Despite concerted attempts by missionaries to convert the Japanese, only about two percent of the population call themselves Christian. They are more or less equally split between members of the Roman Catholic church and the members of other denominations.
Many people have tried to analyse why the Japanese are resistant to conversion. One theory is that Japanese people generally feel that to join the Christian religion would put them in conflict with their society, which is heavily influenced by the Buddhist and Shinto religions.
There seems to be a particular anxiety about abandoning rituals connected with the family and ancestors. A potential convert might feel he would jeopardise his heritage if he follows a “foreign god”.
In Shusaku Endo’s historical novel Samurai one character says: “The Japanese don’t care whether God exists or not.”
The suggestion in the novel is that for the samurai there were more important things than God: namely the system of harmony, or wa, which holds society together.
However, there are places where Christian influence is evident in Japan. Schools, universities and hospitals which were founded by Christians do valuable work. They reflect Christian values through their service to society, rather than through missionary activity. And they employ and serve people of all backgrounds and faiths.
The Japanese Christians I have met generally want to help people live better lives but try not to impose any doctrine on non-believers. If they pushed people to convert, they would find themselves rejected and potentially isolated from their families and society.
Religious education is not part of the school curriculum in Japan. That leaves people to find their own spiritual paths.
Some people never give religion much thought. Often, they follow the traditional rituals of society without considering what they symbolise or how they relate to faith.
Buddhism and Shinto shape many traditions and this week the leaders of the G7 countries who are visiting Japan for a summit will go to the most sacred Shinto shrine – the Great Shrine of Ise, in Mie Prefecture.
Some Shinto followers have questioned whether it is appropriate to invite the foreigners onto such holy ground. But the majority of Japanese people seem pleased the leaders will spend time at the beautiful and holy site.
The Shinto priests at Ise will pray that the leaders are able to share in the concept of harmony or wa – a sacred idea which transcends the boundaries of nation or religion.