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Christ’s tomb maintained by Japanese yoghurt profits

An off-topic post, but this story is too good to pass up. Today’s (London) Times is a bit of a mess. Its leader column, trying to say something witty about our comedy deputy prime minister having an afternoon playing croquet with his aides (why that’s a resignation issue is beyond me – it’s not as if he was playing golf), demonstrates its ignorance of the game; while a badly written article about excessive alcohol consumption in Padua, Italy, suggests that Italian winemakers have come up with a vicious variety of sparkling wine which is 50 percent proof. However, you can forgive the editor completely (even Homer nods), because there is this gem of an article, which made me wonder if it was April 1st.

The Times, London, May 29, 2006

Japan is proud home of Christ’s tomb

From Leo Lewis in Shingo Village

IN A paddy-lined valley in the far north of Japan is a municipal signpost inscribed: “Tomb of Christ: next left.”

Follow the winding path up into the forest and there, sure enough, is a simple mound with a large wooden cross labelled as the grave of Jesus. Nearby is a tomb commemorating Isukiri, Christ’s brother, adorned with a plastic poinsettia Christmas wreath.

For two millennia the farming village of Shingo claims to have protected a tradition that Jesus spent most of his life in Japan. The village is the home of Sajiro Sawaguchi, a man in his eighties who claims to be a direct descendant of Jesus and whose family has always owned the land in which it is said that Christ is buried.

Mr Sawaguchi emerged as Jesus’s heir only in 1935, when a priest in Ibaraki discovered a document in ancient Japanese purporting to be Christ’s will. This document supposedly identifies Shingo as the location of the tombs of Jesus and Isukiri. The claim is widely believed. About 40,000 Japanese visit the site every year. Two years ago it was presented with a plaque by Jerusalem, and next Sunday it will host the annual Christ festival of traditional Japanese dance.

According to the account in the Christ Museum next to the tombs, Christ arrived in Japan at the age of 21 and learnt Japanese before returning to Judaea 12 years later to engage in his mission and preach about the “holy land of Japan”. The official Shingo history is that Jesus’s place on the Cross was “casually” taken by his brother, leaving Christ free to return to Japan. On his return he fell in love with Miyuko, a local girl, and lived happily with his family among the rice fields until dying aged 106.

Norihide Nagano, the straight-faced curator of the tombs, says that the theory that the grave does contain the remains of Jesus is supported by several pieces of evidence. There is the local tradition, dating back hundreds of years, of drawing a charcoal cross on babies’ heads; and ancient kimonos made in the area incorporated a Star of David.

The upkeep of the site is paid for out of the profits of a local yoghurt factory, and Mr Nagano agrees that The Da Vinci Code will probably boost Shingo’s coffers. The village shop is already doing a roaring trade in Christ-branded saké. “Did you enjoy the museum?” asks Mr Nagano. “If you did, I recommend you go to Ishikawa district. They have the tomb of Moses there.”

Update 21 Oct 2006: Just spotted that the BBC also picked up on this story:

The Japanese Jesus trail
By Duncan Bartlett
BBC News, Japan

Japanese Jesus ceremonyA Japanese legend claims that Jesus escaped Jerusalem and made his way to Aomori in Japan where he became a rice farmer. Christians say the story is nonsense. However, a monument there known as the Grave of Christ attracts curious visitors from all over the world.

To reach the Grave of Christ or Kristo no Hakka as it is known locally, you need to head deep into the northern countryside of Japan, a place of paddy fields and apple orchards.

Halfway up a remote mountain surrounded by a thicket of bamboo lies a mound of bare earth marked with a large wooden cross.

Most visitors peer at the grave curiously and pose in front of the cross for a photograph before heading off for apple ice cream at the nearby cafe.

But some pilgrims leave coins in front of the grave in thanks for answered prayers.

The cross is a confusing symbol because according to the local legend, Jesus did not die at Calvary.

His place was taken by one of his brothers, who for some reason is now buried by his side in Japan.

The story goes that after escaping Jerusalem, Jesus made his way across Russia and Siberia to Aomori in the far north of Japan where he became a rice farmer, married, had a family and died peacefully at the age of 114.

A villager hinted that I might be able to meet one of Jesus’ descendents – a Mr Sajiro Sawaguchi, who is now in his 80s.

His family owns the land on which the grave stands and his house is at the foot of the mountain.

I set off to find him but was told he was too ill to speak to me.

Jesus’ descendant?

However, his grandson Junichiro Sawaguchi did agree to talk. Was I about to meet someone with a true touch of the divine?

The tubby middle-aged gentleman in glasses who spoke to me did not seem particularly Messianic.

“Actually, my family are Buddhists not Christians,” said Mr Sawaguchi.

“And I don’t claim to be a descendent of Jesus although I know some people have said my grandfather is connected to the legend. However, when I was a young child, my mother drew the sign of a cross upon my forehead as a symbol of good fortune,” he told me.

Certainly the cross has brought good fortune to the villagers, who make money from the visitors and the media who seek out the grave.

It has become the region’s only internationally recognised tourist attraction.

However the legend of Jesus the rice farmer does not stretch back very far. It only began in the 1930s with the discovery of what were claimed to be ancient Hebrew documents detailing Jesus’ life and death in Japan.

Those documents have now mysteriously disappeared and the grave has never been excavated. I asked a village official, Masaoki Sato, if he realised that the grave might cause offence to Christians who believe in Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.

“We’re not saying that the story is true or what is written in the Bible is wrong,” he politely explained. “All we are saying is that this is a very interesting old legend. It’s up to the people who come here to decide how they interpret it.”

Ritual and tradition

Many Japanese find it hard to make sense of Christianity. Schools are banned from teaching any religion and people are generally more interested in ritual and tradition than theology.

However, Christian-style weddings are enormously popular. They are often held in hotels which have special chapels, complete with crosses and stained glass windows.

Foreign students are sometimes hired to play the part of the priest, although the whole event has no official sanction from any church.

Churchy-looking buildings have other entertainment purposes too.

In the city of Nagoya, I went to a theme restaurant where diners could choose either to have dinner in the chapel, seated on pews and surrounded by paintings of Jesus and the saints, or on the floor below, which is decorated like a prison, complete with metal bars around each table.

Only 1% of Japan is officially Christian. However, there are some lively churches, such as the New Life Ministry in Tokyo.

When I arrived on Sunday afternoon it was packed with young worshippers, clapping along to songs of praise and raising their hands in joy.

I met Pastor Shintaro Watanabe, who was dressed in a floral Hawaiian shirt and had an almost permanent smile on his face.

Wasn’t he shocked by the legend of Jesus’ grave? He laughed and said it was just a silly story which caused him no particular offence.

“I suppose that many Japanese people feel respect for Jesus and the Bible,” said the pastor. “The legend ties in with that. Perhaps it shows that people are looking to make a connection with Jesus in some way.”

His church is trying to satisfy that spiritual curiosity, just as countless missionaries to Japan have attempted before.

Yet many Christians have discovered that the Japanese view of religion can be rather baffling – as the grave of Christ the rice farmer reveals.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 9 September, 2006 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4.

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