“First one must conquer love, and only then spread the word.”
Archbishop Nicholas (Kasatkin)
The first person to preach the Gospel in Japan was a Spaniard, Francis Xavier, a Catholic monk of the Jesuit order. The first missionary labors of the Catholic monk and his fellow Jesuit strugglers were crowned with success, and many people accepted Christianity, including the Japanese princes Onugo, Arima and Omura (in the year 1582). However, as the Jesuits focused more on the external, ritualistic aspects of the Faith, on violence and threats, and didn’t focus on the spirit of love and humility in their apostolic preaching, they were not able to strengthen the Japanese Christians in the Catholic faith, so that many of them, deep down, remained pagans. Unfortunately, the Jesuit missionary movement was accompanied by politics and intrigue, that is, by a clear and ardent desire to make Japan submit to the Vatican. This caused a negative influence in the hearts of the Japanese, and also led to the harsh persecution of those newly-converted men and women, who had sincerely accepted Catholicism, a fact which is witnessed by a Christian historian in Japan:
“Despite its widespread preaching in the XVI century, Christianity had little to no effect in the national character and ethics system of the Japanese. If in the first centuries of Christianity the persecution was not only unable to destroy it, but strengthened it, this was not the case in Japan. The reason for such a difference lies in the methods of spreading the Christian faith. The brutal force of the Jesuits was not able, of course, to instill in the hearts of the newly-converted the same love and peace that was preached by the closest Disciples of Christ.” (Russkii palomnik [Russian Pilgrim], 1912, page 492).
The Japanese religions of Shinto, Buddhism, and Confucianism, as well as the Jesuits and several other missionary sects, created an indifferent Japanese man, who related with indifference towards religion and the life of the age to come. In his book Things Japanese, Basil Chamberlain, a professor at the Tokyo University, quoted a prominent public figure of that time, a Mr. Fukuzawa:
“For me, there is as much difference between religions, be they Buddhism, Christianity, or any other, as there is between green or black tea. It doesn’t matter if you drink one tea or the other. More importantly, it gives one the opportunity to evaluate those who never drank tea. The same happens in regards to religion. After all, priests are somewhat like tea merchants; however, I don’t think they would have reason to disparage someone else’s product for the sake of greater profits for themselves. All they have to do is to have good quality material and to sell it as cheaply as possible.”
The Shinto religion does not contain a doctrine on eternal life after death, a fact which contributed to the indifference of the Japanese, who expected neither rewards for virtue, nor condemnation for sin.
The first mention of Russians, or as they were then called, “aka-hito” (red people), in Japanese historical literature dates back to the XVII century, with the appearance of the Cossacks in the Far East.
In his expedition to Kamchatka, Vladimir Atlasov provided the Russian government the first reports regarding the “Uzakinsky” land, that is, Japan.
The Cossacks’ discovery of the Kurislky islands brought Japan closer to Russia. Peter the Great sent several expeditions in order to investigate and map out this land; however, they were unsuccessful. Due to the conquests of which they had heard, the Japanese regarded the Russians with fear and suspicion.
Information regarding Japan was extremely scarce in Russia, as well as in the rest of Europe. Expeditions sent there in order to establish friendly relations were unsuccessful.
The first expedition which reached Japan and visited the cities of Hakodate and Matsumane was the expedition of Laksman in 1792 (KV Sakharov Istoriia Iaponii [History of Japan], Tokyo, 1920, page 67). The Japanese greeted the expedition in a very friendly way, but refused to discuss the establishment of trade relations, and did not allow Laksman to visit the capital of the Empire, Ieddo. Nonetheless, this was the first official meeting between representatives of the two nations.
Alexander I again tried to establish relations with Japan, sending NP Rezanov there as his ambassador. However, the response given by the Japanese rulers was negative; Japan did not want to establish friendly relations with an “unknown government” and asked the visitors to leave the nation’s shores as soon as possible (ibid, page 72). Only in 1854 were relations between Russia and Japan established, with the arrival in Nagasaki of Admiral Putianin and his fleet.
The negative attitude of Japan towards the possibility of the presence of Russians in its islands can be explained by historical circumstances. Not only were foreigners prohibited from entering Japan, but also Japanese citizens were forbidden from leaving their country, under the penalty of death.
Due to these circumstances, Russian missionaries were unable to come to Japan. The Russian Orthodox Church began its missionary efforts in Japan only towards the end of the XIX century, after the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
In 1858, the first Russian church in Japan was built by Consul Goshkevich in the Russian consulate in Hakodate, (Protoierei Nikolai Ponomarev, Khrsitianstvo na Dal’nem Vostoke [Christianity in the Far East]).
Christ, “who desires that all be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth,” did not forget about Japan, as we can see in this account regarding His chosen one, His Grace Nicholas, who shone the light of Christ’s teachings and illumined many through holy baptism in the land of the “Rising Sun,” and who with ardent zeal established the Japanese Orthodox Church.
Archbishop Nicholas of Japan was born Ivan Dmitrievich Kasatkin to Christ-loving parents on August 1st, 1836, in the village of Egor’e-na-Bereze, in the province of Smolensk, Bel’sk oblast. The childhood of the future missionary was not an easy one. His mother, Ksenia Alekseevna, passed away at the age of 34, leaving behind 5-year-old Ivan and two other young children. His father, Deacon Dimitrii, served the Church with diligence, carrying out his vocation in a worthy and exemplary manner, to the benefit of his children. It was a difficult life, but poverty and deprivation developed in Ivan amazing willpower and determination. He was always first in his class. After successfully graduating Bel’skoe Orthodox School, he enrolled in Smolensk Theological Seminary. His family lived in such poverty that Ivan had to walk the 150 miles which separated his home and Smolensk, where he studied. Having finished the seminary with excellent marks, he was then sent to St Petersburg Theological Academy.
Archbishop Nicholas recalled his memorable years in the Academy in the following way:
“Being by nature cheerful, I didn’t particularly plan out how to arrange my own destiny. In the last year of the Academy I had a calm attitude towards the future, as much as I could; I enjoyed myself and danced at the wedding of some of my relatives, not thinking that, in a short while, I would become a monk. One day, walking by the rooms of the academy, I fixed my eyes, quite mechanically, on a posted plain sheet of white paper, where I read the following lines: ‘Is anyone interested in going to Japan in order to become the rector of the consulate church in Hakodate and begin preaching Orthodoxy in this country?’ A few people signed up, but all of them wanted to go there as married priests. But I asked myself, ‘should I not go?’ ‘No, you should go,’ answered my conscience, ‘but not as a married priest.’ I had to choose either one or the other: either family life, or missionary life; after all, it was such an unknown country, and so far away… And that same day, at vigil, I already belonged to Japan.” (Bogoslovskie trudy [Theological Studies], ¹ 14, page 10)
The next day, the young student informed the rector about his intentions and handed him a petition to be tonsured a monk and to be assigned to Japan, to which the rector, and Metropolitan of St Petersburg, agreed. Bishop Nektary tonsured Ivan into monasticism and gave him the name Nicholas, saying at the tonsure:
“You will not carry out your monastic struggles in a monastery. You must leave your own country, and go serve the Lord in a land that is heathen and far away. Together with the cross of the monastic struggler you must also carry the staff of the pilgrim; together with the monastic struggle you must also fulfill the labors of the Apostles.”
In July of 1860, taking with himself his favorite icon, a copy of the Smolensk Mother of God, the young missionary Hieromonk Nicholas left for the heathen land. At that time, in order to get there, it was necessary to go through Siberia. Fr Nicholas spent the winter at Nikolaevsk, where he met Bishop Innokenty (Veniaminov), the future Metropolitan of Moscow and Kolomensk, who to his eyes was like a new Saint Stephen of Perm. Fr Nicholas spent almost a year with him. The holy hierarch cared for the young missionary as a father would, spending much time in conversation about his future endeavors, giving him many instructions, and sharing with him his own missionary experience.
“Do you have a good cassock?” asked Vladyka. “Of course I do,” he answered. However, Vladyka Innokenty did not like Fr Nicholas’ cassock, which he had received in the academy. “You will go there and everyone will look at you and wonder Who is this new priest? You have to immediately command respect. Buy velvet.” He bought the velvet. Vladyka armed himself with scissors and carved out a cassock for Fr Nicholas. “That’s better. Do you have a cross?” He still didn’t have one, his cross was waiting for him in Hakodate. “Well, take this one for now,” said the bishop, putting a bronze cross from the campaign in Sevastopol on Fr Nicholas. “This cross is not the best, but it’s still a cross, and to show up in Japan without one is unacceptable. And remember, the Japanese will not be the only ones watching you, so will the Europeans.” In this improvised garb Fr Nicholas set foot on Japanese soil.
“While I traveled there,” recalled the archbishop, “I dreamt much about my Japan. I pictured her in my imagination as a bride, waiting for my arrival with a bouquet of faith in her hands, with a cross. And then, her darkness is swept by the Gospel, and all is renewed. After I came, I saw that my bride dreams the same prosaic dreams, and does not even think about me… Back then I was young and not devoid of an imagination, which drew for me crowds who would flock from every corner to listen to the Word of God, and who then would become its followers, once the Word began to be preached in this country.”
Such were the dreams of the young missionary, but reality did not correspond to his dreams, not in the least. The preaching of Christianity was forbidden in Japan, on pain of death. This was the first obstacle towards his missionary endeavors. The second, and most important obstacle to the preaching of Orthodoxy, was the hostile attitude of the Japanese towards foreigners and everything that came from them. Japan remained a country forbidden for foreigners for far too long, and the Europeans had left very bad impressions. The third obstacle, which complicated not only his preaching, but also his direct communication with the Japanese, was Fr Nicholas’ complete ignorance of their language, which was rather difficult. The preaching of Orthodoxy was also made difficult by the animosity which the Europeans living in Japan felt towards Russians.
The young missionary had to overcome all of these difficulties, in order to undertake and fulfill his cherished desire, to announce the word of Truth to the Japanese. The first task which Fr Nicholas undertook was to learn the Japanese language, and in this he displayed not only abundant gifts, but also an irresistible willpower. The following account will show just how Fr Nicholas had to study the Japanese language, and also how Europeans related towards the Russian missionary.
Here is the recollection of Mr Yanagita Tokichi, who owned the language school Hokumonsia in Hakodate, and which had a certain Englishman Brykston as one of its teachers:
“The Russian preacher Nicholas, who then lived in Hakodate, came to our school. Without saying a word, he entered the classroom and began to listen very attentively to what was being taught. From that day, he began coming to the school every day and to listen to the lessons on par with the other students. With the Russian preacher’s attendance at our school, rumors started flying that the Yanagita school was engaged in the teaching of Christian dogmas, and I at once ordered the school’s director, Suzuki, to refuse entrance to the preacher Nicholas. However, afterwards Suzuki told me that the preacher Nicholas did not obey the order and continues to attend classes without hesitation. I was stupefied. In a chance encounter with the Englishman Brykston, I asked him as to how I should deal with Nicholas. To which he replied: ‘That’s nonsense; call him and tell him flatly that he is to stop coming to the school, and if he won’t listen to you then physically push him away.’ I wasn’t prepared to stoop to such rudeness, but I decided to see Nicholas and personally ban him from attending the school. On the next day, when he came to the school, I stopped him and told him that his coming to the school was the cause of much unpleasantness for me and that I demand that he stop at once. The preacher looked at me with a smile: ‘Why such rigor? I cannot stop attending the school.’ Then I told him: ‘This is my house and I demand that you stop coming here, and if you refuse, I will be forced to take action against you.’ ‘Well, if you get moral satisfaction from hitting me, then hit me now; I will never stop attending this school,’ said Nicholas, smiling. At the sight of such a firm commitment, I had already started to regret not having immediately dealt with him as Brykston had suggested. But as the moment for that had already passed, I decided to work on Nicholas through peaceful means. I explained to him that his attendance at our school confuses many people; they start seeing our school as a place where Christianity is preached, and that all of this is very displeasing to me.
Nicholas calmly listened to all of this and, pointing to a nearby vacant lot, asked me: ‘What is your opinion about this place?’ I must point out that next to our school lived a certain man named Shiratori, engaged in preparing miso. The lot was surrounded by a broken fence, and apparently it was never cleaned, such was the messy state it was in; it was in complete contrast with the garden of our school, which was kept spotlessly clean. The storage room for the miso looked more like a barn than like a storage room. I replied to Nicholas that the lot was indeed very dirty. ‘Yes, indeed, dirty,’ said Nicholas. ‘It is difficult for all of of us to see that next to our clean garden is the dirty, unkempt garden of our neighbor. Some people take upon themselves the courage and effort to bring order to this garden. If you understood the meaning of my words, then you will understand that there is no harm in my attending your school and getting acquainted with what is taught, and even more so because there have been no attempts on my part to preach in it my religion. Besides this school, I also attend the Buddhist school at the temple of the “Sinsiu” sect, and I listen daily to what is preached there, and that every time I have a question, I don’t hesitate to ask. This is all that my work consists of. Let them say what they want, but this is what it is. You must not scold me for attending your school.’
I did not know what to tell Nicholas. I went to Brykston and told him the gist of our conversation. He became terribly indignant, began to hit the table and scold me: ‘What are the Japanese, pushovers? You really didn’t know how to answer such rude and insulting words? Among us, British, even a 5-year-old would not have put up with this and would have probably smashed the skull of this Nicholas. And what business is it of his, whether it is clean or dirty here? After all, he is abroad, and not home in Russia. Such comments are an insult to Japan. I suggest you immediately go to this Nicholas and really deal with this problem, even if it costs your life; I think you will not regret it to restore honor to your homeland.”
These words of indignation from Brykston are still fresh in my memory, to this day. Having used all possible means trying to influence Nicholas, in the end I asked Brykston to write for me on a piece of paper the following sentence in English: ‘Entrance is forbidden for Russian priests.’ On the next day, I posted this sign at the school gate. However, even this measure proved futile: when he arrived that day at the school, Nicholas saw the sign, tore it up and put it in his pocket, and as if nothing had happened, entered the school. On the following day he came again, and this went on for a long time. Brykston and I were so impressed by Nicholas’ persistence that we no longer tried to prevent him from coming to the school” (AS Iusha Kto nastoichivieie [Who Is More Stubborn], Sbornik “Na Vostoke” [“In the East” Compendium], Tokyo, 1935).
These recollections of the first years of Fr Nicholas’ life and work in Japan are here presented in full, because simple everyday words are able to describe such years, and how Fr Nicholas had to become acquainted not only with the language and with the teaching methods, but with the Japanese themselves, their character and customs, their religion and moral teachings, and what type of strength and endurance the Orthodox missionary needed to show; whose preaching at first evoked only hostility and condemnation, to the point that even simply attending classes was already seen by society with condemnation, not only of himself, but also of the school’s owner. We can judge from this just how hard it was for Fr Nicholas to make those first acquaintances with the Japanese and to gain a position in a society where he was an undesirable person not only because he was a foreigner, but more importantly, because he was a preacher of Christianity, and consequently a conductor of new European ideas, which already had been condemned by Japanese society beforehand and recognized as harmful for the public life. This story also illustrates the hostility which Fr Nicholas met from Europeans, true, not from all of them, but from many, who helped to antagonize the Japanese to the preacher of Orthodoxy.
The simple people, merchants, craftsmen, did not display any special hatred, but rather met the foreigner with curiosity, who was almost twice the size of an average Japanese person (His Grace was very tall). Once, when he went into a store to buy something, the whole square filled with people, everyone was curious to see the “idzina.” Seeing, at last, Fr Nicholas, the crowd greeted him with deafening sounds, laughing good-naturedly at him. “Yes,” His Grace added, “there was a time when they looked at us; and now, when someone does, it’s even annoying.”
As we can see, the “bride” met the stranger in an unfriendly way, and this sparked a burning desire in the future Apostle of Japan to learn the history, literature, culture, religion, language and spirit of the people, in order to see to what extent would the hopes of illumining the country with the preaching of the Gospel be realized. The more he became acquainted with the land, the more he was convinced that the spiritual quest of the Japanese remained unsatisfied and that in a very short time, when the words of the Gospel would be spread there, they would very quickly sweep every corner of the Empire.
After 8 years, Fr Nicholas mastered the Japanese literary language to perfection, learned Japanese history and culture, knowing them better than many Japanese, as evidenced by his work Seoguny and Mikado, which is relevant to this day.
It was difficult for the young missionary to fight against paganism and how the Japanese related to foreigners who were Christians: “Imagine my disappointment when I arrived in Japan and encountered the exact opposite of what I had dreamt about! The Japanese then viewed foreigners as beasts, and Christianity as an evil sect, to which only notorious villains and sorcerers could belong.”
In order to kindle the spark of the Orthodox faith in the pagan hearts of his chosen rational flock, Fr Nicholas labored in his missionary endeavors diligently and with reverence, gently undergoing manifold temptations, trouble, hardships, grief and misfortune, completely denying himself, and humbly trusting in the mercy of God.
“Only the Lord knows,” he later recalled, “how much torment I had to endure those first years. All three enemies: the world, the flesh, and the devil, fell upon me with all their might… Much spiritual strength was needed, a great deepening of religious feeling, in order to overcome all this.” But experiencing the desperate situation of being a missionary, he was encouraged by the comforting words of the Savior: “he who endures to the end shall be saved” (Matthew 10:22), and so he zealously continued his work, laboring 14 hours a day, ignoring fatigue.
For 7 years did Fr Nicholas struggle, and on the 8th year of his stay in Japan, he tasted the sweetness of success in his apostolic labors, emerging victorious over the long-lasting temptations, torments, and loneliness. In the first years of his activities in the church at the Russian consulate in Hakodate, the humble hieromonk of Christ met a Shinto priest, the Samurai Sawabe, about whom he wrote in his report to the Holy Governing Synod, dated January 15, 1872, the following: “Sawabe lived a peaceful and serene life in paganism. As a priest of the most ancient shrine of his city, he enjoyed the respect of people and received a substantial income, knowing only contentment and happiness… He was proud of his country, of the faith of his ancestors, and therefore he despised foreigners and hated their faith, of which he had very flimsy notions.” Sawabe also hated Fr Nicholas, as someone who desired to spread treachery among the pagan Japanese and thus ruin the country, and he told him: “You, foreigners, must all be killed. You came here to destroy our land. And you, with your preaching, you do the most harm to Japan.”
“Do you know anything about my preaching?” asked Fr Nicholas.
“No, I don’t” answered Sawabe.
“Is it fair to judge, and moreover, to condemn someone without first having heard him? Is it fair to blaspheme that which one does not know? First listen in order to know, and then pass judgment. If it is bad, then chase me out of here. Then you will be fair.”
“Well, tell me,” snarled the Samurai, not concealing his anger.
And thus took place the first catechetical talk between the future saint and the pagan fanatic. The highly-instructive words of the missionary on God, sin, and the immortality of the soul deeply touched the embittered heart of the pagan priest. Sawabe left pensive, and began to come often to the Russian monk, just as Nicodemus, Christ’s secret disciple, came to listen to his Divine Master.
“How great was my joy,” said the archbishop afterwards, “when I began to notice how my companion listened intently to these new concepts, until then unknown to him, and how his ideas, until then proud, began to humbly bow before the startling truth! It was clear that God Himself guided his thoughts on the true path.”
Such were to be the foundations of the Orthodox preaching in Japan. After a while, Fr Nicholas gave Sawabe a copy of the New Testament, which the samurai read with great interest. “I could not read this book openly,” related later Sawabe in church, “and I wanted to read it. So I came up with the idea to read it at the time when I performed the service in my mia (Shinto temple). I would put the Gospel in place of my pagan missal, and would read it as I beat the drums.”
And so this Japanese Saul believed in Christ with all his heart, and took the firm decision to be “born of the water and of the Spirit” (John 3:5). Having been cleansed at the holy baptismal font and receiving the name Paul, in honor of the Apostle, who was especially revered by Fr Nicholas, Sawabe brought to the faith one of his friends, a certain Doctor Sakaia, in baptism John, who later became another beacon of Orthodoxy in Japan. Having been baptized, he immediately abandoned all his old habits, all his weaknesses, and from being a pagan, he became an ascetic struggler.
In what circumstances Fr Nicholas had to work, and how important Sawabe’s conversion was, can be judged from Fr Nicholas’ letters to Metropolitan Isidore, dated September 14, 1861:
“At this time, a priest of the ancient religion is visiting me in order to learn about our faith. If he does not grow cold or does not die prematurely (for the death penalty is prescribed for those who convert to Christianity), then we can expect great things from him. He already has plans for how he will preach Christianity… I expect to receive shortly from Beijing bibles and service books in Chinese. And perhaps soon two or three scholars will come from Ieddo, with whose help my priest will begin the translation of the sacred books from Chinese into Japanese.”
And on April 20, 1865:
“The priest who wanted to learn in secret from me the Christian faith is almost ready for baptism. I have told him the sacred history of the Old Testament. First he briefly wrote down at home everything which he had heard from me, and later he began to write down straight from my words; that way we have translated an abridged version of the Old Testament, compiled by Protopriest Bogoslovskii. Following minor amendments, this translation is ready to be printed… Instead of the history of the New Testament, we read the Gospel, in which I explained almost all of the teachings of our Church. This priest is looking forward to baptism and gives me great hope: he’s 32 years old, is impeccable behaved, is well-educated, intelligent, eloquent, and he is devoted to Christianity with all his soul. The sole purpose of his life now is to serve his fatherland by spreading the Christian faith, and I have to continually stop his requests for fear that he will lose his mind before he is able to accomplish something towards this purpose. In addition, this priest here in Hakodate is gathering a group with the best-educated and aspiring youths, so that through him I will be able to find others as well, selected friends of his, among whom one is studying about Christianity, and two others have already shown interest. My long-term plans are as follows: two of these friends will soon leave for Ieddo on business. Through them I hope to find a few educated and capable people who desire to get acquainted with Christianity (and there are many such people in Japan) and substitute them for my house servants, so that at least at home we will be able to speak freely about Christianity. In the meantime, I should receive from Russia a lithographic apparatus, and thus, if God blesses it, I will gradually prepare the preachers of Christianity as well as Christian books” (Letters of Fr Nicholas are quoted from Russian Church History of E. N. Sumarokova).
The main helpers of the Russian preacher were the newly-converted Paul Sawabe, John Sakai, and their friend, James Urano. The number of people who accepted Christianity and holy baptism grew more and more. “Signs that the illumination of Japan with the light of the Gospel was pleasing to God,” wrote the holy hierarch, “are becoming clearer every day… Every day the number of converts grows.”
By the end of the 1860’s, Fr Nicholas had converted 12 Japanese, and had made 25 catechumens, and this despite the prohibition of Japanese from accepting Christianity under pain of death, as well as Fr Nicholas’ strictness in allowing catechumens to be baptized. Thus, in 1860 the Orthodox Church of Japan was born.
Seeing that his work had begun, and believing that it would not stop until he had gone through the whole of Japan, Fr Nicholas set out for Russia to petition the opening of the Japanese Ecclesiastical Mission.
In 1870, the Holy Governing Synod opened the Russian Orthodox Mission in Jerusalem, assigning as head of the mission Fr Nicholas, and raising him to the rank of archimandrite. The Russian assistant of Fr Nicholas was Hieromonk Anatoly (Tikhai), a graduate of the Kiev Theological Academy who had formerly lived on Mount Athos, and who in the course of a single year studied the Japanese language so diligently that he was able to serve and preach in it.
But, despite all this, the mission, together with its head and preachers Paul Wasabe, John Sakai, James Urano, John Onu, who later became the first Japanese bishop, being consecrated in the 1940’s by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, and others, suffered persecution, poverty, sorrow and anguish. The funds afforded the mission from [Imperial] Russia were most insignificant, and the expenses were enormous. It was necessary to support the families of the people who had lost their jobs for having accepted Christianity, to receive and feed students who came from the provinces, and to afford a salary for the lay catechists. The community lived in a spirit of brotherhood, as they did in the early years of Christianity, sharing with one another their meager incomes: Paul Sawabe sold his samurai garb and sword; the doctor Sakai shared with everyone all the income he earned from his medical practice.
The betrayal of the traditional faith was a crime in Japan, and punishable by persecution, imprisonment, and even death. And so it was that Paul Sawabe, who had been raised to the rank of catechist, was granted soul-saving imprisonment for the glory of God; he was thrown in a dungeon together with 8 other Christians, and over a hundred people were summoned for questioning. Among them, many still had not been baptized. However, not one of them became an apostate; the enemies of Christ did not hear a single word of fear even from the women and small children. But the Lord sent consolation to his chosen one in the form of a new law on freedom of religion by the Japanese government, and the confessors were set free. The holy hierarch wrote about this:
“As soon as our imprisoned Christians were set free, twice as many people came to learn about Christianity. We heard that in many places there was a desire to listen to a Christian preacher. The Lord allowed us to experience persecution, but the approaching storm clouds passed us by quickly. And as the storm revives the edges of nature, so did the present temptations further inflame the hearts, until then not yet full of zeal, of the children of Christ. What a blessed time to work!”
In 1872, the mission moved to Tokyo. A theological seminary and a school for girls were opened at the mission, where future clergymen and Christian women could study. Fr Nicholas lived there very modestly:
“My quarters consisted of one room in the attic, which measured precisely 11 square feet. Subtract from this space the room for tables, chairs and a sofa, which I had in place of a bed; the room’s height was such that it was just barely possible for a man as tall as me to stand up straight. Just imagine how much air was actually in that room. And still, in it 20 people gathered to receive lessons on catechism. Don’t ask me how it was possible to sit down… Fortunately, the room had two windows perpendicular to each other. If the weather was breezy, it was pleasant. If the wind did not blow, it was unbearably stuffy…” (“Pravoslavnoje Obozrenije,” [Orthodox View], 1874)
In 1872, Fr Nicholas managed to acquire a plot of land which contained several buildings for the mission, in central Tokyo, on the high Surugaday Hill. Here they built a church, a school for 50 people, apartments for the missionaries and teachers, and an Orthodox school, which in 1878 became a seminary.
Fr. Nicholas believed it was necessary to serve the divine services in Japanese. The brother of Fr Anatoly, the choir conductor Jacob Tikhai, assembled a church choir consisting only of Japanese faithful, and compiled the musical parts for the usual singing of the vigil, Divine Liturgy, and the various services of need.
Neither the head of the mission, nor Fr Anatoly, could travel inland, according to Japanese law. This made it necessary to have Japanese clergy. In 1874, a meeting of all catechists was held, presided by Fr Nicholas, where it was decided to ordain the best catechist, Paul Sawabe, to the priesthood, and his fellow struggler, John Sakai, to the deaconate. Addressing the congregation, Paul Sawabe said:
“I, an unworthy and sinful servant, was chosen for ordination. But, considering the sacred ministry to be very difficult, and for several other reasons, I refused the elevation to the priestly order. However, I did not receive permission from the Church to do this. To this date I am perplexed, and cannot find the words. There is only one thing I can say, and that is, all of us have given ourselves completely to the service of the Church and the guidance of our spiritual father. Prompted by his exhortations, I found it my duty to accept the demands of the Church, and with reverence I obey its orders…”
On July 12, 1875, they were both ordained by his Grace Paul, Bishop of Kamchatka.
The successful spreading of the faith led Fr Nicholas to request from the Holy Ruling Synod the establishment of an episcopal see in Japan. On March 17, 1880, the Holy Synod decided to consecrate Archimandrite Nicholas as Bishop of Revel’, a vicar of the diocese of Riga, and to appoint him to the land “of the rising sun.” On March 30 of that year, at the St Alexander Nevsky Lavra, the consecration of the elected and nominated Archimandrite Nicholas took place, being performed by the Metropolitans of three major sees: Isidore of St Petersburg, Philaret of Kiev, and Macarius of Moscow, as well as other hierarchs of the Russian Church.
Upon his return to Japan, Bishop Nicholas began to build the Tokyo Resurrection Cathedral. The cathedral was erected thanks to the voluntary contributions of Russians and Japanese alike. Admiring the cathedral’s magnificence, Bishop Nicholas wrote:
“The temple is positively the most remarkable building in the Japanese capital, and its fame has spread throughout Europe and America even before its completion, and which now, upon its completion, justly attracts the attention, curiosity, and wonder of all who have been to Tokyo.”
The solemn consecration of the cathedral took place on February 1st, 1891. The choir, under the direction of James Tikhai, sang in Japanese.
In this crowning period of his life and work, Bishop Nicholas was engaged in the teaching of theological subjects, the translation of sacred and theological books, initiated by him while still in Hakodate, tireless administrative affairs, supervising churches and communities and calling Church council meetings for the maintenance of the clergy and flock of the young Japanese Church.
The most interesting episodes in the life of the Church were its annual council meetings, which usually took place at the majestic Tokyo Cathedral of Christ’s Resurrection. At these councils were discussed ecclesiastical and missionary affairs, and the election of candidates to the deaconate and priesthood took place. The holy hierarch often visited his flock, performing the divine services, preaching, visiting the homes of the faithful, and baptizing converts.
The mission also published service books in Japanese and magazines with spiritual and moral topics. The archbishop’s labors for the translation of the service books were enormous, which he was engaged in since his arrival in Japan until his deathbed, where he finished the translation of the kneeling prayers read at Great Vespers on the day of Pentecost. The Bible was translated from the Slavonic text, as accurately as possible, and Vladyka collated it with the Greek, Latin, and English texts. Bishop Nicholas also compiled a Russian-Japanese dictionary, and a dictionary of theological terms, which previously did not exist in the Japanese language. That way, God was explained as a Being not only as being absolute, but also as being personal; Paradise was explained instead of Nirvana, as well as the Orthodox understanding of free will, and many other terms. Vladyka Nicholas did for the Japanese the same which SS Cyril and Methodius had done for the Slavs; he composed a Christian language for them, and tried to raise them to understand the language of Gospel and the divine services.
Conflict was brewing between Russia and Japan. On the night of January 26 to 27, 1904, hostilities broke out between the two countries, breaking the peaceful state of Vladyka’s missionary labors. As a true shepherd of his flock, Bishop Nicholas did not leave Japan in the terrible years of war, and remained together with his flock.
“The Japanese Church must not be left without a bishop, and therefore I am staying here,” read his report to the Holy Governing Synod. Since the beginning of the war, the mission, its head, and all Japanese Orthodox suffered violent attacks of malice, hatred, and slander. Persistent calls for the destruction of the Orthodox cathedral were heard. As acknowledged by the Japanese themselves, the mission and its cathedral survived only because the Russian side was losing. From the first days of the war, Vladyka Nicholas blessed his flock to pray so that victory would be granted to the Japanese people, and he, as a true patriot of his homeland, Russia, deprived himself of participation in the common worship. Now all of his attention turned to the aid of the Russian prisoners of war: he supplied them with books, and he sent priests to visit them. When the war was over, he was engaged in building graves for the Russian soldiers who died in captivity.
Tsar Nicholas II understood and appreciated the labors of the Japanese hierarch. After the war was over, the Tsar wrote to him on October 9, 1905:
“You have shown to all of us how the Orthodox Church of Christ is alien to all worldly dominion and every tribal animosity, that She equally embraces with love all tribes and peoples. During the difficult time of war, when the weapons of combat broke the peaceful relations between peoples and rulers, you, fulfilling Christ’s covenant, did not leave the flock entrusted to you, and the grace of love and faith gave you strength to withstand the test of fire, and in the midst of war and strife, to keep the world of faith and love in the Church erected through your labors…”
It was also thanks to the moral influence of the saint that friendly relations between the two countries were soon reestablished and continued until the year 1917. As a reward for his services to the Orthodox Church, the Holy Ruling Synod elevated bishop Nicholas to the rank of archbishop.
Meanwhile, the life of the saint was coming to an end. In 1908, bishop Sergius (Tikhomirov) arrived in Japan in order to assist the holy hierarch, and Vladyka began to hand over to him all ecclesiastical affairs (Bishop Sergius was elevated to the rank of Metropolitan by the Holy Ruling Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church presided by Metropolitan Sergius [Stragorodsky] in 1931 for restoring the Cathedral of the Resurrection, which had suffered damages due to an earthquake. It is interesting to note that Patriarch Sergius, while he was still an archimandrite, was also an assistant of Archbishop Nicholas’ and wrote many interesting recollections about him). The commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Archbishop Nicholas’ stay in Japan was solemnly celebrated; however, after this, he quickly began to fade. The last time he served the Divine Liturgy was on the first day of Christmas.
On February 2 he found the strength to discuss with Bishop Sergius the future of the mission (at that time, the number of Orthodox Japanese had reached 33,000 people). Usually the choir rehearsals were held in a room adjacent to the saint’s cell, but on that day, so as to not disturb the dying man, the singers went somewhere else. Vladyka asked them to come back and sing his favorite hymn “By the Rivers of Babylon.”
Vladyka passed away on February 3, 1912, during the reading of the prayers for the departure of the soul from the body. The body of the saint was taken to the church of the Holy Cross. Japanese Orthodox faithful of all ages and walks of life, even nursing mothers and their children, filled the church. The reading of the Gospel was interrupted only by pannikhidas until the funeral itself. Tens of thousands of people, Orthodox and heterodox alike, accompanied the coffin to the Yanaki cemetery. The Emperor of Japan sent a wreath. Such was the way the people of Japan bid farewell to their Apostle.
Compiled by Archpriest Serafim Gan
Translated by Priest Sergio Silva