Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Japan and Gospel Translation
Roman Catholic monk Francis Xavier was the first to start Gospel propagation in Japan in 1549. He was successful in settling 230 congregations with 200 thousand faithful in extremely short period of time. However, after the end of the local war period, the newly formed Tokugawa shogun system feared the growth of Christianity and went off settling limits to missioners. This coincided with overall tendency to avoid foreign influence in the country. Firstly, the overseas visitors were denied entrance to the country and Japanese were not allowed to go abroad. Then, the 1637 charter demanded deportation of foreign missioners. The Japanese Christians were forced to deny their faith, stepping on the icons of Christ and Our Lady. Those who would remain to the true faith had to pay with their lives. Hundreds of martyrs have been crucified in Japan on the crosses set along the roads.
These trampling on the icons and denials were to be repeated by several generations of the early Japanese Christians’ descendants. However, the Catholic mission to arrive in Nagasaki in the 19th century found 200 thousand secret worshippers of the Only God who had kept their faith throughout the 200 years.
The black ships of Commander Perry in 1853 and a series of trade treaties with world powers of the time served as an impulse for opening the country. Japan was no longer closed and began establishing contacts with the foreigners. The 1855 saw the signing of Japan-Russia treaty and in 1861 a 24-year old graduate of Saint Petersburg Ecclesiastical Academy hieromonk Nikolai (Kasatkin) arrived in Hakodate as a chaplain of the Russian embassy church. “Having the burning desire to see Japanese people brought to Christ, Equal to Apostles Nikolai, ye have spent long years there, studying the wisdom of that country, and the words of Our Lord have translated to be understood by your children into their native language. Now, standing by Lord’s throne, pray for them”
Bishop Seraphim (Sigrist) of Sendai and East Japan renders his vision of St. Nikolai zeal for missionary preaching: “…St. Nikolai was a kind of samurai, whose indomitable will and labor over 50 years built the church of Japan. The story is told that in his early days of studying Japanese, Fr. Nikolai (then a priest in Hakodate) would go with the Japanese children to school and sit in the back and learn as best he could with them. Indeed at one point the perplexed teachers put up a sign at the door, “the bearded foreigner is not allowed”. In a way this story shows that indomitable samurai will, and yet I love it because it shows something else and perhaps still deeper, the humility (which no samurai would have but which comes from the Gospel) to become like a little child in service of the Lord who deigned to be born in a manger”. To Russian readers this episode may remind the path of the prominent scientist Mikhail Lomonosov, the founder of Moscow State University and Russian Academy of Sciences. In the start of his scholarly career, the 19 year old Mikhail, then a peasant in the northern Russian region of Archangelsk, traveled on foot to Moscow, and had to share the school bench with little children twice younger than he.
Ivan Dmitrievich Kasatkin was born on the first of August, 1836 [O.S.] in the village Beryozha [Birch tree] of the Belsk district in Smolensk region in the family of a deacon. His father, deacon Dmitry Kasatkin had 4 children: firstborn Gavriil, who died in his early childhood, the daughter Olga, the second son Ivan and the youngest son Vasiliy. When little Vanya was five, his mother reposed and Olga, whose husband served deacon in rural church, took care of the children. The future Saint Archbishop studied in Belsk Ecclesiastical primary school, then in Smolensk Ecclesiastical Seminary. After graduating with the highest rating in the class, in 1856 he received a state scholarship to enter Saint Petersburg Ecclesiastical Academy. In the spring of 1860 an announcement, inviting a graduate to serve the chief priest of the embassy church, was posted in the academy. “I saw a sheet laying in the room, – told bishop Nikolai to hieromonk Andronik (Nikolsky) who arrived in Tokyo mission in 1898. – I read it and find out that this is a proposal on behalf of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs: whether any of graduates wishes to go to Hakodate in Japan to Russian Consulate either as a priest or a monk. And then I see the three names of volunteers: Blagorazumov Nikolai (future rector of Moscow Ecclesiastical Academy, currently [in 1898] Moscow protopriest); and two others: one (Gorchakov) as a priest and the other in any title”.
Having calmly read the announcement, the young man went for the evening service, where he experienced a sudden desire of going to Japan. Many years later St. Nikolai described his decision to the students at Tokyo Seminary: “…I firmly admit, given my unworthiness, that it was God’s will that sent me to Japan: first, the talk of [Smolensk] seminary professor Ivan Feodorovich Solovyov about China and the trip to China of professor’s friend Fr. Isaya Polkin had caused my desire to go to China and propagate Gospel; reading Golovnin’s travel notes in academy had revoked that forgotten desire in direction of Japan; reading the critics of Oblomov lead to the solution of the crucial question: to serve God or the world?”.
By completing the application of going to serve as a monk, not as a married priest, and in Mission, not in Russia, the future St. Nikolai “outscored” all the candidates. “I come to conclusion that the above moments were indeed mysterious signs of Lord’s will, for never in my life have I repented becoming a monk or felt grief because of coming to Japan”, – told the Bishop to Tokyo students.
On the 21 of June, 1860 Ivan Kasatkin was tonsured a monk with the name Nikolai, was ordained hierodeacon on June, 29, and hieromonk – on the following day. Then there was a long journey to Japan. Hieromonk Nikolai spent the winter of 1860/61 in Nikolaevsk on the river Amur where bishop Innokenty (Veniaminov) of Katchatka, the future Saint Metropolitan of Moscow, enlightener of Siberia and Alyaska, gave necessary directions to the young missioner. St. Nikolai did not forget these talks with Bishop during the whole life. When 40 years later bishop Nikolai was building Cathedral in Kyoto, he remembered Kamchatka shepherd: “The very altar here [in Tokyo] is 3 Japanese square feet and 3 dimes; in Kyoto we ought to have the same one. I have notified about the height as well: 3 feet, 2 dimes, 5 lines. All the altars are of the same height here in the Cathedral, it is customary everywhere in the Orthodox church. This I remember from the words of His Eminence Innokenty, when during the Nikolaevsk winter of 1860 he gave me various lectures on Sunday evenings, which I spent at his place on his kindness invitation”. Bishop Innokenty inspired the young missioner to learn the language and culture of his future flock: “The godfather of Nikolai’s Japanology was, of course, St. Innokenty Popov-Veniaminov. His versatile genius – as linguist, ethnographer, and evangelist – was a source of inspiration to Nikolai throughout the years of his mission in Japan”.
Finally, in June 1861 hieromonk Nikolai arrived in the Hakodate port. Since then Fr. Nikolai lived all his life in Japan, briefly returning to Russia only twice: in the years 1869/1870 to request for establishing Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Japan and in 1879/1880 to be consecrated Bishop of the growing mission and collect money for its needs. This unavoidable lack of real missionary activity in Russia seemed extremely tiresome and exhaustible to St. Nikolai. Each time he was particularly eager to go back home, to Japan. During the second trip St. Nikolai visited a number of countries. Having returned to Tokyo, Bishop described this journey, talking to his flock: “First of all, I left Japan for America and visited San Francisco and New York. The Orthodox Christians there all expressed their gratitude that by the grace of God the Orthodox Church was established in Japan…My next stop was in London, England. People there also expressed their happiness in hearing about the building up of the Japanese Orthodox Church, and they asked me to tell you how happy they were to hear the news that the Church was established in Japan…On the way back [from Russia] I stopped in Constantinople and met the Patriarch. He said: “I am very happy to hear about the Orthodox Church in Japan…I ask you to carry my blessing to the Christians in Japan.””.
The life and missionary service of St. Nikolai, Orthodox Disciple in the pagan country demanded enormous effort, concentration, self-discipline and endless trust upon Lord’s will. “Japan is the golden middle…Having listened to atheist foreign teachers and various instructors, that faith is gone; and if one wants to have anything of the kind, he must keep to the original paths, they have resembled Shinto, which is currently followed by the Court in the slightest details,” – wrote Bishop in his diaries.
When hieromonk Nikolai came to Japan, the medieval charter of 1614 of full prohibition of Christianity was still into force. Although the later government law of 1873 allowed freedom of religion, the hardships to propagation continued to exist; and persecutions, especially in rural areas, emerged within a long period of time. Therefore, missioner Nikolai started with studying the country’s culture and history. According to Matushka Doreen Bartholomew, “He sometimes strolled around the streets of Hakodate, listening to the ordinary people and professional storytellers. He made the acquaintance of leading Buddhist priests and listened to their sermons… Hieromonk Nikolai 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 Nikolai eventually acquired the knowledge of several thousand Chinese characters, giving him access to materials printed by the Orthodox mission in Peking, where Yosif Goshkevich had spent almost ten years. This allowed Nikolai to study Chinese texts of the Old and New Testaments, as well as some of the liturgical books”.
His success in learning Japanese and Chinese scripture enabled Fr. Nikolai to read medieval Buddhist sutras, incomprehensible by most of the Japanese. The discoverer of St. Nikolai’s diaries in the St. Petersburg National Archives in 1979, the leading researcher and contemporary biographer of St. Nikolai, Prof. Kennosuke Nakamura calls him “one of the first Russian Japanologists”. “It is widely recognized that hieromonk Nikolai Kasatkin was one of the founders of Japanology, – writes Prof. Nakamura. – In addition, several Russian scholars whom he befriended and advised eventually became prominent Japanologists in Russia, Western Europe, and America. …Since his knowledge of Japanese history and culture was extensive and detailed, Vladyka Nikolai became a sort of academic advisor to the young Russians who came to him for spiritual and scholarly guidance”.
Before moving to Tokyo and buying land on Surugadai knoll where later he opened the schools of Russian Mission and supervised construction of magnificent Resurrection Cathedral, St. Nikolai wrote in Hakodate: “…one might conclude that in Japan, at least now, the harvest truly is plenteous. And the labourers, on our part, are none, but for my completely personal activity. Even had I continued the studies in the previous direction, the abilities of a single person here may be compared to a single drop in the sea. The translation of the Gospel alone, if done distinctively (and can one do it otherwise) will demand at least 2 years of devoted work. Then, there is the need for Old Testament Translation. To have the smallest Christian church it is absolutely necessary to celebrate in Japanese; apart from that there are other books, such as Holy History, History of Church, Liturgy, Theology. All the above issues are of primarily importance. These and other books should be translated into Japanese, which is very questionable to become such a tool for a foreigner that the latter could write in it at least half as fast and easy as in his own native language”.
On the 6 of April, 1870 due to Fr. Nikolai’s petition the Holy Synod established Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Japan, consisting of the head of mission, Fr. Nikolai, ordained archimandrite, 3 hieromonks-missioners and 1 deacon. According to the special order, explaining missioners’ responsibilities, they were not only to spread the word of God in Japanese, but to translate Holy Bible, as well.
“Currently, the general work of mission in any country can not be constrained by oral propagation, – said St. Nikolai. – The times of Francis Xavier, who was running along the streets with a bell and thus called upon the listeners, have already passed. As for Japan, given the love of its population for reading and the spread of respect to written word, faithful and catechumen should be first of all given the book, written in their native language, necessarily in good style and thoroughness, beautifully and cheaply printed. Here, the books, revealing dogmatic differences with Catholicism and Protestantism, are of the major importance. I have often witnessed how our Christians, armed with the knowledge gained from Mission’s publications, hold talks with Catholic and Protestant compatriots and remained the winners. The printed word should be the soul of Mission”.