Back to All Stories

Past and Current Missionary Work in Japan

April 19, 2024 |  By Rebecca Olsen

As in much of East Asia, Christianity came to Japan through missionaries. Looking at past and current missionary work in Japan helps us better understand why this mission work is so important and what’s happening with religion in contemporary Japan. Keep reading to learn more.

History of Christianity and Mission Work

Early Christianity in the 1500s

Japan first experienced Christianity in the 1500s from Portuguese Catholic missionaries. People converted and were required to take on Portuguese Christian names and adopt Western cultural practices. Some of these converts, especially warlords, began destroying the traditional Japanese Buddhist and Shinto temples and shrines in their area. This identity change, destruction, and subsequent participation in a peasant revolution led the Japanese emperor to outlaw Christianity. He believed that Christians were trying to overthrow the government and turn Japan into a western colony. Christians were heavily taxed, persecuted, and martyred. “Hidden Christians” persevered, but in small numbers.

Return of Christianity in the 1800s

Protestant Christianity came to Japan when the country began to open up more, including to foreign religions, in the 1850s. Missionaries from various Protestant denominations started clinics and schools and contributed heavily to Bible translation projects. Unfortunately, the new ruler, Emperor Hirohito, began focusing on a military government when he came to power in 1926 and dramatically slowed the growth of Christianity.

Christianity in the 1900s-Present

It wasn’t until after World War II, when Christian U.S General MacArthur was the acting commander of Japan, that the country began inviting missionaries. Few missionaries actually arrived. There are now roughly 7,000 Protestant churches, predominantly located in cities and with less than 50 regular attendees.

Persecution and Challenges

Early Persecution

Historically, Japanese Christians faced great persecution. Many were martyred, especially the early Catholic converts, and there is now a basilica in a Nagasaki cathedral in their honor.

Other early forms of persecution focused on forcing Christians to deny their faith. A common tactic was to lay a venerated painting or icon of Jesus or the Virgin Mary on the ground and force suspected Christians to trample it and deny their faith.

Current Challenges

Japan’s new constitution following WWII guaranteed freedom of religion, including for Christians. However, native Christians and missionaries still face challenges. Christianity is a very small religious minority, and pastors often receive little support. Many of the Christians who attend church do not focus on making disciples and can often stay within their own subculture.

The pull to stay in that Christian subculture is strong since contemporary Japan is very secular and many people experience high rates of depression and even suicide. Japanese people remain the second largest unreached people group in the world.

Opportunities for the Gospel

People are looking for hope

Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, as well as one of the oldest populations in the world. This means that young and old people are all looking for hope. Christianity offers that much-needed hope.

Unreached people in rural areas

Rural areas are especially in need of hope, since most people there have never met a Christian or heard the Gospel. Thankfully, a new ministry called Rural Church Planting Network of Japan, an ANM partner, is working to fix this. Americans and Japanese people are working together to train people who are fluent in Japanese, and often native to the country, to plant and disciple home churches in rural areas.

How You Can Support Native Missionaries

Rural Church Planting Network of Japan

Many mission experts estimate that there are around 1,000 missionaries in Japan right now. However, until native Japanese people are making disciples, this missionary work will not reach its full potential. Praying for and financially supporting the Rural Church Planting Network of Japan will enable this necessary disciple-making.

Pray for native missionaries

So how can you pray for these and other native missionaries? We offer a free 7 Days of Prayer for Missionaries guide that will help you better understand the needs of native missionaries around the world. You can use this to pray for Japanese missionaries and also pray as the Holy Spirit leads you.

Past missionary work in Japan laid a small but strong foundation for current missionary work. Let’s come alongside missionaries in Japan, especially native ones, so we can see this large unreached people group come to saving knowledge of Jesus.

Pray for native missionaries in Japan and around the world with our free 7 Days of Prayer for Missionaries guide.


Photo by David Edelstein on Unsplash