Commodore Perry brought the word back to Japan

07/10/2011
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TOKYO (majirox news) – Whatever had gone wrong for Christianity in Japan had gone terribly wrong. The first Christian missions of the 16th century had been successful. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Japan’s de facto ruler in Kyoto, had found the first missionaries – mostly Jesuits and Dominicans – much to his taste. St. Francis Xavier recorded his favorable assessment of the Japanese. No more promising converts existed in the Far East, he found.

And then the missions fell on evil times in the 17th century. Catholic friars, Japan’s rulers felt, were bent on seizing power. This could not be tolerated. Hideyoshi’s successors, notably Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the Edo Era (1603-1858), banned Christianity. A score of martyrs were crucified in Nagasaki. Thereafter, Japanese rulers granted favors only to a handful of Protestant Dutch traders in Nagasaki. Others were held at arm’s length.

America was bent on breaking the deadlock. This was Perry’s explicit mission. To open the door for the Lord. Of West Country Quaker stock, Perry was a natural for the job. He did it well. His moderation was lauded. Crucial to Perry’s success was that nobody was injured. There were no hostilities. For this, Perry was esteemed. Vital, too, was the fact he liked and respected the Japanese.

It would be going too far to call him another Xavier. Perry was no priest. Yet, following in his steps, came loads of American missionaries. Some destined for China, others Japan.

Today, a tiny proportion of the population is Christian. Buddhism and Shinto claim far more numerous followers. Yet, Japan always shows interest in Jesus’ teachings. Books on Christianity have recently sold well, far out of proportion to the number of Christians. What holds back Christianity, some Japanese say, is a claim to be exclusive. Japanese Buddhists have no problem in being adherents of Shinto, and vice versa.

Part of a series on Perry that Scott Stokes is writing for Majirox News. He was the former Tokyo bureau chief of the Financial Times, The Economist and The New York Times. His upcoming book on Commodore Perry is published by Overlook Press of New York..


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