The First Christmas in Japan

he First Christmas in Japan
Christianity in Japan began with the arrival of Francis Xavier and Cosme de Torr?s in 1549, when they landed at Kagoshima, the southernmost area of Kyushu. Xavier left Japan after two years, whereas Torres engaged in mission work for over 20 years until his death. According to newsletters from Japan published by the Jesuits, the first Christmas in Japan was celebrated in Yamaguchi in 1552. On Christmas Eve, at a church built with the permission of Daimyo (Lord) Ouchi Yoshitaka in the compound of Daido Temple, a crowd of believers
gathered for an all-night mass, sharing a meal together and overflowing the venue. The hymns sang at the mass were the first-ever European music played in Japan. Participants gave offerings for the meal, with some non-Christians joining in the feast as well. There is arecord of steamed rice with beef being served at Shimabara, where the first seminary was built after ships began arriving from Portugal. People must have been surprised to be served beef, as beef was not customarily eaten in Japan at that time. During the Sengoku Era, Christians greeted each other by saying “Natala”, which comes from the Latin word natal for “birth,” instead of “Merry Christmas.”

Biblical dramas served an important role in the mission effort, with the first drama based on a story from the Bible being performed by Japanese believers in Kyushu in 1560. Its title was “Adam and Eve.” An apple tree was placed on center stage, and stables were also built as part of the stage setting. Through active efforts in evangelism, there were 600,000 believers by the 1580s.

Iemitsu, the third Shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunate, closed the country to the outside world and banned Christianity. That ban continued until it was lifted more than 200 years later in 1873, during the Meiji Era. At that time, Protestant missionaries were already in Japan, having established the first Protestant church in Yokohama. Hara Taneaki, who had been an official at the Minami-machi magistrate’s office, organized a Christmas party at the First Presbyterian Church in Tsukiji. The people were surprised when they beheld a Christmas tree decorated with various kinds of fruit, which appeared suddenly when the curtain was opened, and Santa was a samurai wearing a samurai-hairstyle wig and carrying a sword. (Tr. YY)

–Kato Makoto, pastor
Shizuoka Ichibancho church, Tokai District
KNL Editorial Committee chair
Based on article in Shinto no Tomo (Believers’ Friend)