16 February 2017
Simon Scott Plummer
Faith against the odds
In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians: A Story of Suppression, Secrecy & Survival
The story of Christianity in Japan is a gripping mixture of missionary zeal, political calculation, cowardice and heroism under persecution and, in numerical terms, ultimate failure. Martin Scorsese’s current film about seventeenth-century Portuguese missionaries in Japan, Silence, bristles with these themes. Today, Christians form fewer than 1 per cent of the Japanese population. Compare this with South Korea (around 30 per cent) and China, where adherents, estimated to be between 67 million and 100 million, could outnumber members of the Communist Party.
The Catholic novelist Shusaku Endo, on whose book, Silence, Scorsese’s film is based, likened Japan to a swamp in which the Hellenised Christianity introduced by Europeans would flounder. That may explain the relatively small number of followers, although it overlooks the wider influence of Christianity as exercised through schools and universities, hospitals and social welfare programmes. Despite low religious observance, the Christian message plays an important part in contemporary Japanese culture.
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