Saint Nicholas of Japan was a Russian missionary and archbishop who was the first to bring Orthodox Christianity to Japan. He arrived in Japan in 1861, at a time when Christianity was still banned, but nevertheless was very successful in his mission. Saint Nicholas was known for his patience, and his eagerness to learn the language and culture of the people he was serving. Despite many challenges in his ministry, including the Russo-Japanese war that broke out while he was in Japan, Saint Nicholas was able to build a flourishing church.
Welcome to the Christian Saints Podcast. My name is Dr Darren Ong, recording from Sepang in Malaysia. In this podcast, we explore the lives of the Christian saints, from the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. Today, we commemorate Saint Nicholas of Japan, equal-to-the-apostles who brought Orthodox Christianity to Japan.
Saint Nicholas was born as Ivan Dmitrievich Kasatkin in August 1, 1836 in the village of Beryozha in Russia, the son of a deacon. He graduated at the top of his class in Smolensk Seminary, and won a scholarship to attend the prestigious St Petersburg Theological academy in 1856.
In 1860, he was tonsured a monk, taking the name Nicholas, and was soon after ordained a priest. He felt a calling to preach the word in Japan, and in his travels made his way through the far eastern regions of Russia, where he was mentored by Saint Innocent of Kamthatka, another pioneering missionary who had brought the gospel to Siberia and Alaska.
Finally in 1861 he arrived in the Japanese port of Hakodate. Christianity was banned in Japan at this time, and Japanese history was filled with periodic and brutal persecutions of the Christian faith. It was only in 1873 that a civil law allowing freedom of religion was enacted, but even after that law Christianity still faced persecution especially in the rural areas of Japan.
One distinguishing feature of Saint Nicholas’ ministry was his patience, and his willingness to learn about the people he was ministering to. This account from his early ministry is taken from “Saint Nicholas of Japan and His Legacy” a short biography written by the St Herman of Alaska brotherhood:
St. Nicholas began his earnest study of the country’s language, culture and history. “He sometimes strolled around the streets of Hakodate, listening to theordinary people and professional storytellers. He made the acquaintance of leading Buddhist priests and listened to their sermons…. Hieromonk Nicholas spent fourteen hours a day over the course of seven years studying every aspect of Japan…. As a result of his relentless study of the Japanese language, Hieromonk Nicholas eventually acquired the knowledge of several thousand Chinese characters, giving him access to materials printed by the Orthodox mission in Peking, where Joseph Goshkevich had spent almost ten years. This allowed Nicholas to study Chinese texts of the Old and New Testaments, as well as some of the liturgical books.” Bishop Seraphim (Sigrist) of Sendai and the East (now retired) further describes St. Nicholas’ zeal in preparing for his missionary labors: “The story is told that in his early days of studying Japanese, Fr. Nicholas (then a priest in Hakodate) would go with the Japanese children to school and sit in theback and learn as best he could with them. Indeed, atone point the perplexed teachers put up a sign at the door: ‘The bearded foreigner is not allowed.’”
Saint Nicholas was voracious in learning a much as he could about Japanese culture. He wrote an article, "Japan from the point of view of Christian Mission", which contained a very extensive description of Japanese buddhism, for possibly the first time in the Russian language. Unfortunately, I was unable to find an English translation of this text, but Father Georgi Maximov of the Moscow Theological Academy gives this summary:
Holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Archbishop Nicholas (Kasatkin; 1836-1912), an outstanding missionary to Japan where he labored for over fifty years, was the founder of the Japanese Orthodox Church. Of the tens of thousands of Japanese converted to Orthodoxy thanks to his labors, a significant portion were former Buddhists, and amongst his assistants were former Buddhist monks (Bhikkhu), for example, Paul Savabe. The saint studied Buddhism during the first eight years of his time in Japan, when, in his words, he “strove with all diligence to study Japanese history, religion, and the spirit of the Japanese people.”
St. Nicholas offered an integral study of Buddhism in his work, “Japan from the point of view of Christian mission,” published in 1869. This was the first description of Japanese Buddhism accessible to the Russian language reader. It was clear from this work that the author studied Buddhism quite seriously, but for understandable reasons, limited his sources to those in the Japanese language.
If Archbishop Nilus, who acquainted himself with Buddhism using sources in the Buryat language, saw in it nothing more than just one more of the many forms of paganism, St. Nicholas gives this teaching a much higher evaluation. He determines Buddhism as “the best of the pagan religions—a herculean pillar of human effort compiled for itself a religion, guided by those obscure remains of God-revealed truths that had been preserved by the races after the Babylonian dispersion.
Although he thoroughly studied it, St. Nicholas did not have an interest in Buddhism in and of itself and looked at it exclusively from the practical, missionary point of view. This view allowed him to notice what other scholars and polemicists paid no attention to in Buddhism. This included missionary methods of Buddhism. The saint notes the “flexibility of Buddhism and its ability to adapt to the customs of the country in which it appears.” As an illustration the author points to how, according to Buddhist belief, Buddha and the Bodhisattvas made an oath to “be born in various ignorant countries in order to bring them to salvation.” This allowed Buddhists to pronounce Amaterasu and other Japanese gods to be incarnations of Buddha and the Bodhisattvas, taken on by them in order to “prepare them to receive the true teachings of Buddhism… Thus, Buddhism called Japanese gods by their names, accepted them under these names and into their temples, and took root and flourished in Japan.
Father Geoffery Korz gives this account of Saint Nicholas’ of Japan unique form of mission, and the reasons why he wa so succesful in such a difficult mission field. He includes the famous account of the conversion of Paul Sawabe, St Nicholas’ first convert, a former samurai who had threatened to kill St Nicholas when they first met.
Saint Nicholas of Japan was a unique and notable example to all Orthodox Christian missionaries. First, he threw himself wholeheartedly into understanding the language and culture. When he was found reading non-Japanese books, his Archbishop rebuked him, and he resolved to only read Japanese literature. He got out into the community and listened to Buddhist and Shinto storytellers and preachers. He researched the history of Japan. He knew it better than most Japanese.
Second, he took the long view. He spent eight years researching the Japanese language and culture. His first convert came after four years of study. Taking the long view also means delegation. In 1869 – five years after the first convert! – he handed over his congregation to another missioner. Having established one congregation, he moved to Tokyo to set up another. This pattern of establishing, delegating and moving on marked his ministry.
Third, he understood the people. His first convert was a samurai called Sawabe. Takuma Sawabe was an ultra-nationalist – one of the kinds of people in the black minivans that we would shy away from these days – who regarded the Russian Consulate as symbolic of all of the problems of opening up the country to foreigners. When Sawabe came to the Consulate, sword drawn, ready to kill Nikolai, Nikolai knew to appeal to his samurai nature:
“Why are you angry at me?” Fr. Nicholas asked Sawabe.
“All you foreigners must die. You have come here to spy on our country and even worse, you are harming Japan with your preaching,” answered Sawabe. “But do you know what I preach?” Nicholas replied.
“No, I don’t,” he answered.
“Then how can you judge, much less condemn something you know nothing about? Is it just to defame something you do not know? First listen to me, and then judge. If what you hear is bad, then throw us out.”
Sawabe did listen to him, and was persuaded through his words and through the Holy Spirit working in him. Nikolai knew how to make Sawabe listen. How many of us today can honestly say that we know how to make Japanese people listen to us and our message?
Fourth, he was committed to his people. This is a matter of integrity. He needed the Japanese people to know that he was on their side. Many missionaries take the option of relying on their home countries when things get tough, but Nikolai was absolutely sold out for Japan, and his congregation knew his love through his dedication to them. When Japan and Russia went to war, many of his own congregation urged him to go back home. (Remember that he came to Japan under the auspices of the Russian Consulate in Japan.) But he refused; he needed to serve and be with his people. At the same time, he found ways to minister to Russian prisoners of war in Japan.
Finally, he was quick to delegate, as we have already alluded to. When Paul Sawabe begun to believe, he brought three friends along to hear Nikolai’s preaching. Nikolai left the four original believers to go and do their own discipleship, and one year later there were 12 baptised, and 25 of what we would now call “seekers”. Fifteen years after this, the church was four thousand strong. To make this work would require yet further delegation, and so he began the process of ordaining Japanese clergy. By the time he came to celebrate fifty years of his mission, there were 43 clergy ordained and 121 lay preachers. And let’s remember that five years after having a church of one, he passed it on and moved on to Tokyo. He knew that if he was going to reach the whole of Japan, he could not confine himself to one area for the whole of his missionary life.
Paul Sawabe would be the first Japanese Orthodox priest, being ordained in 1875. In 1878, Saint Nicholas started a theological college for the training of his Japanese clergy, and to equip the Japanese to translate religious texts into their language. In 1880, Saint Nicholas was consecrated as the first Orthodox bishop of Japan. His cathedral, the Holy Resurrection Cathedral in Tokyo was completed in 1891. This cathedral is now informally known as Nikolai-do in his honour.
The Russo-Japanese war in 1904-1905 presented a difficult time for Saint Nicholas’ ministry. Despite many around him urging Saint Nicholas to return to Russia for his safety, the saint refused to leave his flock. He allowed his Japanese clergy to offer prayer services for Japanese victory during the war, while as a Russian he refrained from taking part. Saint Nicholas also ministered for Russian prisoners-of-war during this conflict.
Saint Nicholas’ health began to deteriorate in 1910, and he reposed in 1912, suffering from heart problems. His successor as Archbishop of Japan, Sergius, wrote of the respect and love the Japanese showed to Saint Nicholas at his funeral
“Tokyo Christians started making their way, one after another, to the Mission; Christians of other confessions expressed their condolences.… Those who had not yet accepted Christ’s teaching hurried to the Mission to bow or to leave a visiting card. They were not only ordinary citizens, but princes, counts, viscounts, barons, ministers and non-civil servants as well….
“But the highest honor rendered by Japan to Archbishop Nicholas was the fact that the Emperor of Japan [Meiji] himself … sent a magnificent and colossal wreath of natural flowers forthe archbishop’s coffin, and he did not do this in secret!... Accepting the wreath and replying with words of gratitude, we placed the wreath at St. Nicholas’ head.… The Emperor ofJapan himself crowned the head of God’s hierarch with flowers of victory!... There were two characters inside the wreath: ‘On-Shi,’ i.e., ‘the Highest Gift’… All the Japanese saw these two characters, read them, and reverently bowed their heads before the wreath!…
“Having started with a tremendous risk to his life, Archbishop Nicholas completed his activity in Japan with approval from the high Throne.
The Orthodox Church in Japan would face many difficulties in the following decades, as the Bolshevik revolution cut off support from Russia, and later World War 2 would devestate the country and again see Japan and Russia in opposite sides of an armed conflict. Nevertheless, the Orthodox church in Japan persevered and flourished. In 1970 the Japanese church was granted autonomy by the Russian Orthodox Church,and its founding Archbishop, Nicholas was declared a saint, with a feast day on the 1st of August. He is given the title equatl-to-the-apostles, as one who brought the Christian faith to a people who did not know the Gospel.
Here is a portion of the Akathist hymn to Saint Nicholas of Japan, sang on this day:
Every hymn is defeated that tries to encompass your apostolic service, O Saint, and together with you we say:
The Church of Japan received the light of good tidings in its native tongue, owing that to your labour, O true enlightener. You followed in the footsteps of the Ecumenical Teachers, using your wisdom-loving mind to serve the heavenly wisdom. Revering your good deeds, we praise you thus:
Rejoice, you who cognized the Holy Scripture!
Rejoice, you who passed it on to the children of men!
Rejoice, you who found the worthy words!
Rejoice, you who rejected the wrong and false ones!
Rejoice, you who perceived your efforts as a common work of the Church!
Rejoice, you who peacefully reposed from your labours!
Rejoice, you who brought the Word close to the people!
Rejoice, you who gave the Japanese Church the Divine Worship in its native tongue!
Rejoice, you who discarded every sophistication!
Rejoice, you who nourished your children with milk and honey!
Rejoice, you who humbled the pride of the hypocrites!
Rejoice, O Nicholas, equal to the apostles, defender of the Church of Japan!
Thanks for listening to this episode of the Christian saints podcast. Look for the Christian Saints podcast page on Facebook or Instagram, or look for us on Twitter at podcast_saints. All music in this episode was composed by my good friend, James John Marks of Generative sounds. Please check out his music at https://generativesoundsjjm.bandcamp.com/
Let us end this episode with the troparion and kontakion to Saint Nicholas of Japan
O holy saint Nicholas / the enlightener of Japan, / you share a dignity and the throne of the Apostles; / you are a wise and faithful servant of Christ, / a temple chosen by the Divine Spirit, / a vessel overflowing with the love of Christ. / O hierarch equal to the Apostles, / pray to the Life-Creating Trinity / for all your flock and for the whole world.
O Hierarch Nicholas, divine thunder, spiritual trumpet, / planter of faith and pruner of heresies, great favorite of the Trinity, / while standing with the Angels before God, / pray unceasingly for us all.