Even Japan Has Seen Revival

Hope for Hard Places Like Mine

The Japanese, the beloved people among whom I live and serve, are the world’s second-largest unreached people group.

The category of “unreached people group” describes peoples where less than 2 percent of the population is evangelical. Unreached peoples are those who need missionary ministry the most. However, while the category is helpful for diagnosing missional need, it never tells the full story of God’s redemptive work among a people. “Unreached” does not necessarily mean there is zero Christian presence, and unreached peoples may indeed have small but faithful churches with their own remarkable histories of God’s sovereign work of salvation. Japan provides an excellent example of an unsung history of redemption that deserves to be remembered.

Psalm 105:1–6 teaches us that making the greatness of God known among the peoples (verse 1) is deeply connected to remembering his wondrous works (verses 2, 5) and responding in thanksgiving (verse 1). As we recall how God has worked mightily in places known for having hard soil, we can be filled with worshipful thanksgiving, which then propels us forward in mission with fresh energy and insight for how to extend the gospel where it seems impossible.

Initial Stirrings

The first Protestant missionaries arrived in Japan in 1859. Japan’s borders had been closed to the West — especially to Christianity — since 1603, when an influential Roman Catholic mission was expelled through extreme persecution. A prohibition against Christianity remained in place when the missionaries arrived in 1859, and it was difficult to even gain a hearing for the gospel. Merely mentioning the name of Jesus could cause Japanese people to slide a finger across their throats to illustrate the danger of the topic. Missionaries nevertheless went to work learning the language and finding creative ways to serve, including through education and medicine.

At the beginning of 1872, missionaries and Christian expatriates hosted a week of prayer in Yokohama, which several non-Christian Japanese students decided to join. Each day, those gathered would read a passage from Acts and pray together. As they prayed, the Spirit began to move in power. The group decided to continue meeting after the week was over. By the end of the second week, the Japanese students, many of them from proud samurai families, were on their knees crying out to God in tears for the Holy Spirit to fall on Japan just as he had done for the early church.

Nine of the students soon professed faith in Christ and were baptized on March 10, 1872, as members of the first Protestant church in Japan. Though two of the nine turned out to be Buddhist spies who quickly fell away, the remaining seven were joined by another wave of newly converted students to form the Yokohama Band, the first of several small movements of Japanese Christians who would help extend the gospel throughout Japan.

Bands of Brothers

Similar stirrings occurred throughout the remainder of the 1870s, most notably in Kumamoto and Sapporo. In Kumamoto, Captain L.L. Janes, a Civil War veteran, was recruited to launch a school for Western learning. Janes did not go with strong missionary intentions. However, after a few years of instruction and bonding with the boys in his school, he began to lead a Bible study, which all the students felt compelled to join. Though Janes preached a gospel mixed with aspirations for Japan’s Westernization, his message still impacted the boys significantly. Several converted to Christianity, and Janes added weekly worship and prayer.

“God has worked in Japan powerfully in the past, and nothing can stop him from doing so again.”

Soon the believing Japanese students were evangelizing their non-Christian classmates, and on January 30, 1876, over thirty of the students gathered on Mount Hanaoka. Together they sang “Jesus Loves Me” — the first hymn translated into Japanese — and made a covenant to proclaim the Christian faith for the enlightenment of the Japanese Empire. They came down from the mountain as the Kumamoto Band, and many went on to become influential politicians, business leaders, and pastors.

Another Civil War veteran, Colonel William S. Clark, helped establish the Sapporo Agricultural College in Hokkaido in 1876. Like Janes, Clark also did not go as a missionary, but during his eight months in Japan, he led students in regular Bible study and experienced personal renewal in his own faith. Many of his students became Christians, and Clark crafted a covenant for all the students to sign that stated their intention to follow Jesus. The students all signed the covenant, some out of zeal for their new faith and others under pressure from fellow students. Unsurprisingly, half of these turned away soon after Clark left. However, the other half were baptized and formed the Sapporo Band, which included notable Japanese Christian thinkers Uchimura Kanzō and Nitobe Inazō.

The formation of these Christian bands was the firstfruits of a larger movement still to come.

‘A Marvelous Work in our Midst’

In 1883, missionaries from across Japan gathered in Osaka with some Japanese Christians for a large missionary conference. This conference emphasized the power of Christian unity and dependent prayer, which inspired some Japanese Christian leaders to host their own conference in Osaka — which then led to similar gatherings in Kyoto and Tokyo. Each of these conferences spawned numerous prayer meetings in their cities that often lasted for weeks at a time and initiated revival. Japanese Christians cried out like the first converts in Yokohama for the Holy Spirit to fall, and God answered their prayers. Numerous revivals began to spring up throughout Japan, leading to repentance and renewal among Japanese Christians and the mission community.

Charles F. Warren of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) described “showers of blessing which God has graciously granted this year in different parts of the country” and a revival leading to greater unity and love in the Japanese church (A History of Protestant Missions in Japan, 108). Robert Maclay, who oversaw the American Methodist Episcopal Mission, offered another account: “A spirit of religious revival, bringing seasons of refreshing through the presence of the Lord, is spreading in Japan, both in the community of foreigners and among Japanese Christians. . . . I am sure we are about to become witnesses of visible, divine manifestations of grace in the conversion of souls” (109).

C.S. Long of the CMS likewise described “a glorious work in Nagasaki” — where an atomic bomb would be dropped a little over sixty years later — in which “multitudes are genuinely converted and testify to the truthfulness and power of the new religion. . . . The Lord is certainly doing a marvelous work in our midst. The news is spreading throughout the city, and hundreds are flocking to the church. . . . It is indeed marvelous. I have never seen anything more striking at home” (109).

Japanese Harvest

Japanese pastors shared similar testimonies. Kozaki Hiromichi, who came from the Kumamoto Band and was a major leader in the Kumi-ai (Congregationalist) Church, shared how a great revival began in Yokohama following a week of prayer. Joseph Neesima, founder of Dōshisha University, described a revival that started in the small town of Annaka in Niigata. It began with a congregation in repentance and tears until they became overwhelmed by joy and love.

Reports of revival came from across Japan, including Sendai, Fukushima, Kobe, and Okayama. Missionaries and Japanese evangelists began renting out theatres to host preaching and teaching events for hundreds at a time. In May of 1883, preaching services were held in the Hisamatsu Theatre in Tokyo for several days, with a total attendance of four thousand. Revivals also sprang up in several Christian schools throughout Japan, including Dōshisha University, where two hundred students were baptized during a single prayer meeting in March 1884.

As a result of the revivals of the 1880s, the average church membership in Japan doubled, churches were planted in new regions, local funding for ministry increased, and Japanese Christians began to take the reins of leadership for the church. The season was so fruitful that some missionaries pronounced expectations for Japan to become a Christian nation within the century.

From Memory to Missions

It is sobering to realize that such expectations were never met, and while God has brought other seasons of growth, the number of Japanese Christians remains small. It is also amazing to see how God has worked in the past, and there are several lessons missionary senders and goers can learn from this history.

First, even though Japan may seem persistently cold to the gospel, God has worked here powerfully in the past, and nothing can stop him from doing so again.

Second, like the early church in Acts, the Japanese church was born more out of prayer than any evangelistic method or charismatic leadership. We have reason to hope that God would hear and respond to such fervent prayers again.

Third and finally, these movements all swept over the missionary community as well as the Japanese community. Missionaries cannot create revival in the Japanese church, but we can prayerfully seek it with Japanese brothers and sisters as we together remember how God has worked marvelously in the past.