Objects of Worship: A Japanese Journey in Ancient Religion and Modern Experience

Thierry Richards

On 9 January 1891, the Japanese teacher Kanzo Uchimura (1861–1930) committed a dangerous act of defiance. During a school assembly, in full view of the thousand or so pupils and teachers who had come together that morning, Uchimura pointedly refused to submit to an imperial edict: he did not bow down before a copy of that edict on display, or to the image of his country’s emperor, Meiji (reigned 1867–1912). The consequences for Uchimura were severe and immediate: forced to resign from his job, he was later named and shamed in the press, becoming a figure of public contempt. This major turning point in Uchimura’s life amounts to much more than a mere footnote in the history of Japanese religion.

The imperial edict on Education, before which Uchimura did not bow.

The cause of Uchimura’s act of defiance was his embrace of Christianity – a religion which, he had come to feel intensely, could have no truck with the worship of emperors. Like many an evangelical Protestant convert, Uchimura had found his way to Christianity as an impressionable young man. But Christianity had been illegal (and virtually non-existent) in Japan until 1873, when Meiji lifted a ban on the practice of the religion in the country after almost 250 years. Uchimura’s embrace of this faith was highly unconventional – particularly in the Protestant form, which remained as yet virtually unknown in Japan.

Kanzo Uchimura (1861–1930).

Uchimura would rise to become the foremost Japanese interpreter of the Bible. His life helps demonstrate what the history and literature of the ancient world can do. Having gained a reasonable familiarity with Ancient Hebrew and Ancient Greek, as well as a working knowledge of Latin, Uchimura came to look to important stories and events from antiquity to guide his own thinking and decisions:

What I wish to do, I do not; I do that which I hate. I am formed of two selves, which always fight one another. Truly, truly, life in this world is but one tremendous war. Long ago, Seneca wrote to his friend Lucilius, saying, ‘Vivere, mi Lucili, militare est.’ (“To live, my Lucilius, is to wage war.”) As such, who can claim that life is joy? For me, there is never a day’s rest from this war. Every day, within the confines of my heart, I witness Sekigahara [a famous Japanese battle in 1600] and Waterloo.[1]

But his relationship with Greek and Roman culture was never straightforward: Uchimura experienced his life powerfully as a Japanese. Tensions inevitably arose between his adopted religion and his native homeland; to resolve these, it was to ancient history that Uchimura turned.

Emperor Meiji (1852–1912), whol reigned from the age of fourteen.

Initial Bearings

Early in his life, Uchimura found himself engaging seriously with the ancient Christian literature which would become so important for him. Whereas many Classicists have been (and continue to be) uncomfortable with treating the Bible and early Christian writings as part of their discipline, for Uchimura, Classical and Christian texts were part of the same world, and helped illuminate one another. After all, the New Testament arose in the Roman Empire, with Jesus Christ’s life spanning the reigns of the Emperor Augustus (31 BC–AD 14) and the Emperor Tiberius (ruled 14–37); further, much of the New Testament itself was written down during the reigns of the Emperor Claudius (41–54) and the Emperor Nero (54–68), or shortly thereafter. Furthermore, the New Testament texts are written in ‘Koine Greek’, or ‘common Greek’, an international vernacular dialect which is intelligible to anyone who is able to read the ‘Classical Greek’ of 5th-century Athens. Uchimura was naturally drawn further into the world of the Roman Empire through his engagement with Christian literature.

Uchimura’s first encounters with Christian ideas were also encounters with the English language, the grand city of Tokyo, and exotic foreign women. Unusually for a resident of his hometown, Takasaki, Uchimura had learnt English from the age of eight. In 1873, aged eleven, he was sent off to an English-language school in Tokyo. One of his teachers, Frances Pearson, greatly improved his English with the help of the New Testament. Uchimura emerged as one of Pearson’s star pupils: she rewarded him with a book about the New Testament in English.

English school in Takasaki, Japan, where Kanzo Uchimura first learned English, aged eight.

Pearson could have had no clue that she had just introduced the New Testament to a youngster who would go on to write a 700-page commentary on Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Uchimura reflected in later life that his initial impression of Christian ideas was positive because he had been entertained by the stories he read, and enjoyed some music he heard. He was particularly struck by an idea he encountered in the thought of St Paul: the sense of knowing what the right thing to do is, but – even in spite of this knowledge – not being able to do it. He was thinking here of Romans 7:14 ff.

St Paul (c.AD 5–64) might not be every Classicist’s idea of a ‘Classical’ author. But he wrote a third of the New Testament.[2] He was a Roman citizen, and a contemporary of the great Latin writer Seneca (AD 4-65), though of course his own surviving writings were composed in ‘Koine Greek’, not Latin. Paul was familiar with contemporary Greek philosophy (Epicureanism and Stoicism at least) as well as Classical literary traditions (most notably, he is depicted alluding to the Hellenistic poet Aratus in the Areopagus Sermon reported in Acts 17). Paul’s epistles aim to deepen understanding of Jesus’ teaching, and tackle the challenges faced by early Christians. The profundity of psychological insight which the young Uchimura found in Paul left a deep impression on him that would stay with him throughout his life.

Sapporo Agricultural College, where Uchimura attended university in 1877–81.

Uchimura went off to university in Sapporo, where he encountered some local Christians whose religion appalled him. In spite of his early experiences in Tokyo, he had a sense that there was something treacherous about Christianity, particularly as practised by fellow Japanese. The religion had, after all, been illegal until comparatively recently. At first, Uchimura wanted to oppose the Japanese Christians he encountered, urging them to return to traditional Japanese religion – to Shinto, Buddhist and Confucian teachings and practices. And yet within a year of arriving at university, Uchimura himself would permanently turn his back on these very practices, thanks to an encounter with the writing of St Paul.

Uchimura describes how on Sunday 31 March 1878, he was in a fellow student’s room discussing Paul’s Letter to the Romans. While looking at chapter 12 of this text, Uchimura describes how his “conscience was pricked, because we [in the modern world] were not in the mood ‘to feed our enemy in his hunger’.”[3] It was in this epistle that Uchimura first encountered the Christian teaching that one should love one’s own enemies (a teaching also set out in the Gospels at Matthew 5:43-4 and Luke 6:35). This teaching seemed at odds with his existing moral thinking, and with Japanese cultural mores as he understood them; yet it served for him as a gateway to further writings of St Paul, and the other texts of the New Testament through him. On 21 April 1878, he wrote: “Great joy for the first time. Getting to be more spiritual. Began to feel joy in prayers.”[4] Uchimura felt that his engagement with the writing of St Paul did most to engender these feelings. He was baptised on 2 June 1878.

Classmates in their second year at university, 1878 (with Uchimura in the centre).

Family Strife

In the summer of 1879, two years after he was baptised, Uchimura undertook the 600-mile journey from his university in the far north of Japan to visit his parents in Tokyo, where he would spend the next two months. He could now experience Tokyo itself as a kind of ancient Athens, as described in chapter 17 of the Acts of the Apostles, where Paul visits the city and finds this metropolis of the 1st-century Roman Empire to be upsetting on account of its “idolatry”. Mirroring the language attributed to Paul in Acts 17:16, Uchimura describes having a “sore pain in my heart” when he saw his own mother giving thanks to “family idols” in recognition for the safe return home of her son. For Uchimura, conversations with his family members in Tokyo now mirrored Paul’s interactions with the Athenians. Just as Paul tried to “reason” with those in the Athenian marketplace, so too did Uchimura try to reason with his own family. Yet, his mother was “indifferent” and his father was “antagonistic” to Uchimura’s new beliefs (although his father did at least promise to “examine the faith I implored him to receive”).[5]

In 1884, Uchimura married a fellow Japanese who had also become a Christian, Asada Take. His mother was opposed to the match, which caused not a few problems: at the time, Japanese newlyweds usually lived in the family home of the groom after the wedding. Just two months into the marriage, Uchimura returned from a business trip to find that his wife and mother had had a big fight. The marriage ended in divorce just seven months after the wedding. Uchimura turned for guidance to St Paul. In 1886 he records:

The greatest stumbling-block to a Japanese in accepting the religion of Christ is that Scripture which declares that a man shall ‘leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife (Genesis 2)’; but while this is so, fortunately for the pagan, St. Paul has left us a partial, if not a complete, explanation of the passage in his Epistle to the Ephesians.”[6]

Uchimura saw how the most fundamental problem with attempting to live in a Christian manner in Japan involved, not theology or metaphysics, but social codes and domestic expectations. Later he would emphasise the importance of living separately from one’s own parents after marriage. He wrote essays on “marital problems” and “singleness” which offer sustained interpretations not just of Ephesians but of Colossians and 1 Corinthians.[7] Thanks to St Paul, Uchimura was able to develop his important insight that marriage – and social relations – constitute a fundamental element of Christian identity, one which jarred with conventional practice in his Japanese cultural environment.

Uchimura with his father and son.

Struggles with English and American Missionaries

Uchimura’s approach to missionary work in Japan brought him into conflict with other missionaries – particularly those of English and American backgrounds. In 1889, in the Niigata region of central Japan, Uchimura invited a Buddhist monk to deliver a lecture on Buddhism. He considered this an opportunity to learn from the monk, in order better to engage with Buddhist understandings of Christianity. But other missionaries publicly attacked Uchimura for his stance, insinuating that the invitation to lecture suggested that Uchimura was in agreement with the monk. For Uchimura the root of his opponents’ misunderstanding lay in a failure properly to appreciate a 1st-century precedent.

He notes Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians: “To the weak I became weak to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.” Uchimura argued that, in a Japanese context, this should mean, “To the Buddhist, I become like a Buddhist.” This was something the foreign missionaries had failed to do: not only had they learned too little from the Japanese people about their situation and their faith; they also failed to replicate Paul’s approach: “We should learn from Saint Paul, and not from the English and American missionaries”![8]

First Higher School in Tokyo, where Uchimura was a teacher.

Cultural Conflicts in Japan

After 1891, Uchimura began a new phase of his life. His wife had died; as noted above, he had been forced to resign his teaching position for his refusal to bow in front of the emperor’s edict and portrait. After a year or so of depression, he taught briefly at a few different schools, before re-marrying and settling down in Kyoto and beginning life as an independent writer. Over the next four years, he published articles and books that made him both famous and financially independent. Then, in 1897, he returned to Tokyo to become the English language editor of the most popular daily newspaper in Japan, the Daily Morning News. From this platform Uchimura was able to critique the social and political trends of his contemporary Japan from a distinctly Pauline point of view.

The most famous Japanese expert on Western trends in Japan at this time was Fukuzawa Yukichi (1835–1901). He had founded a university to help train up businessmen for the ‘New Japan’. On 25 May 1897, Uchimura attacked Fukuzawa’s teaching and practice as the “height of mammonism”. Kunichika Yagyu, Professor of the History of Western Political Thought at Tohoku University, describes Uchimura’s inner struggle in this way:

In spite of his hope to see the commonwealth of the Japanese nation increase, he criticized economic policies of the government that made the rapid growth of oligarchic capitalism possible.[9]

He drew on the New Testament, and in particular the Letter of James (2:2–4), and its teaching against showing partiality to the rich and against the poor, to demonstrate the perils of Fukuzawa’s philosophy – and of oligarchic capitalism itself.[10]

St Paul delivering the Areopagus Sermon in Athens, Raphael, 1515 (Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK)

Conflicts over Current Affairs

However, it was not simply economic policy where Uchimura felt the tension between his country and his God. Current affairs and foreign policy were also often in his thoughts. And here it was not simply the New Testament that inspired Uchimura. He was a keen reader of Greek and Roman history. He quotes from a range of Classical writers in his studies and articles, and frequently consulted his copy of Edward Gibbon’s monumental Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–88). It was natural, then, for Uchimura to include reflections on Greco-Roman history and culture as he reflected on his own age. When he pondered the role that Japan might have in bringing together and fusing Eastern and Western ideas, for instance, he turned to Plato:

Plato, born in a time and at a place when and where the two opposing currents were not far from the centre of equilibrium, has never been approached in the roundness and completeness of his philosophy. Grander tasks await the young Japan who has the best of Europe and the best of Asia at her command.”[11]

And when considering the importance of Japan’s foreign relations, Ancient Greece was again a point of reference:

We all know that the greatness of Greece began with its foreign relations. Its world-embracing thoughts and actions date mostly since the Persian war. Confined to Greece, the Greeks were simply witty, artistic people, no Pericles or Phidias among them yet. Japan’s grandeur is from to-day.”[12]

Meanwhile, in writing about the war between Greece and Turkey in 1897, Uchimura referred to the Persian Wars as recounted by the historian Herodotus:

May the old bravery of Leonidas and wisdom of Themistocles be thine, now in this thy battle of liberation of the Isles of the Sea!”[13]

These are just a few short illustrations of the vivid role Greek and Roman ideas and history held in Uchimura’s thought.

Pericles’ funeral oration, Philipp Foltz, 1852 (priv. coll.).

Uchimura the Scholar and Biblical Commentator

In 1898, Uchimura decided to resign from his work as a journalist and teach the Bible full-time. This became Uchimura’s vocation for the next 32 years, enabling him to influence vast numbers of Japanese people.

In 1919, as Uchimura ended a year-long lecture tour of Japan, he again turned to St Paul and 1 Corinthians, where he taught how the unity of Jesus’ disciples teaching the resurrection led to the defeat of the greatest empire the world had ever seen, the Roman Empire. Uchimura urged this as an example for preachers in Tokyo to unite together in preaching the message of the resurrection.[14]

The highest point of Uchimura’s career as a scholar and Bible-teacher was the period when he gave a series of 60 lectures in central Tokyo between January 1921 and October 1922 on St Paul’s Letter to the Romans. One of the distinctive features of these lectures was Uchimura’s heavy reliance on the Greek text of the letter. He was intent on getting “beyond translated versions” of the text, and toward the original meaning of Paul’s words. The results fascinated many of his contemporaries.

The Great Japan Medical Hall, where Uchimura delivered his lectures on Romans in 1921–2.

Uchimura felt that his lifetime’s dream of explaining Christianity to the whole of Japan was realized, but not along the Confucian lines which he had envisaged as a child. Rather, it was with St Paul as his focus that Uchimura aimed to help some of the leading figures in Japan navigate through a rapidly changing social, economic and political world, as they battled to work out what their Japanese identity entailed within it.

The lecture hall was a gorgeous German-style stone building next to the Imperial Palace in the business centre of Tokyo, opposite the government’s Home Office Ministry. Seven hundred people crammed in each week to hear the lectures, including government officials, business leaders, and even Buddhist monks. Over a third of the audience consisted of university students, many at Japan’s finest university, Tokyo Imperial University. Some of them would go on to influence Japan significantly as diplomats, economists, specialists in urban administration, university professors, and even the first chief justice of the Supreme Court after the Second World War under the new constitution in 1947.[15] People would even travel hundreds of miles from other cities in order to attend these lectures. Uchimura himself would later describe this period as the high point of his entire life:

For me personally, this period of time was the pinnacle of my life, between the ages of 59 and 63, being able to engage in this enjoyable social enterprise, for which I have a feeling of unsurpassable thankfulness.”[16]

Uchimura had reached the age of 59, and he considered the Letter to the Romans to be the place which best expresses St Paul’s lifetime of experience. And so in giving these lectures Uchimura took the opportunity to reflect deeply upon Paul’s life which helped him to reflect on his own lifetime’s experiences as well. Uchimura also explains that he was not simply seeking to explain the text of Romans, such as might be found in a biblical commentary, but that he wanted to get across the spirit of Paul’s words and how they applied to the events of contemporary Japan. So in these lectures Uchimura spoke about public morals, trends in Buddhism, covetousness in society, scientific advances, philosophy, poetry, political scheming, global affairs, contemporary political relations between Japan and the United States, trends in Academia, as well as the Japanese education system.

A Bible study group which Uchimura taught.

At times Uchimura’s message was stark. In Chapter 3 of the Letter to the Romans, St Paul teaches that no amount of moral instruction can make people better; rather, their hearts need to be transformed by the message of forgiveness. Uchimura applied this to the contemporary Japanese education system and the inadequacy of its attempts to teach morals in schools:

Morals cannot save and so the whole system of household and school morals is wasted effort and will end in collapse. This is a proposal for a spiritual revolution of the morals-based society, where as well as displaying that morals are not the saviour, we cause a reformation of society from the foundations of those standing on morals or surrounding themselves with morals, and we increase the momentum towards rebuilding society on the foundation of faith.[17]

Rather than morals, it is the message brought by St Paul, and his master Jesus Christ, which Uchimura considered to have the power to transform the hearts of those in contemporary Japan and so to reform contemporary Japanese society. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Uchimura describes St Paul’s Letter to the Romans as the best book in the world:

Who can be consoled on his death bed by the so-called great works of this world? However, in any situation of life or death, the greatest companion is always Romans. There is no book in the world superior to this epistle.[18]

Like Uchimura, I became a Christian in my first years at university; and, I have been deeply influenced by St Paul’s Letter to the Romans, which was a key factor in bringing me from the UK to work in Tokyo. Indeed, I sense similar challenges to Uchimura, of how to integrate Christianity, my cultural background, and the Japanese culture in which I now work. As I have reflected on St Paul and his ancient Letter to the Romans, through the eyes of Uchimura, I have also received great joy, comfort, and hope. I am grateful for all this ancient wisdom.

Thierry Richards is a pastor in central Tokyo. He was born to a father from Antigua and a mother from Ireland, but raised in the UK. Having studied Biochemistry at the University of Oxford, he studied Theology in London. He came to live in Tokyo with his wife in 2010, and is completing a PhD on Kanzo Uchimura at Kyoto University. His office in Tokyo is just 150 metres from where Uchimura conducted his lectures on Romans in 1921–2. He has helped to begin Grace City Church Tokyo, and is about to begin another, Marunouchi Church Tokyo.


1 Kanzo Uchimura, The Complete Works of Uchimura Kanzo, 40 vols (Iwanami Shoten, Tokyo, 1980–4) 2:137–8. Cf. Christopher Andrew Born, “Native Roots and Foreign Grafts: The Spiritual Quest of Uchimura Kanzo,” Washington University in St. Louis PhD thesis (St Louis, 2017) 250, available here.
2 Michael L. White, From Jesus to Christianity (Harper Collins, San Francisco, CA, 2004); D.A. Carson & Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament (Apollos, Leicester, 2nd ed., 2005) 364–70.
3 Kanzo Uchimura, How I Became a Christian: Out of My Diary (The Complete English Literature Works of Uchimura Kanzo 1; Kyobunkwan, Tokyo, 1971) 31.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid., 48.
6 Kanzo Uchimura, “Moral traits of the ‘Yamato-Damashii’ (‘Spirit of Japan’),” Complete Works 5:13–34, at 15.
7 “Marriage problems: 1 Corinthians 7,” Complete Works 24:19–23); “Paul’s view of singleness” (The Complete Biblical Commentaries of Kanzo Uchimura 12; Kyobunkwan, Tokyo 1981) 79–81.
8 Kanzo Uchimura, “The key to compassion” (ibid., 94–7, at 97.
9 Kunichika Yagyu, “Prophetic Nationalism: Uchimura between God and Japan,” in Hiroshi Shibuya & Shin Chiba (eds), Living for Jesus and Japan: The Social and Theological Thought of Uchimura Kanzo (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 2013) 69-92, 70.
10 “Height of Mammonism,”Complete Works 5, 214 –15, at 215.
11 “Japan: its mission,” Complete Works 5:54–65, at 62–3.
12 “The land and the people,” Complete Works 5:75–89, at 82.
13 “Hail to Greece,” Complete Works 5:103–5, at 103–4.
14 “Paul’s theory of the resurrection,” Complete Works 24:557–83, at 564–5.
15 John F. Howes, Japan’s Modern Prophet (UBC Press, Vancouver, BC, 2005) 197.
16 Kanzo Uchimura (Sasaki Shinobu ed.), Studies in Romans (1) (Word of Life Press, Tokyo, 2018) 17.
17 Ibid., 163–4.
18 Complete Works 27:574; cf. Kei Chiba, “Uchimura Kanzo on justification by faith in his study of Romans,” in Hiroshi Shibuya & Shin Chiba (eds), Living for Jesus and Japan: The Social and Theological Thought of Uchimura Kanzo (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 2013) 162–97, at 169.