A Great Japanese Christian
European avarice, and political intrigue fostered by Jesuit priests, led to an edict in 1614 outlawing Christianity in the island of Japan. That edict was to remain in force until 1873. It was during the earlier period, in 1638, that Japanese natives were forbidden to leave Japan on pain of death. All children of mixed marriages were deported and Japan closed her doors upon the West. From the time of Elizabeth I to the reign of Queen Victoria, Japan turned her back upon the world. Sakoku, the age of seclusion, had begun.
Breaking this law and risking death should he be caught, Niishima Shimeta was smuggled on board an American ship leaving the port of Hakodate in June 1864. This was no mere adventure for the young Japanese man. By God's providence Niishima had earlier come across portions of the Word of God written in Chinese. It was whilst reading the first chapters of Genesis that Niishima Shimeta had cried out to God, 'Oh, if you have eyes, look upon me! If you have ears, listen to me!' From that point onward he set his mind to seek to know the God of the Bible.
In his diary Niishima wrote: One reflection came upon my head, that although my parents made and fed me, I belong indeed to Heavenly Father; therefore I must believe him, and I must run his way...
Not yet converted when he penned those words, Niishima was nonetheless demonstrating the spirit which would adorn the whole of his Christian life.
Landing in America, God's providence led young Niishima to the home and influence of Mr. and Mrs. Alpheus Hardy. These two Bostonians were generous hearted and avid supporters of the American Mission Board. Niishima wrote:
I date my conversion some time after my arrival in this country (USA); but I was seeking God and his light from the hour I read his Word. With my new experience was born a desire to preach the gospel among my people ... The love of Christ constrains me to this work ... I expect to meet with some difficulties and trials, yet I shall count it a joy ... to suffer for his name. It is my purpose to give my life to this work.
After ten years of study in a 'Puritan' atmosphere, Niishima (now named Joseph Hardy Neesima) returned to his native Japan with the aim of proclaiming the gospel of Christ and of establishing a Christian College in the land of his birth.
Returning to his parents' home, Joseph shared with them the love of Christ and the workings of God's grace in his own life. It was not long before his parents tore down their idols and 'paper gods' and consigned them to the fire. Joseph preached a number of times in the local schoolhouse, proclaimed the gospel in individual homes, and even preached to a 'large audience in a Buddhist Temple'. A large number of local men pooled their financial resources in order to purchase Bibles and Christian books that they might learn more about this God whom Joseph Hardy Neesima preached. Joseph noted that the Japanese people were 'hungry and thirsty for the Christian truth. I find here everything ready for the gospel.'
In spite of bitter opposition from Buddhist priests, Neesima commenced the building of his Christian School. 'The acorn is in the bottle', he writes. 'It will, in time, with God's blessing, split the bottle.' The completed building was dedicated to the Lord's service on September 18th, 1876.
Writing to friends, Joseph states, 'We are hated by the magistrates and priests, but we have placed the standard of truth here and will never retreat.'
Half of the forty-seven students enrolled in the new College were Christian men who had come to equip themselves for the ministry of the gospel in Japan. Neesima's aim was to equip believers not only for the ministry, but also to prepare Christian men for positions of influence in the life of Japan. That aim never faded. He envisaged Japan being won for Christ.
Joseph Hardy Neesima wore out his earthly frame in the service of his beloved Master, Christ Jesus. He went to his eternal rest on 23 January 1890. The grave which contains his earthly remains bears only a simple stone upon which is written his name 'Joseph Hardy Neesima' in Japanese and English. Nothing else mars the simplicity of his grave.
What of Japan today? We understand that some 98 percent of the people are lost in a whirlpool of secularism, hedonism, idolatry and superstition. In the spiritual sense the 'beautiful island' is barren and fruitless. The evangelical church accounts for only one per cent of the population. But the arm of our God has not lost its omnipotence, and we shall yet see the banner of Christ flying high over Japan to the honour of his glory. God hasten the day!