Different sounds accompany great disasters. An earthquake begins with the rumble of heaving earth and the crack of fissured faults, followed by the cacophony of books falling off shelves, dishes clattering to the floor, roofs collapsing, and houses sliding off their foundations.  A tsunami’s whoosh is quieter, but far more deadly: the ocean itself rises up to wash away automobiles, trains, forests, and entire towns.  Radiation from a nuclear meltdown makes no sound at all, yet somehow the silence amplifies the fear.

FUKUSHIMA … In 2012 I toured the devastated area of Japan on the one-year anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami that caused some 19,000 deaths and destroyed or damaged a million buildings.  (I wrote about that visit in the book The Question That Never Goes Away.)  Last month, seven years after the triple catastrophe, I visited the ghost towns surrounding the Fukushima nuclear power plant as the guest of Akira Sato, a pastor forced to abandon his home and church because of radiation.  From him and other eyewitnesses I heard stories of fear and loss.

After spending two nights hunkered down in their earthquake-damaged homes, residents near the Fukushima power plant heard a piercing siren on March 13, 2011.  Police cruised through the streets, announcing through bullhorns that everyone had 45 minutes to leave their homes.  “Take nothing with you!” the warnings said.  “Everything is contaminated!”  In a matter of hours, a hastily assembled convoy of buses and other vehicles evacuated everyone who lived within a distance of 12 miles of the power plant, a total of 164,865 people.

Now, seven years later, I entered towns devoid of human habitation.  The silence struck me first.  I heard no cars, no children playing, no TVs or radios, none of the background static of modern civilization—only the rustling fabric of our hazmat suits as we walked along the empty streets.  The scene reminded me of an apocalypse movie.  Supermarkets were stocked with goods, though the earthquake had tumbled some products to the floor.  New cars lined the lot of a car dealer, waiting for buyers who would never come.  A brand-new hospital stood vacant behind a police barrier, with weeds growing up through its sidewalks.

“The first few years, cows and horses wandered through the streets,” Pastor Sato said as we stared at the eerie sight.  “We thought the evacuation was temporary, and so neighbors left their dogs chained in their yards.  They starved to death.  After a while, wild goats, raccoons, and pigs broke into some of the shops and ate the food they found.  For a long time we residents weren’t allowed back in.  Now I have permission to visit my church, and my home, though I can’t touch or remove anything.”

Leading our little group through his kitchen, Sato pointed to a carton of orange juice on the counter, its contents desiccated, and to a shriveled black banana.  Droppings on the floor showed that here, too, animals had roamed in search of food.  His collection of books lay strewn on the living room floor where they had fallen after the quake, and he drew my attention to one of mine that had been translated into Japanese.  The pastor paused at his daughter’s bedroom, and worked to control his voice.  “I’ve visited here many times, but authorities won’t allow anyone in the town under the age of 15.  My daughter was eight when we evacuated, and she returned for the first time two weeks ago.  She stood in her room, looked at all her clothes, her belongings, the toys and stuffed animals of her childhood, and couldn’t stop crying.  My wife could hardly breathe, her heart was so heavy.”

Each time we entered a building we had to slip on a new pair of plastic booties, only to discard them in a contamination bag as we exited.  When we toured Pastor Sato’s church—“Our new, undamaged sanctuary, built to last a hundred years,” he said with a wry smile—he shook his head at the equipment left behind: a copy machine, computers, a sound system.  In a separate building, an ossuary contained the bones and ashes of church members who had died, along with photos and mementos of the departed.  “We Japanese honor our ancestors, and it was excruciating for us to leave these behind.” 

Meanwhile, one of Sato’s assistants had been monitoring a portable Geiger counter to measure the microsieverts of radiation.  “Tokyo has an average of 0.05,” he said, pointing his probe at a carpet, then a wall, then a planter outside.  With a rapid clicking sound the gauge spiked up to a high of 8.5.  “Don’t worry.  During the meltdown, it measured 125.”  I tried to feel reassured.

After the evacuation, Pastor Sato’s congregation scattered across Japan.  Like all Fukushima survivors, they faced discrimination and shunning from people afraid of contamination.  Restaurants refused service, and even some hospitals declined to treat them.  “Elderly patients were abandoned for three days in the hospital you saw over there, and some of them died while being evacuated,” Sato said.  “We felt like pariahs.  I was a shepherd with no sheep.  Finally, a core group of 30 of us found shelter in a camp west of Tokyo owned by a German mission.  We stayed there two years, welcome and safe at last.”

Setting aside their fears, Sato and his little flock ultimately decided to relocate to a small city just outside the forbidden zone and plant a new church.  “As you know,” he said, “there aren’t many Christians in Japan.  We make up only 1 percent of the population.  We didn’t want to arouse suspicion, so first we built housing for senior citizens, and opened a clinic.  We gained the city’s trust, and now we have a new church building.  Our little group of 30 has grown to 100.   I’m proud of the way the tiny churches in this area responded to the tragedies.  They operated feeding stations, and offered refuge to those without homes.   Soon crews from Samaritan’s Purse and other organizations came from the US and Europe to build new houses to replace those destroyed in the tsunami.  God is at work in Japan!”

I spoke at Pastor Sato’s new church, as well as several others in the region devastated by the tsunami.  “You’ve written books on pain and suffering,” my hosts said.  “Teach us what you’ve learned.”  As I listened to the stories from survivors who lost their homes and relatives, I felt utterly unqualified.  They should be teaching me.

Japan is nothing if not resilient.  Who can forget the long lines of survivors patiently waiting for a bowl of rice and cup of water after the tsunami?  Even today, thousands still live in temporary housing, and the ones I interviewed spoke of their gratitude for the outside help, with no trace of anger at the disruption to their lives.  I saw crews constructing a huge concrete barrier offshore to protect against another tsunami, and drove through entire towns and villages that have been rebuilt.  The Japanese people show a remarkable fortitude learned through a history of catastrophes.

NAGASAKI … In the past seventy-five years Japan has endured war, earthquakes, floods, fires, tsunamis, nuclear meltdowns—and the only two atomic bombs used in conflict.  After visiting Fukushima I flew to Nagasaki, the target of one of those bombs.  Here, nuclear power was intentionally released in a blast that killed 40,000 instantly and far more in the ensuing months due to radiation poisoning.

As I toured the museum that depicts the unimaginable horror of that day, I found myself wishing that world leaders who are ramping up their nuclear arsenals and trading threats about the size of nuclear buttons and “invincible weapons” would visit the museum in person and see with their own eyes the apocalyptic consequences of weapons they discuss so cavalierly.

Yet even here Japan’s resilience was on full display.  Apart from a memorial park marking ground zero in the center of town, you would never know that this modern city was once a barren, toxic wasteland.

I spent the next several days in Nagasaki with a different agenda, however: to follow the ancient trail of the “Hidden Christians.”  In 1597 the despotic Japanese warlord Toyotomi decided to purge Japan of all believers in what he considered a foreign religion.  He selected 26 representative Christians and force-marched them in the winter some 500 miles to Nagasaki, the port city where the faith was flourishing.  The group comprised three Jesuits, six Franciscans, a Mexican missionary, and 16 Japanese laymen, including three young boys.  There, before a large crowd, he had all 26 crucified.

“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” wrote the ancient theologian Tertullian.  In Japan, it was almost the annihilation of the church.  Shoguns proceeded to outlaw Christianity, requiring Japanese to renounce the faith at least once a year by stepping on the fumie, a bronze plaque depicting Jesus.  Those who resisted, they killed by a variety of torturous means.  Some they pushed off cliffs, others they beheaded, or crucified in the ocean to be drowned by rising tides, or burned alive in bamboo mats.  The most recalcitrant, they hung upside down over a pit, their ears slit so that the slow drip of blood would lead to an agonizing death.  In one mass execution, a shogun’s troops slaughtered 37,000 Christians huddled inside a fortress.

Initially, Japan had been a fertile mission field, with as many as 300,000 Christians worshiping in 250 churches.  After nearly three centuries of brutal persecution, it appeared that the religion had vanished from the nation, a forgotten footnote of history.  Eager to join the modern era, Japan agreed to allow freedom of religion—for foreign residents only—in 1865.  That year, an astonishing scene played out in a newly built Catholic church.  A ragtag group of villagers from a remote island showed up among the foreigners and whispered to the priest, “All of us have the same heart as you.”  Taken aback, the local authorities exiled and punished these Japanese believers, prompting an international outcry that would eventually persuade the government to repeal the ban on Christianity.

Embarrassed by this legacy of cruelty, Japan officially ignored the existence of the Hidden Christians until 1966, when Shusaku Endo published his classic book Silence, a historical novel set in the shoguns’ era of intense persecution.  More recently, in 2016 Martin Scorsese released a big-budget movie based on the novel, which drew further attention to the heroic saga of these beleaguered believers.  Although the movie had a modest reception in the US, it attracted large crowds in some Asian countries.  Soon groups of Korean Christians began making a pilgrimage to Japan to honor those who had suffered for their faith.  And now Japan has applied for World Heritage status for the historical sites related to Hidden Christians.


Today, in addition to Korean pilgrims, tourists arrive on cruise ships from China and other countries, many of them encountering the potency of the Gospel for the first time.  They stand before the Martyrs Memorial and gaze at life-size bronze replicas of the 26 who were publicly crucified.  They see a prison where 200 Christians were squeezed into a room large enough for only 12 sleeping mats and kept for eight months, with 42 of them dying in the process.  They visit churches on outlying islands built by missionaries after the Hidden Christians regained the freedom to worship openly.

I visited these sites and many others.  I read the plaque on a “torture stone” where a 22-year-old woman was stripped to the waist and forced to squat on a rock in the middle of winter for seven days until she fell unconscious into the snow.  (After being revived, she was exiled, but returned to found an orphanage, where she served the church for 68 years.)  I spent an afternoon in the stunning Shusaku Endo museum, built on a cliff from which Christians had been tossed into the sea.  I climbed trails to see the remains of stone walls that mark huts where Hidden Christians had lived deep in the forest, clinging to a faith that carried with it a death sentence.  There, our guide pointed out a praying rock, the one place Christians could pray aloud without fear of being overheard.  The era of silence has now ended, and faith itself has proved courageously resilient.

The central drama of Scorsese’s film, like Endo’s novel, hinges on the moral dilemma faced by Jesuit priests sent from Portugal to minister to the Japanese.  In one museum, a guide—himself a descendant of Hidden Christians—translated for me an authentic 17th-century signboard promising 500 pieces of silver to anyone who turned in a priest.  Once captured, the priest was tied up and forced to watch as groups of Christians were paraded before him.  If he stepped on the fumie to apostatize, he was set free.  If he refused, the Japanese believers were sacrificed before his eyes.  In Endo’s words, “He had come to this country to lay down his life for other men, but instead of that the Japanese were laying down their lives one by one for him.”

I returned from Japan in the midst of the Lenten season, haunted by the scenes of suffering.  And in the stack of mail waiting for me, I found the “World Watch List 2018” published by Open Doors, listing the 50 countries where it’s most dangerous to follow Jesus today.  North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, and Pakistan head the list of places where simply admitting to be a Jesus-follower risks death.

As Good Friday approached, I could not help wondering about a particular kind of suffering that Jesus must have borne, one seldom mentioned in reflections on that day.  What must it have been like for him, knowing as he must that the faith he was setting loose on the world would result in the persecution and martyrdom of so many throughout history, including so many Japanese?  “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child,” he had predicted; “Everyone will hate you because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.”


On my last stop in Japan, I spoke to a gathering of Christians in Osaka, Japan’s second largest city.  Skyscrapers surround a large park dominated by the eight-story castle built by Hideyoshi Toyotomi, the warlord who first ordered the extermination of Christians.  I arrived several weeks before the flowering of Japan’s famous cherry trees, which encircle the castle.  Plum trees, though, were bursting into bloom.

I stood amidst an orchard of 1,270 plum trees, staring up at the gilded castle from which Toyotomi had issued his decree.  Gnarled, blackened trunks that had stood bare through the winter, like dead sticks, were now erupting in bright colors, a harbinger of springtime’s fullness mere weeks away.  Nature, like humanity, shows strong resilience, a clue to the deep pattern of the universe.

Easter Sunday is just around the corner.  On this day, though, a day called Good Friday, I cannot stop thinking about the cost it takes to get there—for Jesus as well as for many of his followers.

“All these people were still living by faith when they died,” Hebrews 11 says about others who suffered for their faith.  “They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.… Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one.  Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.”






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22 responses to “Sounds of Silence in Japan”

  1. Brett says:

    Mr. Yancey,

    This story has impacted me deeply, ever since I learned about Shusaku Endo from your book, Soul Survivor. Since the movie, I have been working my way through many of Endo’s works, and it is fueling my heart, with a desire to finish the second half of my life strong as I seek to serve among the persecuted. Thank you for all you done for the church, and for numerous ‘ragamuffins’, like myself.

  2. Rodney Otto says:

    Once again as in so much of your writing, you have touched the inner recesses of my soul, so I will not be content to retire in pleasure, but try as much as the USA can provide to suffer with the “least of these” and if an opening occurs in my family life I will look for new places to be Jesus’ hands and feet among the “poorest of the poor.” I year to return to the garbage dump ministry “Servant’s Heart” in Zona sierte in Guatemala City, or some place in the east and south where more strident and stark poverty hangs over billions. Thank God for those who have sacrificed and are serving among the forgotten people of the world!

  3. Ken Min says:

    I was moved by your experiences in Japan.
    I am confessing a following faith. I am one of fireigners and strangers on earth but I want to see and enter a heavenly country/city that our Lord has prepared for me and us. Many thanks and blessings

  4. Gayle M says:

    Ouch! What a painfully beautiful sharing of hidden history. I am with you Andy Newell…. I fear how I might handle such torture. I constantly have to remind myself that God will empower me when that time comes, but it is hard to imagine enduring that kind of brutality.

  5. Michele Gyselinck says:

    I started reading this last night and had to stop when I came across the descriptions of tortures to which Japanese Christians were subjected because I have to be careful about what I read or watch just before bedtime. I finished reading the blog today in broad daylight.
    Shortly after the series based on James Clavell’s novel Shogun (1980s), I romanticized Japanese culture and tried to live vicariously through the characters, although, of course, that doesn’t work, and eventually, I gave it up and moved on to other things that were actually happening in my own life and completely forgot about this.

    Someone mentioned a distorted Jesus in American culture. The comedian Bill Maher refers to that character as “Supply Side Jesus” the idol of some in the Republican Party, who have a hard time relating to the real Jesus that makes demands on Christians that they find difficult to relate to their pro-business stance. Perhaps that’s the sort of distorted Jesus she had in mind? I don’t know what to say about the sufferings that Japanese Christians had to endure for centuries, so rather than making a trite statement I’ll leave it at that. As to the suffering the Lord had to bear, whether mental or physical, we all know we cannot possibly imagine its intensity or depth but must accept that we owe him everything. And even that is easier said than done.

  6. I am the youngest child of missionaries to Japan (my father came in 1934, my mother in 1935, they married in Japan, and are buried here) and I have been an independent self-supporting (tent-making) missionary myself since 1981. Actually, I minister in Omura, Nagasaki Prefecture. Lord Sumitada Omura was the first Christian daimyo, and many of the hidden Christians were from Omura fief. Our church has been given the vision of Omura again being the foremost Christian city in the nation, but the spiritual opposition is intense. I’m sorry I missed you. (Nagasaki Airport is in Omura.) any and all prayer is greatly appreciated.

  7. Colleen says:

    Joe Johnson, at least for you it is just vicarious trauma. Pray for Christians in countries where they are actually being persecuted.

  8. Dear Philip, I treavelled extensively through Japan in the late 90’s and got to meet many local Christians and no one mentioned any of this important history. It wasn’t until Silence that I learned about all this. Thank you for recount of this painful history of our shared humanity. In the US we are now experiencing the outcomes of a distorted Jesus and we see discriminations and killings of others simply because our society has yet to be transformed by the Gospel these Japanese believers so dearly cherished. On this Easter week, their testimony is a challenge to our “Christian” culture where some are more equal than others.

  9. Amazing. There is so much we don’t know in America about Christian persecution. You should write a book, one like Soul Survivor….. each chapter a different country and their stories of Christian persecution! So Americans can really hear what goes on while we sit here in seeker sensitive churches complaining about one thing or another we don’t like.😩
    When will you be back out in Los Angeles? Any conferences you’ll be speaking at out here?
    I’d be happy to give you a tour of my bunny rescue that God have me as a very special gift.🐇🐇🐇🐇🐇🐇🐇

    • Philip Yancey says:

      No events scheduled just now in LA, though anything that comes up will be posted on my Facebook page. I remember your bunny rescue program–meanwhile, I try to keep them from eating my plants!

  10. Joe Johnson says:

    You wrote, “What must it have been like for him, knowing as he must that the faith he was setting loose on the world would result in the persecution and martyrdom of so many throughout history, including so many Japanese?” Not sure what to do with your comment that Jesus’ knew what you said he knew. I am wondering what must have it been like for God to create a world that he knew would include all the suffering you describe and the kingdom of darkness at war to destroy the kingdom of the heavens.
    Reading your blog was an experience of vicarious trauma. It would have been helpful
    to begin connecting with Jesus’ love and presence with a safety net to go to when I am feeling overwhelmed. I also found ways to return to joy from the vicarious trauma.

  11. Wish I’d known you were here! I’ve been in Osaka for the last 16 years, and after the disaster took maybe seven trips out to volunteer in Fukushima. Didn’t get to meet Pr. Sato, but I did meet some of his members. One came to the morning prayer time (at the church where I volunteered). He had worked for the power company, and was now tasked with measuring radiation. The pressure was making him quiver and shake. Another man often visited the volunteers who was tasked with the same job. He always seemed to be trying to reassure people by comparisons and data. He was also generous, always buying ice cream for the volunteers. Actually, his positivity was too much, and some other volunteers and I discussed him with each other, privately worried for him because he was trying too hard, reassuring and taking care of everyone else but himself. They tried to let him know it was okay, but it took awhile. Finally, I heard later, it got through, and he broke down and released it. I don’t know what happened to him after that. And so many others. I wish I did. They became like family, for a little while, but the heart doesn’t know what “for a little while” means. Or if it does, it doesn’t accept it.

  12. Ron Fraser says:

    Thanks so much for this Philip. When He who is Love is at the centre of our personal and corporate universe, He not only redefines who we are. In the process of redefining us, He redefines my response to the violence produced by the many competitors (greatness, pleasure, money, etc.) to Him and His love.

  13. Nydia says:

    Thank you again for reminding us…me, of the suffering and struggle of people outside of my small world in the US. This gives me something specific to pray for when it comes to Japan. Lord bless you!

  14. Joe Jablonski says:

    Hi Phillip,

    I just found out I will be going to Japan in a few weeks for a business trip. Your article has given me a great perspective for my trip and for Good Friday and Easter.

    I want to say it is quite a coincidence, but I don’t really believe it is.
    I’m grateful to God for providing these words to change my heart and give me a much more meaningful and appropriate perspective.

    Thank you!

    P.S. I dream of some day getting to climb one of those 14,000 foot Colorado mountains with you.

  15. Andy Newell says:

    Thank you for this post. I am overwhelmed with the thought of my brothers’ and sisters’ faith who faced such trials and stood firm for our Savior’s glory. I sit comfortably in the safety of my American faith and wonder if I would be able to do the same. God help us in the West to learn to live as faithfully as our brothers / sisters in Christ around the world.

  16. Gordon simmonds says:

    Very challenging article Philip. Thank you and thanks for all the books you have written, I have quoted you more times than I can remember…

  17. Valerie Ifill says:

    Thank you. Such a powerful message about our Lord and how his foreknowledge that his followers would suffer so bitterly would cause him even greater sadness. He was indeed a man of sorrows.

  18. Dennis J. Hassell says:

    ” if you wish to understand the Japanese understand this first. They have a huge hole in their hearts.”
    ( The end of WWII ended their great naivety about who they were as a people, as a country, as an Empire. Like Peter and the roosters crow on Good Friday morning)

    • Philip Yancey says:

      And I wonder if the US is going through a similar kind of identity crisis today, part of the reason for our division?

  19. Bob Fryling says:

    Philip, thank you for this thoughtful and profound narrative of historic loss and Christian sacrifice among the Japanese people. Humble silence is perhaps the only appropriate response to their witness and to the memory of our Lord’s death today.

  20. Ulla David Cowan says:

    Thank you for sharing this information.So much of this was hidden from us. Never shared in local press .

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