In 1893 two Lutheran missionaries from the United States arrived on the southern island of Kyushu, beginning their activity in the city of Kumamoto. In 1900 missionaries from Finland, then a Russian possession, arrived in Hokkaido, the northernmost island, and began work there.
Progress was slow, but by 1920 a small but stable church was formed. World War II presented a severe test to the fledgling church. The government, wary of Christians, pressured all Protestant churches to merge into one denomination. After the war the Lutherans withdrew from the United Church of Christ and reorganized as a Lutheran Church.
At this time there was a great influx of missionaries. Twelve Lutheran churches from Europe and America began work in Japan between 1948 and 1954. The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod (LCMS) sent its first missionaries to Japan in 1948. In consultation with other Lutherans, it was decided that the LCMS would concentrate its efforts in the Tokyo area, in Niigata and Fukushima Prefectures, in Hokkaido, and on Okinawa. At its peak in the late 50s and early 60s the missionary force of the LCMS numbered about 40 families. (By contract, at present there are two missionary couples of the LCMS serving in Japan.)
The Lutheran Hour produced as a documentary drama, was initially broadcast in 1951, making it the first program on commercial radio. It was well-received, with more than 500,000 listeners enrolling in the correspondence course that was offered. Many persons of all denominations who became Christians during the 50s trace their introduction to Christ to The Lutheran Hour" (Unfortunately, due largely to policy changes made by radio stations, religious broadcasts have been greatly reduced. However, a few locally produced programs continue to have appeal in some parts of the country.)
Under God's blessing, the work of Lutheran missionaries resulted in the establishment of five major Lutheran church bodies and a number of smaller ones, with a total membership of approximately 30,000. The largest of these, with about 20,000 members, is the Japan Evangelical Lutheran Church (JELC), which is supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) The Japan Lutheran Church (NRK)associated with the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod (LCMS), number 3,160 members. The Kinki Lutheran Church and the West Japan Lutheran Church, both based in the Osaka area and tied to Scandinavian church groups, have about 2,500 members each. The Lutheran Brethren Church, based in Akita, has about 900 members.
Cooperation among the various Lutheran churches in Japan is common, particularly with respect to outreach ministries. For example, church-planting plans are mutually shared in order to avoid duplications. Almost all of the Lutheran churches have joined together to form Seibunsha (Lutheran Literature Society), which published Christian books and materials; one endeavor resulted in the publication of a common Lutheran hymnal. Most sponsored the broadcasting of "The Lutheran Hour." On a more tangible level, the Japan Lutheran Church and the Japan Evangelical Lutheran Church sponsor a joint seminary in Tokyo, the Japan Lutheran Theological Seminary, as do the Kinki and West Japan Lutheran Churches in Kobe.
The Japan Lutheran Church, called the Nihon Ruteru Kyodan (NRK) in Japanese, was organized as an independent, self-governing church in 1968. It was the result of the work of missionaries sent to Japan by theLutheran Church--Missouri Synod after the Second World War. Entering into a partner church relationship with the LCMS in 1971, the Japan Lutheran Church declared itself to be self-supporting (meaning that it is no longer financially dependent on the LCMS in 1976.
Currently the church body consists of 33 congregations, and 1 preaching station with 3,160 members, half of whom reside in the greater Tokyo area. It is served by 31 national pastors, 5 missionaries (3 ordained), 13 (as of June/2004) short-term lay missionaries sent under the Volunteer Youth Ministry program of the LCMS, and many national teachers in its schools.
Education is emphasized as a means of communicating the Gospel. Accordingly, the NRK operates Urawa Lutheran School (500 students in grades 1-12) in Urawa and Holy Hope School (1,500 students in grades 7-12) in Hanno, plus 11 kindergartens. Only a few of the students enrolled in these schools are Christian; the main purpose is outreach, seeking to introduce the children and their parents to the message of Christ.
English instruction continues to be popular in Japan. Many people, young and old, want to learn a foreign language to use in work and travel or simply to talk with non-Japanese tourists and residents. By responding to this need for conversation classes, the church is able to make contact with people--children, housewives, high school and college students, business people, educators, doctors, dentists--who might not otherwise enter its doors. Lay missionaries, mostly recent college graduates recruited through the Volunteer Youth Ministry program, offered English classes at 14 locations, providing a valuable tool for evangelism for local congregations. The Lutheran Language Institute in Tokyo is the oldest of such programs sponsored by the NRK.
At the end of the 2nd World War (1945), for 28 years until 1973, Okinawa was under American occupation. The Lutheran Hour was broadcast beginning in 1955, at the time of the American occupation. From January of 1994 members of Faith Lutheran Church (jointly administered by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American for outreach centering on American servicemen and women stationed in Okinawa) have been worshipping and taking part in evangelism activities as members of Okinawa Lutheran Church. The church administration and worship of our single congregation in two languages, has proceeded smoothly thanks to the cooperation of the American and Okinawan members, and the work of the Holy Spirit who has made us one in Christ.
We have one church council, one constitution, and one budget (and of course, one God!) Through the interaction and cooperation of those who speak two languages, the church is forming well. (The above historical environment does not result by accident, but according to the will of God.)
The roots of ancestor worship are especially strong in the soil of Okinawa, where we live. Connected with ancestor worship is the phenomenon of "yuta" or noro priests. They are involved extensively in the everyday lives of ordinary Okinawans. Whether building homes, moving, choosing a date for a wedding ceremony, etc. yuta are always involved. In addition, sickness and death is blamed on the curse of the dead or one's ancestors, one's lack of filial piety, etc. And thus people lose their way. In Okinawa, ancestor worship is evidenced by the preparing of "food and drink" sacrificed to the ancestors. It is thought that filial piety is demonstrated in this way, but it might be more accurate to characterize this phenomenon as arising out of fear of incurring the curse of one's ancestors. Therefore, there is room for many superstitions to arise out of these sacrifices to the ancestors.
The first are "ihai (Buddhist mortuary tablet) and "butsudan" (family altar). Through these, various ceremonies are performed.
Also, festivals related to the ancestors, what are called "food and drink sacrifices", begin 7 days after death and continue on the 49th day, the first year, the third year, and continue for up to 33 years. These are ceremonies related to Buddhism.
Also, it must be pointed out that Japanese fear the dead, and think of them as somehow "unclean". This phenomenon is seen in the gisohgirei (bidding farewell to departed spirits in traditional Buddhist ceremony) and various other customs.
Upon comparing these with the appearance of life and death from the Christian point of view, we see the vast difference of the two beliefs. The phenomenon of worshiping the mortuary tablets, and the yuta's pressuring the family to offer food and drink sacrifices has developed. Through the curse of the ancestors brought upon those neglecting their filial obligations, a view of life and death in which the living are controlled and manipulated by the dead results.
"If we live we honor the Lord, and if we die, we honor the Lord. So whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord" (Romans 14:8)
The time that a person lives out their life is allowed according to the grace and love of our Lord Jesus Christ; after death we rest, held in the bosom of our Lord Jesus Christ. Through the almighty God who perfectly transcended all human beings we are given life, and are likewise perfectly entrusted to His care when we die.
Through this is taught that the way of thinking that says that the living are somehow controlled by the dead is mistaken. Therefore, those who are entrusted to the Gospel are released from the worship of mortuary tablets, the curse of the dead, and the sacrifice of food and drink to the ancestors. And that's the way it should be.
Nevertheless, it is forbidden for us living in Okinawa to perfectly give up/deny ancestor veneration. Not fearing the curse of one's ancestors, but to remember them out of filial piety and to hold a memorial for them--isn't that a natural human response?