Examining the reasons why Buddhism supplanted Nestorian Christianity in early medieval Japan might give us some insight on how to evangelize the Japanese people today.
Buddhism in Japan is a very highly developed philosophical system, divided into many sects, but understanding some things about the two main ones,
天台宗 Tendai and 眞言 Shingon, can help us see into the Japanese mind.
Just as the overall influence of Christianity has lingered in the cultures of the Western world long after it has ceased to be the faith practiced by more than a minority of people, so also has the influence of the Japanese version of Buddhism cast its shadow over the Japanese people for many generations, even though relatively few Japanese can be said to actually practice it. The ritual aspects of Buddhism, as well as of 神道 Shinto, the native Japanese religion, affect most Japanese at least in the culture of the family.
Births and marriages are intertwined with Shinto rituals and regulations. Human mortality is addressed and ministered to by Buddhist monks and their rites.
When a child is born, its name is registered by the local Shinto shrine, and enrolled among ‘the living’ and commemorated and prayed for, in general, with ceremonies. After the person lives his life and dies, his name is transferred to ‘the dead’ and is commemorated as a kami or ‘god.’ When a person moves, they can have their name added to the ‘list’ at the Shinto shrine where they now live. People go to Shinto shrines to ask for help of the kami in their day to day lives, but only the ‘religious.’
Death, on the other hand, and what happens to the dead is actually the domain of the Buddhists, almost their specialty. This is their function for the ‘non-religious’ Japanese. Those who actually do practice some form of Buddhism would find much more to do than just funeral rites. In an odd sort of way, practicing Buddhists in Japan can be compared to their Christian counterparts, people who go to church regularly and volunteer for various churchly activities. Again, these are both minorities in each culture. In conclusion, when a Japanese dies, he is often cremated and buried in a cemetary on the grounds of a Buddhist temple. What happens after that has some similarities to cemetary customs in any culture: graves are cared for, flowers and incense offered, people speak to the dead, etc., as if they could hear, and they are often resorted to when guidance is needed: ‘Just ask Mom.’
Back to Japanese Buddhism, it’s worth noting that it really is a different ‘religion’ from other forms of Buddhism.
Great emphasis is placed on the boddhisatva, that is, a being who has attained the status of an enlightened being (a buddha) but who has relinquished, at least temporarily, leaving the world of men and instead chooses to be ‘left behind’ to help other mortals still struggling to break free. Both Tendai and Shingon forms of Buddhism emphasize that ‘anyone can become a buddha’ and this idea is at the back of the Japanese mind, a noble principle of self-sacrifice, even self-immolation, for the sake of others.
This pervasive legacy is a point of entry for Jesus Christ.
‘…anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for My sake, and the sake of the gospel, will save it.’ (Mark 8:35)
‘A man can have no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends.’ (John 15:13)
‘This has taught us love—that He gave up His life for us; and we, too, ought to give up our lives for our brothers.’ (1 John 3:16)
The contexts of this self-sacrifice may be different in Buddhism and in Christ, but the content is the same. In each case, one foregoes one’s personal well-being and safety, so that others can escape, like a man using his body to keep open a collapsed mine shaft entrance, so his work-mates can get out.
So far, a point of entry for Christ into the Japanese mind has been identified. Where did this emphasis come from in Japanese Buddhism, that makes it so distinctive? Could it be one of the evidences of Christ which Nestorian Christianity bequeathed as a legacy to the Buddhist wave that overcame it?