Although Japan is among the least Christian countries in Asia, the music of J.S. Bach appears to be doing what few evangelistic crusades or missionaries have accomplished.
Going far beyond a cultural fad, Bach’s music has conveyed Christian teachings and concepts to a large and growing following, particularly among the nation’s elites, writes Uwe Siemon-Neto in First Things magazine (June/July). Yoshikazu Tokuzen of Japan’s National Christian Council cites figures showing that while less than one percent of the 127 million Japanese belong to a Christian church, another eight to 10 percent sympathize with Christianity.
“Most of those sympathizers are part of the elite, and many had their first contact with Christianity through the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.” The driving force behind the “Bach boom” is organist Masaaki Suzuki, founder and conductor of the Bach Collegium Japan. In 10 years, approximately 100-200 Bach choirs have sprouted around the country.
Most of those interviewed say that the Japanese have lost their allegiance to Buddhism and Shintoism and are attracted to the message they find in Bach’s music. The Christian idea of hope is an alien concept in Japanese society, and the composer’s music and lyrics kindle a popular interest in what `hope’ means to Christians, Siemon-Netto writes. One avid Bach collector says Bach comforts the fears of Japanese, although few such sympathizers may completely convert to Christianity.
As for the origins of the Bach boom it seems that when missionaries were driven out of the nation in the 16th century, the church music (such as Gregorian chant) Christians left behind survived the persecution and infiltrated Japan’s traditional folk music. This influence remained potent enough to help Bach’s music spread across Japan centuries later.
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