What was Jesus doing in Japan?

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

Despite an abundance of scholarly efforts in search of the historical Jesus in recent years, not much is known about him, except that he was born in Palestine around 4 B.C.E., began his ministry around 28 C.E., and was tried and executed by Roman officials around 30 C.E.1 This means that much of what has been transmitted to us about Jesus comes from the accounts of his life recorded in the Gospels. How reliable, then, are the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life?

Modern research has established the writing of the Gospels to have been around 70-90 C.E.: Mark, circa 70, Luke and Matthew, circa 85, and John, circa 90. Carsten Peter Thiede, a German archeologist and New Testament scholar, in his 1996 book, claims that the Gospels according to Mark and Matthew were written around 70 C.E., making them potential eyewitnesses in their accounts of the life of Jesus.2 However, consensus opinions among Biblical scholars are: (1) The Gospel narratives were composed from the oral traditions at least 40 years after the death of Jesus; (2) Each of the Gospels brings together parables, stories, and theological assertions that existed earlier in oral form; (3) The New Testament authors, whoever they may have been, interpreted Jesus in light of various images and beliefs from the Hebrew Scriptures.3

The efforts to make connections with the Hebrew tradition, however, seem to have led to some contradictions among the four Gospels. For example, in tracing Joseph’s descent from King David, Matthew counts twenty-eight intermediate generations, while Luke counts forty-one generations. The last words of Jesus on the cross are: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew and Mark quoting from Psalm 22), “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” (Luke quoting from Psalm 31) and “It is finished.” (John).

The New Testament transforms the historical Jesus, the son of Mary, into Christ, the Son of God. This transformation is contingent on two “miraculous” stories about his birth and about his death: the Nativity (the Virgin Birth) and the Resurrection (which is followed by his Ascension into Heaven, leaving with the disciples the promise of his return as the Messiah). These stories, while defying modern scientific explanations, are nevertheless crucial for the birth of Christianity. Thus, Paul writes about the importance of the Resurrection in his first Epistles to Corinthians: “And if Christ is not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.” (I Corinthians 15:14)

Careful reading of the Gospel accounts does not help us to clear up controversies surrounding the resurrection of Jesus, for the Gospel themselves contain some inconsistencies. Who announces the resurrection? Matthew says it was an angel, but Mark says it was a messenger in a robe. In Luke the messenger becomes two angels, and in John one of the angels becomes Jesus himself. To whom did Jesus appear first after the resurrection? Matthew says it was to Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, but Luke says it was to Peter. Where did Jesus appear after the resurrection? Matthew says it was in Galilee, but Luke says it was in Jerusalem.

While the Gospels talk about the resurrection of Jesus after his death on the cross, what happened actually? Speculations abound as to what happened to Jesus after execution. “Probably eaten by the dogs and crows”, says John Dominic Crossan in his Who Killed Jesus?4 Needless to say, this is an extreme view—a blasphemous one at that for Christians, for it implies that Jesus’ body was dumped into a common, shallow grave along with those of other criminals. His point is that the Gospel accounts of the death of Jesus should be read with caution as they reflect the Anti-Semitism of the Gospel writers.

“He was not actually dead”, says Barbara Thiering in her Jesus and the Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls.5 According to Thiering, Jesus was a wicked priest, actually crucified in Qunran and buried in a cave by the Dead Sea. But he was not actually dead, but only appeared dead, thanks to a slow-acting poison administered to him on the cross. Later, Simon Magus, a magician, gave Jesus a purgative to revive him. The revived Jesus went on to marry Mary Magdalene, father three children, divorce her, and then marry Lydia. He eventually died in Rome.

A variation of Thiering’s story is the one that puts the revived Jesus not in Galilee or Jerusalem but in a small village called Shingo in Aomori Prefecture in Japan.6 According to the story told among the Shingo villagers, Jesus first came to Japan at age 21 to study theology and returned to Judea at age 33, explaining what Jesus was doing during the twelve years missing from the Gospel accounts of his life. Jesus avoided execution on the cross by switching places with his brother, called Isukiri by the Shingo villagers, and fled back to Japan. After arriving in Japan, Jesus adopted a new identity, married a Japanese woman, fathered three children, and died at the ripe old age of 106. After his death, the graves were built to bury his remains and part of his brother’s remains, said to be one of his ears.

Considering the distance over which Jesus had to travel in an age when intercontinental jet flights were not available and the fact that the official contact with Christianity did not take place until 1549 when Francis Xavier reached the southern tip of Kyushu after journeying three months by ship from Goa, the story of the revived Jesus living the rest of his life in Japan may be another “miraculous”, or “fantastic”, story about his life that defies rational explanation. The story could be interpreted as a wishful projection by the Shingo villagers of a religious leader who, like Jesus, championed the cause of the poor and the persecuted and preached love and peace to conquer over enmity and hatred. It is quite possible that someone like him actually existed. Remarkably, the “fantastic” story about Jesus’ two travels to Japan is still preserved in the form of the Tomb of Christ and the Legend of Christ Museum in the Shingo village. A more reasonable explanation for the presence of the tomb and the museum dedicated to Jesus would be the paucity of other tourist attractions in this small northern village, consisting most of farmers. Like other rural villages and towns in Japan, Shingo had to come up with an innovative idea to revive its economy faced with the aging of its population.

While the number of Christians accounts for less than one percent of the population, the Japanese have adopted Christmas as an important day for them, especially for children as they expect to receive presents from their parents, and exchange gifts with their friends. Whether Japanese children know about the significance of Christmas, or whose birthday it is, is quite another story. Thus, Christmas in Japan is another example of absorption and adaptation of foreign culture by the Japanese into their own. While what Jesus was doing in Japan two thousand years ago is shrouded in mystery, what Jesus is doing in Japan today is quite clear: His birthday is treated as a huge commercial opportunity for businesses and merchants with special Christmas sales of all kinds of products, from electric gadgets for children to fancy clothes for year-end parties for young adults, to trips to resort hotels for mature adults and seniors. What tends to be forgotten by the commercialization of Christmas is, however, Jesus’ teaching of love and peace, which is certainly more important than what we got or did on Christmas, and needs to be observed in the fragmented and conflict-ridden world today, whether we are Christians or not.

  1. See, for example, Brown, Raymond E., The Death of the Messiah, New York: Doubleday, 1994, Chilton, Bruce, Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography, New York: Image Books, 2000, and Vermes, Geza, The Story of the Scrolls: The Miraculous Discovery and True Significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Penguin, 2010.
  2. Thiede, Carsten Peter, Eyewitness to Jesus, New York: Doubleday, 1996.
  3. The Old Testament records Ezekiel’s vision of the four creatures: “As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side: they four also had the face of an eagle.” (Ezekiel 1:10). During the second century these four faces came to be associated with the four Gospel writers—a man with Matthew, a lion with Mark, an ox with Luke, and an eagle with John.
  4. Crossan, John Dominic, Who Killed Jesus? The Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus, San Francisco: HarperOne, 1996.
  5. Thiering, Barbara, Jesus of the Apocalypse: The Life of Jesus after the Resurrection, New York: Doubleday, 1995.
  6. Lidz, Franz, “Land of the Rising Son”, Smithsonian, January 2013.