The history of religion during the past 1000 years is the story of Islam and Christianity.
Muslim and Christian missionaries have tirelessly spread their faiths to all corners of the earth. Indonesia is 87 percent Muslim. There are more ethnic Indians who are Muslim than there are total people in North America. Thirty percent of South Koreans are Christians. There are even 50 million Christians in Red China.
There is exactly one civilized country on the planet that has not been touched by the cross or the crescent: Japan.
From business suits to central banking to baseball, Japan has often been eager to adopt Western customs. But when it comes to Western Gods, Japan has always said “no” harder than a 3-year-old listening to Amy Winehouse.
The question is why.
My theory is that the Japanese commitment to Family Unity is not consistent with religious conversion.
In America, if your brother has a religious conversion and is happy with his new faith, you are probably going to be happy for him. In Japan, if your brother has a personal religious conversion unrelated to the family, he is a traitor who has betrayed his father and his ancestors.
In Japan, the social necessity to get along with your group is more important than religion, faith, and truth.
Anyway, that’s just my theory as to why Japan never became Christian. Martin Scorsese has a different theory.
“Silence” tells the story of two Jesuit priests – Rodrigues and Garupe (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) – who make a perilous journey to 17th century Japan. They know full well that Christianity is punishable by death in Japan. But there is a rumor that their mentor Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has renounced the faith, and the young priests are driven by the need to save him.
In Japan, the priests meet two types of people: desperate Christian peasants who are brave but ignorant. And the Japanese authorities, who are smart, civilized, philosophical, and focused on their task of ridding their homeland of outside influences.
“Silence” is a long, harrowing movie. It’s a personal story of faith that is clearly meaningful to writer/director Scorsese. As a young man, Martin Scorsese almost became a priest. And you can feel his love of Christ mixed with anguish and doubt as expressed through poor Rodrigues.
But though Scorsese’s heart is with the Christians, his mind is with the Japanese. When the Inquisitor engages Rodrigues, he tries to gently help the priest understand how unwise it would be for him to let Westerners have too much influence over his subjects. Rodrigues sounds like a selfish simpleton, speaking only in theological dogmas and ignoring the Inquisitor’s concerns.
Perhaps my theory that Christianity is inconsistent with Japanese culture is nonsense. “Silence” makes a stronger argument about why Western religion never took hold in Japan.
In the end: the Japanese aren’t Christian because their leaders didn’t want them to be. And they had the organization and strength of will to stomp out Western influences in a way that no one else could.