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Percentage of Christians in Japan has been static for 450 years

The Christian population in Japan has remained at around one per cent of the country’s population since 1549, when Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier arrived, says a professor of the sociology of religion at Tokyo’s Roman Catholic Sophia University.

"But the young generation no longer has a negative image of Christianity, which was once stigmatised as heretical or a religion of Japan’s enemy [during the Second World War], as many of them are seeking Christian-style weddings," said Mark R. Mullins, author of the book "Christianity Made in Japan" that has sold thousands of copies in its Japanese version.

"The question is how the churches will change their exclusiveness and create a positive image," said Mullins speaking at a 16 June public lecture at Sophia University, a Jesuit institution.

Mullins, a member of the Anglican-Episcopal Church in Japan, had researched 13 indigenous Christian movements in Japan for about 10 years before the English original of the book was published in 1998. It was published last year in Japanese.

Considering whether the Christian population in Japan can go beyond one per cent of the current population of 127 million, Mullins pointed out that the major challenge for the churches is to change the "exclusiveness of the church organizations", which he said makes it difficult for Japanese to get involved.

"The attitude of the general Japanese public to religious organizations is the most severe now," he said. "Ever since the Aum [doomsday group’s nerve gas attack] incident [in Tokyo’s subway system] in 1995, all religious organizations [in Japan] are seen as dangerous. So, one of the problems for the churches is how they will change such a negative image of the church organizations."

Mullins, who studied in the United States and Canada, said: "Many young Japanese today study abroad, become Christians there in international and free environments, and come back to Japan. But they can’t fit into the Japanese churches." He added: "So, it is a challenge for the churches to be an attractive community to the next generation."

He said he did not think Christianity in Japan was lacking, but it trails behind Buddhism. "Buddhism had already penetrated Japanese culture and society in various forms in the 1000 years of its history before Christianity came into Japan again in the late 19th century."

One hundred years later, Christianity in Japan is now catching up with Buddhism, he noted. "But the problem is whether there is a need for that among the next generation. The young people today don’t feel very much that it is necessary."

The Rev. Nobuo Kaino, pastor of the United Church of Christ in Japan (UCCJ), in response to Mullins’ lecture cited Kenji Ishii, a Japanese scholar of religion at Kokugakuin University, saying that 85 per cent of all Japanese weddings are Christian-style.

"The young people have no hatred against Christianity anymore," said Kaino. "But the churches have no substance and methods to respond to them. This is the major problem."

(c) Ecumenical News International