Russian Orthodox Missions — November 20, 2009 at 1:12 pm

The Beginning of the Mission (1861-1872)


Japan’s nearest neighbor is Russia. For a long time subjects of each nation had settlements in Saghalien, and the resulting disputes over territorial rights continued until 1875, when Japan waived its islands of the Kurile group that had hitherto belonged to Russia. The Kuriles had been visited in the eighteenth century by Russian priests, and not long ago(1910) there were still living on one of the islands about a dozen families of Christian Ainu, the descendants of those that had been taught by these missionaries. It is said that some of the priests penetrated into Yezo.

Nicholas of Japan

A Russian consulate had been established at Hakodate in 1859. The priest that served as Consular Chaplain had been there less than a year when poor health compelled him to withdraw. The Holy Synod, when called upon to appoint his successor, asked the authorities in the St. Petersburg Ecclesiastical Academy to find a suitable person. The one chosen was Ivan Kasatkin, a young man twenty-four years old, of deep faith and fervent piety, who had been earnestly praying that God would show him the work he ought to undertake. Before this, he had become deeply interested in Japan through reading Golownin’s account of his captivity in that land. Moreover, he longed to preach the Gospel to those that had not yet heard it. Hence, the position of Consular Chaplain at Hokodate was attractive, as it might possibly open the way for him to carry out his desires.

He was soon ordained to the priesthood taking at that time the name of Nicolai, by which he has since become well known. In July, 1860, he left St. Petersburg, and with only two days’ delay at his home, pushed on through Russia and Siberia until at the end of September, he reached the town of Nicolaievsk at the mouth of the Amur River. Since it was too late to get a boat to Japan, he remained in that place through the winter. His missionary zeal was strengthened by intercourse with Bishop Innocent, who was seeking to convert the tribes of eastern Siberia.

When spring came, Pere Nicolai proceeded on his journey and reached Hakodate in June, 1861. His duties in connection with the consulate were so light that he had abundant time for studying the Japanese language. Among the teachers that he employee was Joseph Neesima, who after being with him about a month, told him of his purpose to leave Japan, and asked his assistance in carrying it out. Pere Nicolai warned him of the danger and offered to teach him English; but on returning from a summer vacation, the Chaplain found that the young man, in whose care he had left the house, was no longer to be found in Hakodate.

Another person who was engaged as a teacher failed to appear at the appointed time, and when Pere Nicolai sent to enquire the reason he said: “Please excuse me; for if I go to your house, I shall be killed.” Pere Nicolai afterwards thought that some young men who were studying Russian had frightened away the teacher, so that more time might be devoted to them.

A samurai by the name of Sawabe, who was a native of Tosa in the island of Shikoku, had come to Hakodate and there married the daughter of a Shinto priest. After the death of his father-in-law, he succeeded to the care of the shrine. He did not take pleasure in the duties of the priesthood and, like so many others of the military class; his thoughts were much occupied with the political questions of the time. Hakodate had become a rendezvous of the ronin-military men who had detached themselves from the service of the feudal lords, and who were restlessly agitating various plans for advancing what they considered the interests of their country. Many of them had adopted the watchword “Hono joi” (“Honor the Emperor; drive out the foreigners”). They were waiting some favorable opportunity for action. Sawabe was on intimate terms with many of these men.

The Russian Consul wished his son to take lessons in fencing, and Mr. Sawabe, who had formerly been a teacher of that art, was employed for an instructor. In his visits to the consulate he often saw Pere Nicolai, whom he regarded with special dislike as being not only a foreigner, but also a priest of the European religion. For a long time he refused to have any conversation with the Chaplain, though he took every opportunity to show his aversion by scowling upon him. Believing that the danger of intercourse with foreign lands came largely from their religion, he as an ardent patriot, desired to do what he could towards warding off the threatened evil. He decided to have a discussion with Pere Nicolai and to slay him if it proved impossible to defeat him by argument. Wearing the two swords belonging to the military class, he one day broke abruptly into the Chaplain’s room, calling out in an angry voice:

“Is it because you wish to get possession of our country that you have brought hither your corrupt doctrines?”

“Are you acquainted with the doctrines that I teach?” quietly asked Pere Nicolai.

“I at least know that they are evil.”

“How can you be sure of that? Before making such an assertion, ought you not to examine my religion to see whether or not it is so hateful as you suppose.

“Well, then, tell me about it and I will listen.”

Pere Nicolai therefore began to speak about the Creator of the universe. Gradually Mr. Sawabe became so interested that anger gave way to respectful attention. After a time he began to jot down notes of the principal points. At the close of the conversation he asked that he might come again for further instruction. This was the beginning of earnest study that finally led Mr.Sawabe to the conviction that Christianity is true. He did not conceal from his old friends the change that had come in his views. They were amazed that one who had been prominent in advocating the expulsion of foreigners had become a believer in their religion. Some of them thought he had become insane.

Among the friends to whom Sawabe told his new faith was a physician named Sakai, an upright man who had the reputation of standing firmly by whatever he believed to be true. He brought forward many objections against Christianity, some of them being such as Mr. Sawabe was unable to refute. He was therefore in the habit of repeating them to Pere Nicolai, who supplied him with answers to carry back to his friend. Finally Dr. Sakai became sufficiently interested to go himself to the Chaplain for instruction. A third inquirer was a man named Urano.

Sawabe, Sakai and Urano, following the advice of friends, decided to seek safety by flight to some place where they were not know. They earnestly desired to receive baptism before leaving Hakodate. On an April night in 1868 they slunk through the streets to the house occupied by Pere Nicolai, where all the preparations had been made for the ceremony. A young Russian, who was accustomed to act as reader in the consular chapel, was stationed on the stairway to guard against intrusions, while within a dimly lighted room the rite was administered. Following the custom of the Greek Church, the three men received Christian names, and were henceforth to be known as Paul Sawabe, John Sakai, and Jacob Urano.

Pere Nicolai saw reasons for believing that the time was near at hand when it would be possible to engage in active evangelistic efforts. He was teaching Russian to some of the officials, and when he occasionally referred to Christianity, he saw no indication that they wished to evade the subject. Conversations that he held with samurai coming from different parts of Japan showed that a great revolution was taking place in the thoughts of the people. The movement in favor of adopting Western civilization had begun and some people were saying that there must be a new religion, since Buddhism was losing its influence and the attempt to revive Shinto was not arousing much enthusiasm.

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