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Nationalism as evangelism

10 May 2024

John Griffiths ponders the lessons that might be learned from the Japanese Non-Church movement


Uchimura Kanzo (1861-1930)

Uchimura Kanzo (1861-1930)

IF SOMEONE emphasised the strategic importance of his country’s position between America and the continent adjoining it, you might have thought you were listening to a British politician in the past ten years. But the observation was made at the end of the 19th century by Uchimura Kanzo, a Japanese Evangelical, writing about the part played by Japan, a rising colonial power taking the torch from America, which had, in turn, freed herself from European domination.

Uchimura presents Japan as a country that would mediate European civilisation for Asia, but this would have meaning only if the Japanese grasped the Christian principles undergirding European civilisation. Uchimura saw Japan as a strategic base from which Christianity would spread across Asia.

What makes Uchimura such an interesting figure is the way in which he interprets the colonialism that he absorbs from America: how he translates it into nationalism — but a nationalism that is strongly critical of Japan’s 1894 war with China and subsequent war against Russia in 1904. His critical articles appeared in national newspapers. He caused a national scandal by refusing to bow to the Emperor’s script in the college where he worked (he said that he would obey the Emperor, but would not worship him or his handwriting). From this point on, he was unemployable; but he continued to write articles and publish a monthly Bible-study magazine until his death in 1931.

His pacificism parallels that of Gandhi in South Africa, but the principal reason that Uchimura is still remembered in Japan is that he founded Mukyokaishugi: the Non-Church movement. He argued that it was not appropriate for foreign denominations to present themselves as gateways to salvation by controlling baptism and the eucharist, or by building churches and appointing pastors. Salvation is from Jesus Christ, and not from institutional Churches — extensions of foreign denominations, measuring their growth by how many Japanese converts they had won.

Naturally, this made Uchimura and his followers unpopular with European missionaries, and with national church leaders in Japan. But many saw him as an Asian Kierkegaard, challenging the power of Churches as institutions and calling for a direct experience of God.

All of this would be an eccentric historical footnote were it not that, over the rest of his lifetime, Uchimura built up the Non-Church movement so that, by the time of his death, it numbered 100,000 followers, including several vice-chancellors of universities (and this in a country with a reputation for being hostile to Christianity). While the Japanese struggled to choose between familial and church loyalties, the way in which Mukyokai groups gathered weekly to study the scriptures, pray together, and share faith allowed for continuity with Japanese culture.


BESIDES writing and publishing Bible studies, Uchimura also gave public lectures. Beginning in 1920, his 60 consecutive weekly lectures on the Epistle to the Romans drew audiences of more than 600, including Buddhist monks.

Making use of Paul’s vivid analogy in Romans 11 of the olive tree with natural branches cut off and wild branches grafted on, Uchimura adds the soil in which the tree is planted. Every nation has the gospel planted in its soil — soil created and moulded by God. The identity of the tree is as much influenced by the soil as by its own genus. So, the bushido warrior code was placed there by divine providence. Through the atoning work of Jesus, bushido is fulfilled, and the Japanese could work both for their country, and for their country to serve the world, to the glory of God.

Joining foreign denominations ran counter to the calling of Japanese Christians. It made no sense. The calling of Japan would enable Christians in other countries to discover and live out their own national historic calling. During the Second World War, in which the national Church of Japan was complicit with the imperial cult, Mukyokai were regularly imprisoned for protesting that the Japanese State had gone beyond its divine limits and faced divine judgement.

Perhaps the most famous Uchimura quotation is this: “I love two Js and no third; one is Jesus, and the other is Japan. I do not know which I love more, Jesus or Japan. Even if I lose all my friends, I cannot lose Jesus and Japan. I am hated by my countrymen for Jesus’s sake as a yaso, and I am disliked by foreign missionaries for Japan’s sake as national and narrow.

“My faith is not a circle with one centre: it is an ellipse with two centres. My heart and mind revolve around the two dear names. And I know that one strengthens the other: Jesus strengthens and purifies my love for Japan; and Japan clarifies and objectifies my love for Jesus. Were it not for the two I would become a mere dreamer, an amorphous universal man.”


THROUGHOUT his life, Uchimura continued to visit churches to preach in them, but he was never a member. As a student in his early twenties, with other students, he had planted a church in Sapporo, in northern Japan. The Anglicans refused to fund the project because they already had a church in Sapporo; and the Methodists — who initially provided funding — demanded the immediate return of the funds as soon as they heard that the church wanted to be independent. That early brush with denominationalism set Uchimura on a course to establish Christian groups run by the Japanese themselves without foreign interference.

It seems to me that, after a decade when the identity of the UK has been shaken, and the Church of England faces an existential crisis, Uchimura’s writing and thinking are a helpful provocation to ask the questions: What is the UK for? What is the Church for?

At a time when ecclesiastical squabbles are sucking the divine oxygen out of the room, Uchimura would be suggesting that there may be a choice to be made in whether to become better English or better Anglicans. We know perfectly well the kind of people our culture and values call us to become. That, Uchimura would say, is what we learn by studying the Old Testament and translating it into our context. But we need the power of Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit to be transformed, because our fallen culture cannot possibly succeed by itself.

Uchimura would ask whether the ecclesiastical institutions of Europe have appropriated powers to which they have no right, and which compete for our attention and loyalty, when our calling may be much simpler. Rather than fight institutional decline, can we imagine how — in 50 years, following Uchimura’s principles — England might be a godlier place with the focus on building national institutions instead of preserving ecclesiastical ones?


John Griffiths is a Reader in St Albans diocese. His parents were missionaries in Japan. He discovered a book about the life of Uchimura Kanzo when clearing their Guildford home.

UCHIMURA’s work is still widely read in Japan, but most of his published works (40 volumes) are not available in English. The following are helpful introductions:

Living for Jesus and Japan: The social and theological thought of Uchimura Kanzo, edited by Shibuya Hiroshi and Chiba Shin (Eerdmans, 2013)

The Life and Thought of Kanzo Uchimura, 1861-1930 by Hiroshi Miura (Eerdmans, 1996)

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