Being well to the east of China it was natural that the name "The Land of the Rising Sun" be given to Japan. In ancient times China was the source of much of oriental culture, including the basics of the written language. The two characters (pictographs) used from time immemorial by the Chinese to describe Japan simply mean "source of the sun", hence the descriptive title much used even today. Over the centuries the words have had more than just a geographical connotation. Literacy, almost nation wide, was an early feature of the country and, in spite of the feudal system prevailing for centuries, the common people were as secure and as well off as any of their contemporaries in Europe during the same eras. When the European powers began to move into Asia annexing large sections of territory, the Japanese reacted, along with most of their near neighbours, withdrawing from contact with the West in isolation. This period lasted over two hundred years and was detrimental to the nation's relationship with other countries.
During the Industrial Revolution western lands made giant strides to modernity while Japan stood still. In the middle of the nineteenth century, however, they embraced the necessity of dealing with other countries with unrelenting zeal. This attitude marks Japan right to the present. At first it was the need to catch up with others that gave them the reputation of being merely imitators. They were badly underestimated during the Second World War but even then had armaments second to none in the conflict. In the aftermath of that tragedy Japan soon took its place at the very cutting edge of present day technology earning the admiration of other peoples around the world.
The paradox is simply this. That with all the enlightenment and advancements made, spiritually Japan is one of the darkest nations on the face of the globe. Even with the veneer of philosophical and cultural sophistication developed over the centuries by the religions of the land, the average Japanese is very vague in his knowledge of what he is supposed to believe. Other than thoughts regarding the worship of ancestors generated by Shintoism, basically the animism of the African and South American jungles, together with the veneration of Buddhist saints, religion is little more than a mixture of superstition, patriotism, and materialism. Certainly, the idea of One Supreme Being with whom we have to do is notable only by its complete absence. A deep spiritual darkness as well as a prevalent materialism are, at least, some of the factors gospel work in Japan must continually overcome. Thank God it can and does.
Early entrance of the Scriptures
Some indications in the language, culture, and even the religion of the land, lead many to conclude that the first tenuous attempts to reach the Japanese with the gospel go back to the very early centuries of our era. It would be very difficult to explain many things which today are part of the Japanese fabric if it is denied that some efforts must have been made, in very early times, to bring the word of Christ and Him crucified to the people of this nation. More emphatically, it can be declared that in the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries much effort was expended in "evangelical" work. Of the first of these attempts it should be noted that the Jesuit Society of the Roman Catholic Church was heavily involved. Just how "pure" a gospel was at that time presented is in question but, since the lines drawn by the Reformation were not so distinct, and in view of the fact that many thousands of Japanese at the time suffered cruel martyrdom rather than deny their new found faith, it is to be sincerely hoped that it was faith in Christ as Saviour that caused them to stand so firm.
Mid-nineteenth century work
Protestant Christianity, with its stress on gospel truth, followed the opening up of Japan in the middle of the nineteenth century. Missionaries of various denominational and national backgrounds began to reach out to different parts of the land, and, by the beginning of the twentieth century "churches" were established in most cities. The first small and indecisive assembly work began about this time when a brother from England took a position as a University tutor. His main goal, apparently, was really to reach souls with the gospel. Some professed but, in the end, nothing of a permanent nature was established.
Twentieth century evangelism
Present day assembly testimony in Japan began about 1910 when a young graduate student, having returned from San Francisco, began a gospel work in his mountain village about sixty miles outside Tokyo. Two or three brethren who were reached in conversion moved to Tokyo. Their activities near the centre of the capital led to some trusting Christ and the first assembly being established in Japan. Because of the original connection in San Francisco, a brother and his wife from an assembly in California joined the work in Kanda (Tokyo). This brother had originally been of an "exclusive" type persuasion and still carried some of those ideas with him. In 1930 Mr Tom Hay and his wife from N.E. England, followed a year later by brother Bobbie Wright from N. Ireland, arrived in Kobe. From this city, in due course, contact was made with the assembly in Tokyo resulting in a more correct view of assembly things being accepted by the saints. This assembly continues to the present time and has been so energetic in their gospel outreach that three other assemblies have been established in other parts of Tokyo as well. Mr. Hay's ministry in Kobe led to an assembly there as well as one in Osaka city.
These three small gatherings of believers were the sum of assembly work at the beginning of the Pacific War in 1941. Upon their release in 1945, after their years of imprisonment, four leading brethren, along with some others, gathered the three little meetings together once again. While none of them had their own meeting place at the time, gatherings on the street corner as well as meetings in the homes were much used of God and the work spread. It is to this cautious beginning of things that assemblies in Japan, by God's grace, owe their existence.
The simplicity of the work in this land has already been hinted at in the mention of street meetings and meetings in homes. There is hardly an assembly in Japan that has not had its start in this way. Meetings in the home gave way to gatherings in Community Centres and, eventually, to Gospel Halls being erected. Short series of gospel meetings along with the, almost universal, ordinary twice weekly meetings and a great deal of effort distributing literature is the common feature of assemblies around the countryside. Apart from the occasional invitation to one or other of our "full-time" brethren, the burden of gospel preaching falls on the shoulders of local men as, indeed, does the ministry of the Word as well. When it is remembered that many of these brethren are not home from the office or factory until 11pm or 12 midnight almost every day, their faithfulness and application to the Word is to be highly commended. The need for well-taught and committed brethren to "come over and help us" is very evident.
It would be hard to say how many assemblies there are throughout Japan, but if I were to give each assembly I visit on occasions a week of meetings I would not be able to cover them all in one year. However, as noted, they carry on an independent witness and they do so in a land that is not only one of the safest but one with perhaps the most freedom for the work of any nation in the world. We value the continual prayers of the saints or, as one of our brethren now with the Lord used to put it "Just a prayer at night"!