The Christian population in Japan is small and does not exceed two and a half percent of the overall population of almost one hundred and thirty million people.
Christianity is not new in Japan but has, in fact, been there for centuries. It is possible that because of the difficulties the missionaries faced the number of people who converted to Christianity was not large. As the missionaries were from different denominations so too were the converts.
Many of these Christians are of Protestant denominations and some of them were influenced by Protestant ideas which emerged during the nineteenth century. One of these ideas is the belief in Jewish Zionism ie gathering the Jews together in Palestine.Those Christians who believe in this are called Christian Zionists. The modern Christian Zionist movement flourished in the United States during the nineteenth century and reached Japan through Japanese students who went to study in the United States and returned to Japan bringing Christian Zionist ideas back with them.
Members of this movement number millions of people in the world nowadays but they mostly live in the West and mainly, in fact, in the United States. Those Japanese who adhere to this religious ideology are followers of a sect called Makuya. This sect was founded in Japan in the middle of the twentieth century, by a person called (Abraham) Ekuru Teshema (d.1973). Makuya is now the most famous and also the most active Christian sect in Japan and it is estimated that it has over seventy thousand followers and 100 centres which are scattered between California, South Korea, Taiwan and Hawaii.
There is little information available about the founder of the sect. According to the information that we do have about him he was a merchant and joined one of the Christian movements of the time and became active within it. He embarked on a trip during the Second World War and went to China and Korea. This trip in fact remains a mystery. No one knows for sure what the purpose of this journey was. It is possible that he went there as a Christian missionary but we do not know for certain. There is also another mystery about his life that when he came back from his trip he was sought by the Americans who were occupying the country at this time, and to avoid capture he went up to the mountains and hid himself there until he felt it safe enough to come out of hiding.
It is reported that when he did come out of hiding he claimed that he had heard a mysterious voice telling him to call for the reform of the teaching of the scriptures. He decided to devote himself to this mission and duly abandoned his business. He gave an importance to the Old Testament as well as to the New. As a result he gave much attention and respect to ancient Israel and the God of Israel and called on Christians to go back to the Hebrew origin of Christianity and to give respect to the Jews. He said in the introduction to one of his books “It is necessary that we give a fitting respect to the Jews if we want to understand the true Christianity”. He also called for a deeper understanding of the Jewish faith and Jewish history because he said that it is necessary for a complete understanding of the scriptures. Ekuru Teshema had met some Jewish philosophers like Marrin and had also read Abraham Hatchel, the Jewish philosopher. These philosophers had an influence on him as did Jewish symbols and rituals.
As a result, the sect began to use the Menorah (candelabrum) which is the symbol of the state of Israel, together with other symbols of the Jewish faith. They embroider this symbol on the clothes they use during their ceremonies and they also place it in a prominent position during their worship. The Makuya also celebrate what they call Simhat Makuya similar to Simhat haTorah (the Joy of the Torah) which is celebrated by Jews yearly after they complete the reading of the Torah (Old Testament). The Makuya also sing Israeli popular songs particularly the one called Golden Jerusalem which is related to the occupation by Israeli troops of the city of Jerusalem which they call “liberation”.
These people also consider Saturday as a rest day as the Jews do and light candles and eat a kind of Keshrut (food allowed by Jewish law). They also use a Jewish prayer book and have learned to speak Hebrew, and, perhaps, in order to facilitate their Hebrew studies have compiled the first Japanese-Hebrew dictionary. Members of the sect also use Hebrew personal names as well as their Japanese ones.
The founder of the sect Ekuru Teshema visited Israel for the first time in 1961 and a year later he took some of his followers with him and they stayed in one of the settlements. Since then his followers go there regularly every year. Some of them stay there for quite some time to learn about agricultural techniques and they also learn the Hebrew language. While they are there they put on a garment coloured with blue and white (the colours of the Israeli flag) and go around the streets in Jerusalem holding up the Israeli flag and singing Israeli songs in a way that attracts the attention of passers by.
On one of his visits to Israel Ekuru Teshema met the former president of Israel, Zalman Shazar, and explained to him how he had come to the conclusion that the Japanese are the descendents of the ancient lost tribes of Israel. He wrote a book on the subject called “The Ancient Diaspora of the Jews and the Tribe of Hada” in which he identifies the ancient Japanese tribe of Hada with the Jewish tribe of Judah and he suggests that they came to Japan during the third century AD.
During the Israeli-Arab war in 1967 Ekuru sent some of his followers to fight on the side of Israel and one of them was wounded during this war. After the war Ekuru went to Israel with a delegation to offer his congratulations to Israelon its victory and he and the delegation went round Jerusalem singing and praising Israel and carrying a banner with the words “Congratulations on a Greater Jerusalem”. They said that their joy was beyond description because of the conquest of Jerusalem. In this year Ekuru Teshema’s name was inscribed in the Israeli Golden Book which contains the names of people (usually non Jews) who have helped or help Israel in different ways.
Several times the sect has invited General Uzi Narkees who led a military unit to the east part of Jerusalem during the 1967 war to visit Japan. They call him the liberator of Jerusalem. Every year they also go to Israel to celebrate Independence Day together with the Israelis. They organise demonstrations from time to time in support of Israel and when the Japanese Red Army attacked Ben Gurion airport killing and injuring several people, Ekuru Teshema went at the head of a delegation to offer his condolences. In 1972 Ekuru had thousands of his followers demonstrate in Tokyoin support of Israel. This was the first demonstration of this kind in Japan.
During the years when Israel was demanding that the former Soviet Union let Jews leave the country, members of the Makuya sect were praying in their churches which face Russia for the release of the Soviet Jews.
Although this sect is basically a Christian sect it still practises some rituals which are not common in Christianity. One of these rituals is walking on fire bare-footed, which they call hiwatari. Although this is something practised by other Japanese groups, the Makuya sect gives it a different meaning. It says “It is an expression of sincerity towards the God of the Torah (Old Testament) and as such the fire does not hurt the people who walk on it and does not burn them because their faith is strong and their belief is solid. While they are performing this ritual they gaze at a huge Jewish Menorah (Candelabrum) which is normally placed in a prominent position and they also sing songs of the Zionist Palmakh gang (the gang which fought the Arabs before the establishment of Israel). This is one of the aspects of the influence of Zionism on them.
The other ritual they practise which has no connection with Christianity is standing under freezing water for some considerable time. They read Hebrew prayers while performing this ritual which they call Mesauji. This ritual is also practised by other Japanese people and it may be of Japanese origin. This practice, it is said, lifts the spirit and purifies the mind.
The members of the Makuya sect usually marry among themselves and do not marry outside. These people are probably influenced by their belief that they are descendents of the so called lost tribes of Israel and so are following Jewish practice. On this subject the founder of the sect has written a book as we have mentioned above.
It is worth mentioning here that this belief is not unique to Ekuru but some other prominent Japanese Christians also believe in it. Among them is Ashimoro Kanzo (d.1930) who was a priest and graduate of an American university. Kanzo was also a Christian Zionist who wrote many books and articles on the subject. Nikada Juji (d.1939), also a Christian Zionist, was likewise a priest who founded a small Christian sect. In one of his books he said that Japan would help the Jews to occupy Palestine. This sect gave help to some of the Jewish refugees who went to Japan during the Second World War.
Among other prominent Christian Zionists who have all written books on aspects of the subject are Oyabe Zenichiro (d.1941) who had a Ph.D from the United States, Yanibara Tadwa (d.1961) a disciple of Kanzo who was a former president of Tokyo University, Yoshiro Sikay (d.1965) who was a graduate of Oxford University in Semitic and Eastern Languages and Anasa Weji (d.1970.)
It is possible that these people were influenced in their idea of the relationship between the Japanese and the Jews by the Scottish missionary Norman McLeod who wrote a book on this subject which was published in 1875 with the title “Epitome of the Ancient History of Japan”. The book found popularity among some Japanese who believed its content and among whom were the priests and scholars I have mentioned above.
The belief of Christian Zionists in Japan in the Jewish origin of the Japanese people still has adherents in that country and in more recent times a prominent Japanese scholar, Arimasa Kubo, has written many articles on this subject and has also created a website devoted to it. He has also translated “The Biblical Hebrew Origin of the Japanese People” by Joseph Eidelburg which is the latest book to be published on this theme. This continuing belief among these Japanese scholars in the Jewish origin of their people shows how enduring this idea actually is, as this desire to trace and identify the lost tribes of Israel has extended as far as those distant islands.
1-Parfitt,Tudor, The Lost Tribe of Israel:The History of a Myth,London 2002
2-Eidelberg,Joseph,The Biblical Hebrew Origin of the Japaness People
3-Encyclopedia Judaica,Year Book 1977-8,Makuya