Bach in Japan

Yuko Maruyama, a Japanese organist working in Minneapolis, was once a devout Buddhist. Now she is a Christian thanks to the music of J. S. Bach. “Bach introduced me to God, Jesus and Christianity,” she told Metro Lutheran, a Twin Cities monthly. “When I play a fugue, I can feel Bach talking to God.” Masashi Masuda, a Jesuit priest, came to faith in almost the same way: “Listening to Bach's Goldberg Variations first aroused my interest in Christianity.” Today Masuda teaches theology at Tokyo's Sophia University.

But why would the most abstract works of an 18th-century German composer guide Asian people to Christ? Charles Ford, a mathematics professor in St. Louis, suggests that this is because Bach's music reflects the perfect beauty of created order to which the Japanese mind is receptive. “Bach has had the same effect on me, a Western scientist,” explained Ford. Henry Gerike, organist and choirmaster at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, agrees: “The fugue is the best way God has given us to enjoy his creation. … But of course Bach's most significant message to us is the Gospel.” Gerike echoes Swedish archbishop Nathan Söderblom (1866-1931), who famously called Bach's cantatas “the fifth Gospel.”

Rev. Robert Bergt, musical director of Concordia's Bach at the Sem concert series, has first-hand experience with the missionary lure of Bach's cantatas in Tokyo. He used to be the chief conductor of Musashino Music Academy's three orchestras. Bach's compositions brought his musicians, audiences, and students into contact with the Word of God, he said. “Some of these people would then in private declare themselves as 'closet Christians,'” Bergt related in an interview. “This happened to me at least 15 times. And one of them I eventually baptized myself.” While only one percent of Japan's population of 128 million is officially Christian, Bergt estimated that the real figure could be three times as high if one includes secret believers.

After two failed attempts to popularize Bach's music in Japan since the late 19th century, a veritable Bach boom has been sweeping that country for the last 16 years. Its driving force is organist Masaaki Suzuki, founder and conductor of the Bach Collegium Japan that has spawned hundreds of similar societies throughout the country.

During Holy Week, Suzuki's performances of the St. Matthew Passion are always sold out, although tickets cost more than $600. After each concert, members of the audience crowd Suzuki on the podium asking him about the Christian concept of hope and about death, a topic normally taboo in polite Japanese society. “I am spreading Bach's message, which is a biblical one,” Suzuki told me.

But why do Bach's melodies and harmonies, so alien to the Asian ear, appeal to the Japanese? Musicologists attribute this to Francis Xavier and other Jesuit missionaries, who introduced Gregorian chant into Japan and built organs from bamboo pipes 400 years ago. Though Christianity was soon squashed, elements of its music infiltrated traditional folk song.

Four centuries later, this curious fact is now enabling tens of thousands of Japanese to come to Christ via Bach. The surprising success of this music in evangelizing one of the most secular nations on earth has led Lutheran theologian Yoshikazu Tokuzen to call Bach a “vehicle of the Holy Spirit.”

By Uwe Simon-Netto

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #95 in 2007]

Uwe Siemon-Netto, a veteran foreign correspondent from Germany and Lutheran lay theologian, is scholar-in-residence at Concordia Seminary. You can learn more about Masaaki Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan by visiting their website, http://
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