My first encounter with the evangelical import of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach in Japan came some twenty years ago from the pen of Lutheran journalist-theologian—and 1517 Senior Distinguished Fellow—Uwe Siemon-Netto. “J.S. Bach in Japan,” published in First Things in 2000, highlighted the broad fervor and appreciation for Bach’s artistic and spiritual depth. For Japan’s highly secularized elite, alienated by collapsing opportunity and the materialistic void left behind, Bach’s music was a balm against suicide, pornography, and complete generational breakdown. Siemon-Netto revisited the theme in several subsequent publications (see below for the references).
These articles were a lifetime in the making. “I am as familiar with Bach’s music as I am with potato dumplings,” Siemon-Netto said to me in a recent conversation. As a child of the Leipzig bourgeoisie, he attended his first cantata service at the Thomaskirche at age four. His mother was a leader of a local oratorio; members of the famous Gewandhaus orchestra would gather at the family home for music making. After that apartment was bombed in 1943, the tradition continued at his grandmother’s house.
So it is no surprise that his ears perked up when he heard Bach’s name while on assignment for Axel-Springer in Vietnam in the early 1960s. The German embassy had sponsored a concert at the local Buddhist university. When Siemon-Netto asked some Buddhist monks (of the Theravada tradition) in attendance what they thought, they replied, “Well, yes, but that is God.”
It wasn’t the first time Siemon-Netto had experienced the faith evoking power of Bach’s music. As a child he had witnessed officially non-Church SS officers suddenly become pious when they experienced Bach’s church music. The officially atheist director of the Neue Bach Gesellschaft (perhaps Hans Pischner) confessed to the reporter: “I am a Marxist-Leninist, of course I cannot believe… until I hear Bach. Then everything changes.” The same held true for sailor-suited boys of Leipzig’s Thomanerchor: “You cannot remain a heathen when you sing these works.” And British scientist-agnostics like Arthur Peacock, who felt that the Art of the Fugue had to be divinely inspired, and was converted.
The story lay dormant for decades until Siemon-Netto went to Japan in the mid 1990s to attend a conference on terrorism. Tokyo and its citizens were still reeling from the nerve-gas attacks inflicted by the apocalyptic Aum Shinrikyo cult. After interviewing a top cult leader, his interpreter Azusa was so disturbed as to suggest an antidote: a Bach concert.
At the concert he met and the next day interviewed Masaaki Suzuki, now many-times-laureled leader of the still active and renowned Bach Collegium Japan. Suzuki confirmed Siemon-Netto’s accumulating experience: “It is impossible to say how many of my performers and listeners will ultimately become Christians,” but probably in the tens of thousands, he told the journalist.
Siemon-Netto’s interpreter, Azusa, was perhaps typical of these “converts,” many of whom might never be baptized. Bach’s church music spoke and affectively illustrated the afflicted reality of the world and the possibility of its salvation. Azusa’s favorite CD was of BWV 170, which begins with these words:
The world, that place of sin,
bursts out only in hellish songs
and strives through hatred and envy
to bear upon itself the image of Satan.
Not only the honesty, but the possibility of forgiveness impressed her:
But since also my enemy
as if he were my best friend
should be loved by me according to God's commandment
then there depart from my heart anger and resentment
and my wish is to live for God alone
Who is Love itself. (translation by Francis Brown)
“This has taught me what [God and Love] mean to Christians” she told Siemon-Netto, “and I like it very much.”
This same story kept cropping up. Immersion in Bach’s Goldberg Variations awakened Masashi Masuda to something bigger and he eventually joined the Jesuit order and taught theology at Sophia university. Musicologist Keisuke Maruyama went to Leipzig to study the Lutheran lectionary cycles and ended up telling Thomaskirche Dean Johannes Richter: “It is not enough to read Christian texts, I want to be a Christian myself. Please baptize me.”
All this was over 20 years ago, so does Bach’s influence still matter? It’s a difficult question to answer. There is perhaps no country more enthralled with classical music than Japan, and Bach’s music holds a special place for devoted fans. The Chofu International Music festival, for example, has entitled this year’s edition: “‘Bach’ to the Future.” The Bach Collegium Japan continues its musical as well as Christian catechetical work, as evinced by the erudite and complete concert program materials.
But few aficionados go as far as professor Maruyama and seek baptism. As all who study Bach are well aware, his music is embedded in a figural world much richer than can be explored in mere concert programs. Entire dissertations have been devoted to exegesis of a single cantata. Liturgy, Scripture, psalms, and chorale, all work together to build up layers of meaning whose significance can only be apprehended with time and study, not mere enthusiasm.
Japan, that farthest country to the East, that place beyond all reach, where Christianity has failed all attempts to make a foothold, has found a great evangelist in Bach.
It is precisely in order to address this lacunae that Japan Lutheran Seminary’s Luther Study Institute has launched a “Bach Studies Society”. Bach is by far the most famous Lutheran in Japan, but local churches have yet to build upon his musical or catechetical foundation. Who better than the Lutherans to mine Bach’s treasures to missionary effect?
Japan, that farthest country to the East, that place beyond all reach, where Christianity has failed all attempts to make a foothold, has found a great evangelist in Bach. Since moving here two years ago I’ve heard of two people receiving baptism after a journey that began with Bach. Yet for most, that musical journey will end, as Shusako Endo so painfully depicts, in Silence. “Confession” (信仰) is an uncomfortable act for most Japanese, who prefer instead to talk around important matters
Christians make up only around 1.5% of the Japanese population. The influence and regard for Christianity, however, is far greater. Through mission schools, hospitals, social work, and music, many Japanese are introduced to Christianity. But they do not “join.” In this way, though, devotion to Bach is a quintessentially Japanese way of expressing interest in Christianity: indirect. Silent faith expresses itself in music.
“J. S. Bach in Japan)” First Things, June 2000.
“The Gospel According to J. S. Bach,” Civilization, February/March 2000.
“Bach’s Missionary Mystery,” The Cresset, 2004.
“Why Nippon Is Nuts about J. S. Bach: The Japanese Yearn for Hope,” The Atlantic Times, December 2005.
“Bach in Japan,” Christian History and Biography, 2007.
Mary Rezac, “How the Beauty of Bach’s Music Evangelized Japan. An Interview with Uwe Siemon-Netto,” Catholic News Agency, June 2, 2016.