Voices from Russia

Thursday, 31 March 2011

The Church in the Tsunami-Affected Areas in Japan: Its History and its Present Life

Filed under: Christian,history,Orthodox life,religious — 01varvara @ 00.00

Nina Sasaki, a survivor from Rikuzentakata (Iwate Prefecture. Tōhoku Region), rescuing some of her prized possessions from the rubble…


Editor’s Foreword:

This is MUCH longer than the usual post. It’s a complete translation, with no abridgements, of the original article. It’s based on official information from the JAOC/MP (Tserkovny Vestnik is affiliated with the ZhMP… it means that it’s a righteous source from the Centre)… it’s information that the OCA (or any of the cut-and-paste konvertsy) didn’t give you.



On March 11, a powerful earthquake severely damaged Orthodox churches and church buildings in the northeastern regions of Japan. The brunt of the aftershocks that followed a 10-metre-high tsunami wave came in the Diocese of Sendai and Eastern Japan, including the complete destruction of the Church of the Annunciation in Yamada. At our request, Natalia Sukhanov, a candidate of historical sciences at Waseda University (Tokyo), gave us the background on the history on the parishes involved, and told us about the current status of churches located along the Japanese Pacific coast.

In the Diocese of Eastern Japan, there are seven parishes, three on the northern island of Hokkaido, and four in the Tohoku Region, the northeastern part of the main island of Honshu, the area most affected by the earthquake {in Japan, a parish is an administrative unit that may have more than one church building attached: editor}. Of course, the brunt of the tsunami fell in the coastal region (Sanriku Coast) in Miyagi and Iwate Prefectures. All four Orthodox parishes in the Tohoku Region are located in these prefectures. The bishop’s seat is in Sendai in Miyagi prefecture, the cathedral also has two priests who also minister to several nearby churches in Shirakawa and Nakaniida; there’s also a parish centred in Ishinomaki, which includes churches in Jogezutsumi, Sanuma, Wakuya, and Takashimizu. In neighbouring Iwate Prefecture, there are two parishes centred in Ichinoseki and Morioka; under the first are churches in Kesennuma, Sakari, and Kannari, under the second are churches in Yamada and Iwayado. Most of these are small church communities, priests come and serve liturgy about once a month. In addition, a number of Orthodox communities in the region do not have their own church buildings. So far, the reports available from the Diocese of Eastern Japan indicate that only one church building, in Yamada, is a total loss. In addition, the churches in Sanuma and Kannari are unsafe and are in danger of collapse. The church in Takashimizu suffered some damage, such as structural cracks. The church buildings in Ishinomaki, Wakuya, and Jogezutsumi suffered no serious damage, and the churches in Sakari and Kesennuma weren’t affected by the tsunami. The cathedral in Sendai and none of the church buildings in the parishes of Ichinoseki and Morioka had any serious damage. The situation is still unclear regarding the church buildings in Iwayado, Shirakawa, and Nakaniida, but, obviously, since there are no reports concerning them, everything is in order.

Historical Aside: Orthodoxy in Japan

To put it into historical perspective, this particular area, the Tohoku Region, is the historical core of Japanese Orthodoxy. In 1861, St Nikolai Kasatkin arrived at the first Russian consulate, in Hakodate on the island of Hokkaido, and many of his earliest and most loyal disciples in the 1860s and 70s were from the Tohoku Region. For a long time, it was one of the most backward agricultural regions of Japan and very conservative; it’s very well-known for its peculiar dialect, which is incomprehensible to the Japanese from other parts of the country.

In 1868, the so-called “Meiji Restoration”, essentially a bourgeois revolution, took place in Japan. At that time, the samurai clans of Tohoku Region became one of the staunchest strongholds of the conservative opposition. After losing several battles on Honshu, they crossed over to Hokkaido, where they made Hakodate their focus of resistance. Some samurai began to listen to the message of Orthodoxy, and some of them became the first disciples of St Nikolai, Pavel Sawabe and others. Subsequently, the imperial forces drove the rebels from Hakodate, they returned home, but despite this military defeat, Sawabe continued his study of Orthodoxy. At that time, St Nikolai was in Russia, asking for the formal opening of a Japanese mission, and when he returned to Hakodate, he baptised his most loyal followers. A few months later, St Nikolai moved to Tokyo, and his first disciples began to preach in Sendai and Hakodate.

In 1872, a wave of persecution hit Christians; the authorities arrested Orthodox catechists and deported them to their birthplaces. The majority of their homes were villages in the Tohoku Region, and, after their return, they unwittingly (yet, providentially) laid the beginnings of new Orthodox communities. In 1875, the ordination of the first Japanese priest, Pavel Sawabe, occurred. Fr Pavel made many journeys through the Tohoku Region, baptising many who were prepared by the resident Orthodox catechists. Many of today’s believers in this region are proud that their ancestors were amongst the first in Japan to embrace Orthodoxy, who were baptised the first Japanese priest. In 1877, in Tohoku Region, there were three priests, Fr Ivan Sakai in Morioka, Fr Matfei Kageta in Sanuma, and Fr Timofei Hariu in Takashimizu.

An important milestone in the Japanese mission was the tour of the churches in the region done by St Nikolai in May-June 1881, which, as it were, summed up the first decade of growth of Japanese Orthodoxy, whose growth sprang from its base in the Tohoku Region. According to a Church Council held in Japan in 1881, there were 41 communities, 38 prayer houses, and 2,975 believers in the Tohoku Region, representing respectively 43 percent, 53 percent, and 50 percent of the Japanese total, and more than 10 Orthodox catechists worked in the region. Orthodox life was active before the turn of the century, then, after the Russian-Japanese War and the Russian Revolution, there was an arid period, as was general amongst all Christians in Japan at that time. Nevertheless, still, Miyagi Prefecture has the greatest density of Orthodox churches in Japan. The towns on the Sanriku Coast, the birthplace of the Orthodox community of Japan in the 1870s and 80s, are fishing ports; they’re also sometimes stops for cruise ships sailing along the Japanese coast. Repeatedly, the Church has fallen victim to the elements, to earthquakes and tsunamis, as well as to building fires, but the faithful found the strength to build things back up again.

The Japanese Autonomous Orthodox Church/MP in the Tsunami-Affected Areas

Church of the Annunciation in Yamada (Iwate Prefecture. Tōhoku Region)

The church in Yamada in happier days, before the tsunami


As of today, this is the only church building known to be a total loss. The tsunami wave literally swept away the building, leaving only fragments of a concrete fence. The church was located in Iwate Prefecture, on the shore of a small bay on the Sanriku Coast, roughly in the centre of the coastline of the prefecture, situated between the city of Miyako and the city of Kamaishi. Yamada is a community formed from the merger of several neighbouring localities; they were intermediate stops by coastal steamers on the route between the ports of Hachiko and Ishinomaki. This building belonged to the Morioka parish. The local Orthodox community formed around 1877 through the efforts of preaching of some of the first baptised Orthodox Japanese, Ivan Sakai and Yakov Urano. The church in this location was rebuilt several times… a tsunami destroyed it at the end of the 19th century, then, it burned down, at the beginning of the 20th century it moved to its current location. The church destroyed by the 2011 tsunami was built in 1965. According to the report of the 1999 Council of the JAOC/MP, the congregation in Yamada had 27 registered believers in 18 families. The church had two icons painted by the famous icon-painter Pyotr Sasaki; he made them during his time of study at the seminary.

Church of the Resurrection in Kesennuma (Miyagi Prefecture. Tōhoku Region)

According to a report of the Diocese of Sendai of 25 March, the church building survived, as the tsunami wave stopped just a few metres away from the church building. It’s location in Kesennuma in Miyagi Prefecture was one of the most affected by the earthquake and tsunami, this church is under the Ichinoseki parish. Kesennuma is a well-known fishing port. In 1873, an Orthodox Christian from Tokyo named Nabeshima taught in an elementary school here, and, in February 1874, a few of his colleagues began to listen to his explanation of faith, which is considered the beginning of the local community. In 1889, a church was built here, but it burned down during the great fire of 1915. In 1933, the believers rebuilt it; it’s the present building on the premises. According to the 1999 JAOC/MP Council, there were only 8 registered believers in two families in Kesennuma.

Church of the Transfiguration of Our Lord in Takashimizu (Miyagi Prefecture. Tōhoku Region)

According to a report of the Diocese of Sendai of 25 March, the church had no serious damage; it had cracks to its interior walls, and damage to the roof. The church is located in Kurihara District in northern Miyagi Prefecture, and it’s a part of the Ishinomaki parish. Today, it’s only a minor town, but in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was a bustling and more prosperous place, situated in one of the largest feudal vassal states of Japan. It was one of the possessions of the feudal clan of Sendai; many samurai estates were in the area. As was often the case in the Tohoku Region, members of the samurai class became the first Orthodox believers.

In August 1873, after the authorities in Hakodate exiled him, catechist Paul Tsuda began preaching in the region. His words inspired the 41-year-old director of the local primary school, Hariu, and his son. Hariu was a well-respected man in the area, and his sympathy to Orthodoxy was a good recommendation for Tsuda. The former feudal lord of Takashimizu was a friend of Tsuda, and he allowed Tsuda to hold a meeting in a room of his mansion. On the advice of Hariu, a Confucian scholar named Kato, who ran his own private school, visited him, along with his pupils. For the most part, young people of the samurai class listened to Tsuda’s preaching, and, later, people of the peasant class showed interest. There were already more than a dozen catechumens in Takashimizu, Tsuda and other Orthodox catechists translated passages of Scripture for children, lessons based on the Православного зерцала (Orthodox Mirror) (translated from the Православного исповедания (Orthodox Confession) of St Dmitri of Rostov). Meanwhile, the prefectural government, when it learned that Hariu, despite his teaching position, confessed an “alien belief”, decided to dismiss him. After this, Hariu and his son decided to devote themselves to church service, so, they went to the Tokyo headquarters of the Russian spiritual mission. They were baptised by St Nikolai, the father as Matfei, and the son as Timofei, and were later appointed catechists before returning to the Tohoku Region. Timofei went on to become a priest. Tsuda also continued his work, and, in November 1875, when the first Japanese priest, Fr Pavel Sawabe, visited Takashimizu, he baptised 46 people there.

The following year, the first house of worship was built in Takashimizu, dedicated to the Transfiguration. By 1878, the community already had more than 100 believers. In those years, many believers from Takashimizu went to study at the Orthodox theological school in Tokyo. During the period from 1874 to 1882, more than 20 people from Takashimizu took this path. Of those, four became priests (including Frs Timofei Hariu Timothy and Roman Chiba), and Panteleimon Sato (an 1884 graduate of the Tokyo seminary) continued his studies at the Kazan Theological Academy, upon his return to Japan, he became a professor at the seminary. In 1883, the believers in Takashimizu built a house for the priest, and, in 1894, moved the church and parish house to its present location. The current church was built in 1974. Its iconostas was the first (and, for many years, the only) done by the Japanese icon-painter Irina Yamashita. Over the twentieth century, the community dwindled. According to the 1999 JAOC/MP Council, there were 25 registered believers in 8 families in Takashimizu.

Map of the area affected by the tsunami… the towns named had Orthodox churches…


Church of the Prophet Isaiah in Wakuya (Miyagi Prefecture. Tōhoku Region)

According to a report of the Diocese of Eastern Japan, the church wasn’t seriously damaged. The church is located in Miyagi Prefecture, in Toda District, and it’s part of the Ishinomaki parish. Orthodox catechist Sergei Numabe, a samurai from the Sendai clan, began preaching in Wakuya in August 1873. In May 1875, the first three catechumens in Wakuya began studying Scripture in their homes, with enquirers (including women) attending these meetings. In November 1875, during a visit of the first Japanese priest, Fr Pavel Sawabe, 11 people were baptised; in the next year, there were 24 more baptisms. In 1881, St Nikolai visited Wakuya, during a pastoral visit to the Tohoku Region. He encouraged local believers to build a house of worship, and, immediately after his departure, they set to work. The following year, a church was built in a semi-traditional Japanese style, reminiscent of a church in Ishinomaki. By this time, there were about 100 believers in Wakuya. The church was rebuilt at the present site in 1958, but, in 2003, it suffered damage in an earthquake and, in 2004, it was rebuilt. There are old Russian icons (from the 1880s) on the church’s iconostas. Apparently, St Nikolai brought them from Russia during second trip there in 1879-80. According to the 1999 JAOC/MP Council, there were 45 believers in 13 families in Wakuya.

Church of the Transfiguration of Our Lord in Sanuma (Miyagi Prefecture. Tōhoku Region)

According to a report of the Diocese of Eastern Japan on 25 March, the church building suffered serious damage, and it’s in imminent danger of collapsing. The church is located in Miyagi Prefecture, in Tome District. The church is part of the Ishinomaki parish. From 1873, the Orthodox catechist Spiridon Oshima worked here, along with the catechist Ivan Sakai (Sakai was exiled from Hakodate, he was one of the first baptised by St Nikolai, he later became a deacon and a priest). The first baptism here took place in 1874, and, in 1875, Fr Pavel Sawabe spent some time here, and, with the assistance of Ivan John Sakai, baptised 53 people. By early 1890, the community had grown to 90 believers, and they had a proper church. During the earthquake of 1896, it was destroyed, but it was rebuilt two years later. However, in 1920, the church burned down during a fire. Later, a small “temporary” house of worship was built, which stands to this day. According to the 1999 JAOC/MP Council, there were 26 believers in 8 families in Sanuma.

Church of the Holy Virgin in Jogezutsumi (Miyagi Prefecture. Tōhoku Region)

According to a report of the Diocese of Eastern Japan, the church building suffered no damage. The church is located in the countryside in Miyagi Prefecture, near Matsushima Bay, in Higashi-Matsushima District. This church is part of the Ishinomaki parish. The building is in a classical style, it’s considered one of the three most beautiful places in Japan. The first native of Jogezutsumi to accept Orthodoxy was Nikolai Ichijo, a 13-year-old boy from a samurai family, baptised in January 1877 in Sendai, and, then, the catechist Ivan Takahashi came to this region. In November 1877, Fr Anatoly Tikhai, the rector of the Hakodate parish, visited Jogezutsumi, and he baptised a dozen people, creating the first Orthodox congregation in the area. Catechists from Sendai frequently visited Jogezutsumi, and the number of believers increased rapidly until there were over 150 Orthodox Christians there in 1881. Two catechists worked on a regular basis in the town. In the same year, on land donated by the Ichijo family, they built a house of worship. The present building dates from 1974, the church contains many icons from Russia (obviously, St Nikolai brought some of them in the 1880s). According to the 1999 JAOC/MP Council, there were 47 believers in 12 families in Jogezutsumi.

Church of St John the Theologian in Ishinomaki (Miyagi Prefecture. Tōhoku Region)

Damage to the old church building in Ishinomaki


According to a report of the Diocese of Sendai of 25 March, the church suffered major damage, but the church and the parish house are usable after some minor repairs. Water flooded the ground floor of the church building, where the parish hall is located, but the first floor {second floor in American dialect: editor}, which is the church proper, suffered no flood damage. The church is located in Miyagi Prefecture, at the mouth of the Kitakami River. This church is the centre of the Ishinomaki parish.

The first native Orthodox from Ishinomaki, Sergei Katsumata was baptised by St Nikolai in Tokyo in December 1872, when a delegation of believers from the Tohoku Region visited the Tokyo headquarters of the Russian Orthodox mission. Later, catechists came to the towns along the Kitakami River, their efforts led to the formation of several small communities. In 1877, catechist Pyotr Kutikov assisted Fr Pavel Sawabe in baptising 23 people in Ishinomaki; due to the efforts of Boris Yamamura, 29 people accepted baptism in Minato. In 1881, thanks to the labours of catechist Pavel Ishii, Fr Matfei Kageta baptised 13 people in Nakajima. In 1885, catechists Spiridon Oshima and Pavel Watanabe worked in the Kama region… by the end of the 19th century, a dozen Orthodox communities grew up in this area.

Damage to the old church building in Ishinomaki


Later, when the period of church growth gave way to stagnation, the separate existence of all these communities was problematic, the number of believers diminished, so, they all came together around Ishinomaki. Ishinomaki became the centre, probably, because it a church was built here in November 1879. It’s well worth giving an account of its past, for it has much historical significance. The Church of St John (and the nearby parish house) was built in the central part Ishinomaki in 1879, it’s currently recognised as the earliest extant wooden Christian church in Japan. Orthodox began building churches in Japan in the Tohoku Region from the end of the 1870s. However, although their builders were familiar with the details of European-style architecture, their ideas of how an Orthodox church should look were vague, so, they borrowed many familiar elements and motifs from traditional Japanese architecture. Indeed, at that time, the only Orthodox churches in Japan were the church attached to the Russian consulate in Hakodate (it burned down in the early 20th century.) and the chapel of the Russian Spiritual Mission in Tokyo. The construction of the Nikorai-do (House of Nikolai) {the colloquial name for Resurrection Cathedral in Tokyo in Japanese: editor} at the end of the 1880s was a milestone. After this, Japanese architects gained experience in the construction of Orthodox churches. However, then, this knowledge didn’t percolate down into the provinces.

The old church in Ishinomaki is a two-storey building with white stucco walls; the roof has characteristically Japanese wavy tiles. The decor is mostly traditional Japanese, with the exception of cross-openings in the walls. The building is cruciform in plan, its orientation is to the east {as are all properly constructed Christian church buildings: editor}. The sanctuary it is over the porch, the church proper is on the first floor {American second floor: editor} of a two-storey building. On the ground floor, the parish hall is directly after the porch, it’s covered with tatami mats. Further on, a staircase leads to the first floor, to the nave, on the opposite side of the altar. Some experts explain that such an unusual division of space inside an Orthodox church is due to the intuitive dislike of the Japanese to verticals, it seems plausible, and, besides that, local believers patterned their church after the chapel of the mission in Tokyo, which was also placed on the first floor above ground level. It suffered severe damage in the 1978 earthquake, so, in response to a petition from the townspeople, it became municipal property, and the authorities moved it to Nakaze City Park in 1980, gaining recognition as a municipal cultural monument. Since 2001, it has been open daily for visitors to tour. Simultaneously with the transfer of the old church to the park, the Orthodox in Ishinomaki built a new church, reminiscent in design to the older building, which where services are conducted at present. According to the 1999 JAOC/MP Council, there were 153 registered believers in Ishinomaki in 38 families. Of course, the Diocese of Sendai is mostly concerned about the new building. Reports indicate that the old building suffered significant damage, and, therefore, the authorities temporarily closed it to do a structural inspection. I hope they’ll do all that they can to restore this historic artefact.

30 March 2011

Nina Sukhanova

Candidate of Historical Sciences

Waseda University (Tokyo JAPAN)

Церковный вестник (Tserkovny Vestnik : Church Herald)



Here is a 45-minute video on the Church in Japan, A Gift of St Nikolai… even if you don’t know Russian, this segment of Orthodox Planet has nice visuals. THIS is what the Centre does… and the Renovationist/Autocephalist commandos can’t even come CLOSE:


Editor’s Afterword:

There one has it… the real deal from the JAOC/MP. The JAOC/MP is an integral part of the MP… there’s NO “Japanese Orthodox Church”, nor is there an “Orthodox Church of Japan”… these are constructions used by autocephalist fanatics to mask the fact that the Church in Japan is fully a part of the Mother Church (although it’s self-governing and autonomous). Always use the construction “Japanese Autonomous Orthodox Church/MP”… it’s what it is. I believe that the autonomy of the Church in Japan is what we here in America should emulate… it’s time to go home… to join the multitude of nations and peoples under the banner of the MP. Let the Americanist phyletists stew in their juices… don’t waste your time arguing with fools thoroughly contaminated with Sectarian twaddle.

By the way… a Russian Kandidatura is a terminal degree with more rigorous requirements than a PhD… the holder of a Kandidatura makes a Western PhD look like a mere baccalaureate. “Candidate” means “Candidate Member of the Academy of Sciences”.



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