When Jesus walked in Japan

While the thoughts of the world's Christians turn to events in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago, the inhabitants of a little village a few hours' drive from Tokyo prefer another version of the Greatest Story Ever Told. David McNeill reports

The village of Shingo nestles in a mountainous patch of pine forests, rice paddies and apple trees a six-hour drive from Tokyo. Known for its garlic ice-cream, and the unusually rapid flight of its young to nearby cities, it seems like an odd final resting place for the Christian Messiah.

The village of Shingo nestles in a mountainous patch of pine forests, rice paddies and apple trees a six-hour drive from Tokyo. Known for its garlic ice-cream, and the unusually rapid flight of its young to nearby cities, it seems like an odd final resting place for the Christian Messiah.

In the Bible version of The Greatest Story Ever Told, Jesus Christ was crucified at Calvary and rose from the dead three days later to save mankind from sin. Not so, says local legend in Shingo; that was his brother Isukuri. In reality, Christ escaped the clutches of the Romans, fled across land carrying his brother's severed ear and a lock of hair from the Virgin Mary and settled down to life in exile in the snowy isolation of Northern Japan.

Here he married a woman called Miyuko, fathered three daughters and died at the age of 106. Two wooden crosses outside the village mark the graves of the brothers from Galilee and a museum makes the case that the man we call Jesus Christ the carpenter was known around these parts as garlic farmer Daitenku Taro Jurai.

Difficult to believe, perhaps, that a man in sandals from the Middle East found his way across Siberia, via Vladivostok, to this small corner of the world, but the villagers claim he had practice. A sign beside the grave reads: "When Jesus Christ was 21 years old he came to Japan to pursue knowledge of divinity for 12 years." After over a decade of study somewhere near Mount Fuji and by this time fluent in Japanese, he returned to Judea aged 33 but his teachings were rejected and he was arrested. His brother took his place on the cross and Daitenku began the second 10,000-mile trek back to his alma mater.

It all sounds a bit hard to swallow, even for a religion that gave us the Virgin Birth, the miracle of the loaves and fishes, and the Resurrection, but the case for a Japanese Jesus is made forcefully in the Shingo museum and enriched by local lore. The museum says the old village name - Herai - sounds more Hebrew than Japanese and notes odd similarities between local culture and the songs and language of the Middle East, including a mantra chanted for generations in Shingo which it claims, bears no resemblance to Japanese and may be an ancient Hebrew-Egyptian riddle.

Although the mantra, which goes "Na-Nee-Ya-Do-Ya-Ra", sounds more like a nursery rhyme than the missing link between the Mesopotamia and the Far East, the museum claims it can be traced to Hebrew texts from the first century. A website run by a supporter of the cult group, Christ in Japan, sniffs that journalists worldwide have ridiculed the song and the "efforts of simple people of the village to preserve tradition" but that they will remain defiant. "People from Herai will keep singing The Song, and no one on Earth, not even the Pope, can stop them."

One villager, Yoshiteru Ogasawara, does not feel quite so strongly about the song, but says: "There were always strange customs here and people didn't know how to explain them." For generations, he claims, children were blessed with a black sign of the cross on their foreheads, "even though it is not a Christian place at all". Other villagers have claimed newborn babies were draped in clothes marked with the Star of David. "Every now and then a blue-eyed baby is born and some people say that these children are the descendants of the original settler," says Mr Ogasawara. "Then we heard about these ancient scrolls that said Jesus had come to Japan, and we put everything together."

The documents, said to be written in archaic Japanese, were discovered in the hands of a Shinto priest outside Tokyo in 1935 and were claimed as Christ's last will and testament, dictated as he neared death in the village. The originals were destroyed during the war, but a copy of the scrolls sits in a glass case in the Shingo museum, brought to the village by Banzan Toya, a nationalist historian who said they referred to two burial mounds that had been in the hands of a local garlic-farming family called Sawaguchi for generations.

The key to deciphering the mystery lies in the cultural climate of the time. In 1935, Japan was dominated by an extreme, militaristic ideology. Like Germany in the 1930s, much of Japan's finest brainpower was expended in an effort to prove racial and cultural superiority over the hordes in Asia, leading this almost exclusively Shinto and Buddhist country up some odd intellectual avenues. It was during this period that another document was uncovered, "proving" Moses had come to Japan and been presented with the Ten Commandments, and the Star of David, by the Emperor.

Banzan Toya became a one-man industry in this effort to place Imperial Japan at the centre of the world's great religions. The day after he found the "Tomb of Christ" in Terai, he also "stumbled" on the remains of one of Japan's seven ancient pyramids nearby, which, he claimed, predated the Egyptian version. Of the pyramids today, there is little trace except for a mound of stones close to the village bus stop. A sign says they collapsed during the 19th century.

It does not sound much of a threat to 2,000 years of Christian mythology and the beliefs of millions worldwide who have been raised thinking it was Jesus up there on the cross, even though the story neatly explains his "lost years" before he began preaching the gospel. But none of this has stopped more than 30,000 people from visiting Shingo's museum annually, or from participating in the Christ Festival in May, with a motley crew of serious pilgrims, pagans and the curious mix of Shinto, Buddhist and Christian rites. Nor has it destroyed the belief that something out of the ordinary happened in this village.

While Mr Ogasawara says he does not believe Christ is actually buried here, he thinks there is more to the story than tourist-friendly hokum. "The tomb has been there for generations and it was said to contain someone very important, although nobody knew who. It could have been a foreign pilgrim or teacher." Modern independent scholars have waded into the debate, claiming the origins of the myth may be in an early Middle Eastern diaspora, a claim given apparent weight by the unveiling of a plaque this year by the Israeli Ambassador in Japan, commemorating the friendship between the village and the city of Jerusalem.

Gil Haskel, at the Israeli Embassy in Tokyo says it is possible there was migration of Hebrew tribes from West to East, and into Japan via Russia, although the embassy considers it unlikely, and the plaque is simply "a symbol of friendship rather than an endorsement of the Jesus claims". If true, would this entitle the villagers to the right of return to Israel? "There would need to be very solid proof, but yes, like every Jew they would be entitled to come to Israel," says Mr Haskel. "There are other claims of this sort. You should check out the Tomb of Moses in Ishikawa Prefecture [on Japan's West coast]. It claims Moses came to Japan, spoke to a local girl and died here in Japan."

Some prefer to see Shingo as another example of the Japanese genius for making things their own. Professor Mark Mullins of Sophia University in Tokyo, who has written a book about religions in Japan, said: "The story shows how people here use and interpret Christianity to make sense of it, rather than simply mimicking it. It's not unique to Japan but part of the cultural reinterpretation of Christianity." He cites another cult near Kyoto called The Holy Ecclesia of Jesus, an artful blend of Western and Japanese traditions, which runs the Maria healing spring, where pilgrims go for spiritual comfort in a hot spring watched over by a statue of the Virgin Mary.

Japan's genius for absorbing all things foreign and making them its own can be seen in the run-up to Christmas. The appearance of frosted pine trees, Santa and a riot of tinsel, glitter and fairy lights might make it look like the West's favourite season, but do not be fooled. This is an example of what happens when you graft an essentially Western religious festival onto a rich Eastern country, where less than 1 per cent of the population is Christian.

Japanese chocolate makers, jewellers and hoteliers have re-branded Christmas into a kind of Valentine's Day with bells on. Hyped by television, which features tales of romantic alliances transformed by the "miracle" of Christmas, this is now the time of the year when it is uncool to be without a date. Today's younger set knows the season only as an opportunity to shop, eat and - for many - lose their virginity. Come Christmas Eve, many of Japan's hotels will be packed with fornicating couples, which may not be what Jesus of Shingo had in mind when he left his little brother hanging on the cross.

The mystery of the Tomb of Christ might be cleared up if the locals would allow researchers to dig around the graves. "It is considered a bad thing to do, so they won't allow it," says Mr Ogasawara. As evening falls on the crosses of the doppelganger deities, teenagers Hayato Itabashi and Yui Takahashi have come to pay their respects. "I'm not religious at all, but think it's true," says Yui. "And even if it isn't, it's a nice atmosphere at Christmas." Does he really think it likely that Christ really came this far, whether on foot or on a donkey? Hayato ponders the question for some time. "I dunno," he finally says. "Stranger things have happened."

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