Common People’s Christianity in Gunma, 1880s

From: American Missionaries, Christian Oyatoi, and Japan 1859–73, by Hamish Ion (UBC Press, 2009), pp. 269-271:

Although many missionaries, unlike their Japanese colleagues, came from rural farming backgrounds (and thus possibly had a better appreciation of the importance of farming to national strength), they were restricted to the treaty ports. Unless missionaries were employed at Japanese schools or obtained leave to go into the interior for health reasons, they were not free to leave the treaty ports. Thus, the rural evangelistic effort had by necessity, to be largely conducted by Japanese evangelists. By 1884 thirteen churches had been established in the Kantō prefectures.” Kudō Eiichi has pointed out that the ten years from 1877 to 1887 saw a tremendous growth in the Protestant movement, much of which came from the creation of new churches in rural areas.” This growth owed a lot to the activities of students who had studied in Tokyo or Yokohama, where they had contact with Christians returning to their hometowns and villages in the provinces Back-up to the activities of returned Christians came from members of the new city churches in Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka, and Kobe, joined shortly afterward by students from the Nihon Kirisuto Ichi Kyōkai Shingakkō in Tsukiji and the Dōshisha school in Kyoto.

As Christian activities in Annaka and Maebashi reveal, one of the first areas to be opened up was Gunma Prefecture, an agricultural area to the west of Tokyo with strong ties to the silk-exporting trade through Yokohama. The opportunities for rural economic development as a result of the silk trade helped to open this area to Western machinery and Western ideas. It was in Kiryū that evangelists belonging to the Shin Sakae Kyōkai were able to establish their first church among the rural folk in this important region. In its early years, the Kiryū Kyōkai lacked both a permanent worship place and a resident minister. It grew nevertheless because of the energy of visiting evangelists and its own members. In sharp contrast to many of the first converts in Yokohama and Tokyo, who were shizoku (descendants of samurai), the Kiryū Christians belonged to merchant and farming families. Indeed, the first shizoku member of the church, Ishii Yasaemon, became a member in August 1883 and was the 117th person to be baptized in that church. In microcosm, the challenges that the Kiryū Kyōkai faced help to explain how a Christian community was able to take root in a country area and shed more light on what church activity entailed for country Christians. Sumiya has pointed out that Gunma Christians were different from their counterparts in other places where shizoku had made up the majority of converts because Gunma Christianity was the common people’s Christianity (heimin no kirisutokyo). This was certainly true in the case of the Kiryū Kyōkai….

Between 1878 and 1888, twelve churches were established in the prefecture, with a total membership of 1,466. Among them was the independent church Nishi Gunma Kyōkai, Takazaki Kyōkai, established in May 1884 by Hoshino Mitsuta. The evangelistic power and vitality of the young Dōshisha graduates who formed the vanguard of the Kumiai Kyōkai’s endeavour in Gunma is reflected in the ownership of these twelve churches: nine belonged to the Kumiai Kyōkai, and only one each to the Nihon Kirisuto Ichi Kyōkai, the Baptists, and the Methodists. The majority of the churches were on the main road leading west across Honshu toward Niigata, as was the case in Kiryū, Maebashi, Takasaki, Annaka, and Harashi. Some of these also were on the route of the railway – Isesaki, for instance. Ōhama has pointed out that Gunma Prefecture had 985 Christians in its churches in 1888 and ranked fifth in terms of numbers of Christians living in Japanese prefectures or major cities, and, at 14.75, fourth overall in terms of Christians per thousand of population.

This adds new perspective to our visit to international Ota City in Gunma, which is now home to Japan’s largest Braziltown and has the highest proportion of foreign workers of any prefecture in Japan.

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