By Beatriz Esquivel
For most people who grew up in countries with a Christian majority, the story of Jesus’ life ends with his resurrection and rising to heaven. However, for thousands of people in Japan, that was not the case.
This Japanese theory narrates the story of one Daitenku Taro Jurai, better known as Jesus Christ, who is said to have arrived in Japan with the intention of studying theology when he was 21 years old. During his stay, he learned Japan’s customs, as well as its language, under the tutelage of a great master who lived near Mount Fuji. Thus, he lived until he was 33 years old—that is, during the period of his life not included in the New Testament—, point at which he decided to return to Judea.
Anyone would think that his crucifixion and resurrection came next. But that’s not what this strange theory claims. Instead, Daitenku managed to elude his Roman pursuers, and the person who ended up dying nailed to the cross was Isukiri, his younger brother. Isukiri’s story is practically non-existent, so his motivation for taking his brother’s place remains a mystery, as does the details of his earlier life.
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Jesus’ life as Daitenku is far more fleshed out. For instance, it is said that he ran away into exile to Japan in order to escape the Roman regime, carrying with him little more than his brother’s ears and a lock of Mary’s hair. He supposedly married a woman named Miyuko, with whom he had three daughters, and dedicated the rest of his life to a peaceful existence, growing garlic in a small farm.
So he lived until he was 106 years old. After Daitenku died, his body was left exposed in a hill for four years, according to custom, before his bones were buried. Thousands of visitors consider Jesus’ burial site a sacred place as they travel for many miles to the Shingo region in order to pay their respects.
In addition to this seemingly crazy theory, there are also people in Japan who claim to de descendants of Jesus, even though they practice Buddhism and don’t celebrate even Christmas, their supposed ancestor’s birthday (of course, I take it none of us actually celebrate the birthdays of our own ancestors, so there’s that). The museum erected in Shingo to honor Daitenku’s presence is dedicated not only to Jesus’ life, but also tells the story of how Shingo came to be a safe haven for one of the lost tribes of Israel.
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In spite of the putative evidence showcased in the museum for this particular narrative of the Jesus story—such as some texts purported to be Jesus’ final testament—, some scholars can explain this cultural phenomenon as a feature of the very core of Japanese society. Richard Fox Young, professor of religious history at the Princeton Theological Seminary, explains:
“[Japanese culture finds] spiritual fulfillment in being eclectic. That is, you can have it all: A feeling of closeness—to Jesus and Buddha and many, many other divine figures—without any of the obligations that come from a more singular religious orientation.”
And indeed, it’s common to find foreign influence mixed with local folklore in Japanese culture—a relatively curious fact given the fact Japan remained closed off to the rest of the world for centuries, to the point where Christians themselves were persecuted there a while ago.
Though there’s no convincing evidence to support the tale of Daitenku, its fame has allowed Shingo to thrive. And the story isn’t actually harming anyone, so there’s that.
Translated by Oliver G. Alvar