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Does God love the Japanese?

This Christmas, the Shinsei no Sato Baptist church congregation isn't so sure.

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.