It is the 26th of March 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1861.
We have talked about Christianity in Japan a few times before on this show. The truth is that Christianity in Japan only goes so far back as the Portuguese in the later 16th century on the Catholic side and just a little bit later with Dutch Protestants. The real missionary action wouldn't occur until into the 19th century.
You may remember Shusaku Endo, who we have remembered on this show before. He is the Japanese Christian writer responsible for the work "Silence." It is the story of Portuguese Jesuits traveling to Japan to find their mentor, who is said to have apostatized. Much of Endo's writing centers on what he calls the "swamp." The "swamp" is that spiritual condition in Japan that made it difficult for any foreign religion, but perhaps Christianity the most, to penetrate the country.
After the initial contact between Christian missionaries and the Japanese, let's run down a few things that would set the stage for new approaches to the Christian faith on that island nation.
The Edo period ran, on our calendar, from 1603 to 1868. This is the era of the shogunate and relative peace. Japan was open to outside trade, but the military dictatorship cracked down on anything perceived as too western. Christianity was at the forefront of that which was perceived as too western.
The Edo period gave way to the Meiji Restoration, which sounds nice. Restoration! Well, it was a little more coup-ish than we tend to emphasize because of the results. From certain perspectives were quite good. Under the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912), the Japanese sought to integrate into the growing world trade system. And to do so, they needed to modernize. And the Western Enlightenment ideal of toleration would drive the conversation. To secure the benefits of a global economy, the Meiji constitution included modified freedom of religion clause that allowed Christians to practice openly.
And today, we remember a man on the vanguard of the modern Japanese-Christian movement whose radical ideas would ultimately marginalize him amongst mainstream Japanese Christians.
Uchimura Kanzo was born on the 26th of March in 1861 into a Samurai family. He was sent to begin his education at the age of 6. Note that this would be 1867, one year before the end of the Edo period and the beginning of the Meiji Restoration.
At 13, he began attending a foreign language school, and his capacity for foreign languages earned him a trip to Sapporo Agricultural School, where he would encounter western missionaries. Most of Kanzo's class was baptized the year before he arrived. He would, however, not bend to pressure and would take a year to examine the claims of Christianity before being baptized in 1878.
Like many educated Japanese men in this era, Kanzo came to America and attended Amherst College. He attended seminary but dropped out as he was becoming increasingly convinced that true Christianity existed without hierarchy or distinction.
He returned to Japan, where he worked as a teacher until an "imperial rescript for education" required all faculty to pay homage to the emperor and stress respect for social superiors. Refusing, Uchimura would work as a journalist as he formulated what would become the "Mukyokai" movement. "Mu" is Japanese for "not," and "Kyokai" is Japanese for "church." This was a movement that sought to make the distinction between the body of believers and the institutional church. Kanzo wanted to avoid importing a western brand of Christianity but was also careful to distinguish between Christianity and Japanese culture. Kanzo believed that this "church without walls" model was a legitimate tradition. And he was right.
In subsequent years as the Japanese church amalgamated Japanese culture and western missionaries, the radical Kanzo and his non-Church movement would be pushed aside. Today the movement still exists with tens of thousands of members in Japan and Korea. Known for their pacifism and criticism of social injustices, one might draw a parallel between the movement and the Quakers.
Uchimura Kanzo was familiar with their theology from his time studying in America. Today we remember the movement and the man on this the 159th anniversary of his birth on the 26th of March in 1861.
The reading for today is a word on hope from N.T. Wright.
"Hope has to do, not with steady progress, but with a belief that the world is God's world, and that God has continuing plans for it. The signs of this hope within the world at large are not the evidences of an evolution from lower to higher forms of life, or from one ethical or political system to another, but the signs built into the created order itself: music, the birth of a baby, the appearance of spring flowers, grass growing through concrete, the irrepressibility of human love. Some parts of our world simply point beyond themselves, and say "Look! Despite all, there is hope."
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 26th of March 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by Christopher "don't touch the mustache" Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan "Eat a Duck I must" van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day. And remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true. Everything is going to be ok.