- Religious sites, relics
indicate Christ beat Buddha to Japan
The Japan Times
In 1949, former Kyoto
University professor Sakae Ikeda wrote a letter in a Japanese newspaper requesting help.
"Whoever may want to help reintroduce Nestorianism . . . to Japan . . . is requested
to write me," the letter pleads.
The idea of
"reintroducing" Nestorian Christianity here might seem surprising taking into
account the official history textbook line that Christianity was introduced here by
Francis Xavier in 1549.
Yet, Ikeda is one
of a number of scholars who claim the Nestorian Church, or Church of the East, arrived in
Japan over 1,000 years before St. Francis was even born.
Church of the East," Ikeda continues in his letter, "the missionary enterprise
of the Christian faith flourished in Japan . . . (and) exerted not a little influence on
proponent of this theory is Japan-born American Ken Joseph, whose ancestors were among the
missionaries who brought Christianity to the Far East around 1,500 years ago.
Over 50 years of
research on the subject by Joseph and his father culminated in the publishing of a book
this year, "Jujika no kuni -- Nihon" (Japan: The Nation of the Cross), in which
the authors tell the largely hidden story of early Christianity in Japan and introduce
Christian sites throughout the nation.
Yet, Joseph says it
was the uncovering of the Da Qin monastery in Xian, China that has provided the most
conclusive evidence that the church made it here. The two Chinese characters for Da Qin,
he says, correspond to "Uzumasa" in Japanese. Uzumasa-dera is one of the names
given to a Kyoto temple long thought to have once been a place of Christian worship. Even
today there are remnants there indicating its Christian past, Joseph says.
Built at the
beginning of the 7th century, the temple, better known today as Koryu-ji, was founded by
Hata no Kawakatsu, a member of the influential Hata family, whose more important members
are thought to have arrived in Japan from Korea in AD 400.
However, in a book
penned in the 1960s, Kyoto professor Ikeda claims that the Hata clan were from Turkestan.
"The Hatas were a Nestorian tribe who . . . migrated to Japan via China and Korea in
search of religious freedom," Ikeda writes. "Although they were persecuted by
Buddhists in both China and Korea, they were granted full freedom in all but name from the
time of their arrival."
The temple also
housed a shrine to St. David and a holy well upon which stood a sacred tripod symbolizing
the holy Trinity, Ikeda says. A tripod, built in the style of a triangular
"torii," can still be seen at the temple today.
Koryu-ji was one of
the sites Joseph visited for his book. Others included Horyu-ji temple in Nara Prefecture,
originally built in 607 by order of Prince Shotoku, a good friend of Hata no Kawakatsu.
Although the temple was destroyed by fire in 670, a part of a beam survives and is today
stored in the Tokyo National Museum. On the beam is inscribed what are thought to be two
Joseph also visited
a graveyard in Kyushu housing an 8th-century tombstone on which a similar cross was
engraved, and "Christ's Grave" in Gunma Prefecture, which legend says is the
place where Christ was laid to rest.
Upon meeting with
the owner of the land on which the burial site is erected, Joseph asked if perhaps there
were a more "credible" explanation for its origin. "He eventually conceded
that the site was the burial place of early Christian missionaries," Joseph says.
Written evidence of
an early Christian presence has been noted by other scholars. Yoshiro Saeki, known as the
father of research on the Eastern Church, wrote two books on Nestorianism in the early
concentrate largely on interpreting relics and documents found in China, Saeki, who
studied both the Persian and Syriac languages at Oxford University to help his studies in
Eastern Christianity, also notes Imperial records in Japan that mark the visit of a
Persian missionary to Nara in AD 736.
Saeki believes this
man, who was granted an audience with the Emperor and is said to have received
"Imperial favors," to be the father of Yesbuzid, who erected the Nestorian
Monument in China (see main story).
What's more, in his
book "Nestorian Missionary Enterprise," British scholar John Stewart says that
it was through the teachings of this Persian visitor that Empress Komyo (701-760) was
"led to embrace Christianity."
The legacy of the
early Christians lives on in the Japanese customs and language of today. Saeki believed
that the origin of the word "Uzumasa" was taken from the Aramaic "Yeshu
Mesiach," meaning "Jesus messiah."
words and phrases are not uncommon in Japanese folk songs and stories, according to Ikuro
Teshima, a disciple of Saeki's. In a paper on the subject, Teshima states that in a song
in the famous children's story "Momotaro," the line "En Yalah Yah"
appears. The meaning in Hebrew is "I praise God," Teshima says.
What's more, the
August festival of Obon was influenced by the Nestorian Christian's All Souls festival,
and Buddhist ceremonies held at the monastic site of Mount Koya still incorporate the
making of the sign of the cross, Joseph said. "I spoke to a priest there who said
that while most of the Christian forms in Shingon Buddhism have gone, some still
feature on Koya-san is a replica of the Nestorian Monument, which was erected in the 1940s
by Nestorian scholar E.A. Gordon. Joseph says he was told by a priest there that Koya-san
in fact was originally a Christian monastery.
traditional view is that the only thing to arrive in Japan via the Silk Road was
Buddhism," Joseph stated. "No one ever challenges that. It's simple logic that
all kinds of people must have come into Japan -- including the early Christians. Whereas
the Chinese embrace their cosmopolitan past, the Japanese tend to ignore it."
Like Ikeda's letter
50 years before them, the Josephs have received a number of contacts since the publication
of their book. One woman, who was born and raised in a Kyoto temple, told of an episode in
her childhood when her grandfather revealed the "hidden treasures" of the
temple. Among them were artifacts engraved with crosses.
The woman, who
spoke on condition of anonymity, said: "It's all hush-hush, but many temples in Japan
house such Christian treasures."