Reformed church witness in Japan : a brief history

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I. John Hesselink
Etta Marie Hesselink


In the middle of the seventeenth century, Japan's emerging political leaders instituted a seclusion policy (Sakoku) that sealed the nation's borders. Both leaving and entering Japan were forbidden upon pain of death, and all sea-going vessels were destroyed. These extreme measures were taken to counteract the danger to Japan's unity, national polity, identity, and domestic peace posed by the evangelizing activity of Catholic missionaries.

Japan's first contact with Christianity had come in 1549 with the arrival of Francis Xavier and two other Jesuits. They were joined by more missionaries, and for fifty years the Catholic mission enjoyed remarkable growth. The regional lords' (daimyo) favorable attitude toward the mission was undoubtedly due to the lure and promise of commercial gain through trade and increased military might by the acquisition of new weapons. However, that there was also authentic soul searching and real conversion became evident when persecution began.

Unfortunately, this so-called "Christian century" coincided with the rise of Japan's three greatest power brokers: Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu, each of whom shared the vision of a great, unified empire. The first two of them especially were attracted to the erudition of the priests and often entertained them royally. However, after a night of revelry on July 24, 1587, Hideyoshi suddenly denounced them publicly for their "deceitful propaganda of a devilish and subversive creed," thereby winning over some of the feudal aristocracy  who posed a serious threat to the unity and safety of the empire. An Edict of Expulsion issued the following day began, "Ours is the Land of the Gods," that is, a sacred land. Although the edict was not immediately enforced, a number of churches were destroyed. Hideyoshi found the Christian doctrine of strict monotheism "unreasonable and wanton" because it endangered the relationship between Japan's sacred sovereign and her people.

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How to Cite
Hesselink, I. J., & Hesselink, E. M. (2002). Reformed church witness in Japan : a brief history. Reformed Review, 55(3), 181-206. Retrieved from
Japan -- Church history; Reformed Church in America -- Missions; Pieters, Albertus, 1869-1955