as a concession to the old Arabic script, from right to left. It would be wonderful if the Japanese were to do something similar one day, but that may be only wishful thinking on my part.

Categories: BlogReligion

Leave a Reply