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| MISSIONS HISTORY OF JAPAN | General Religious Background | Catholicism/Protestantism | Churches of Christ | Spiritual Needs/Challenges | General Editor | Contributors | Resource People | | Sources Cites and Suggested Reading

Japan occupies an archipelago off the east coast of Asia, its nearest neighbors being Russia on the north and South Korea on the west, with China also nearby. There are four major islands making up Japan, Honshu, the largest and the most centrally‑located; Hokkaido, to the north; and Kyushu and Shikoku, to the south. These islands are joined some 3000 smaller islands.
Japan Map--Condensed.png
From Operation World DVD-ROM 2010.

Japan’s entire land area, which stretches south to the Ryukyu Islands and Okinawa, is 234,755 square miles, slightly smaller than California. It consists of four large islands (Honshu, Hokkaido, Shikoku, Kyushu) and 3,000 small islands in the NW Pacific. Mountainous, only 13% can be cultivated.

A hauntingly beautiful island nation, unknown and enigmatic for centuries, distrusted by the West for a hundred years, actively hated during World War II, admired for its reconstruction after the war, respected for its amazing industrial and technological progress and now feared for its powerful export-oriented economies despite lack of natural resources and oil—this is Japan, home for a dedicated and homogeneous 121,000,000 people. A modern‑day miracle, Japan must be taken seriously in every respect.

General Religious Background

The ancestral religion of Japan is Shinto, which traditionally reveres the pantheon of the ancient Japanese gods, the kami. Shinto is a collective religion, deeply imbedded in the history and culture of the country, and closely linked to the emperor. After losing favor for several centuries, it was revived in the Meiji era, when it became an official state cult to which all citizens were required to submit. Until the end of World War II the emperor was worshipped as a supreme god under this system.

Everywhere one turns in Japan today Shinto beginnings can be ob‑served. Many of the holidays had their beginning in Shinto. Indigenous to Japan, this system is so much a part of the Japanese people that one could say it is their culture as much as their religion.

Buddhism was introduced from China during the sixth century. It soon gained a remarkable following and since the seventh century has been the principle religious expresion of Japan's common people. It numbers at least 60 sects, ranging from ultra‑conservative to liberal. Seventy‑five percent of all Japanese claim to follow Buddhism, while eighty‑four percent indicate that they follow the Shinto faith. These figures indicate a high degree of syncretism in popular religious practice.

Another major religious phenomenon in Japan is what is called New Religions. At each period of extreme crisis in Japan's history, since early in the last century, new and generally syncretized religions have sprung up. The two oldest are Ten‑rikyo (Religion of Divine Wisdom), begun in about 1838, and Soka Gakkai (Value Creation Society), which was launched in 1969 and now claims about 17,000,000 adherents. Others include Reiyukai‑kyodan (Association of Friends of the Spirit), Izumo‑taishakyo, Rissho-kosekai (Society of the Establishment of Righteousness and Friendly Intercourse), numbering 5,500,000, Seicho no Ie (House of Growth), founded in 1929 as an amalgam of Buddhist and Christian principles and numbering 3,700,000, and finally, PL Kyodan (Perfect Liberty). Begun in 1946 and now reaching 2,500,000 followers, it emphasizes artistic creativity and social values more than religion.

Due to the multiple religious loyalties of the Japanese, Operation World says it is impossible to adequately describe their religious affiliation, which could be portrayed as 85 percent Buddhist, 90 percent Shinto and 24 percent New Religions!


The Catholic faith was first introduced to Japan with the visit of Francis Xavier to Kagoshaima in 1549. Others followed his lead and by 1593 some 300,000 had been baptized into Catholicism. In 1613 Christianity was outlawed, causing a severe wave of persecution. Missionaries were not allowed in Japan until 1859, with the nation's reopening to the West. A little over a century later, in 1971, there were 360,000 registered Catholics. By 1986 the number had risen to 405,000, but only 34 percent of these were active communicants. Today, Nagasaki is one of the major areas of Catholic strength.

Protestants had not been able to enter Japan until after the treaty of 1858. The first to arrive were missionaries from the Episcopal, Presbyterian and Dutch Reformed churches, entering in 1859. Severely limited at first in evangelism, these groups did Bible translation and assisted the government in developing a new system of public education.

Baptist missionaries arrived in 1872 and helped establish the first formal Japanese Protestant church, located in Yokahama. Methodists and Anglicans began ministries in 1878. They were followed by churches of Christ in about 1890, and by various interdenominational movements, such as the Christian and Missionary Alliance, in 1901.

After several decades of difficulty with the government, beginning in 1912, Christianity again gained ground. Then came other setbacks, with a revival of Buddhism and a renewed surge of militarism, which fostered fanatical Shintoism. In its extreme form Shintoism encouraged armed conflict, which ruled Japanese thought and government from the early 1930's until 1945.

Following World War II Japan was at by far her most receptive stage for Christianity. Hundreds of missionaries poured in, bringing many new denominations. There are now more than 200 foreign‑based denominations at work in that country. The largest Protestant group is the United Church of Christ, which was formed during World War II at the dictates of the government, by pooling all Christian denominations into one easily monitored group. This body has about 200,000 members.

The Christian movement grew steadily from 1945 to 1960. From then onward it has stagnated, with almost no net growth shown for either Catholic or Protestant religions. The only expanding groups are smaller Holiness and Pentecostal sects.

Among indigenous Christian movements in Japan are Mukyokai (coming out of the Methodist Church and dating from the 1860's), Kakure Irishitan (an offshoot of Catholicism), the Spirit of Jesus Church (with roots in the Assembly of God) and the Original Gospel Movement. The Unification Church (the Korean movement of Reverend Moon) has a large student following. There are now at least 50 such groups in Japan.

Altogether, however, followers of Catholic, Protestant and Evangelical churches in Japan number less than two percent of the population. This indicates something of the enormous task still confronted in that country.

Churches of Christ

Early Years

Pioneers in planting churches in Japan after its opening to the West were Eugene Snodgrass, Loduska Wyrick, who was one of the most prominent women graduates of Duke University College of Medicine (Blanchard; Drake), and a few others. Wyrick was known as the "Nightengale of the Orient" for her dedicated efforts as a nurse in the Sino‑Russian war of 1904, receiving a medal of honor from the Japanese government. Landing in Japan in 1888, this first group was followed in 1892 by J.M. McCaleb, his wife Della, W.K. Azbill, and two single young women, Lucia Scott and Carme Hostetter (Lynn). J.M. McCaleb remained in Japan for almost 50 years. He departed his beloved adopted land late in 1941, finally expelled by the Japanese military regime.

In 1893 a family named Jones joined forces with the McCaleb‑Azbill group. In 1895 Alice Miller went to Japan, serving faithfully there for 33 years. Other early missionaries included Calla Harrison, William Bishop, F.A. Wagner, C.C. Klingman, C.G. Vincent, Sarah Andrews, Hettie Lee Ewing, E.A. Rhodes, O.D. Bixler, Harry R. Fox, Sr., Herman Fox, Lillie Cypert, Carl Etter and B.D. (Uncle Barney) Morehead. Morehead started a small preacher-training school, King’s Bible School, in the Ibaraki Prefecture, which operated until the Second World War. After returning to the United States he vigorously recruited new missionaries for the field (World Convention).Otoshigi Fujimori was a Japanese converted in the States by F.A. Wagner. He returned with Wagner to Japan in 1898 and served faithfully in his homeland for many years.

At the end of World War I J.M. McCaleb reported a total of 21 congregations in Japan, with all of them small and none really evangelistic. The families arriving from the States had scattered all over the nation, to as far away as the island of Hokkaido.

By 1934 some 34 churches were meeting and more than 2,000 had been baptized, but many of these had become unfaithful or had moved to areas where the church did not exist. Growth was slow and workers were few and poorly supported. McCaleb noted that he had never received more than half of his necessary support, providing the remainder by teaching English.

World War II

World War II was traumatic for the work in Japan. Missionaries were expelled or imprisoned and national church leadership was impaired. Sarah Andrews, because of illness, was the only American worker allowed to remain in Japan, where she was kept under house arrest for the duration of the war, suffering great deprivation as she cared for wounded soldiers and orphans.

Upon entering Japan after the war, a new wave of missionaries found some of the earlier congregations still faithful. The first American missionary to enter Japan in 1945 was Harry R. Fox, Sr., who was sent by the U.S. government to interview survivors of the atom bomb holocaust. He found that the government had confiscated the properties of the prewar churches and as a result, only a handful still met. Fox encouraged them to lead out in plans for future growth and wrote impassioned articles in church papers on behalf of the work in Japan. O.D. Bixler returned to Japan in 1946 and was followed by Harry Robert and Logan Fox, sons of Harry R. Fox, Sr. Both Bixler and Fox were responsible for recruiting a number of missionaries, particularly from Harding College. Among this new generation of workers in the last half of the twentieth century was George Gurganus, L.T. Gurganus, Charles Boyd, Darrell McMillian, Dan Koger, Lee Bull, Joe Betts (who served for over thirty years), Herman Fox, Lillie Cypert, Carl Etter, Dwight Albright, Graham McKay and perhaps more than a dozen others (World Convention).

Postwar Years

During the postwar years of 1945-1952, the work increased to more than 72 Japanese churches and 16 English‑speaking congregations, the latter mostly at military bases. Harry Robert Fox, Jr. noted that "During the first five years following World War II, the Japanese were more receptive to the gospel than ever before or since. Missionaries could go to practically any city in Japan, pass out flyers and get a crowd of 500, where once we could have only gotten half a dozen." Between 5,000 and 6,000 people were converted during this period with congregations being established at the rate of one per month during some of this period.

This receptivity was due in part to Japanese disillusionment with the Emperor Hirohito and the traditional faiths, as well as the belief that their American conquerors had something they needed, so many turned to Christianity.
Ibaraki Christian College had been founded during postwar years and used the services of professors from both the U.S. and Japan. With the support of the Union Avenue church in Memphis, Tennessee and various individuals, E.W. McMillan played a key role in the early development of the college, which has since passed out of the direct control of the Churches of Christ.

In the early 1970's a sister‑college arrangement was worked out between Ibaraki Christian College and Oklahoma Christian College. Each year they exchange students and professors. In addition to this, OCC sends teams of students to help with evangelism in Japan.

There were others ventures in higher education that lasted for short periods of time. At present the Japan School of Evangelism in Tachikawa is helping train the next generation of leaders (World Convention).

Christian camps at Lake Motosu and at Hitachi were established in the 1950's and 1960's. Christian camping had a wide appeal, so they provided an excellent opportunity for teaching the Gospel.

Because of Japan's high literacy rate, literature has been one means of teaching. Charles W. Doyle and others in the Ibaraki area organized the Light and Life Press in the early 1950's. During two decades numerous titles were published. Currently churches of Christ in Japan publish a monthly magazine, called Fukuin, containing articles and news.

Nazare‑en Home for the Aged and Nukada Children's Home have played an important role in reaching Japanese people with the gospel.

English Bible classes were yet another method of reaching the Japanese. A number of missionaries, both past and present, have provided some of their support through teaching English.

Modern Era

At the beginning of 2004 there were about 60 Churches of Christ in Japan, concentrated in the Ibaraki Prefecture, excluding U.S. military churches. Attendance ranges from four to 120 with the average being about twenty. Total population of Churches of Christ in Japan is estimated at about 1,050.

Currently World Christian Broadcasting airs Japanese programming four hours per day and current listener response is about 300 letters a week. This method is showing promise for teaching in Japan.

As Japan rapidly rebuilt its industry and economy, receptivity to the gospel greatly diminished. Many missionaries have come and gone, but despite their heroic efforts, the number of national churches has decreased to 60, with an estimated 800 to 1000 members. A few English‑speaking groups also meet. In a recent Christian Chronicle article on Japan Akira Hirose, an elder of the Mito Church, said that “the problem of Japan was that the changes were so big…that we (they) failed to adjust ourselves properly” (March 2004).

Apart from the long-term commitment of four congregations, the Union Avenue and Park Avenue churches in Memphis, Tennessee, the Westside church in Los Angeles, California, and the Andrews, Texas church, relatively little attention is being given to the work in Japan by American brethren. Due to its relatively slower rate of growth, the work there was superceded by what is perceived as more exciting outreach in other lands.

The Union Avenue church, the Park Avenue church and members of the Highland Street and Raleigh churches in Memphis recently cooperated to produce a seminar on evangelism in Japan. It is hoped that their "Focus on Japan" will become an annual event to help promote and strengthen the work being done in Japan.

Spiritual Needs/Challenges

When General Douglas MacArthur was military governor of Japan after the war, he called for a thousand missionaries to enter that country while it was down and seeking new answers to its dilemmas. Only a handful was sent by churches of Christ. Now Japan is prosperous and no longer feels the need for the more fulfilling pathway offered by Christianity. Harry R. Fox, Sr. wrote in 1946: "It will not be enough for the Japanese to come into contact with a handful of Christian missionaries. They must be permitted to deal with hundreds and thousands of Christians in every walk of life." This is still a great spiritual need in the land of Shinto and Buddhist culture.

According to our sources, the church has grown slowly and painfully in Japan, principally due to (1) the "group orientation" of the Japanese people, in which conformity is emphasized; (2) the scarcity of workers with longterm commitment and possessing a sound knowledge of the language and culture; (3) the use of American rather than Japanese methods of evangelism and teaching; and (4) the high level of relative prosperity presently enjoyed by the Japanese people.

Qualified missionaries for the Japanese work

All of this indicates the need for the kind of missionary who is well steeped in the language and culture, who understands Japanese mentality and methodology and who can truly identify with the Japanese people. It also indicates the need for longterm, patient effort. Missionary Joe Cannon says that Japan needs the "hard work of a harvester and the patience of a fisherman. The watchword is faithfulness ‑‑ faithfulness through it all and in spite of it all" (For Missionaries Only, p. 8).

Well‑prepared urban mission teams

There is also an urgent need for teams of evangelists to penetrate urban centers. According to the National Geographic, November 1986, today's Japanese youth are more independent‑minded and far less dedicated to conformity than are their parents. This may be God's time, then, to aim at Tokyo and other major cities there with well‑prepared teams. The Boston church, with its intense emphasis on urban evangelism, is taking large cities in Japan seriously, with a task force already in place in Tokyo. The failure of Japan's traditional religions to satisfy the hunger of the Japanese heart is clearly seen in the development of a new or at least syncretistic religion during each national crisis. If, and perhaps we should say when, Japan suffers a severe economic recession, she will again be seeking a religion to meet her spiritual needs. It is time, then, to prepare an all‑out blitz, through radio, TV, billboards and World Bible School. Teams of qualified urban missionaries must be commissioned to accomplish this challenging task.

Adequate leadership training for the churches

Dwight Albright, a former missionary to Japan, commented that "there is a feeling of desperation in Japan. The evangelists are aging and no one is there to take on responsibility." The Japanese are seeking to begin a small leadership training school to prepare workers in response to the graying of the church in Japan.

General Editor

Dr. Bob Waldron, Missions Consultant and Researcher


Dwight Albright, Park Avenue Church of Christ, 5295 Park Ave., Memphis, TN 38117

Resource People

Motoyuki Nomura, Japanese church historian, Bethany Home, l381 Koarama, Nagasaka‑cho, Kitakoma‑gun, Yamanashi, Japan 409‑15

Elmer Prout, Church of Christ, 1799 Cirby Way, Roseville, CA 95678

Union Avenue Church of Christ, 1930 Union Ave., Memphis, TN 38104

Dwight Albright, Park Avenue Church of Christ, 5295 Park Ave., Memphis, TN 38117

Sources Cites and Suggested Reading

Albright, Dwight A. 1977. Contextualizing the Gospel for the Japanese. Masters Thesis,
Harding Graduate School of Religion.

Aoki, Michiko and Margaret B. Dardess. 1986. As the Japanese See It: Past and Present.
Honolulu: University of Ha aii Press.

Carrell, Stephen W. 1977. An Analysis of Japanese Culture with a Recommended Approach
for Effective Urban Evangelism in Japan. Masters Thesis, Abilene Christian University.

Christian Chronicle. 1986. Special issue on Japan (February).

Condon, John C. 1984. With Respect to the Japanese: A Guide for Americans. Yarmouth,
ME: Intercultural Press.

Barrett, David B. 1982. World Christian Encyclopedia. Oxford, England: Oxford University

Blanchard, Charles. 1931. Building for the centuries: a memorial of the founders and builders. Semicentennial: 1881-1931 in Volume 1 of History of Drake University. Drake University, pp. 63, 123.

Drake University. 1906. “Brief History of Drake University, Drake Missionaries” in Annual Announcement of Courses, 1906-1907. 10:3 (June), p. 23.

Joliff, Daniel. 1981. History of Mission Work in Japan. Unpublished paper.

Fukutake, Tadashi. 1981. Japanese Society Today. Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press.

Lynn, Mac. 1990. Churches of Christ around the World. Nashville: Gospel Advocate.

McCaleb, J.M.. 1934. Once Traveled Roads Nashville: Gospel Advocate Pub. Co.

Miller, Bonnie. 2008. Messengers of the Risen Son in the Land of the Rising Sun: Single women missionaries in Japan. Abilene, TX: Leafwood.

Murakami, Shigeyoshi. 1980. Japanese Religion in the Modern Century. Tokyo: University
of Tokyo Press.

Operation World. 2010. Operation World: The Definitive Prayer Guide to Every Nation. 7th Ed. Edited by Jason Mandryk. Colorado Springs, CO: Global Mapping International. Professional Version. DVD-ROM.

Runkle, Scott F. 1976. An Introduction to Japanese History. Tokyo: International Society
for Educational Information Press.

Shipp, Glover. 1987. "Japan." World Scope, Pilot issue, February, 1987. Glover Shipp and Bob Waldron, eds. Abilene, TX: McCaleb Institute for Missions Education.

Shipp, Glover and Bob Waldron. 1989. Japan Nationscan. Abilene, TX: McCaleb Institute for Missions Education..

Smith, Robert J. 1974. Ancestor Worship in Contemporary Japan. Stanford, CA: Stanford
University Press.

Soltes, Fiona. 2009. Virtuous Servan: Sarah Sheppard Andrews, Christian Missionary to Japan. Franklin, TN: Providence House.

Turner, Gary Owen. 1972. Pioneer to Japan: A Biography of J.M. McCaleb. Masters Thesis,
Abilene Christian University.

World Convention. Profile on Japan. Accessed October 10, 2012.