This month we had the opportunity to travel outside of Tokyo and the main island we live on, to visit some Japanese friends in Oita City, Kyushu, Japan. The husband was originally from Oita, so they decided to return there about a year ago to help their father's small church that had been planted by an American missionary in the 1970s. It was a good reminder for us to realize that outside of Tokyo in the 'real Japan' life is a lot more challenging for Japanese Christians. It was also a good reminder for us that there are very few Christians in Japan.
Historically, the island of Kyushu had a reputation for being open to the initial Jesuit arrivals in the 1500s. So much so that the Daimo, or regional ruler converted to their cause. Oita City historically had been converted to the Jesuit cause at that time as well. However, tragically, later the entire Jesuit converted population was put to death by the Shogun. This history has been preserved to this day as a reminder of 'misfortune' for those who dare depart from the established traditions. In more recent times the city of Nagasaki, which is also located on Kyushu island, was known to be a 'Christian'city', despite being a weapons production center during World War two. Historically, it was one of the cities that received complete atomic destruction. So, in the mind of many Japanese who are aware of history, Christianity is met with caution especially in more rural areas.
Our friend's church which has been in existence since the 1970s has about ten people that attend it. It is not because they are not good ministers, or not faithful; it is just the spiritual reality of their area. In a small city there is great pressure not to depart from the ancient traditions, even if a person does not believe in them any longer. Local rituals, traditions, and beliefs are strongly tied to success as well as abiding by the wishes of departed ancestors. Even though there may be interest in Christianity, many do not want to risk being hated or shunned by their family. Outside of urban areas family ties are viewed as more crucial to daily life. The pastor told us that the church had a lot of opposition when they moved to a new property, but that the local people eventually accepted them after many tense years. They are especially hated for refusing to take part in the local matsuri festivals which include many forms of spirit worship to the local deities. Though their church is small it has its advantages. One advantage to a small church comes in the form of strong spiritual unity and care for one another under difficult conditions. For that we could learn from them just what really is important. A new generation is now ministering with new ideas on how to reach the area. The pastors advice to us after thirty years there in the ministry was to not give up. Please pray for the believers near the Oita City area!