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Assyrian Christianity in Japan
by UCAN Report: JA9719.0970 Issued on: April 8, 1998
Posted: Thursday, December 21, 2000 10:27 pm CST


JAPAN CHRISTIANITY ARRIVED IN JAPAN CENTURIES BEFORE SAINT XAVIER, SCHOLARS SAY

TOKYO (UCAN) -- Contrary to popular lore, Christianity in Japan dates back centuries before the 1549 arrival of Jesuit missionary Saint Francis Xavier, a Christian evangelist and other researchers claim.

American Reverend Ken Joseph told a gathering here on March 16 that Christianity first came to the Far East roughly 1,800 years ago along the "Silk Road," passing through China to Nara, central Japan.

Evidence of this, Reverend Joseph said, was a copy of the Gospel of Saint Matthew in old Chinese script, dating back to the ninth century, found inside the Koryuji Buddhist Temple in Kyoto, near Nara.

This temple is cited by at least one historian as having been built about 818 atop a Christian building erected in 603 that was destroyed by fire.

"Many Buddhist temples were built on top of old, burned down Christian churches left in ruins. Diligent research today can still uncover these lost relics," Reverend Joseph said.

Researcher M.L. Young says that one of the most sacred objects of the Nishi Honganji Buddhist Temple, founded by Kobo Daishi in 806 after his contact with a Nestorian Christian monastery in Beijing, is "the Lord of the Universe's Discourse on Almsgiving," a commentary on the Sermon on the Mount and other Matthean passages.

Christianity was referred to as the "luminous religion" in Chinese records referring to Nestorian missioners, and in Japanese, "keikyo" (shining teachings) is used in general to describe Christianity in Asia.

Reverend Joseph, director of the Keikyo Institute in Tokyo, pastors his own Church in Nerima called Grace Chapel.

He presented slides of several artifacts and statues that once had Christian crosses carved into them, but which had subsequently been erased or modified by Buddhist followers, he alleged.

Nestorian Christianity dates back to Nestorius, a bishop of Constantinople, whose view on Jesus' having dual human and divine natures was rejected by the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431, leading to the creation of separate Nestorian Churches.

Some Japanese researchers say that the first bearers of Christianity to Japan were Hata people from modern-day Kazakhstan, who came to Japan from the Silk Road cities of Constantinople, Egypt and Persia starting around 200 A.D.

The next, they say, were the keikyo people from the (Nestorian) Assyrian Church of the East, who began coming to Japan from the fifth century onwards.

Reverend Joseph also spoke about the "hidden Christians," who for 200 years had managed to secretly keep their faith alive amidst brutal persecution by the Tokugawa shogunate during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Nagasaki was then the most important center of Christianity in Japan, having about a dozen churches and some 400,000 Catholics.

The Japanese tea ceremony "chado" was linked to the Catholic Mass, Reverend Joseph claimed, allowing practicing Christians to come together as a community to practice their faith through secret codes and adaptations.

For instance, tea cups were turned three times before drinking, to symbolize the Trinity, and napkins folded in a certain way to indicate that it was time to pray the Our Father silently.

Nonetheless, "more than one million Japanese were martyred for their faith during this reign of terror," which lasted until 1889, when the Meiji Constitution declared religious freedom in Japan, the evangelist added.

Reverend Joseph's assistant and fellow researcher Jann Hollingsworth displayed a map of Christian locations from northern to southern Japan, dispelling the notion that Christianity was confined to Nagasaki in the south.

"Christianity was much more widespread than believed," Hollingsworth said.



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