Although traditional hindrances linger, a new sense of openness is evident in Graham mission

“God’s Tears” was the sermon title at Kurume Christ Church on the outskirts of Tokyo on a cold, January Sunday, which was also the final day of the Billy Graham Mission 94 taking place in the 50,000-seat Tokyo Dome. Kurume’s pastor, Howard Blair, was part of the American occupation force after World War II and has been a teacher and preacher in Japan for more than 35 years. In his sermon on Jesus weeping over the death of Lazarus, he asked: “Why did Jesus wait?”

That difficult question of why God tarries when people are in great need has been asked countless times by Japanese Christians and missionaries who over many years have seen their best efforts produce modest results: 70 percent of Japanese churches have average attendances of fewer than 30 people, according to the missions handbook Operation World.

Yet Buddhists and ancestor-worshiping Shintoists successfully maintain deep roots in modern Japan. During January, Japanese fill the country’s temples and shrines, celebrating the New Year. And on January 15, Coming-of-Age Day, young people who have turned 20 are honored in a national holiday and special temple rites. Saito Takayo, a Christian woman who is a pearl dealer from Fukuoka City, says, “The real problem is that when a person becomes a Christian, she is cut off from the family.

“In Japan, we have idol worship. Lots of it,” Takayo says. “The Japanese people have this sense of spiritual blindness. I have watched the missionaries weep over the idol worship. The prayers and tears of the missionaries and others who have stood against idol worship are turning into tears of joy. I believe that each tear is a seed.”

After years of prayer and patient ministry by Japan’s Christians, the four-day Graham crusade saw the largest Christian-sponsored gathering in Japanese history when 45,000 crowded the indoor baseball stadium on the third night. The response rate was three times the average of recent American crusades, Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) officials say. Another sign that the spiritual climate of the nation may be changing is that during a three-day mission last November, Japanese leaders successfully held a rare nationwide revival in Osaka, the country’s second-largest urban area.

Japan’s long recession

Three years of stubborn recession and rising unemployment in Japan have provoked a new level of searching for ways to solve the country’s problems. About two years ago, Japanese Christian church leaders, overcoming their initial reluctance to invite a “Western evangelist” to Japan, invited Billy Graham to return to Tokyo. His last crusade here was in 1980. Since the original invitation was accepted, political and economic conditions have steadily worsened to the point where the economy of Great Britain will grow faster than Japan’s for the second year in a row.

Article continues below

The infamous incidents of “salarymen” falling over dead on the job have been replaced by the prospect of unemployment as the country’s manufacturing firms trim bloated payrolls.

Political upheaval also has damaged the country’s self-image. The ouster of the party that ruled the nation since the end of World War II has added to the climate of uncertainty and a crisis of confidence, whereas five years ago many Japanese industrialists foresaw only uninterrupted growth into the next century.

Graham’S View From Japan

An unusually large number of journalists attended the Tokyo crusade opening press conference. What follows are excerpts from the 90-minute session with about 50 members of the Japanese and foreign press:

Why are there so few Christians in Japan?

The mayor of Osaka said that he did not think Christianity had been made simple enough or clear enough to the Japanese people. I also think that a distinction needs to be made between Christianity and Jesus Christ.

I am not calling people to come to the religion of Christianity. I am calling them to give their lives to the person of Jesus Christ and follow him. We believe there is power in the Cross because he put all our sins on the Cross, and because of that God can forgive us. It’s not easy to follow Christ; that’s why we need his help.

It would not be easy to follow all the sayings of Buddha or live the kind of life Confucius would have us to live. To follow Jesus may be difficult, but compared to the others it’s very easy, because Christ lives in our hearts, and he was raised from the dead.

Japan is in its worst recession since World War II. Unlike other recessions, this one is blamed on speculative excesses of the 1980s—the bubble economy. Do you expect that because the strong economy that people counted on has let them down, you will get a more serious hearing from the average Japanese?

When people face any kind of a crisis, they have a tendency to turn to religion or to God. I’m not saying Christianity [but] religion. Most people in the world look at Japan and do not think of recession. And they wish they had the standard of living and the income that the average Japanese has. But there has been a small drop in the economic situation, and people are concerned. Possibly, the greatest motivation, humanly speaking, is the fact that they are finding that materialism does not satisfy the inner longing of the heart.

Article continues below

This new era in Japan is being called a spiritual era. But isn’t it difficult to express spirituality in daily life?

In the Christian faith, maybe other religions as well, there needs to be a time every day that you set aside for meditation—in our case, to read the Bible, to pray, to ask God to lead us and direct us that day and keep us from the temptations of materialism or sexual temptations.

In the hotel room I am staying in they have a book: The Teaching of Buddha. And almost every day I have been here, I have read some of the sayings of Buddha. And many of those sayings are almost identical with the sayings of Jesus. There will be many things that we can identify with in other religions. [But] there is an exclusiveness to Christ.

The Devil is busy. There is a supernatural power of evil oppressing much of the world.

Japan has a less exclusive view of religion than Americans do. People tend to have two, or even three faiths here at the same time, with no particular problem. Is this acceptable to you when people accept Christ at your crusade? Is it okay for them to continue to think of themselves as Shinto or Buddhist as well?

Jesus did say, “I am the way, the truth and the life. And no one comes to the Father but by me.”

Has Christianity become too Americanized?

America is not a Christian country. It’s a secular country in which many Christians dwell. We are made up of all the religions of the world. We have thousands of mosques in America. We are a pluralistic society, so I could not say that Christianity has become too Americanized. If it became Americanized, I would fear for the future of Christianity.

What made you move from being a college president to evangelistic work?

I wasn’t a very good president. I felt called of God [to become an evangelist]. And my wife felt it even more than I did. The word gospel means “good news.” I think it’s good news when people begin to learn that there is a supernatural power called God, and that God loves.

He will forgive us of our sins. He gives us hope when we die that we will go to heaven.

Kaoru Kishida, general secretary for the crusade, says the Japanese people “are seeking and searching for a certain way” to solve their problems. While most proposals for change involve political or economic policy, Morihiro Hosokawa, the new prime minister, has spoken out for change in the Japanese mindset, advocating greater concern for individuals and quality of life. But thus far, his reform coalition has lacked the skill and power to bring about significant change of any kind.

Article continues below

Against this backdrop, some 1,300 churches joined efforts for the January 13–16 crusade. Since the 1980 crusade, the Christian church has grown and developed. But active church members still represent about 1 percent of the 123 million people. One church leader has described this as the problem of “the back-door church,” in which new Christians come into a church, but quickly fall away out “the back door.”

Koji Honda, an 82-year-old Japanese Christian evangelist, says, “We are not too strong, but I don’t think we should be disappointed. I am hopeful that evangelism with God’s power will overcome this poor statistic.

“We will overcome this barrier, and Japanese Christians are working together to exalt the name of God,” Honda says. “When God’s Spirit and the Cross are revealed to the Japanese, I believe Japan will change. This is a time of new birth.” Honda was the top leader for the 1980 crusade and has been an itinerant evangelist in Japan for 60 years.

Services were sent via satellite to 60 sites across Japan. At Tokyo Dome, the cumulative total attendance was 125,000. A frequent complaint was the poor quality of the sound, which technicians attempted to fine-tune.

Since Tokyo is one of the most expensive cities in the world in which to do business, crusade leaders put special emphasis on local fundraising. One tiny church of less than 20 members near Tokyo jointly contributed about 200,000 yen ($1,800 U.S.) to the crusade. Christians also poured their energies into inviting friends and family to the crusade. One pastor reported that a woman in his church invited every one of her contacts, and about 80 people accepted her invitation to services.

The crusade drew so many Koreans that a special FM radio broadcast was set up inside Tokyo Dome. Cliff Barrows, a crusade mainstay for more than 40 years, for the first time was unable to help lead a crusade, due to his wife’s life-threatening illness.

A painful past

Although Christianity was first introduced to Japan in 724 with a Persian physician’s visit to the Japanese emperor, progress has been painfully slow and marked by much persecution. The Roman Catholic Church notes 3,125 believers were martyred from 1597 to 1660. Christians in some cases were tortured, burned at the stake, or even boiled in sulphur for refusing to give up Christian beliefs. Those years of intense repression came after an initial widespread acceptance of Christian belief in connection with the arrival of Jesuit missionaries and Francis Xavier in 1549. Yet in 1613, the Tokugawa shogunate issued a prohibition against Christianity that lasted 259 years.

Article continues below

Modern-day Protestant missions to Japan got under way in the late nineteenth century. However, genuine freedom of religion did not occur until after World War II. Today there are 3,000 missionaries in Japan, yet Buddhism and Shinto continue to be preeminent, even though Japanese buy about one million Bibles annually and Western-style marriage ceremonies are in vogue.

Motoyoshi Tago, group vice president of Word of Life Press ministries, says Japanese people find no contradiction in adhering to more than one faith. To the contrary, they have much greater difficulty with the exclusivity of Christianity. Government statistics show that many individuals report themselves to be both Buddhist and Shintoist.

“There is prejudice against Christianity as a foreign religion,” Tago says. “The concept of God as sovereign and personal is a little bit foreign.” He says the cultural emphasis on group identity, harmony, and long-standing suspicion of foreign influences all have worked against the widespread acceptance of Christianity.

Others, however, see the rejection of Christian belief in terms of spiritual warfare. Col. Theodore Morris, head of the Salvation Army in Japan, says, “You can even sense and feel the presence of evil ones in evangelistic services. This is one of the strongholds of the Evil One, and he’s not going to let this country go without a real fight.

“I have never sensed the evil atmosphere as I sense in Japan, and that’s over 23 years [of ministry,]” Morris says. “In people’s faces, when they are considering accepting Christ as Savior, you can see a real battle. This country [has] 3,000 years of paganism. That’s why so few make that really definite decision. Théy have got to break with family ties—a very difficult thing for them.”

Churches around the country are becoming bolder in attempting more innovative methods, including starting hospices for the terminally ill and building Christian wedding chapels. Another Christian group has started ongoing “prayer walks,” marching with a cross around the Imperial Palace in central Tokyo.

Article continues below

Siegfried Buss, a Japan-born German and a language professor at Tokyo Christian University, says the crusade organizers were wise to use the slogan “Start with the Local Church, and End with the Local Church” because it encouraged lay involvement. “That is something very new for Japan. [Lay-people] had an active part in the crusade in training counselors and volunteers.”

What about the men?

One of the most longstanding difficulties for Japanese churches has been the lack of involvement by men. Japanese Christians are mostly women in small congregations, spread out across Japan’s four main islands. Men often find the business and cultural barriers against becoming Christian too difficult to surmount. Christian men’s-group ministry is still in its infancy.

However, in an important breakthrough, Graham officials noted Tokyo crusade reports revealed that 40 percent of the inquirers were men.

At one service, Tomoharu Kagami, 68, a Japanese man with advanced Parkinson’s disease, after hearing Graham talk about his own struggle with Parkinson’s, came to a decision to make a Christian commitment. An usher loaded Kagami on his back and took him piggyback down to the ballfield with his daughter and wife, along with 5,295 other inquirers.

Kagami’s right hand was shaking uncontrollably, a telltale Parkinson’s symptom. He was unable to fill out his commitment card, but a counselor helped. “I finally understand God’s grace,” Kagami said slowly. Yutaka Ikeda, a pastor from Fujisawa City, later said, “I prayed with them, and I looked up and they were all weeping and weeping. Every one of them.”

By Timothy C. Morgan in Tokyo.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.