Photo courtesy of Katsuki Hirano
Katsuki Hirano: Don't be afraid to become a minority
A pastor from Japan, where Christians are less than 1 percent of the population, says numbers are not important. What is important is to obey and to follow Jesus, honestly and faithfully.
February 12, 2013 | Unlike in some other Asian countries, Christianity never flourished in Japan, and even today it accounts for less than 1 percent of the population.
Yet smallness alone is not important, said the Rev. Katsuki Hirano, a Presbyterian pastor and the chair of Japan’s School of Preachers.
“The smallness of the church doesn’t matter for us,” Hirano said. “Our responsibility is to preach the word of God faithfully. After that, God will do something, although we can’t predict what.”
Despite efforts to suppress Christianity in Japan dating back centuries, the religion has always somehow managed to survive, Hirano said.
“I think the lesson for American churches and pastors is, ‘Don’t be afraid to become a minority.’ The word of God is still living among us in Japan.”
Hirano is the senior pastor of Daita Church, a Presbyterian congregation in Tokyo, and chair of The School of Preachers, an organization that provides continuing education in homiletics to pastors throughout Japan. He is also the executive editor of Ministry, a magazine for pastors.
Hirano is the author of five books and has translated several works by American theologians into Japanese, including “The Concise Encyclopedia of Preaching,” edited by Will Willimon and Richard Lischer; “A Theology of Preaching,” by Lischer; and “The Word Before the Powers: An Ethic of Preaching,” by Charles Campbell.
Hirano spoke with Faith & Leadership while at Duke Divinity School for a consultation on Northeast Asia hosted by the Center for Reconciliation. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: Give us an overview of Christianity in Japan.
Today it’s less than 1 percent of the population -- 0.7 or 0.6 percent. We are a minority, and so there are many struggles in the daily life of Christians in Japan. Now the membership is getting older and older, and the church is shrinking. It’s not easy.
Q: Why did Christianity never take root in Japan as it did in Korea and in China?
Generally, Christianity was always persecuted by the government and was viewed as anti-government. Catholic missionaries came to Japan in the middle of the 16th century, but within 50 years, it was prohibited to evangelize people.
Under the Tokugawa policies, between 1603 and the late 1800s, Japan was closed to foreigners, and many Christians were killed. But for 250 years, Christianity survived underground. We call them the hidden Christians.
And after the closed policy was ended, when missionaries returned, they found that Christianity was still alive. But later, at the end of the 19th century, Japan had a military government that also persecuted Christians, because most Christians were anti-military government.
Today, many Japanese still view Christianity as not a Japanese religion but a religion from abroad.
When Protestant missionaries came almost 150 years ago, they built many hospitals and schools and social welfare programs and won the respect of many ordinary people in Japan. Christianity as a culture was respected, but it’s not easy to change a way of life.
It’s like the title of Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas’ book “Resident Aliens.” I love that idea, because in Japan, Christians are very [much] resident aliens.
Q: You are the director of The School of Preachers in Japan. Tell us about that.
The School of Preachers is not a building with classrooms but kind of a continuing education program for preachers and pastors. The seminaries are so small in Japan that it is very difficult to have a continuing education program.
The School of Preachers was founded 25 years ago. We now have 18 branches with more than 250 members all over Japan, representing more than 30 denominations.
Every branch meets once a month. They read a book on homiletics. They critique each other’s sermons. Also, about once a year we have a national meeting, and for the past four years have invited a homiletician from abroad to lecture. Almost all the preachers have fewer than 30 members in their congregations -- some just 10 -- but they are very eager to learn homiletics.
Q: How does being such a small minority shape the task of preaching and of training preachers?
We believe that what changes the church or the society is not the style of the church or the way the church evangelizes or how the churches are run but the word of God. So we train pastors how to hear the word of God through the Bible.
We are strongly influenced by the meditation movement, or the reflection movement. In World War II in Germany, there was a Confessing Church movement led by [Karl] Barth, [Dietrich] Bonhoeffer and others. In such a difficult time, they listened to the Bible as the word of God. They believed that to listen to the Bible as the word of God and to preach the word of God should change the world, should change the people. We are strongly influenced by Barth.
Q: Is being a Christian in Japan in some ways like being part of the Confessing Church movement, at least in the sense of being so different from the dominant culture?
Yeah. We don’t think that the number of Christians is important. What is important is how you obey and how you follow Jesus, honestly and faithfully. Christianity is not a majority in Japan. We’re always a minority. So the number of Christians or the percentage of Christians doesn’t matter for me.