Neon Crosses

It’ll probably be another week before I get to my post on Fukuoka. Among other things, I’m preoccupied by my upcoming 90-minute English lesson for my school’s PTA this Wednesday. I don’t know how many people will be there or where their ability levels will be (all over the map, probably), and I’ve never taught adults before. But the best part is how I found out about this task. A week ago a pair of PTA members came into the teachers’ room after school, approached me, and said (in Japanese), “We want to have an English conversation class. We talked to the vice principal and he said you’d do it . . .” Yeah. At least they gave me notice.

But enough whining. Like I was saying, it’ll be a while longer before I have time to write up my intended post, but in the meantime, there is one more thing from my trip to Korea that I forgot to mention.

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One particularly striking aspect of modern South Korea is the degree to which Christianity has taken root. During my trip, I was approached by Jehova’s Witnesses three or four times and twice by members of a Korean church that seemed similar to Seventh-day Adventists. Apparently, Korea is the second largest source of Christian missionaries, after the US. Looking out over Seoul at night reveals red neon crosses throughout the city.

About 28% of South Koreans are Christian, with Buddhists accounting for 23%, 1% for “other,” and the rest not claiming any particular religion. In Japan, meanwhile, less than 1% of the population is Christian. Why has Christianity taken off in South Korea and not in Japan? There are a number of reasons.

One reason is the existence of a supreme creator deity in Korea’s rather amorphous, native, shamanistic religion that was around before Buddhism swept in. There were demigods in this old folk religion, but as the creator was the unchallenged god, total monotheism wasn’t much of a conceptual leap.

But in Shinto, Japan’s pre-Buddhist folk religion (which is partly tied to the imperial institution and has mostly coexisted with Japanese Buddhism in a complimentary relationship), there are innumerable “kami.” Kami is translated to “god,” but the concept is different from gods in Western polytheistic traditions (e.g. ancient Greek gods) and it’s nothing like the Judeo-Christian God. Monotheism and a land devoid of kami is an alien world-view in Japan.

The other reason is a matter of history and identity. When Christianity entered Japan in the 16th century it gained some converts, but along with declaring national isolation, the Tokugawa Shogunate outlawed Christianity as a foreign faith that subverted people’s loyalties. Today, Japan has freedom of religion guaranteed in its constitution, and there are about a million Christians in the country, but Christianity doesn’t lend itself to the syncretism embedded in Japanese culture.

Christianity came to Korea at the same time it entered Japan and it also had a rocky start. I don’t think it was banned, but Christianity was severely criticized by Neo-Confucian scholars. However a group of anti-establishment scholars embraced Christianity for its egalitarianism, and churches were founded in a native movement, without the assistance/control of foreign churches (which is an important detail).

I’m skipping some significant history to wrap this up more quickly.

During the Japanese occupation (1905-1945), Korean churches became associated with nationalism and the resistance movement, because they refused to take part in Emperor worship, which was made mandatory in the 1930s. Thus, Christianity became viewed not as a foreign religion, but as patriotically Korean.

And that’s that. I’m leaving a lot of things explained poorly or not at all, but this post ended up growing much longer than I was expecting, so I’ll call it good. Next time: Fukuoka. (I’m just tempting fate every time I say “Next time: X,” but it’s good to have goals, right?)

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4 Responses to “Neon Crosses”

  1. Doug Says:

    Kevin, I’m indebted to you for expanding my vocabulary. Our friends at Wikipedia advise that “Syncretism consists of the attempt to reconcile disparate or contradictory beliefs, often while melding practices of various schools of thought. The term may refer to attempts to merge and analogize several originally discrete traditions, especially in the theology and mythology of religion, and thus assert an underlying unity.”

  2. Nicole Says:

    so what exactly is the concept of “kami”?
    (and re you being tagged for the PTA lesson – sounds like more of Kevin being the go-to guy!!!)

  3. kevinjames Says:

    “Spirit” is perhaps a better translation. Natural objects like stones, trees, and rivers are said to possess kami. And each stone could have it’s own kami (as opposed to there being a single god of stones, or something).

    Kami can also be spirits of the dead. I think that basically, such a spirit is a kami if it’s sticking around this world and influencing it. These kami can be powerful or they can be insignificant. I don’t know what the distinction is between a ghost and a kami, but I *think* that there is one.

    Finally, kami include personified beings that are more like gods, such as the sun goddess, Amaterasu, who is regarded as the ancestor of the imperial line. It’s worth noting that these god-type kami aren’t omnipotent or omniscient.

  4. Nicole Says:

    thanks, Kevin, that explained it well for me. kami sound kind of cool!!

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