By James Heine
Japan is a nation of some 126.5 million people. It is one of the leading democracies in the Pacific Rim and a major world economic power. While it is well-prepared for natural disasters (perhaps better prepared than any major industrial power), the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami that struck the northeast coast of the country at 2:56 p.m. Friday, March 11, has devastated parts of the island nation.
While only about 1 percent of the nation is Christian, Japan has several Lutheran church bodies. Among them are the Japan Lutheran Church (JLC), with which the LCMS is currently in altar and pulpit fellowship, and the Japan Evangelical Lutheran Church (JELC), the nation’s largest Lutheran body (approximately 20,000 members). The JELC has close ties with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
As with the LCMS, the Japan Lutheran Church is a member of the International Lutheran Council. The JELC is a member of the Lutheran World Federation.
The LCMS began work in Japan in 1948. In 1968, the Japan Lutheran Church became a self-governing body, and in 1976 a sister/partner church of the Synod. Today, LCMS missionaries continue to support the work of the Japan Lutheran Church in the areas of Lutheran education and theological training.
The following provides a snapshot of the JLC:
- Congregations: 35
- Baptized members: 3,000
- Pastors: 30
- Colleges/Seminaries: Japan Lutheran College and Japan Lutheran Theological Seminary (operated jointly with the JELC)
- Headquarters: Tokyo
- President: Rev. Yutaka Kumei
Including members of the JLC and the JELC, there are some 30,000 Lutheran in Japan. The list that follows highlights several other Lutheran bodies.
- The West Japan Evangelical Lutheran Church (WJELC) is based in Osaka, Japan. It has approximately 4,000 members and is associated with the Norwegian Lutheran Mission. Together with the Kinki Evangelical Lutheran Church (KELC, see below), it operates a seminary in Kobe–the Kobe Lutheran Theological Seminary. The president of the seminary is Dr. Makito Masaki, the brother of Dr. Naomichi Masaki, associate professor of systematic theology at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne. Makito Masaki and his wife, Urara, studied at the Fort Wayne seminary and Makito Masaki received his Ph.D. from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.
- The KELC has Scandinavian roots also. It is based in Kobe and has a membership of some 2,500.
- Other small Lutheran bodies in Japan include the Japan Lutheran Brethren Church, based in Akita; the Japan Lutheran Evangelical Christian Church, a sister church of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod; and the Fellowship Deaconry Evangelical Church, which is associated with Germany’s Marburger Mission.
The wider religious landscape
It may be difficult for us to measure Japanese religiosity through our western eyes, said Naomichi Masaki. In Japan, Masaki said, people are surrounded by Buddhism, Shintoism and Confucianism in their various manifestations, as well as by western secularism and post-modernism. Buddhism is embedded in their culture, he added, and Confucianism is a silent religion permeating all facets of life.
Looking at the mixture of eastern thought and western secularism in the Japanese heart and mind, “We cannot help but see cognitive dissonance,” said Rev. Richard E. Nelson, pastor of Hope Lutheran Church in Manassas, Va.
Nelson and his wife, Sandi, spent more than 10 years as missionaries in Japan. “Western secularism denies the reality of the spiritual and the ‘invisible,'” Nelson said. “Yet fundamental to both Shinto and Japanese Buddhism is belief in the existence of unseen spiritual beings. Ultimately, these cognitive contradictions in the Japanese heart and mind seem to be reconciled in the overarching notion that they are all part of what it is to be Japanese, and to be Japanese is to be distinct from all other peoples, to be a special people.”
In a 2008 interview with Adriane Dorr for Concordia Theological Seminary’s quarterly magazine, For the Life of the World, Masaki summed up Japanese religious thought this way: “They all give people suggestions on the wisdom of life, but they cannot deal with sin. The people are then left in a regrettable darkness of uncertainty, and their deepest needs are never touched.”
At times like this, that spiritual uncertainty can be staggering, Nelson said. “For Christians around the world, this is a time, perhaps as never before, to call upon our Lord to break the power of the spiritual darkness that enshrouds the hearts and minds of the Japanese and for Him to reveal Himself through His saving Word and the selfless love of His people.”
Pray for us
In a Friday evening e-mail to Dr. Albert B. Collver III, LCMS director of church relations and assistant to LCMS President Rev. Matthew C. Harrison, Makito Masaki wrote of the aftereffects of the earthquake and tsunami:
“Pray for the people who are still alive and isolated without telephone, cell phone, Internet, or any way of communication, so that they may be rescued in any possible way. Pray for Christians there [in the areas affected] so that they can take care of themselves, help and encourage their family and friends, …[and] share their hope and joy in Christ our only Savior, that nothing can destroy or take away.”
Posted March 15, 2011