Jesus Christ was crucified by the Romans at Golgotha, the “place of the skull”, then transferred to a tomb outside the walls of Jerusalem, laid on a burial slab and sealed inside. He rose from the dead three days later. The Resurrection represents the culmination of Christian mythology, rebirth through redemption and the “good news” of the gospel. However, an eccentric Christian cult in Japan says the Bible has it all wrong.
Of course, the Resurrection has always been a controversial story. Writing to the Christian community of Corinth in Greece, the Apostle Paul insisted that Christ really had risen, physically and incontrovertibly, and that his followers should consider this miracle the cornerstone of their faith. However, not all non-Christian critics were convinced. The second century pagan philosopher Celsus, for example, dismissed the Resurrection – and by extension all Christianity – as lacking credibility.
Since then, both Christian and non-Christian scholars have spent centuries sparring over the Resurrection. One ongoing point of contention is the lack of consistency between the Apostles’ accounts. Who visited Christ’s tomb, what they saw there and, most critically, to whom Christ revealed himself after three days in the afterlife, all are disputed details.
Meanwhile, scientific discourse has done much more to shred the “miraculous” claims set out in the Bible, although some churches have managed to accommodate modernity by reinterpreting scripture along more figurative or mythological lines. Most members of the contemporary Unitarian Church, for example, contend that Christ was a regular man who died a real death. And as much as his demise spawned a global religion, his resurrection was purely symbolic.
Of course, all the hullaballoo over Christ’s death and resurrection will have been a huge waste of time if what some outlandish worshippers in Japan say is true. Their cult centers on the rural backwater of Shingō in Aomori Prefecture, some six hours from Tokyo by car. The community lies on sacred ground, according to the cult.
Home to approximately 3,000 inhabitants and an ageing population, Shingō is in fact a farming village grounded in the cultivation of apples, peaches, taro, rice and garlic. A generally impoverished locale, it is famous for two intriguing but unrelated attractions: garlic ice-cream, which has yet to come into style; and a contrary Christian cult which claims to know the truth about Christ’s death.
The pervasiveness of the cult is evidenced by the widespread use of crosses. They adorn bus stops, street signs and market signs; they also appear on business cards and embellish employee uniforms. For in Shingō, the cross does not merely symbolize the life, death and rebirth of Christ. In a unique way, it symbolizes home.
Indeed, the spiritual center of Shingō’s Christian cult is marked by two large and very special crosses. Guarded and maintained by generations of the Sawaguchi family, the crosses rise above earthen mounds on a low, woody hill – a site of worship and ritual that draws thousands of pilgrims every year.
Of course, Christianity is a relative newcomer to the region. Historically and geographically divorced from the Middle East, the islands of Japan instead evolved under the influence of Buddhism and Shintoism, both of which predate the birth of Christ. Today, the ritual life of Japan continues to be constituted by a blend of those two traditions.
For its part, Shintoism is an ancient animist religion that treats nature as sacred. According to Shintoism, all living things are filled with kami or gods. Its traditions include rituals for births, marriages and bountiful rice harvests. Performed for the benefit of specific kami, matsuri are traditional festivals that take place at Shinto shrines. They typically involve processions, rituals, dances, sumo wrestling and drunken feasts.
Shintoism is also the source of many Japanese cultural past-times involving gardening and nature, such as flower-arranging and the cultivation of bonsai trees. The famous Japanese love of sakura or cherry blossom – which flourishes spectacularly at the start of spring – is also believed to derive from Shintoism and its boundless reverence for the natural world.
Where Shintoism is considered indigenous to Japan, Mahayana Buddhism arrived in the country via Korea, Vietnam, Tibet and China. Of its many sects, Zen remains the most pervasive and influential in Japan. With rituals derived from medieval activities such as ink painting and tea ceremonies, approximately one fifth of all modern Buddhist temples in the country are Zen.
Buddhism also provides the cultural ingredients for most Japanese funerary rites, which include an overnight wake followed by a funeral the next day. Attendees typically make offerings to the family of the deceased and the ceremony concludes with a cremation. In that respect, Buddhism in Japan deals with death while Shintoism deals with life.
Meanwhile, within the Shinto-Buddhist framework, the Emperor – who was the supreme ruler of Japan – was considered a powerful deity until the mid-20th century. However, the nation’s surrender in World War Two – an act precipitated by the detonation of atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki – proved that the elderly and broken emperor was not a god after all. Since then, Japan has become increasingly secular.
Equally, the post-war era in Japan has created an open space for so-called shin shukyo (new religions), such as the popular Buddhist chanting sect Soka Gakkai and, of course, Christianity. However, the darkest new Japanese religions involve messianic figureheads and wildly fanatical devotees, such as the self-styled Aum Cult of the Divine Truth, whose members were responsible for gassing Tokyo subway passengers in 1995.
Writing for the Japanese news and culture website Nippon.com in March 2019 Okamoto Ryōsuke, an associate professor at Hokkaido University, explained that Japan’s approach to religion is essentially eclectic. He wrote, “Many Japanese people visit shrines in the New Year, get married in pseudo chapels in Christian-like ceremonies, and hold Buddhist funerals… Some people see Japan’s jumbling of religions as unprincipled while others view it as a form of atheism.”
Indeed, the Japanese penchant for blending religions might seem strange or even frivolous to adherents of more doctrinal or code-oriented faiths. As Deuteronomy 4:2 states, “Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the Lord of your God.”
Nonetheless, in the realm of culture, ideas tend to merge and synthesize. For example, most Westerners celebrate the birth of Christ by erecting a fir tree in their homes, to which they make quasi-religious offerings. The highlight of the season has less to do with Jesus than the arrival of Santa Claus, a benevolent old man who lives at the North Pole with a coterie of restless elves and flying reindeer. Christ’s resurrection, meanwhile, somehow involves chocolate eggs and rabbits.
Indeed, the belief system that is Christianity has spread far from its origins in Galilee, merging with local traditions, evolving and mutating, often with vivid results. But its most outlandish manifestations tend to draw inspiration from outside the scriptures. The Book of Mormon, for example, claims that Christ was none other than Quetzalcoatl, a Mexican hero-god depicted as a feathered serpent.
Likewise, the community of Shingō has a unique take on the life and death of Christ. According to local lore, the Messiah was not crucified at Golgotha, as reported by the Apostles. On the contrary, Christ was a garlic farmer known as Daitenku Taro Jurai. And he lived out his last days in Shingō.
As such, the final resting place of the Lord is not a tomb inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Israel, as conventionally thought. Christ was not buried in Jerusalem at all, but in the twin burial mounds guarded by the Sawaguchi family, who consider themselves his direct descendants. Christ’s earthly remains lie in one mound; the ear of his brother Isukiri in the other.
The “evidence” for these claims is presented in a small museum at the site. It explains how certain local practices prove an irrefutable historical link to the Holy Land. For example, Shingō custom dictates that babies brought into the field for the first time should be painted with a charcoal cross. Painted crosses are also used in some traditional local healing practices.
Other Christian symbols are supposedly woven into the local culture, too, such as the Star of David, which sometimes appears on swaddling garments. Then there are the mysterious blue-eyed children occasionally born in Shingō. And the local dialect, which is more suggestive of ancient Hebrew than modern Japanese. Indeed, it would make sense that prior to 1955 Shingō was known as Herai – a contraction, some say, of the Japanese word for Hebrew.
Despite the apparent flimsiness of such claims, the cult of Christ at Shingō has been celebrating the Kirisuto matsuri or Christ Festival every summer since 1964. The event, which is sometimes attended by local politicians, includes somber rituals at Christ’s supposed burial mound, but few Christian trappings. In fact, Kirisuto matsuri is unapologetically Shinto.
Officiated by a Shinto priest, the ceremony includes the recitation of graveside prayers and the offering of ritual branches. Folk songs are sung and women in kimonos perform traditional dances around the crosses. There is even a shishimai lion dance, completely unrelated to the Lion of Judah, naturally. Managed by the local tourist board, the festival sees hundreds in attendance.
Of course, Shingō’s Christ cult is not based not on anything in the Bible, but on an alternative set of texts “discovered” in the 1930s by a Shinto priest called Takeuchi Kyomaro. Supposedly written in archaic script, the so-called Takeunochi texts describe a long-lost civilization where world prophets such as Buddha and Christ underwent spiritual training. That civilization was ancient Japan.
As a plaque at the museum explains, “When Jesus was 21 years old, he came to Japan and pursued knowledge of divinity for 12 years. He went back to Judea at age 33 and engaged in his mission. However, at the time, people in Judea would not accept Christ’s preaching. Instead, they arrested him and tried to crucify him on a cross. His younger brother, Isukiri casually took Christ’s place and ended his life on the cross.”
According to the legend, Christ then fled Jerusalem with two keepsakes, his brother’s severed ear and a lock of his mother’s hair, traveled to Asia by way of Siberia and settled into a life of exile in Herai. There he wedded a local woman known as Miyuko, grew garlic and raised three daughters. He died at the impressive age of 106.
To the great surprise of the locals, Takeuchi himself identified the grave of Christ on May 26, 1935. The wily Shinto priest had been invited to assist in a survey of the community by painter and nationalist historian Toya Banzan. Meanwhile, the tomb was only the first of several astonishing “discoveries” about Japan’s ancient past.
After the tomb of Christ, Takeuchi stumbled upon the remains of a Japanese pyramid – and it pre-dated those at Giza, naturally. He then located a “new” sacred document that re-told the pilgrimage of Moses. After delivering the Jewish people from bondage, claimed the document, he received the Ten Commandments in Japan… from the Japanese emperor.
The theories expounded by Takeuchi and Toya emerged out of the racially charged discourses of the 1930s. To advance the cultural and racial supremacy of the Japanese nation, they represented Japan as the spiritual heartland of the world’s major religions, thus locating the roots of western civilization firmly inside Asia. In similar fashion, in Europe the Nazis had conducted their own racial “research” in a bid to demonstrate Aryan supremacy.
After the Emperor renounced his claims to divinity, Christ’s burial site in Shingō was largely forgotten. After all, there were no Christians in the community and no reason to believe in the apparently outlandish claims of individuals such as Takeuchi. However, in the 1970s, occultism became popular in Japan, spurring renewed interest in Shingō.
Still, the revival of Takeuchi’s unconventional beliefs is something of a mystery. Why do the locals persist in perpetuating claims that appear to have little basis in reality? When a reporter from The Japan Times newspaper visited the village in 2011, they found that the economy was central to their concerns. One local called Mariko Hosokawa quipped, “It’s the central element of our tourist industry. If you don’t believe, you won’t be saved.”
However, the number of “true believers” in Shingō – that is, actual, practicing Christians – are apparently very few. In fact, The Japan Times found just one Christian in the village: Toshiko Sato, a 76-year-old woman who first arrived in Shingō in her 20s as an education student with the Japan Missionary College. She told the paper that she quietly shuns the Christ Festival and its non-Christian, Shinto rituals.
She said, “Of course I knew the story about the graves was a lie all along. I’ve been to Israel myself. But there are the odd customs, and the man who looked foreign … Maybe there is something there. Anyway, I can’t very well come out and oppose it. There’s a big sign when you come into town announcing ‘Welcome to Christ’s Village.’ It’s the center of the revival program.”
Meanwhile, when Okamoto visited the Christ Festival for Nippon.com in 2019 he found that only “a small fraction of visitors seemed to believe in its authenticity.” He wrote, “This raises the obvious question of why the local community continues to hold the festival. Is it just a way to draw tourists?”
Okamoto, who is an expert in the sociology of tourism, concluded that there may be something more to the festival than mere tourist spectacle. He argued that the mound on the hilltop has probably been revered for generations, precisely because a person of veneration is buried there. He wrote, “Although it takes the form of the Christ Festival, it is an age-old community practice unrelated to religious faith or doctrine.”
Which is to say that the festival is performed out of respect for whoever is buried there. As the Shinto priest leading the celebration explained, “Even if by chance Jesus Christ is buried here, this is no problem for Shinto with its many gods.” Meanwhile, workers involved in the event told Okamoto that the graves probably contain village ancestors and should therefore be honored with traditional offerings.
“This does not mean that religion in Japan is false,” wrote Okamoto. “It is based on actions rather than beliefs, and is grounded in community. Japanese people do not visit shrines or hold funerals avidly believing in the existence of the sun goddess Amaterasu, the Pure Land, or Hell. Instead, they are following community traditions.”
He added, “It is because Christ’s Grave in Shingō is so patently fake that it demonstrates how Japan’s religious culture lies separate from a framework of belief and unbelief.” Ultimately, then, beliefs matter less than traditions in Japan. As such, redemption through Christ might be a non-starter, but the Messiah does have a role in binding together communities – and bestowing much-needed tourist yen. Heresy at its finest.