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Japanese churches must become more active, warns theologian

June 23, 2011

TOKYO

Japanese Christianity has “spinelessly gone along with the government,” mostly shunning social activism and becoming “excessively theoretical,” according to a leading theologian.

“What Christianity needs here is orthopraxy [right practice],” said Yasuo Furuya, professor of modern Christian systematic theology at Seigakuin University, north of Tokyo. The 85-year-old theologian made his comments in a new book, Is Christianity Real in Japan? released on June 1 by Kyo Bun Kwan, a Tokyo-based Christian publishing company.  

Furuya said Christian evangelism had long been overshadowed by the churches’ “compromise with militarism” in World War II, during which only Methodist groups had opposed government policy and faced oppression as a consequence.

“When socialists were oppressed by the government during the war, the churches broke off with socialism. One reason why the churches became powerless in Japan is that socially active Christianity became irrelevant.” The relationship between Christianity and Japan’s “emperor system” was in effect a “relationship between two religions,” Furuya added, which generally entailed that “if one becomes strong, the other becomes weak.”

“A Christianity that says nothing about social problems but merely preaches atonement is exactly the kind of Christianity the government wanted,” Furuya added in the book, noting that “that is why the government controlled the churches with the law [the Religious Corporation Act of 1939]. The churches were neatly trapped by the government.”

The book is the latest of several by the theologian, who has also authored two English-language works on the history of Christian theology in Japan.

In a 2003 book, he said the country’s “Samurai” elitist mentality had posed a barrier to the spread of Christianity, while in a separate 2007 work, he urged Japanese churches to stress God’s kingdom in order to overcome a “stagnation in evangelism” and “divisions between those focused on themselves and those socially active.”

Furuya said he believed Christians had remained at below one percent of Japan’s population of 127.5 million partly because their faith placed too much emphasis on cerebral knowledge and needed to become “a more popular and practical Christianity.”

He added that some Christians in modern Japan had apostatized, lapsed from their faith or dropped out, but said most of them could never have become martyrs.

“I think I wanted to publish this book as an attempt to escape from there,” the theologian said in the work. “Are we just spiritless humans who do neither good nor harm?”

Roman Catholic Christianity was brought to Japan by missionaries in the mid-16th century and faced official persecution until a ban on Christianity was lifted in 1873. In 2009, Japanese Protestants marked 150 years since their first mission.

Asked if he believed Christianity had changed in Japan after March 11, when the country was hit by an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power plant accident, Furuya said he had finished his latest book before the disaster, which brought a strong response by Christian churches, groups and individuals in the form of  prayers, donations and relief operations.

“I wrote about what happened before March 11 and did not write about what has happened since,” the theologian said in an ENInews interview. “I think the effects of March 11 will be revealed later on.”

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