“After death cometh judgment” – Why are there so many Christian signs in provincial Japan?

(Updated mistranslation “regional” based on reader comment)

In his liveblog of Murakami’s new novel 1Q84, Daniel Morales of Howtojaponese challenged the folks at MFT to find something out for him (emphasis added):

 17:03 Done with Chapter 12. No topics on the Aum yet, but religion does come up. Will be interesting to see where he takes it. One question I’d like to see someone answer (maybe someone at Mutantfrog?) is why do so many houses in Japan have signs with Christian quotes on the side? I haven’t seen too many in Tokyo, but they were all over the town where I spent three years. Always the same color pattern – dark brown with yellow lettering. They said things like “The blood of Christ forgives all” or “He died for our sins.” Can’t seem to find a picture anywhere. (Update: Matt provided this link in the comments.)

We at MFT love a good challenge, and thankfully this one wasn’t all that challenging. Thanks to Matt‘s link, I was able to Google my way to the name of the group responsible: It is the Miyagi-based “Bible Distribution Cooperation Society” a loosely organized association of Christians at least partly led by American missionaries. This is one of the same groups who uses soundtrucks and bullhorns in the Shinjuku station area to get out the message of Christ, so those in the know might not be surprised that these signs also come from the American missionaries.

The short answer to Daniel’s question is that this group asks the owners of the house or any other public facade to let them post the signs, and the owners say yes. What follows is the same answer in much more detail, but first let’s give a little background of what we are talking about in case some readers haven’t seen the signs.

The signs

So if you’ve never been to Japan or just not to a part of Japan where the signs are visible, let me clue you in – in various places, mostly in areas outside the major urban centers, you will often see signs that look something like this:

sssas

This one reads “After death cometh judgment- The Bible.” According to the site, it is posted on a bus stop near a middle school in Iwate Prefecture. Or this:

skms

“God is watching, even in your private life – The Bible.” (Taken in Akita Prefecture). Or this:

tmss2

“The wages of sin is death — The Bible” (Akita Prefecture)

(This site has LOTS more of the signs along with some Jack Chick-style pamphlets and a heaping helping of snarky commentary)

As you can see, they are written in white and yellow text on a black background in uneven, ransom-note fonts and usually contain the starkest of messages about what the God will do to you if you fail to accept Christ. If their intent is to scare the living crap out of people then they are remarkably effective as the signs are truly the stuff of nightmares (or at least a scene out of Carrie or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). These are not the only public displays in Japan that appear to be judging you on the spot, but they are by far the creepiest I’ve seen.  I just don’t understand the point of making these signs so creepy. If you want to make Christianity appealing wouldn’t you try and make people feel welcome instead of scolding them like this?

My personal encounters with the signs come during regular trips to visit inlaws in Tochigi Prefecture, near the Gunma border. Mrs. Adamu, her parents and I usually take backroads to avoid the high tolls, so we get to see several of these signs en route.

At any rate, the placement of these signs on cracked concrete structures and rusted out corrugated aluminum bus stops and storefronts reinforces the general theme of depression and stagnation that dominates the areas I’ve visited. Whenever I see another of these white-on-black reminders that God is watching, it makes me  wonder if it is meant as a protest against all the rust and malaise of Tochigi and Gunma.

The group

Now that we know what these signs are, let’s try and answer the next question: who is doing this and why?

According to Wikipedia, these signs are mainly the work of the Bible Distribution Cooperation Society, founded around 1950 in part by an American ex-soldier named Paul Broman who has dedicted his life to spreading the word of God using this unusual method. According to this now-defunct blog of a Japanese Christian minister, Broman took Japanese citizenship in 1970 and funds the activities of the group through his IT services business GrapeCity Inc (UPDATE: Though Broman would be about 82 right now, I haven’t seen an obituary anywhere so I assume he is still alive). According to the group’s website, they initially started their activities in Iwate and Aomori but in the late 1950s expanded internationally. According to Wikipedia, other activities of the group include sound trucks (you may have heard them in Shinjuku) and a Christian school based in Miyagi. They are an independent evangelist group not affiliated with Mormons, Unification Church or any other of the major groups.

Also according to Wikipedia, the signs are posted with the permission of the building/structure owners, and often they are neither a member of the association nor even Christian. They simply allow their real estate to be used for ads, similar to political posters and some other ad schemes, though apparently the association is either not allowed or does not offer to pay in exchange for the permission.

(An aside: This willingness to ugly up the neighborhood I think speaks to the owners’ complete lack of anything resembling taste or the basic decency to maintain an appealing public space. The towns, for their part, also seem to have no interest in keeping their neighborhoods nice. I am sure someone will tell me to shut up and stop making Alex Kerr-style arguments to legislate taste, but in cases like this I have to side with those who’d rather see fewer eyesores) 
 
The association’s official homepage, true to its funder’s background, is well-designed and contains a lot of information, though an uninformed viewer might not immediately recognize that this is the group behind the odd signs and the loud, judgmental announcements in Shinjuku (I’ll accept that maybe the cartoon sound truck at the top of the page gives it away). 

On the “About” page, the group’s stated objective is to “directly communicate the word of The Bible” (「聖書のことば」をそのまま伝える」). Their listed activities are distribution of free literature at primary/middle/high schools, “broadcasting” the word of The Bible in areas where many people congregate, individual proselytizing by Christians, and communication of the word of The Bible on placards and signs. They are not a membership organization and do not solicit members. Though the group lends “mutual help” and coordination, each member is individually responsible for his or her activities. Wikipedia indicated that there are apparently other groups who are not affiliated with the original society who have imitated their style. Based on this mission statement I don’t think they would mind imitators.

The group’s activities are completely self-funded and seek no charity. They boast that they have distributed 60 million Bibles to 18 countries throughout their history. They claim to pass out 1 million Bibles in Japan each year.

It is hard to know how many people are involved with these efforts. I am still waiting for an email response from an affiliated group, the Church and Home Educators Association Japan (CHEA Japan). For reference, various estimates count between 1 and 3 million of Japan’s people as at least nominally Christian. Protestants, for their part, comprise around half a million or 0.4% of the population (this is a Wikipedia figure apparently taken from Adherents.org. Like all such estimates it is probably pretty unreliable).

Vintage evangelism

 The site also features a photo gallery of the group’s work that includes some vintage signs (unfortunately undated!). Some of these are really cool so I’ll post the best of them:
 

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“Jesus is the way, truth, life.”

christ-died-for-the-sinners

“Christ died for the sinners.”

god-is-not-in-the-shrine

“God is not in the shrine.”

after-death-you-shall-be-judged

“After death cometh judgment.”

bullhorn-on-an-electric-pole

i-am-the-way

Front: “I am the way.”

schoolgirl-uses-visuals

god-gave-his-only-son

John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

blood-of-christ-gods-only-son

“The blood of Christ, God’s only son, purifies all our sins – The Bible.”

There are lots more on the site, so I advise you to check them out! 

Fun with Christian signs

These signs have become something of an underground social phenomenon due their sheer ubiquity (in Japanese some refer to them as キリスト看板 or roughly “those Christian signs”). One site (linked from Wikipedia) lets you create your own scary signs in HTML. Here is my version of Nietsche’s “God is dead” quote:












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49 thoughts on ““After death cometh judgment” – Why are there so many Christian signs in provincial Japan?”

  1. Thank you for that. It wasn’t a pressing question, but one that I had wondered in my 6 years here but NEVER bothered or remembered to ask.

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    ジョニ|・ロットン
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  3. I’m sure you’re channeling 「地方」 when you say “regional Japan,” but that phrase really doesn’t mean anything in English (every part of Japan belongs to one region or another). I think you mean “rural Japan.”

  4. what about building name written in German Gothic lettering?
    makes me cringe everytime

    but, if i think about it, it could be worse
    they could write the name of the mansion in Comic Sans MS…
    that would be horrible, I probably couldn’t live in a Comic Sans MS mansion

  5. Yeah I spend too much time staring at Japanese text… That’s exactly what I mean. That stings because I should know better.

    At the risk of getting sidetracked, I would argue that using the word “region” does make a kind of sense to someone living in Tokyo and writing in English. To us, Tokyo is in the center and the rest of the country, even the others cities, is just some “region.” Still, I will correct the title…

  6. I had an interview at Meysen Yochien a long time ago and the place is amazing (yet at the same time a little creepy). They’ve basically got a full zoo/farm thing there. I’m pretty sure Broman is still alive, but has given the control of the school over to the kids.
    I didn’t get the job; I didn’t really know it was a christian school and the first thing they asked was about my religious affiliation. They said it didn’t really matter, but they were just curious.

    BTW, I just started lurking around here a week or two ago. Good stuff here. Thanks.

  7. “At the risk of getting sidetracked, I would argue that using the word “region” does make a kind of sense to someone living in Tokyo and writing in English. To us, Tokyo is in the center and the rest of the country, even the others cities, is just some “region.” Still, I will correct the title…”

    I have to say, the only reason that makes sense is because you have the Japanese words in mind. Can you imagine a New Yorker saying “regional America” or a Londoner saying “regional England”? “Provincial” would be a good alternate word, as it etymologically means more or less the same thing as regional, but has an entirely different connotation in modern English usage.

  8. ”Aceface: I am really wondering what Johnny Rotten quote you were going for!”

    未来はない。
    ジョニー・ロットン

  9. Well,based on shinto belief,the gods(8 million of them)are everywhere.
    The word speaks the truth even from shintoist perspective.

  10. Is that 8 million figure from the kojiki or something? Maybe back when they wrote it, 8 million seemed like a big number compared to the number of people around.

  11. The term is やおよろず, which is written 八百万, but it would be more fair to say it just means “a hell of a lot.”

    There’s a reference to it in Sen to Chihiro no Paper Hiding, when You-Baba (Me-Baba’s twin sister) says that the bathhouse is designed for the yaoyorozu gods – this certainly does not refer to eight million. It’s a big sento, but not that big (and why oh why can the gods not get a natural onsen?).

    (And yes, the term does date back to the Kojiki.)

  12. Yeah the “God is not in the shrine” sign seems the most openly insulting attack on the Japanese way of life I have seen, and in a way it’s very fitting with the tone of these signs. It’s like “your entire culture is godless and you are all going to Hell!” Again the owners of these homes etc really just need to say NO when asked for permission. These signs are so ugly and bothersome.

  13. “I have to say, the only reason that makes sense is because you have the Japanese words in mind. ”

    Yes, surely the universal conception of BBC English would not allow the term to be used that way. Rather than arguing it makes total sense from an English-only perspective, perhaps it would be more appropriate to say it works as a Japan-specific English word for a few interlocking reasons: 1) Chihou in Japanese means both “region” and “outlying regions/provincial areas”; 2) Many Japanese people when speaking English will use the term regional area as a direct (mis)translation of the term; and 3) Japan’s society places Tokyo at the center of everything with the rest of the country acting as periphery. As a result, two expats talking together could be forgiven for tossing the term around without realizing what they are saying is “wrong.” This applies even if they are only dimly aware of reason #1. Any takers?

  14. Also, one thing about the Bible Distribution society is that they are NOT a registered religious organization (shukyou houjin) as that would probably expose them to greater scrutiny and reporting requirements. That likely explains the extensive disclaimers about not accepting members or donations on the website as well.

  15. I thought this post was quite interesting, and I even smiled at the Darwin-fish, f— you ending you put on it.

    Let it at least be understood that I know many Japanese Christians that fundamentally disagree with this style of evangelism. I personally have no problem with evangelizing through signs, but I disagree that having a human being stand in Shinjuku or Kamakura, holding a posted megaphone, blaring to everyone that they need to repent and accept Christ is an effective way of spreading the gospel. The reason they call it the gospel is that it is centered around “good news”…

    “Yeah the “God is not in the shrine” sign seems the most openly insulting attack on the Japanese way of life I have seen, and in a way it’s very fitting with the tone of these signs.”

    Adamu, this comment to me doesn’t make sense. The Japanese “way of life”? I know that it’s called “kokka shintoh”, but I wouldn’t carry it that far in its pervasiveness. It is an insulting remark, but it seems hypocritical for you to make that claim after quoting Nietzsche…

  16. Peter, you are right that I was overly broad in saying “Japanese way of life” but I think its fundamentally accurate to say shrine-going is a way of life for most people living in Japan, and the sign is an insult to that. While I am not a believer myself (and have a tendency to mock religion) I do have a basic respect for people to practice what they believe. Thats what I personally found insulting about that sign.

    I dont mean this post to represent Christians in Japan generally by any means. The overwhelming majority of the Japanese Catholics and protestants have nothing to do with this. It mostly seems to originate with this one group and some like-minded souls.

  17. Not for nuthin’, but Mrs. Peter’s great-grandmother chose to house some of the missionaries who got kicked out of China–not because she was Christian (because she was not at the time), but because she had western furniture and spoke some English. Needless to say, this was a much bigger commitment than saying “yes” to posting a sign in the window. This as well was in a rural part of Japan, Mie prefecture, probably around the same time as some of the older photos you have posted above.

    In all the photos I’ve seen of the house in Mie (which later became one of the first churches of the present-day Presbyterian Church of Japan), they never once went fire and brimstone with the message. As a Christian, it does pain me to see the whole “death to you and your pagan gods”. As much as the Bible goes into “wages of sin” and all that jazz, it also speaks specifically on how to approach those who don’t believe the same as you. That seems to me to be lost on the sign-makers.

  18. According to fairly recent polling some 70 percent of Japanese people don’t believe that “God is in the Shrine,” or any other institutionalised place of worship, for that matter. So perhaps that sign is not such an affront to the Japanese way of life, after all.

    I tend to think that a lot of Japanese people go to Shrines on New Years for the same reason that I put a tree in my house in December: Because everyone else does it.

  19. “think its fundamentally accurate to say shrine-going is a way of life for most people living in Japan”

    I will disagree with this statement. Things are different in rural Japan, I’m sure, but even there this statement is probably not “fundamentally accurate”.

    I have the impression that most people know less about Shintoh than they do about Buddhism. Mention the word “masakaki” to a Japanese male friend, and he’ll probably think you said something entirely lewd.

    I recommend Ama Toshimaro’s (himself a Shinto priest) book “Why Are the Japanese Non-Religious?” 『日本人はなぜ無宗教なのか』  I found it an excellent primer on religion in Japan.

  20. Even if 70% polled “don’t believe” that doesnt mean they “dont practice.” That same poll shows that opinion is nearly divided (45:49) on whether they think that other Japanese are religious. A whopping 94% believe in respecting ancestors, and a solid majority of 56% believe that the supernatural is real to a certain extent.

    As the poll would back up, my observation is that most Japanese people are not dogmatically religious and often have no firm beliefs or deep knowledge of Shinto or Buddhism. I get that, but at the same time shrine and temple visits are very common for what must be the majority of Japanese people, regardless of their personal philosophy (of course, dogmatic Christians may not go because they have such a jealous God). At some point I will obviously have to look this up instead of speaking from impressions, at which point that book will probably come in handy so thanks for the recommendation.

    This is hard to compare, but what if in the US someone put up a big sign that said “THERE IS NO SANTA CLAUS” in the mall at Xmas-time? People would freak out, especially if it were a bunch of weird foreigners. I think that would be an insult to the American way of life even if the people arent dogmatic about their “belief” in Santa.

  21. Hell, judging by the response I got to calling the NORAD “Santa Radar” pandering and juvenile, you don’t even have to be that blatant about it….

    Peter – Shinto itself is entirely lewd – what, you think that water dripping off a spear really was *water* and really was dripping off a *spear*….? 😛
    (Yet another reason to hate on Last Samurai – they couldn’t even get that right. Guess a sword sounded more sammereye-ish….)

  22. Hoshikagi:

    You should probably be glad you didnt get that job. I mean, the classrooms are probably lined with REPENT OR FACE ETERNAL DEATH signs all over the walls. And I am sure it didnt matter to them whether you were a believer because they would have time to work on you!

    Welcome to the site, btw.

  23. Jade Oc, you win. Although I was going for an even more sophomoric pun.

    As for
    “Even if 70% polled “don’t believe” that doesnt mean they “dont practice.” That same poll shows that opinion is nearly divided (45:49) on whether they think that other Japanese are religious. A whopping 94% believe in respecting ancestors, and a solid majority of 56% believe that the supernatural is real to a certain extent.”

    Ignoring the stats…Ancestor worship is not unique to Shinto, and for my money has more to say about Japanese passing down the teachings of Confucius. And belief in the supernatural among Japanese nowadays is less aimed at Shinto than it is at a number of other outlets, the vaguest umbrella for which can be called “spiritualism”.

    My point is that if you’re counting hatsu-moude as a practicing Shinto, then I’ll count getting married in a chapel as Christianity. If you’re counting all forms of animism-based religions as Shinto, then that’s a different story, perhaps, because I have seen a fair share of o-baasan practicing “sangaku shinko” (worship of mountains)…

    I do like your analogy to weird foreigners with signs saying about SANTA. I’d even like to try that out as an experiment.

  24. “Also, one thing about the Bible Distribution society is that they are NOT a registered religious organization (shukyou houjin) as that would probably expose them to greater scrutiny and reporting requirements.”
    As far as I know, there’s no requirement that religious organizations be registered as such as long as they don’t feel the need to claim tax exemption or whatever.

    “I know that it’s called “kokka shintoh”, but I wouldn’t carry it that far in its pervasiveness.”
    Kokka shinto is really a specific form of state-sponsored ritual that is only one aspect of a much larger body of Japanese religious practice. There are innumerable folk practices that are generally categorized as “Shinto” because they deal with jinja, matsuri, or related symbolism in some way, but are more of a folk/animistic practice, having little to no intrinsic connection with the more organized “state Shinto” of the Imperial shrines. Of course, being more a set of folk practices than an organized religion, there isn’t really any doctrine or holy book per-se, and practitioners (which I think really does include most Japanese, to at least some degree) probably wouldn’t get as upset over attacks like these as a practitioner of an organized religion would, but are still well aware that these Christians are targeting their way of life. I like Adam’s Santa comparison, because it represents a folk custom with some vaguely religious-ish associated rituals, but no actual doctrine. And yet look at how offended people like Bill O’Reilly are when they feel like someone is attacking that part of their culture.

  25. “I get that, but at the same time shrine and temple visits are very common for what must be the majority of Japanese people, regardless of their personal philosophy (of course, dogmatic Christians may not go because they have such a jealous God).”

    Precisely. They go to the shrine for exactly the same reason that I – and my recent landlords, who were Jewish – have a tree in my house in December. Its nice to respect “tradition.” These things don’t mean that they believe there is a God inside the Shrine, I believe Jesus existed or that my landlord was not Jewish.

    I suspect people would be angry about your Santa sign, because it would disillusion children, not because it has to do with something called the “American” or “Western” way of life. If you put up a sign saying “Jesus didn’t exist” or “There is no God” in an American shopping mall, you would piss a lot of people off, but that is precisely because there are a lot of believers in the United States.

    The Japanese sign above is quite malicious though, because the way it is worded, it implies that there is a God and he exists somewhere else. Are there any such signs in regional… oops… rural areas in Japan today with the same wording? If there are, I bet the locals don’t particularly care about them.

  26. I am currently a missionary in Japan, and these people bother me to no end. I often use them as illustrations on how NOT to do things, and I host a secret fantasy (not secret anymore) about publicly approaching them on the streets of Shinjuku and Shibuya and talking to them about the REAL Christ of the Bible. The one who, though he talked about Hell and damnation, did it in a loving way, not a condemning way.

    That being said, I have visited the Meysen campus before, and it doesn’t even resemble the rest of the stuff this group does. It’s actually a really good school that handles English immersion better than any other place I’ve seen. The petting zoo helps too. 🙂 I was quite surprised to find out that Meysen and the Shinjuku people were connected!

  27. “Of course, being more a set of folk practices than an organized religion, there isn’t really any doctrine or holy book per-se, and practitioners (which I think really does include most Japanese, to at least some degree) probably wouldn’t get as upset over attacks like these as a practitioner of an organized religion would, but are still well aware that these Christians are targeting their way of life.”

    Excellent point. But your parenthetical aside…

    …Yet another mention of “most Japanese” practicing or being practitioners (even bolder) of Shinto or one of its loosely related manifestations in Japanese native ethnology. I am curious to know what information, even anecdotal, could back these statements up. For the record, I’m not out to quash Shinto, but I have a keen interest in the presence and understanding of different religions in Japan, and I am now keenly interested in knowing why it is a couple of the foreigners in this forum seem to think Shinto is so pervasive, whereas my impression is that its about as alive as church latin.

    Scot,
    Thank you for corroborating my first point. Signs are a dangerous way to evangelize, I had always thought.

  28. Well I dont share your keen interest, so I guess I just come across it a little more in the course of my life. My father in law keeps a kamidana, I had a kannushi host father, etc etc.

  29. ”I am now keenly interested in knowing why it is a couple of the foreigners in this forum seem to think Shinto is so pervasive, whereas my impression is that its about as alive as church latin.”

    Well, like I said, “Shinto” is a very, very broad thing, which incorporates state Shinto, a wide variety of organize mystical traditions, and pretty much any Japanese folk superstition, religious or magical practice considered “native.” Since all of these things are routinely described as somehow part of Shinto, I think it’s fair to say that most Japanese people “practice” something that falls under the definition. I would love to see some detailed surveys (which I’m sure are out there), but the fact is that most Japanese, in my experience, don’t really consider the folk aspects of “Shinto” to be religion per-se, and will often describe themselves as atheists while still admitting to praying at shrines.

    I actually recall doing a survey on religious beliefs among college students as a homework assignment when first studying abroad years ago, which is hardly a serious survey but I believe had 30 or 40 responses, all of which but two self-identified Buddhists and one Christian reported having “no religion” while far more than that reported engaging in folk practices. Incidentally, I have also found that many Japanese people (possibly just younger?) are actually surprised to see Shinto labeled as a religion, and therefore still identify as atheist.

    It’s of course also important to point out that one can easily practice Shinto traditions alongside other traditions or religions, particularly Buddhism, which is itself (in many sects anyway) pretty liberal about mixing and matching. Monotheistic religion, such as Christianity, is by contrast an absolutist worldview, as is well illustrated by the Ten Commandments. Of course Christianity has incorporated pagan folk-customs (Christmas tree, Easter bunny, local saints based on old gods, etc.) but is generally hostile to continuing old mystic traditions after conversion. I would really love to know if there is any tradition of mixing Shinto tradition into Japanese Christianity, but I don’t believe I know any Japanese Christians I can ask.

  30. Tenrikyo is a good place to start for your last question. I’ve often heard it described as the “ii-toko-dori shuu-kyo” of modern Japan, which from what little I know about it is probably a good summary. There are also some pretty minor religious groups which most would call cults that spin-off of Christianity or have messianic structures to their faiths.

    What I keep punching at here is the idea of Shinto as a practiced religion. If people don’t believe in the gods of the religion, then how is it any more than ethnic tradition (the easter bunny and twice-a-year Christians in the US being perhaps the Western analog)? I don’t think it’s meaningful to use define Shinto ex-post for any Japanese ethnic tradition that’s even slightly supernatural, because then we’re not even comparing apple and oranges (as Ama does in his book) but apples and leaves.

  31. “What I keep punching at here is the idea of Shinto as a practiced religion.”

    Why does it have to be? Shinto really isn’t an organized religion in the sense of Christianity or Buddhism, which is one reason it can so easily coexist alongside Buddhism. While there are ancient stories of “Shinto gods” like Amaterasu, those myths are relatively insignificant throughout Japanese history, and you really don’t see them referenced all that much compared with mythical figures in more organized religions.

    Like I said, Shinto generally IS used to refer to “any Japanese ethnic tradition that’s even slightly supernatural”, which encompasses a wide variety of different things, that share some common imagery and practices due to the virtue of all being Japanese and sharing a common origin and context. While there are certain traditions within Shinto that are more of an organized religion, such as the semi-defunct State Shinto tradition linking the Emperor with ancient divinity (I say semi-defunct because the Imperial household still practices it, and many shrines are based on it, even if the public at large is no longer nearly as involved)

    “If people don’t believe in the gods of the religion, then how is it any more than ethnic tradition.”
    Well, for one thing because much of Shinto isn’t theistic religion at all so much as a kind of animism, with some ancient practices showing clear similarities to shamanism. Sure there are certain “gods” that are routinely worshiped, such as Inari the fox god of wealth, but I feel like Inari is really regarded as more a symbol of nature’s bounty than an individual “god”. Then there are of course individuals worshiped as gods, like Sugawara no Michizane or Abe no Seimei, but this is very much borrowed from the Chinese tradition of venerating ancestors and heroes to the point where they become gods.

    I’m not exactly sure where I’m going here. Did people in the past worship at these shrines and literally expect something good to happen to them? I don’t know, maybe. Do the millions of Japanese who still pray at shrines for various kinds of good luck have any expectation that it’s going to help? I don’t really know the answer to that either. I really can’t know what goes on in peoples heads, but the practice of praying to kami at shrines, celebrating them at annual festivals, donating to shrines, etc. is still alive and well. I guess it’s possible that everybody does it with the assumption that kami are in fact entirely fictional and their prayers are just a game, but I’m sure even that would make signs like “god is not in the shrine” MUCH less offensive! You know, I’m a 100% atheist, but if some Christian evangelist yelled at me “God is not in the synagogue” (and yes, I know that this statement is probably theologically nonsense from the perspective of Christianity anyway) I would be sorely tempted to punch him.

    And let me end by responding directly to your final point:
    “I don’t think it’s meaningful to use define Shinto ex-post for any Japanese ethnic tradition that’s even slightly supernatural, because then we’re not even comparing apple and oranges (as Ama does in his book) but apples and leaves.”

    I actually agree since, as I said, Shinto is mainly not an organized religion. That’s probably one reason why Buddhism took off so well in Japan, because it provided a structured religion that complemented the folk practices of Shinto, without denigrating or suppressing them, and eventually even providing a cosmological rationalization of the two for the more theologically oriented. BTW, what book are you talking about?

    Anyone Japanese and/or more of a religion expert want to chime in?

  32. Back to the 地方 thing: it’s my understanding that UK English speakers will often talk about “London and the regions” just like the Japanese talk about the Tokyo/not-Tokyo categories. It may be acceptable in that flavor of the language.

  33. Or damn you Londoners and your arrogant assumption that anywhere north of Hampstead Heath is the boonies….

  34. Great post. Loving the signage, I’d never even noticed these before!

    @Jade Oc: I second that. ‘London and the regions’, my eye.

  35. To Roy:

    “I would really love to know if there is any tradition of mixing Shinto tradition into Japanese Christianity, but I don’t believe I know any Japanese Christians I can ask.”

    The Way a Japanese mixture of Christianity and Confucianism

    This group rejects the Christian idea of original sin since it is incompatible with the Confucian idea of essential goodness. One of the main beliefs is purification through detachment from the senses (which sounds like Buddhism to me).

    Their “Hall of Worship” in Tokyo was modeled after a Buddhist temple on the outside, and similar to a Shinto shrine on the inside. They also used amulets, alters and incense in a “Shinto way”.

    However, this style of worship was abandoned after the war. In 1955 they restarted studying the Bible and singing hymns. In 1989 they built a new building that resembles a western church, but the focus of the group still largely emphasizes Neo-Confucianism and self-cultivation.

    Christ Heart Church

    Maintains that there is some goodness in Buddhism and Christ fulfills Buddhism rather than being opposed to it. Members participate daily in Buddhist meditation and do not participate in communion. “Bible Studies” also include the Confucian classics. And participation in ancestor veneration is accepted as showing proper respect to elders.

    The Original Gospel

    Regards the Kojiki, Nihon Shoki and Man’yoshuu as important resources. Sees ancient Japanese dependence on the gods (for example Emperor Jinmu’s reliance on the Sun Goddess) as early examples of how Christians should be reliant on the one true God. They participate in purification rituals like standing under a waterfall (takiabi) and walking across hot coals (hiwatari) common among mountain priests.

    They are also Neo-nationalist – displaying Japanese flags in their worship services and encouraging members to rediscover their pride by observing Imperial holidays and imitate the spirit of soldiers enshrined at Yasukuni.

    Most of this is taken from the book “Christianity Made in Japan”.

    I’m not really an expert, I just read the book. It’s all in English, but I’m sure with this info you can find some more info in Japanese if you want.

  36. “This group rejects the Christian idea of original sin since it is incompatible with the Confucian idea of essential goodness.”
    From what one professor told me in class just a few days ago, Japanese Confucian cosmology (specifically the 朱子学 school) believed in a “tabula rasa” state of newborn humans, with no inherent good or evil, just raw potential.

    Anyway, thanks for all of those links and descriptions. Very interesting stuff, and I will look for that book someday.

    Incidentally, I’ve seen a few mentions of Jesus Christ in Buddhist writings over the years. It seems to be a moderately popular belief that Jesus was one of several incarnations of Buddha throughout history, or different Buddhas, or a Boddhisatva or something like that. Not that I think there are many Buddhists out there who syncretize Christianity, just that Jesus sometimes appears on lists of enlightened human beings throughout history.

  37. Fantastic article! Thank you making us all aware of this scourge. I must admit, I’ve never seen them myself here in Kyoto, or perhaps never paid any attention to them as I learned how to filter out any mental stimulus written in Japanese a long time ago. They’re pretty scary when you actually read them eh?

    I propose we make a million large copies of your sign and carpet-bomb them across Japan – a kind of atheist bus campaign done j-style.

  38. Hi, nice article and as you wrote many signs appear on houses, even that the owners are not Christian, but is that not due to Japanes culture and politeness?
    As I understand it is not common to say no when someone ask. Bye ZaPGuZ aka Guus Veldhuis.

  39. Very interesting and accurate article – they put up similar signs in Thailand and hand out religious tracts also. ..Broman is still alive, because he is listed as an honorary director on the Grape City Website and I would have heard about his death.

  40. I know the people responsible for the signs very well. They took in my family in 1973 when our house burned to the ground. They are not some strange, hate-filled judgemental cult. They are simply people who believe the Bible and want to share the Gospel message with everyone. They are completely self-funded. They are not establishing a new denomination. I have held the placard signs (scriptures written on sheets attached to a wooden frame) at New Years evangelism at Akasaka shrine. I have ridden in the little speaker trucks, I have gone door-to-door with them and passed out tracts at train stations. What is missing from all the posts in this thread is the fact that these methods of public communication are standard fare in Japan and commonly seen with politicians, business and cultural promotions.(Think Yakiimo-san, Chirigami-kokan, trash trucks and the kerosene seller playing music thru speakers.) In the USA people would call the police on these activities. In Japan the Shinto-controlled public schools actually invited these evangelists into the school auditorium to address a general assembly with their message. Rural Japan has always been friendly to Christianity. The first printed Japanese Bible was distributed along the Tokaido Road from Karuizawa through northern Honshu. There were already many established churches along the way.Tohoku, has been treated like the Hill-Billy class of Japan yet Date Masamune was very fond of Christianity. The people of Kyoto, Osaka and the Kanto region may have little respect for the farmers “up north” but Sendai and Marumori (where this all started) promote excellence in everything they do. As for the signs being “creepy,” most of them are direct scripture quotes. and make all of us sinners uncomfortable. Jesus spoke more about Hell than he did about Heaven. If you really believe what the Bible says and you really love the Japanese people, the logical response it to tell them what the Bible says. (Thanks for the excellent write-up & the pics. Brings back happy memories.)

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