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Spring 1991 · Vol. 20 No. 1 · pp. 76–78 

Evangelicalism in Japan

Laurence D. Hiebert

About three out of five of the world’s people live in Asia, yet only three percent of Asians and less than one percent of Japanese are Christians. In Japan the church is but a mustard seed compared to this country’s large economic powerhouse.

Japan’s first contact with Christianity came in 1549 through the Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier. But persecution, edicts prohibiting Christianity, and a ban on missionaries virtually eliminated the church. After the arrival of Commander Perry in 1854, Japan reopened herself to the outside world. Through the efforts of Protestant missionaries Christians increased to 166,000 by 1926. However, stagnation set in and during World War II public worship was restricted and some Christians were once again imprisoned. After World War II an impoverished church struggled for survival and economic self-reliance. Non-evangelical churches rebounded more quickly and grew considerably. Evangelicals, outnumbered 26 to 1, lacked unity and confidence and thus were scattered. 1 During the two decades after the war many evangelical churches were planted by the Japanese and through the influx of missionaries. {77}

A major change began with Billy Graham’s 1967 Tokyo Crusade. Churches worked together, new evangelistic movements were born, missionaries and pastors worked together, and missions transferred responsibility to Japanese leadership. In 1974 the First Japan Congress on Evangelism interested many in evangelism and mission.

The evangelical church began to take shape organizationally in 1968 when the Japan Evangelical Association (JEA) was formed. In 1986 JEA was restructured to make it more church centered and allow other evangelicals to join more readily. JEA represents 52 denominations and para-church organizations, 1600 churches, and over 100,000 members. It is a full member of the World Evangelical Fellowship and the Evangelical Fellowship of Asia, the latter chaired by a Japanese.

Leaders like the late Nakaichi Ando, “Father of Japanese evangelicals,” have had a large impact on the evangelical church by promoting unity and higher education. The “Chaplin to the evangelists,” Koji Honda, at 78 is Japan’s most popular evangelist. Akira Hatori developed Pacific Broadcasting Association, a radio and television ministry. Reigin Oyama, as a student at Waseda University after the war, helped begin the Christian Student Association, now found on 250 campuses.

About 1,000,000 of Japan’s 122,745,000 are “Christians.” 2 Of the 500,000 to 600,000 Protestants, about one-half are evangelicals. With 7,000 Protestant churches, an increase of 5,000 in the last 44 years, there is one church per 17,532 people. The average attendance per church is 35. 3

“Ancestor worship is the basic religion in Japan.” 4 Nationalism, Shintoism, Buddhism, Emperor worship, and materialism all serve as forms of idolatry which blind people to the Gospel. High costs, overworked men and a shortage of workers inhibit church growth. Concerns for the church are: a new Bible translation, the role of the Holy Spirit, and women in ministry.

Yet the evangelical church is maturing and forming a united front. It is cooperating with and being influenced by other Asian Christians in evangelism. In fact more than 300 Japanese missionaries serve in over 35 countries. 5 A new generation of leaders, growing excitement, and increased anticipation promise growth and blessing ahead!


  1. Japan Update, 1 (1988) 1.
  2. “Christians” includes Protestants, Catholics and cults.
  3. Statistics are courtesy of Church Information Services, a service arm of Japan Evangelical Missionary Assoc. and JEA.
  4. Hisakazu Inagaki, “A Japanese Perspective on Modern Japanese Culture,” Japan Harvest 40/2 (1190) 17.
  5. Seigfried A. Buss, “A Response to Heisei: a New Era in the Japanese Church,” Hayania Annual Report 31 (1990) 29.
Laurence D. Hiebert is a church planter with Mennonite Brethren Missions/Services in Osaka, Japan.

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