Japan: Filling the God Vacuum

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Christianity in Japan has faced an uphill battle for hundreds of years. Religious freedom didn't come to the island nation until around the time of America's civil war.

Before then, persecution was so severe that many Japanese Christians were nailed to crosses or burned at the stake with their children.

As recent as World War II the emperor called himself god, demanding the worship of his country.

After Hiroshima and surrender, the call went out for 1,000 missionaries. U.S. General Douglas MacArthur called Japan a spiritual vacuum. Sixty years later, that vacuum still remains, leaving a state of confusion.

In today's Japan, there's a popular saying: Japanese are "born Shinto, marry Christian, and die Buddhist." The lines between the predominant religions are blurred in a spiritual hodge-podge.

Many have looked to the economy to fill their 'God vacuum.' But recently it's been faltering, and many jaded Japanese have lost hope.

"But now we have everything, but what is lacking is purpose," Christian leader Kiku Horinouchi explained. "Why are we here? We can't answer the question 'who are you?' unless we know the Creator God -- then everything makes sense."

"There is what you might call a 'dark night of the soul' to use that phrase to describe the Japanese right now," said renowned researcher George Gallup, Jr.

In fact, Gallup found that 11 percent of the Japanese wish they had never even been born. That's reflected in the country's unusually high suicide rate. But a new survey by Gallup says that might be changing.

When asked about their religion, four percent of adults and seven percent of teenagers checked "Christian," out of a list of many different religions. That figure made big news when it was released earlier in 2006. The official number of Christians, according to the CIA World Fact Book, is less than one percent of the population.

Pastor Hosoi Makoto leads a congregation in Tokyo.

"From our point of view, the sense we have that the percentage suddenly went from under one percent to maybe five times that is, uh, unimaginable -- and we don't get the feeling that that has actually happened," he said.

While that number may not be born-again believers in Jesus Christ, researchers believe it could definitely mean Japanese hearts are softening toward the Gospel.

"This doesn't mean that they are church members," Gallup said, "And it doesn't mean that they are solidly committed. But they identify with Christianity. Something about the ideas of Christianity and the values of Christianity appeal to them."

One of the reasons why so many Japanese feel they can associate themselves with Christianity is the popularity of Western or Christian-style weddings.

"It's the element of joy that comes through in the Christian weddings that appeals to the Japanese," Gallup said.

Beyond that, the Japanese love affair with all things Western means a growing number of them are trading in the traditional kimono for the big white dress and tux.

Another reason the Japanese are softening up to the message of the Bible is the incredible phenomenon of black Gospel music. Believe it or not, the reserved Japanese love the toe-tapping, finger-snapping, always swaying music.

Gospel music singer Garrison Davis has lived in Japan for eight years.

"When they get in to an atmosphere of faith, where there is the Word being spoken or where there is Gospel music that is anointed and coming forth, their spirit is pricked," Davis said. "They really don't understand what's happening at that point. What they're dealing with is really the emotional aspect of it."

Many Japanese who like Gospel music have yet to understand the words behind the music, and much of it has become a commercial industry.

"They don't have a sense of value with regard to who God really is and why we need to receive Christ," Davis said. "What they see is the Western images of 'religiosity' -- 'religiosity and Christendom, if you will."

That is where Gallup believes a movement called the Alpha Course can have some success. People meet in small groups and hear a thorough presentation of the Gospel, while hitting real-life issues head on. It meets the Japanese at their point of need, hoping to shed some light into the "dark night of the soul."

"God says, 'You are precious in My sight, I love you.' And that is a key word for Japan," Kiku said. "Everybody is looking for their value, worth, state of worth, but God says, 'You are valuable.'"

It's that disconnect between a Christian image and a real relationship with Jesus Christ that the Japanese don't seem to get.

"More Japanese need to know who Jesus is and what Christianity stands for," Gallup said. "Jesus is irresistible, regardless of culture. That's the way I feel. If you know enough about Jesus, He's irresistible."

Scott Parrish, a missionary with Asian Access, said, "Romans 10:14 is really key. It says you can't believe in One you haven't heard of, and you can't hear unless someone tells you…Unless you hear about Him, you can't believe."

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Sarah Pollak

Sarah Pollak

CBN News

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