Does God love the Japanese?

Editor's note: David Nakamura also contributes to The Atlantic's excellent Food blog. Read his personal take on Japanese dishes with a foreign twist.

OMURA, Japan — In this hamlet an hour north of Nagasaki, Pastor Jack Garrott’s faith in God is butting up against the stark realities of the struggling Christian movement in Japan.

A decade ago, Garrott invested $100,000 of his inheritance to build the Shinsei no Sato Baptist church, a modest four-room structure with a vaulted ceiling and residential quarters for him and his wife Cathy. Now, however, the church is facing bankruptcy.

Debt payments on the land, another $200,000, are coming due over the next few years. Church membership hovers at just a couple of dozen regulars. And Garrott is running low on support and money.

“I don’t know how the Lord will answer,” said Garrott, 61, whose father was a missionary in Japan. Asked why it is so difficult to recruit new members, he said: “If I had a better answer, the church would be much larger right now.”

In Japan, the Christmas spirit is not hard to find. Twenty-foot trees with blinking lights line shopping boulevards; department stores decorated in red-and-green bunting offer holiday sales; and Kentucky Fried Chicken, which has dressed Colonel Sanders in a Santa outfit, is offering the popular “Kentucky Christmas” meal for Dec. 25 — a family-sized bucket of chicken, salad and frosted “Christmas cake” for about $40.

But, as Garrott has learned, when it comes to Christmas in Japan, God is not always on the menu.

Though Christianity was introduced by the Portuguese in the port-city of Nagasaki in the 1500s, it has had a rocky history here, banned outright for 250 years by the Japanese ruling shogunate. Persecuted Christians went underground in a movement known as the “hidden Christians” until the late 1800s. The legacy remains: Today, an estimated 1 percent of the 126 million Japanese identify themselves as Christian. By contract, in nearby South Korea, more than 25 percent of residents are said to be Protestant or Catholic.

Last month, Ichiro Ozawa, the secretary general of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, added insult to injury when he called Christianity “exclusive and self-righteous” while speaking to a Buddhist organization. Though Christian groups denounced Ozawa, he might have given voice to a more broadly held sentiment.

“In a way, he was expressing a mainstream Japanese idea,” said Brian Burke-Gaffney, a Nagasaki-based historian and author. “Traditionally, the Japanese have been influenced by Buddhism and Shintoism, where the ideal is to achieve coexistence [with nature], so the idea of being allied to one specific religion is not part of the Japanese DNA or psyche.”

For those Japanese who do find God, the process can be daunting. Tora Ishibashi, 29, an assistant nurse at a Nagasaki hospital and member of Garrott’s church, had a Jewish American grandfather and a Catholic step-grandfather, both of whom met his Japanese grandmother in the U.S. military base town of Sasebo outside of Nagasaki. Though he attended church occasionally growing up, he never believed in God.

But in college, he said, he was struggling with his classwork and sought out philosophy books to deal with his frustration. That’s when he picked up an animated Bible by Osamu Tezuka, the illustrator best known for the comic “Astro Boy.”

Ishibashi was hooked and, after a trip to meet Christian students in Las Vegas, of all places, he converted and was baptized. Jesus saves! But when he told friends back in Japan, they formed a support group to save Ishibashi — from Christianity.

“They asked me, do you believe in heaven and the eternal life? I said yes, and they gave up,” Ishibashi said. After college, he spent four years as a guest preacher in Salem, Ore., and he hopes to open his own church in Sasebo.

Finding members might prove to be Ishibashi’s biggest challenge. On a recent Sunday in Omura, pop. 90,000, Garrott opened the doors of Shinsei no Sato, which translates to “Home of New Life,” for the 10:00 a.m. bilingual service. The room was heated by an old gas space heater. As Garrott set up a projector, wife Cathy warmed up on the piano and Ryohei Okada, a government meteorologist, sang Christmas songs. Okada interrupted himself after discovering four typos in Cathy’s translation of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” into Japanese.

Slowly, members drifted in — a total of 12 Japanese and two Americans. Among them was Miho Yoshida, 36, a part-time receptionist who was baptized at the church last month. She had attended Catholic school for a year in kindergarten, but only began attending services after her father died a few years ago. After spending three months in Canada this fall, she decided to convert. But Yoshida, like Ishibashi, was stung by the reaction of friends back home.

“I had been depressed and was on medication and, when I told my friend I had become a Christian, she asked if I was still taking my pills,” Yoshida said.

In Nagasaki, which still has the highest concentration of Christians in Japan, religious symbols abound. There's the Oura Catholic Church, the oldest church in the country established by the French in 1865. And there is a memorial to 26 Christian martyrs executed by crucifixion in Nagasaki in 1597.

But Japan's rigid social structure, in which it is considered strange to try something out of the mainstream, makes it difficult to sell people on Christianity, said Yashushi Tomono, a pastor at the Nagasaki Baptist Church, who spent 10 years preaching and ministering to Japanese expats in Raleigh, N.C.

Though Buddhism and Shitoism are also on the decline here — with young people distracted by the trappings of an affluent, modern society — most families still pay tribute to their traditional faith during funerals or other rites of passage.

“In Japan, the most important thing to a family is not what they think, but what other people think,” Tomono said. “It is very difficult for them to become Christians by themselves.”

Tomono added that many Japanese cannot square the idea that the United States, though often considered a Christian nation, is involved in two ongoing wars. “Japanese ask why America is not opposed to war,” he said. “That is a big stumbling block.”

After his morning service, Garrott led members to the 500-seat Omura concert hall a couple miles from the church for the ninth annual town Christmas celebration, a joint effort with three other Baptist churches and two larger Catholic churches. Two Japanese nuns in habits set up a nativity scene on a folding table. Garrott tried to hang a photo display about Christian history in Nagasaki, but the pictures boards were too heavy and kept falling down.

Last year, the celebration concert had the fewest attendees ever and, after better planning, Garrott was hoping for a sellout this year. As the church members — including Chad Hamilton and Chad Stark, a pair of American teachers, and Stark’s Japanese wife, Akiko — helped Garrott with the set up, an elderly Japanese man milled about quietly. Akiko explained that the 66-year-old retired man was not a Christian but came to church every Sunday because he had nothing better to do.

Akiko then said that her own doctor father often asks why an all-loving God allows car accidents and sick babies. “I know the answer in my heart, but I can’t explain it,” Akiko said. Her husband Chad interjected: “The answer is because we can’t know good without evil.”

At concert time, only about half of the auditorium was filled, mostly by the performers themselves. A Catholic children’s choir, in green T-shirts, lead off. Then came more singing and a funny play about an boy angel who saves poor people. Finally, it was Shinsei no Sato’s turn, and Garrott led the room in a chorus of the song “Amen.”

Afterward, Garrott counted the money in the offerings box. The total was just over $700. Garrott tried to remain upbeat, but he was probably a bit disappointed.

The cost of renting the concert hall was about $200 more than they had collected.