Shingo - A signpost on a snowy village street points the way. After a long
journey, the "Tomb of Jesus" is close by. However, this is not the Middle East,
but Shingo, a village in Aomori, northern Japan.
The village, about seven hours by road north of Tokyo, attracts visitors not
only with local delicacies such as garlic-flavoured ice cream, but also a
According to Shingo local lore, Jesus did not die after being crucified on
Calvary near Jerusalem, but 10 000 kilometres further east, in Japan.
And this is how these amazing events came to pass: "At age 21, Jesus came to
Japan," says village official Norihide Nagano. This information was found on a
scroll found in 1935 in far-away Ibaraki province, together with Jesus's "last
will and testament", which says that he spent 12 years in Japan pursuing
religious studies and also learning the language.
Aged 33, Jesus returned to Judea, where he was to be crucified. Instead, his
brother Isukiri took his place on the cross while Jesus fled. Carrying a lock of
hair from the Virgin Mary and accompanied by several disciples, he returned to
Japan via Siberia and Alaska.
"And in the end he returned to this village, married a Japanese woman named
Miyuko, had three daughters and lived to the age of 106 years," Nagano says,
pointing out two earth mounds topped by large wooden crosses.
One of them was Jesus's grave, the other was dedicated to his brother, he
explains. But the tombs have never been investigated, he says. Anyway, that
would not be possible without the approval of Sawaguchi from next door. As one
of Jesus' descendants, he owns the graves.
While Sawaguchi declines to show himself, villagers say his grandfather had been
taller than the average Japanese. His nose had also been longer and he even had
Also, isn't it astounding that locals used to paint a cross on the forehead of
newborns, long before villagers were told in 1935 about the documents concerning
Something equally exciting was also found near the village - pyramids, older
than the ones in Egypt. It is just a little disappointing that none of the
stones found today looks even remotely like a pyramid; they all collapsed in the
19th century, locals say.
Back then, Shingo was still called Herai - which also sounds a bit Hebrew,
Nagono says, while showing off a small museum near the tombs.
"I don't know myself if I should believe that this is Jesus's tomb," Nagano
admits, but at least it was possible that an important person was buried there.
Nobody insists on the factual truth of the legend. The original Jesus testament
was allegedly lost during World War 2. The museum displays only a contemporary
The crosses were erected only in the 1960s by the tourism bureau. Since then
Shingo celebrates the annual Kirisuto Matsuri, or Christ festival, which has
little to do with Christianity, but is based on Japan's indigenous religion,
Only 1 percent of Japanese are believers in the Christian faith. In Shingo,
there is not one single adherent.
Mariko Samejima, of Israel's embassy to Japan, discounts the legend, but talk of
the tombs is not regarded as blasphemy.
Instead, they are an example of Japan's ability to imitate and adapt foreign
concepts and shape them to suit their own culture, like turning Christmas into a
kitschy shopping event.
The fantastic legend attracts more than 30 000 tourists to the village annually,
willing to spend freely on Jesus souvenirs.
This distinction is dramatically represented by the way the Torah
scroll is treated in the synagogue. It is given the treatment
which in other cultures is reserved for monarchs, or popes or,
lehavdil, for icons and idols. Like all of these, the Torah is
carried in procession when it is taken out of the Ark to be read and when it is
returned there after the reading. Like a king, an Ashkenazi Torah is
it is dressed up in a mantle, belt, and crown, and even has a hand (the
Torah pointer). The Torah is housed in an Ark which, in traditional
Jewish sources, is called the heikhal, the
"palace," and we pray facing this Ark. In Japan, there are temples constructed
exactly like synagogues, with an ark at the front, the difference being that the
Japanese ark contains an idol. The similar treat-ment of the Torah and statues
is even more obvious in the case of oriental
Torahs, those of Jewish communities from the Middle East and further east, which
resemble portable Japanese shrines. An oriental Torah scroll is mounted in a
hard case resembling a building. When the Torah is read, it is stood
verti-cally on the reading table, with the two sections of
the front opening sideways on hinges. The portable Japanese shrines are
virtually identical to these Torah cases, but inside of them is not
a scroll but an idol. The Ark and oriental Torah cases are thus an artistic
denial of idolatry in favor of the Torah. Ashkenazi and Oriental Torahs,
each in their own way, indicate what the Biblical Ark indicates:
access to God is not gained by means of idols but
through the Torah and its commandments. In other words:
the Torah and its commandments are more than
a book and a series of rules and customs, they are
a way of establishing a relationship with God and coming to know Him.
n. (Japanese) "tiger", Chinese zodiac sign
When Jesus Walked In Japan
By David McNeill
The Independent - UK
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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."
- © 2004 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd