Christianity In Japan (0/7)

Christianity and the Historical Climate of Japan:
Acceptance, Rejection and Transformation

Satoru Obara, S. J.
Tokyo: Sophia University, Kirishitan Bunko, 1994

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Fr. Satoru Obara, S.J.
Satoru Obara, S.J., the author

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0. Preface: From the Standpoint of Toynbee's Thesis

The First Fortuitous Encounter with Europe

When we hear the words, 'Europe and Japan', in most cases we think of the Meiji civilization and enlightenment in connection with the modernization of Japan. This is because the Meiji period is intimately related to the issues we are facing at the present time. The encounter between Europe and Japan, however, can be dated back three hundred years from the Meiji era (1868-1912).

Historically, the Japanese had been living in a region which was isolated from the outside world both geographically and ethnologically. The greater the isolation was, the more the Japanese, with their permanent and sharp receptivity and unbounded yearning, looked forward to an encounter with a culture of foreign origin. The history of Japan did not only unfold and develop within the narrow confines of Japan itself, but was also the result of fortuitous encounters and then of development with the continuous awareness of foreign countries, whether in a spirit of acceptance or one of rejection.

At the beginning of the modern age, Japan, for the first time, encountered Europe. How big was the impact of the encounter between the two different cultures?

Arnold J. Toynbee advanced the proposition concerning encounters with other civilizations that 'a fragment of a culture, split off from the whole and radiated abroad by itself, is likely to meet with less resistance, and therefore likely to develop ever faster [than the culture as a whole]' ('The World and the West'). To illustrate this thesis, he compared the encounter between Europe and Japan in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with the one in the Meiji era in the nineteenth century as follows.

Unknown Religion and Unknown Technology

After the Portuguese made their first appearance in the Far East in the sixteenth century, these Western intruders were expelled from Japan in the seventeenth century and from China in the eighteenth century. But they returned to the Far East in the nineteenth century and on this second attempt, they succeeded in introducing the Western way of life. What differences between these two successive Western attempts to captivate the Far East can be adduced to account for the failure of the first and the success of the second?

One obvious difference is technology. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Western ships and weapons were not so decisively superior to Far Eastern ships and weapons. When the Far East decided to break off relations with Europe, Western visitants were powerless to resist. But when the Westerners reappeared in the Far East in the nineteenth century, they attained overwhelming superiority over the Far East after having gone through the Industrial Revolution, and the Far East was bound to be opened up to meet a new technological challenge from the West. On the second encounter the Far Eastern peoples were decidedly reluctant to become involved with Western Europe but ultimately accepted Western way of life, whereas on the first encounter they had begun with welcome and curiosity, but ultimately rebuffed the Westerners.

The difference in the Far Eastern people's reaction to Western civilization on these two occasions was not arbitrary nor capricious. They reacted differently because the challenges with which they were confronted on the two occasions were not the same. In the nineteenth century Western civilization made its impact in the Far East primarily in the form of an unknown technology, whereas in the sixteenth century it had arrived primarily in the form of an unknown religion.

Total or Partial Reception of Culture

A strange technology is more easily accepted than a strange religion. Of course, the effect of adopting foreign technology will not remain superficial, but will gradually work its way down to the heart of society. A traditional culture can be wholly undermined by technology; once its outer defences have been breached it can be overwhelmed by the foreign culture, of which technology is the spearhead.

However, while the initial impact of technology is only superficial, religion goes straight down to the roots. For this reason the aggressive Western civilization that presents itself as a religion is likely to arouse stronger and swifter opposition than the one that presents itself as a technology.

Seventeenth century Japanese statesmen had no great objection to Western Christianity in itself. What they feared was that those of their countrymen whom these foreign missionaries were converting to Western Christianity would imbibe their adopted religion's fanatical spirit, and become some sort of 'fifth column'. It can be seen that there was great fear of the fundamental influence which this religion, Christianity, was capable of exercising--in short, its power to sway people's minds. This analysis enables us to understand why on the first occasion Western civilization, perceived as religion, was rejected in Japan while on the second occasion, perceived as technology, it was accepted. As we have seen, Toynbee's analysis helps to explain why Europe, in the guise of a culture based mainly on religion, was denied access to Japan in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, while on the other hand Europe in the guise of technology, disconnected from culture as a whole, was accepted with less resistance in the Meiji era. With this as a starting point, I would like to look into Europe's relationship with Japan--especially the encounter with Christianity which is the core of that relationship in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries--in the light of events in the Meiji era and in the modern period.

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