Recently I had an opportunity to attend a religious service with a little-known but interesting group of Japanese-Christians called Makuya or kirisuto no makuya (キリストの幕屋). The word “makuya” (幕屋) is the Japanese word for Tabernacle, which is the name of the ancient, portable shrine the Hebrews used.
What makes Makuya interesting is that it is a native Japanese-Christian organization, unlike most Christian churches in Japan. Typically in Japanese media, Christians are portrayed as foreign missionaries, since most Japanese never see Christians other than the street preachers who harass them in places like Shibuya or at Buddhist temples during New Year’s. But Christianity in Japan is a more complex subject, and although Makuya is a small organization, it’s interesting to see how a foreign, Western religion has taken root in Japan.
Makuya arose out of a larger Christian movement called the Non-Church Movement which started in 1901 and has a presence in Japan, Korea and Taiwan. The idea behind this movement is a focus on Bible study, pacifism, and informal structure (instead of a formal church, creed, etc). Makuya continues this tradition. Makuya focuses on the “Biblical experience” instead of learning a particular dogma or creed, so people are encouraged to explore and investigate both with their mind and their heart. Thus, they are particularly tolerant toward other religions (more on that later).
Makuya is definitely Protestant Christianity in that it is devoted to the Holy Trinity, grace by God, and the Bible as the Word of God. The Bible version typically used (in English) is the new King James Version, or other similar translations. All pretty typical stuff. However, when I went there I also noticed some differences. First, the main symbol of Makuya is a Jewish menorah, not the cross. I was surprised to see a lit menorah with 7 candles (not 9). Indeed, Makuya distinguishes itself because of its strong affiliation with Israel and Jewish culture overall. Makuya people often make pilgrimages to Israel, spend time in Jewish Kibbutzim, and maintain good relations with Jewish communities.
When the Makuya people prayed, it reminded me of charismatic, Pentecostal style prayer: very emotional and passionate. People repeated “father” over and over again as other people prayed, sometimes they laid hands, others cried, etc. If you have not seen this kind of prayer before, it can be somewhat intense. While people were fervently praying, I admit that I just kind of passively took it in.1
Anyhow, the other thing that was different in the Makuya tradition is the emphasis on meditation. The founder, Teshima Ikuro, emphasized the importance of meditation as a way to experience directly experience “the Word of God” or logos in ancient Greek. The particular meditation-style taught by Makuya is as follows:
- Preparation of the Body – This means simple calisthenics to wake you up.
- Preparation of Breathing – This is the breathing exercise to calm and focus the mind.
- Preparation of the Mind – One reads and recites passages from the Bible.
The breathing exercise was fairly simple. You breath in by pushing out your belly (hara 肚 in Japanese) then hold for 2 seconds. Then you slowly, slowly exhale. Then repeat maybe 10-20 times. For some reason, I really struggled to do this because I am used to Buddhist-style meditation which seems fairly different. They mentioned the commonality between Makuya-style meditation and Zen, but I admit I didn’t quite see it.
Still, one other notable thing about Makuya is their tolerance toward other religions. When we introduced ourselves, I didn’t mention that I was a Buddhist. I just mentioned my upbringing in Christian churches and such, but somehow they knew I was a Buddhist (probably something a Makuya friend mentioned before). I was worried that they would criticize me for this, but they were quite open about it. For Makuya, the emphasis is on experiencing God, not adhering to a particular creed. So although my beliefs are pretty different, they didn’t seem bothered by this. Most evangelical, Western churches I’ve experienced in the past would be eager to criticize my Buddhist faith or remind me that I am destined to go to Hell. It’s certainly happened before. :-/
Overall it was an interesting experience. It was the first time I personally encountered one of the “New Japanese Religions” or shinshūkyō (新宗教) which started to appear in the late 19th-century. It was also an interesting fusion of Western Christianity with Japanese-style applied practice. It was also interesting to see how a Japanese-immigrant community here in the US could maintain these traditions across generations.
At any rate, thanks to Makuya for sharing their traditions with me, and being so friendly and open. Makuya people are very warm and community-oriented, and they definitely make you feel welcome. :)
1 When I was maybe 17 or 18 years old, I attended a church service which also had charismatic-prayer and back then I didn’t really feel anything either. Around me, people were crying, falling down, speaking in tongues, etc., but I just stood there praying, yet I felt nothing. At one point, the prayer leaders all stood around me and prayed fervently, but again I just stood there. They prayed even harder, but after a minute or so I pretended to “fall down” just to get them away from me. That kind of prayer isn’t for me, I guess. Buddhist chanting is kind of bland and dull, but I like it that way. ;)