Japan has the third largest economy in the world, after the USA and China. Japan is also home to some of the world’s largest and most respected companies, including Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Sony, Panasonic, Hitachi, and Nintendo. The yen is the strongest currency in Asia, and its islands are some of the most physically beautiful in the world. It is a large nation of 130 million people, and Japanese is the 12th most spoken language in the world. However, there is a dark side. Japan is a nation where it is legal to view child pornography. It is a nation that has a significant percentage of young teenage girls who participate in Enjo Kosai (compensated dating/teenage prostitution) with men in their 40’s and 50’s, even though they do not need the money. Japan has also been in the top 5 among all nations for the last 20 years with the highest percentage of suicides among its citizens. It is a nation where more than 1 million young men between the ages of 18-30 are hikokomori, having withdrawn from society and refusing to speak with anyone or even go to work. Japan is the largest unreached nation in the world, with just 0.22% of the population worshipping at a Christian church each week. Yet it is a nation with complete freedom of religion, comparable to the USA.
Catholic missionaries first arrived in Japan in 1549. Christianity spread quickly in southwestern Japan, but was brought down quickly by systematized persecution beginng in the 1580s, and the eventual complete ban upon Christianity in 1614. Although there were small pockets of hidden Christians, it was not until 1859 that the next missionary (a Presbyterian) arrived in Japan, just four years after America forced Japan to open itself to trade and foreigners. The militaristic government of the early twentieth century kept Christianity from any significant growth, and it wasn’t until after World War 2 that missionaries were able to enter Japan in greater numbers. So despite Japan’s long history with Christianity, the church remains a tiny minority. Most Japanese Christians are graying, with an average age over 50. Nearly 80% of all Japanese churches are led by pastors that are in their 50s, 60s, 70s, and even 80s. This number does not include the more than 1 in 7 churches who currently are without a pastor. Some estimates claim there is only 1 Christian worker for every 150,000 Japanese people – which is the lowest number of Christian workers to natives in the world after certain Middle Eastern nations. The number of Japanese church members under 35 years of age is minimal, and very few churches have members in their 20s. In the next 20 years, there will not only be a dearth of young people but also many of these churches will be without a pastor.
Several prominent missiologists have claimed that Japan is the most difficult and challenging mission field in the entire world.
There is hope however. The current generation of young people has mostly rejected their parents’ values. They are looking for new hope amidst the spiritual chaos. Due to globalization, many of the young are interested in new ideas including deeper community and a search for the purpose of life. Although the average church size is only around 20 to 25, there are many new churches that focus on the young that are significantly larger, some even over 500 members. Many young Japanese who have studied abroad in the USA, England, or Australia have become Christians overseas and have come back to serve God in their nation.
There are several large Church-planting conferences throughout Japan attended by both missionaries and Japanese nationals who desire for many new churches to be planted in their areas, churches focused on the next generation of Japanese. Through new media outlets, many Japanese are hearing the gospel and interacting with churches for the first time due to the internet and many available resources that have been translated into Japanese. Finally, there are many missionaries and Japanese nationals who recognize that there must be many different types of ministries that reach the next generation. Seminaries are being built to equip the next generation of Japanese pastors and church leaders, campus ministries are sprouting up in the major universities of Japan, and some churches have had a vision to plant a sister church in the heart of the city even though it is very expensive and challenging. The gospel is growing in Japan through these new wine skins and we are hopeful that one day this current generation of Japanese young people will take the gospel to their peers and raise up a new church in Japan.