Establishment of the Orthodox Church in Japan
Life and Work of St. Nikolai Kasatkin



Orthodox Church in Japan

There are 20,000 to 25,000 Orthodox Christians in Japan. Comparing the total population of the country (ca. 120,000,000), it represents only 0,17% (Christian population is less than 1%). Nonetheless, the Japanese Orthodox Church, formally Japan Haristosu Church, has more than 100 years of tradition, and the only autocephalous (autonomous) Orthodox church in the East Asia region since 1970.

Evangelisation of Japan

Japan's first contact with the Christianity dates back to the 16th century; a Jesuit missionary, St. Francisco Xavier, came to Japan and attracted many converts during the turbulent Momoyama era. The Tokugawa government, however, banned the Christianity and persecuted the Christians, threatening them with capital punishment. Although persecuted, some of the Christians, called gKirishitanh, maintained their faith in secret, and they succeeded to preserve the tradition up to our days.


Contact with Russian Orthodox Church

The Orthodoxy was first transmitted to Japan in the later 19th century by the Russians. Because of this, many Japanese believe that the Orthodox Church in Japan is Russian, but it is incorrect.

At the end of the Edo era (or Tokugawa era, 1603-1868), Japan was forced open the country to the US and to some European countries (before, it banned any contact with the foreigners except in a strictly controlled port of Dejima, Nagasaki). The Russian Empire was one of them. In 1858, Russia obtained a permission to establish a consulate in Hakodate (of Hokkaido, then Ezo). This consulate had an oratory for the Russians, and it was the first Orthodox religious building in Japan.

The first chaplain was the archpriest Vasily Makhov, who came to Japan in June 1859, but after a year he had to return to Russian because of his heart condition. The person who replaced him was the apostle of Japan, St. Nikolai Kasatkin.

Life and Work of Nikolai Kasatkin

1) In Russia

Nikolai was born Ivan Dmitrevich Kasatkin in 1836, in a village called Egorov Beryoza (Belyi district) in Smolensk. His father Dimitry was a deacon of the local church. His mother was said to be pious woman, but she died when Ivan (later Nikolai) was still 6 years old. After having the primary education, he was sent to the Smolensk Seminary. In this school, Ivan heard from one of the instructors about the Russian Orthodox Mission in Beijin, and first started to see his future as a missionary.

When he finished the Smolensk Seminary with excellent result, he went to the St. Petersburg Theological Academy, one of the four most prestigious theological schools in Russia.

At the beginning of 1860, the Holy Synod received a letter from the Russian consulate in Hakodate asking for a substituting priest for father Vasily. The Holy Synod, then, sent letters to the four theological schools asking for the candidate. As soon as Ivan saw this invitation, he expressed his candidacy. The Holy Synod chose him, because, although there were other candidates, he was the only one who meant to become a monastic priest, and the Metropolitan Archbishop of St. Petersburg, Isidor Nikolsky, strongly backed him.

In 23 June 1860, Ivan was tonsured, and took the name Nikolai. After a week he was ordained hieromonk. He was only 23 years old. After short break at home, he headed toward east through the Siberia. He arrived Irkutsk in late summer, and cross the Baikal Lake with ferry. Then he took a boat at the Shilka river (which flows into the Amur river), but when he arrived at Nikolayevsk-na-Amurye, he could not go further because the river was frozen.

2) In Hakodate

He arrived in Hakodate in July 1861, one year after his departure. In September, the archbishop and hierarch of the Diocese of Kamchatka and Alaska (later the archbishop of Moscow and saint) Innokenty Popov-Veniaminov (1797-1879) happened to stay at Hakodate. He found Nikolai reading Western books in the library of the consulate; he reproached Nikolai and exhorted to learn Japanese language, culture, and history so that he could evangelise the Japanese with success and translate the Bible and sacred liturgy correctly into Japanese.

Accepting Innokenty's advice, Nikolai started to learn Japanese seriously. The work of evangelisation, however, proceeded with difficulty because the Tokugawa government still prohibited the missionary activity, although the foreign Christian residents could practice their cult freely.

The new consul who arrived in 1866, Evgeny Byutsov was an eager promoter of the evangelisation of the Japanese, and it was in his room that Nikolai first baptised three Japanese catechumens in 1868. Later that year, Nikolai asked the Holy Synod for sabbatical leave so that he could return to Russian and organise the Orthodox Mission for Japan.

These moves were probably stimulated by the collapse of the Tokugawa government, in the spring 1868 (Meiji Restoration). In Hakodate, however, the battle between the Tokugawa supporters and the army of the new government continued until the spring 1869 (siege of Goryokaku).

Meanwhile Nikolai was given a leave, and he embarked February 1869. While he was in St. Petersburg and in Moskow, he succeeded to get the supports from the high clergy and the nobles for the missionary work in Japan. In April 1870, the Orthodox Mission for Japan was chartered by the Holy Synod. In this connection, Nikolai was promoted to be archimandrite. He tried to recruit other priests for the mission, and in Kiev he met Anatoly Tikhai who were waiting to be ordained as hieromonk. Anatoly promised to come to Japan after the ordination.

To return to Japan, Nikolai took the south-bound route through Suez Canal. He went first to Jerusalem for pilgrimage, and headed for Japan. After passing the Malacca strait, he arrived at Shanghai March 1871, and returned to Hakodate at the end of the same month. Nikolai took with him a young hieromonk who should have substituted him as chaplain of the Hakodate consulate, but this man turned out to be unworthy and was sent back to Russia after 3 months. Nikolai had no other choice than to wait for Anatoly before starting the mission.

The new imperial government sent a new governor to Hokkaido. The first one was friendly to the Russians, but the second one, Kiyotaka Kuroda (later Prime Minister), was antagonistic to the Christianity and he ordered to suppress the evangelism. In fear of persecution, some of the new converts departed from Hakodate, and did their evangelical work in various places of Honsyu (main island), some with great success.

3) In Tokyo

In the beginning of 1872, hieromonk Anatoly finally arrived at Hakodate. Nikolai placed him in charge of the oratory, and left for Tokyo. He established the first provisory quarter in Tsukiji, near Ginza where the foreigners were advised to reside. During the daytime, he taught Russian and in the evening the orthodoxy. In the same period, the Russian emperor Alexander II decided to sent a legation (future embassy) in Tokyo. The consul Evgeny Byutsov was sent to Tokyo to become the Russian chief diplomat.

At the middle of the same year, Nikolai found a suitable place in Surugadai, Kanda for the headquarters, and obtained a long lease contract through Byutsov's intercession. The headquarters operated under the authority (omophorion) of the archbishopric of Kamchatka and Eastern Siberia. Nikolai continued the language teaching and the missionary work there, but, as the Japanese government's attitude toward the Christianity was not yet clear, the baptism was performed in secret.

In the same year, Grand Duke Alexei Romanov (the second son of Alexander II) visited Tokyo and made a big donation to the mission. And Nikolai's supporters in Russia also collected a large amount of money and sent it to him. With these donations, the building for the new headquarters, chancery, and most importantly the chapel of the Holy Cross were constructed. This was Tokyo's first Orthodox religious building.

In 1875, for the first time, two Japanese were ordained. One is priest Pavel Sawabe, and the other deacon Ioann Sakai. They were ordained by the bishop Pavel of Vladivostok and Maritime Siberia. In 1878, other five priests were ordained.

In 1879 Nikolai was convoked by the Holy Synod to be ordained as bishop. This time he took transpacific route. He embarked at Yokohama on 13 August, and landed at San Francesco, and took the Transcontinental Railroad to New York. On 12 September he was already in St. Petersburg.

In March 1880, Nikolai was ordained in St. Alexander Nevsky Lavra of St. Petersburg, as the Bishop of Tokyo and all Japan by the Metropolitan archbishop Isidor. He left on 15 August, travelling through the Suez Canal, arrived at Yokohama in November.

Now Nikolai as bishop, he could ordain clergy by himself. In the period between 1881 and 1912 (31 years), he ordained 44 Japanese priests.

In 1880's the most impending task of the mission was the construction of the Holy Resurrection Cathedral, the first proper Orthodox church in Japan. The fund was provided by the Tsar Alexander III, the Holy Synod, various monastic communities, nobles and the common people. The construction started in 1884; it has a Byzantine-style dome and a large bell tower. The church was dedicated on 8 March 1891.

From the end of the 19th century, the expansionism of Japan and that of Russia went into conflict, and in 1904, Japan-Russia war broke out. Nikolai was advised to leave Japan, but he decided to remain abstaining from public activities. The Orthodox church devoted to help and console the Russian captives taken to Japan. Their number amounted to 73,000. When the war ended in 1905, Nikolai was decorated by the Tsar Nikolai II with the order of St. Alexander Nevsky for his humanitarian activities. And in 1906, he was elevated to archbishop.

In next year, the bishopric of Kyoto was established. Its first bishop was Andronik Nikolsky, but he returned to Russia after a couple of months. His successor Sergy Tikhomirov remained there from 1908 to 1912.

In later years of his life, Nikolai's fame was further increased, and he was decorated with the order of St. Vladimir, First Class. The American assembly of the Orthodox bishops voted him as the most outstanding missionary of the world.

In November 1910, Nikolai had heart attack. His health further deteriorated because of heart failure, asthma, and old age. He presided the Christmas service in January 1912 with great difficulty, and afterwards he was hospitalised. At the beginning of February he expressed his will to return to the church, and reposed at Surugadai on 3 February.

4) after life

Nikolai had been long venerated in Japan, but in 1970 the Japanese Orthodox Church decided to canonise him formally, and to give him the title ofgEqual of the Apostlesh. It was recognised immediately by the Russian Orthodox Church, and later by the Russian Orthodox Church in Abroad. In the same 1970, the Orthodox Churches of Japan and America were given autocephaly (the right to be autonomous).

In 1972, the restoration of the Holy Resurrection Cathedral was completed and it was given the name of gSt. Nikolai's Cathedralh. His feast is celebrated on 3 February.

Consulted work

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