Learning From an Empty Nest

Learning from an Empty Nest 

Miho Ochiai Ealy

empty nest

March 11th marked the day of a massive earthquake that devastated northeastern Japan. Two years have passed since the devastating earthquake and tsunami took so many lives. I lost friends in this disaster whom I knew through church. There are a number of small Orthodox Christian communities in the devastated areas. Most church buildings survived, but each community’s path to recovery is extremely thorny. Many people, especially younger generations, left their hometowns after the earthquake due to lack of employment and uncertainty of the future.

Most churches in the northern Japan were established by Japanese Orthodox Christians who learned about the Orthodox faith directly from St. Nikolai of Japan. Indeed, he planted many seeds of the Orthodox faith in both urban and rural areas. However, instead of discussing the venerable man’s legacy, I would like to explore how St. Nikolai’s effort for missionary work for the Orthodox Christian communities in Japan has shaped our Church today.


Bishop Ivan Kasatkin, later known as St Nikolai

alljapancouncilA brief history of the Orthodox Church in Japan (OCJ) offers insight of missionary work in the Orthodox Christian context. The first Orthodox church was founded in Hakodate, Japan by Russians in the late nineteenth century. The first Russian Orthodox priest was attached to the Russian consulate, but he had to return to Russia due to an illness soon after his arrival. The Consul, Iosif Goshkevich, was hoping to recruit a priest who would be willing to work in the unfamiliar land of Japan. Goshkevish, himself a seminary graduate, also saw a potential for spreading Orthodoxy in Japan, and believed that one day the Orthodox faith would resonate with Japanese souls. Another seminarian, the young Ivan Kasatkin (later St. Nikolai), felt a strong passion for going to this unknown land from the moment he learned that Hakodate was in need of a priest. He was compelled to discover a non-Christian country and its people through his own eyes. He dedicated all his available time to study every possible aspect of Japanese culture, in the hope of future opportunity for missionary work. By the time the Japanese government allowed its people to exercise the freedom of religion (ending a period of Christian prohibition in Japan), Nikolai had a strong command in Japanese and was able to communicate with people on a deep, sincere level.  Through St Nikolai’s efforts, many people converted to Orthodoxy. At the end of the nineteenth century, the population of Japanese Orthodox grew to over 10,000 faithful.

Nikolai’s primary focus during his missionary work was educating the faithful. Part of this ministry involved the translation of Orthodox texts, especially liturgical books, into Japanese. From the very beginning, he was convinced that the use of the vernacular language for services was essential. Liturgy in Japanese by Japanese clergy and a Japanese choir was the ultimate goal in Nikolai’s mind. He always sought musically gifted people in every Orthodox community and encouraged them to learn to play musical instruments, so that they could educate others in music, in order to form a choir. This essential formation of the faith in a non-Orthodox culture should sound familiar to North Americans, as missionary efforts on the American continent made early use of local languages for faith and worship.

Missionary work is rewarding, but very stressful. And, typical of most missionary experiences, not all of St Nikolai’s efforts yielded positive results. His life was full of joys and disappointments (whose life is not?!), and in fact, this saint suffered a lot. In his diary, St. Nikolai often complains about how difficult it was to recruit capable, educated, dedicated and mission-oriented people from Russia.[1] At times St. Nikolai expressed a bitter opinion of most Russians – both clergy and laypeople – who came to work with him in Japan. Most Russians lacked the willingness to learn Japanese culture and likewise lacked the patience to stay in Japan. He also complained how stubborn Japanese people were, lamenting the fact that his church had factions among Japanese clergy as well as financial disputes among certain individuals. His diary reveals so many unpleasant incidents, and it is likely that, without writing what was going through his mind, St Nikolai would not have his sanity. Nikolai used all his energy to do missionary work in Japan. But he was able to steer through the hardships, and spread the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.

So what has become of the Orthodox Church of Japan (OCJ) since Nikolai died?

The official history of the OCJ is easily found in literature and on websites. However, only a few people actually know what the OCJ is like in this contemporary era. I cannot speak for everyone, but I will tell you my own experience as a cradle Japanese Orthodox Christian, which I think is similar to the experience of many who grew up Orthodox. Growing up in Hakodate, all I heard was the legacy of St. Nikolai. I must admit that I have very limited memory of learning about Christ and his Church. It’s a harsh generalization, but many people in my church seemed to be a bit disinterested in what Christianity really meant. They were very nice and polite. They were always on time for church. They cared about the finances of the church. They had good intentions, and even lived “Christian” lives by social standards, but they showed limited consideration for Christ himself.

I have visited many Orthodox communities throughout Japan, and most places seemed to have this similar feel – this subtle disconnect from our Lord, or at least no sense of his daily presence. Meanwhile, St. Nikolai has become almost like a local deity. Some people can tell me more about St Nikolai’s vita than they can tell me about the Gospels. You may have had similar experiences growing up in the Church. It’s easy to lose sight of Christ in the richness of our Faith and heritage.

This is a sobering, and somewhat depressing observation. It surely wasn’t St Nikolai’s aim to have his own personality eclipse that of the Lord. Without Christ, the church is an empty nest. Yet the empty nest has been fostered for many years, and now it has become fragile ground for the Orthodox Christians in Japan. Frankly speaking, Orthodoxy in Japan sounds exotic, but it really has lost much substance – and its relevance – as a Christian church.

japangospel - Copy

The Gospel, “preached to every creature under heaven,” seen here in Japanese

When we speak of missionary work, we tend to think of the immediate result. How many people converted and are baptized? How many churches are built?  How many liturgical books have been translated into the vernacular language? These are all good goals. But we need to step back and think what is really important. What has happened to the churches in Japan sets a sad, but very important example to us.

This is a hard reality, but it is the truth.  I have no desire to paint a negative picture of the churches in Japan. But it is important to expose the reality of the church established by an extremely popular missionary. Nikolai established a very vibrant and large community in his time, but now the Japanese Church has dwindled to a mere fraction of what it once was. This is a warning for all Orthodox Christians in America, and even a microcosm for our own Churches. We need to remember our responsibility as Orthodox Christians in a non-Orthodox land: we must have a vision for the future…a vision that is centered around our Lord Jesus Christ. What lasting impact can any of us make as individuals? Instead, we must make a conscious effort to cultivate the faith as a community, and not merely to hold onto legacies of certain individuals.

The final chapter on the Orthodox Church in Japan has yet to be written. And although the nest may seem empty now, this is not an irreversible situation. Neither can I predict the future or speak to how God will establish His Kingdom. However, if we respond to the lessons of our past, history can be an excellent teacher. It is essential for all of us to learn from the past – from mistakes and unintended consequences – so that we and the generations after us may “continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel which [we] heard, which has been preached to every creature under heaven” (Col 1:23).


[1] Nakamura, Kennosuke, trans., Senkyoshi Nikolai no Zennikki (The diary of St. Nikolai), Tokyo: Kyobunkan, 2007.