Orthodox America


Enlightener of Japan, Blessed Nicholas Kasatkin


By Presbytera Doreen Bartholomew

On August 1, 1836, one of the greatest missionaries in the history of the Orthodox Church was born, a man who, in the course of his life in Japan, left behind over two hundred churches, more than 30,000 Orthodox Christians, translations of almost the entire Bible, almost all of the Orthodox liturgical texts and theological literature; a man who founded several schools, a seminary, a library and countless other institutions, some of which are still functioning today.

The early life of Ivan Dimitrievich Kasatkin was one of poverty and great hardship. His mother died when he was very young and he was brought up by his father, the village deacon. He was full of life and very mischievous but his pranks ceased when he entered the church for services. He sang and prayed with such attentiveness that it seemed inevitable he would enter the seminary, which he did in 1853.

The Smolensk Seminary was 150 miles from Ivan's home and, being one of the poorer seminarians, he was forced to walk back and forth at the beginning and end of term. Nevertheless, he never lost his sense of humor and remained a good student. After graduation in 1857 he was offered a scholarship to the St. Petersburg Theological Academy where he continued his studies, showing a particular gift for patristics and foreign languages. After graduation Ivan was invited to stay at the St. Petersburg Theological Academy to prepare for an academic seat, but one day a notice appeared on the bulletin board requesting applications from students interested in a consular posting in Japan. Ivan was intrigued. Five people applied, he being one of them. However, the other four applicants withdrew their application upon learning that the position called for a celibate priest. Ivan had never considered the monastic life, but his call to Japan was so strong that it did not present a problem. Bishop Nektary, the rector of the Academy, was originally opposed to Ivan being sent to Japan, feeling that a man with such academic abilities would be wasting his talents in a consular position. Ivan agreed that such a position would be a waste of time, but he was planning to evangelize Japan. After much thought Bishop Nektary finally consented, but the other members of the Holy Synod hesitated at sending such a young man, with no experience behind him. It was only after the agreement of Metropolitan Isidore, Ivan's spiritual father, that permission was granted. On June 22, 1860, Ivan Kasatkin made his monastic profession, receiving the name of Nicholas. After his ordination to the diaconate on June 22 and to the priesthood on June 29, he was ready to begin his journey to Japan.

On July 29 Nicholas left St. Petersburg for his new assignment in Hakodate, Japan. The journey was arduous: in order to reach his point of embarkation at Nikolaevsk-on-Amur he had to cross the Volga region, the Urals and all of Siberia-a distance of 6,214 miles-all done on carriages and sleds. When he arrived in Nikolaevsk it was winter and further travel was impossible due to frozen conditions. Fr. Nicholas was forced to spend the winter of 1861 in Nikolaevsk. This turned out to be a blessing instead of the waste of time he thought it would be. During this time he had the opportunity to speak with Archbishop Innocent (Veniaminov), the missionary to America. Archbishop Innocent was forty years Nicholas' senior and was almost at the end of his missionary career. The hierarch told him that his first goal had to be to master the Japanese language, and next, to translate the Bible, especially the Gospels. He cautioned Fr. Nicholas not to expect too much, that his life in Japan would be filled with great disappointments as well as good times. He advised him not to despair when he found himself longing for his native Russia, that the feeling would pass and soon Japan would seem almost like home.

Archbishop Innocent decided Fr. Nicholas' cassock was too worn to make a good impression in Japan, and he helped Fr. Nicholas to cut and sew a new one. He also gave him the bronze cross he had been wearing.

With the arrival of spring Fr. Nicholas continued his journey to Japan aboard the military transport vessel Amur. He reached Hakodate on June 14, 1861, almost a year after leaving St. Petersburg.

It was not a good time for missionary work in Japan. The Japanese regarded foreigners with suspicion, even hatred. For the most part they ignored missionaries, but they were quite prepared to kill them at the drop of a hat. The preaching of Christianity was strictly prohibited and converts to Christianity faced torture or even death. Missionaries walking on the streets were often assaulted by stone-throwing crowds.

This was hard on the young hieromonk; he had imagined flocks of people gathering to hear his preaching, once the word of God had been heard. "Imagine my disappointment," he wrote, "when I arrived in Japan only to be greeted by the exact opposite of what I had dreamed." He resigned himself to being restricted to performing the Divine services for the small Russian community at the consulate. He tried to hire a Japanese teacher, but this proved almost impossible; no Japanese wanted to be seen with a foreigner, let alone a missionary. This being the case he contented himself with reading the German and French books he found in the consulate and began evolving into the kind of chaplain he promised Bishop Nektary he would never become.

At this time Archbishop Innocent was on a trip to Kamchatka and, being delayed in Hakodate for a few days, he decided to drop in on the young missionary. Learning of the sad state of affairs, the hierarch advised Fr. Nicholas to throw away the French and German books and begin a serious study of Japanese. Soon Fr. Nicholas was able to find a language tutor and he began to study diligently. In the end, Fr. Nicholas needed three teachers to maintain his pace in learning. In addition to this private tutoring Fr. Nicholas began to attend the Japanese schools, never saying a word but just listening to the lectures. There is a story recorded in the memoirs of Shimomura Kainan, the editor of Tokyo Asahi newspaper, which tells of Fr. Nicholas' going to school and the reaction of the school authorities. The school sought to keep Fr. Nicholas out, fearing reprisals should the government find out that a Christian missionary, a Russian no less, was attending classes. They tried everything, even threatening him with violence. In the end a notice was placed on the school gates saying "Entrance Forbidden to Russian Priest". Fr. Nicholas read the notice, put it in his pocket and went to class. Eventually they let him stay, simply because they could not get him to leave.

The Japanese language consists of three systems of writing, two being hiragana and katakana, and the Chinese characters known as Kanji. Hiragana is used to show some Japanese grammer while katakana is used to transcribe foreign words and onomatopeia. Any foreigner wishing to study the language had to do so without the use of modern grammers, textbooks or other learning tools available to students today. This meant that Fr. Nicholas had to devise his own system of study; it worked so well that he rapidly gained a working knowledge of the language.

After seven years of language study, Fr. Nicholas felt he was prepared to begin conversion of the Japanese. As it happens, his first "catechumen" came with sword in hand and murder in his mind. Takuma Sawabe, a samurai Shinto priest and devoted nationalist, came to Fr. Nicholas one night and told him that all foreigners must die because they spread lies and are here to spy on Japan. Sawabe demanded that Fr. Nicholas either leave Japan at once or prepare to die. Fr. Nicholas heard him out and then asked if Sawabe was acquainted with what he preached. Sawabe admitted that he was not and Fr. Nicholas asked him why he was condemning him to death without a hearing first. Sawabe agreed to hear what Fr. Nicholas had to say before killing him.

Fr. Nicholas began to preach the Gospel to Sawabe. He spoke of God, sin, the soul and its immortality. Sawabe listened intently, then took out some paper and began to take notes. He came back again and again and became so filled with love for his newfound faith that he was baptized and received the name of Paul. Soon Sawabe began to talk of Orthodoxy to his friends, specifically Sakai and Urano. They were also converted to Orthodoxy and in April of 1868 received baptism with the names of John and Jacob, respectively. The cornerstone for the building of Orthodoxy in Japan had been put in place through the events of one night.

Around this time political change was in the air and the Shogun's government wanted to stop it. They placed road blocks everywhere and the police arrested any suspicious characters. Knowing of the danger to Japanses Christians, in Hakodate specifically, Fr. Nicholas ordered Sawabe, Sakai and Urano to leave Hakodate at once. He armed them with a variety of religious books but really did not expect much in the way of preaching from them. It was enough that they were safe. In the meantime Fr. Nicholas' catechumens were growing in number. One, baptized as John Ono, was later to become the first native bishop of the Japanese Orthodox Church. (John Ono's great-grandson is now a priest at the cathedral in Tokyo, also having taken the name of John at baptism.)

In 1869 the Holy Synod ordered Hieromonk Nicholas to return to St. Petersburg to work towards the establishment of a Russian Orthodox mission in Japan. The Japanese Missionary Society was granted 6,000 rubles annually, which was received until the beginning of the Russo-Japanese War. In addition, Metropolitan Isidore raised Fr. Nicholas to the rank of Archimandrite and appointed him head of the mission. It was put under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Kamchatka. Fr. Nicholas returned to Japan on February 15, 1871 with a few monks to assist him. They all soon left due to illness or personal reasons. During his absense, Sawabe, Sakai and Urano continued their missionary activities and Fr. Nicholas returned to a whole new flock of catechumens.

Upon his return from Russia, Fr. Nicholas increased his translation effort. He had met Dr. Mayama, a scholar from the city of Sendai in the northern part of Japan, and together with John Ono they translated and published a Russian-Japanese Dictionary, a catechism, prayerbook, wall calendar and Lives of the saints.

It is important to understand the emphasis Fr. Nicholas put on his translation work. It was extremely important to him; he considered that the soul of the mission's work was to be found in the translation of books. He, therefore, spent most of his time in translation. For thirty years he spent every evening from six until ten with his assistant, Nakai, and translated. The only time this routine was broken was on days when there were evening services. During the hours of translation the door was shut and only his aide, Ivan, could enter to serve tea. "Were the heavens to unfold I would have no right to abandon my translation work," said Fr. Nicholas.

He always strove for perfection and was never satisfied, always seeking new forms. The Lord's Prayer, for example, went through four revisions. He began by using already existing Chinese translations but this did not succeed. The Chinese translations were either too literal or too much like paraphrases. This forced him to follow the Russian and Slavonic texts closely while also using the Vulgate, the English version and the Greek. Using this method, he was able to translate at the rate of fifteen verses per five hours of work. It was in this manner that the Gospels were translated. After his move to Tokyo the scope of his work increased. He began work on the Sunday cycle, then moved to the Pentecostarion and the Lenten Triodion. Gradually, the whole cycle of services and all the parts of the Old Testament necessary for services were translated, and he still dreamed of translating the entire Bible.

Fr. Nicholas' biggest problem was choosing the proper Chinese characters and not simply using ones that have special meaning in the Buddhist and Shinto canons. For example, the Buddhist terms referring to an absolute being as impersonal, such as Nirvana, are completely different from the Orthodox teaching of a personal God, paradise and free will. Sometimes selection of one character took hours of discussion; there were even cases where letters to the entire church were sent requesting suggestions as to a suitable translation.

Fr. Nicholas' translations have been criticized as being too difficult for Japanese to read. His attitude towards this was that the level of translations of the Gospels and the services should never descend to the level of the masses; rather, the masses should be raised to the level of the Gospels and services. He said that popular language was not admissible in the Gospels. If there were two completely identical characters and both were equally pleasing to the ear, he would naturally choose the simpler of the two, but he never would make the slightest compromise in the accuracy of the translations, even if it meant using little known characters. The move to Tokyo took place in January of 1872 and Nicholas took up residence in Tsukiji, one of the places designated for foreigners. When he arrived in Tsukiji he found it difficult to find a place to live. He ended up spending nights at the house of an Englishman and being forced to wander around the city during the day. Finally he found a small house consisting of two rooms, the larger of which could-with all the furniture removed-hold ten people. Although it was still illegal to preach Christianity in Japan, he managed to attract about fifteen listeners from the people in Tsukiji. Meanwhile he continued his study of the language, making friends with people in the area. He became particular friends with the abbot of Zojoji Temple, and it was this abbot who sheltered him when the Japanese government became suspicious of his activity.

Fr. Nicholas came to the notice of the government in a positive way when he served as interpreter for Tsar Alexander II during his visit to Japan in 1872. Meanwhile, the laws against Christianity were becoming an embarrassment to Japan and its diplomatic relations with western nations, and were soon revoked. Fr. Nicholas felt reassured as a result of this and his recent service to the Japanese government and so set about finding a suitable plot of land on which to build the mission. He searched all over Tokyo but kept coming back to a residence on Surugadai Hill. Surugadai was then the residence of Count Toda and when the property came up for sale in 1872, Fr. Nicholas secured it. He first used the buildings for preaching and teaching of the Russian language, but in 1873 he built two European-style buildings and used the top floor of one building for a chapel. In the midst of all this, he baptized his first group of ten catechumens.

It was in the 1870's that the Orthodox missionary activity ceased to be a "one man show" and truly became an organized effort. A girls' school was opened and a seminary. In addition, four missions were opened in 1874 in Tokyo and one in Osaka in 1875. Soon to follow were the catechist's school, the orphanage, the iconography division of the mission, the choir and the library. A monthly magazine, Seiko Shimpo, was published. (It still exists under the name of Seiko Jiho or Orthodox Herald.)

On June 12, 1875, the Synod of the Japanese Orthodox Church decided to ordain Paul Sawabe to the priesthood and John Sakai to the diaconate. They were ordained by Bishop Paul of Eastern Siberia and were soon followed in 1878 by Paul Sakai, Paul Sato, Jacob Takaya, Matthew Kageta and Timothy Hariyu.

In 1880 Archimandrite Nicholas was summoned to Russia and on March 3 he was consecrated Bishop of Revel. He returned to Japan on October 17 with choir master Dimitry Konstantinovich Lvov. Fr. Nicholas had long felt the need for a qualified music teacher in the Japanese mission and with the help of J.D. Tikhai they set about adapting the Japanese words to the Russian melodies. It was Tikhai who formed the first choir in the cathedral and it was he who adapted the Obikhod for unison singing in Japanese (these same books are still used for Vigil services.) When Lvov arrived at the mission he was appointed a teacher of singing and soon music was arranged for the festal and paschal services.

The task of organizing the church choir and setting Japanese liturgical texts to Russian music was a difficult one. The Japanese texts are much longer, to begin with, and the language is diametrically opposed to Russian in construction. In addition, the Japanese language has a nasal "N" sound, which must be pronounced as a separate syllable. When a beat falls on this sound it cannot be ignored but must be sung. Bearing this in mind one can well imagine the difficulty the Japanese texts presented to these musicians. Soon there were over one hundred male and female voices in the choir and it was an ornament to the church. To this day, students of music are brought to the cathedral to hear the choir, considered one of the best in Japan.

In the 1880s and 1890s the Orthdox Church of Japan grew more, with magazines being published and people being sent abroad to study. It is also during this period that construction of the cathedral building began. Much money and labor went into this building which occupies 9,573 square feet and measures 110 feet in height, with a bell tower of 128 feet. The cornerstone was laid in 1884 and construction took seven years. It was supervised by the English architect Josiah Conder, who designed many buildings in Meiji Japan, and was built in the Byzantine style according to plans drawn up by the Russian architect Michael Shicherpov.

Construction was not without its problems, most of which came from the newspapers. The problem was that the site occupied the highest ground in Tokyo, above and not far from the Imperial Palace. Until very recently it was considered rude to build even an office building more than three stories high lest it overlook the palace. This was taken very seriously in the 1880s and there was a strong newspaper campaign against the building of the cathedral. It was argued that it would become an observation post and that the Russians must have some ulterior motive. Even some Orthodox Christians were against it. Nevertheless, Bishop Nicholas persisted and the cathedral was built.

Construction was completed in 1891 and it was consecrated on March 8, and given the name of the Cathedral of the Holy Resurrection. But from the first it was rarely referred to by this name; it was simply called "Nikorai-do" or Nicholas' house ("do" meaning temple, or house). It is a most remarkable building and is considered one of the great architectural achievements in Japan. A minor event worth nothing is that the major bell in the belltower was donated by the then Grand Duke Nicholas upon his visit to Japan in 1891.

On February 8, 1904, the Russo-Japanese war began. To say that this put the Japanese Church in a difficult position is an understatement. But thanks to the attitude and love of Bishop Nicholas the Church was kept from falling apart. From the beginning of the war there were attacks from the Japanese. The church was placed under supervision and in some places Orthodox Christians were persecuted. The Japanese press launched an all-out campaign against the Church.

At this point Bishop Nicholas was asked by his flock if Orthodox Japanese could fight Orthodox Russians. After studying the situation carefully he concluded that the Japanese should fight, using the example of our Lord's patriotism and loyalty. He told the Japanese that Jesus Himself shed tears for the fate of Jerusalem, giving proof of His patriotism and that they must follow in the footsteps of the Teacher. He instructed them to do their duty as loyal Japanese subjects, to pray for the victory of Japan and to do all things necessary to work for that victory, but to do all this not out of hatred for the enemy, but for love of their country.

The war put Bishop Nicholas in a very difficult position. As a Russian, he could hardly pray for the victory of Japan, yet he would not abandon his flock. He told the Church that until the war was over he would not take part in the public prayers of the Church, that he, too, had responsibilities to his homeland.

From the beginning of the war a military guard was posted to the mission, and when a Japanese transport was sunk by Russian cruisers more than a company of soldiers was placed outside the mission. Recognizing the danger to Bishop Nicholas, the clergy asked if he wanted to spend the remainder of the war outside Japan. Although well aware that his life was in constant danger, he declined, choosing to remain with his flock.

The Japanese Church did not neglect its responsibilities to the over 70,000 Russian prisoners of war. Eventually twenty Russian-speaking priests were set to serve as chaplains for the prisoners. Reading materials were provided which included over two thousand religious books and a thousand books on secular subjects. Independent of the church effort, the Orthodox Christians organized the "Society for the Spiritual Comfort of P.O.W.s" and collected donations for gifts and foodstuffs for the prisoners. Meanwhile, in 1906, Bishop Nicholas was raised to the rank of Archbishop and the Japanese Church celebrated his twenty-fifth anniversary as bishop. In recognition of the Church's work during the war, the Japanese government donated a silver vase to the church and the Holy Synod in Russia sent twenty gold altar crosses.

June 16, 1911 was the fiftieth anniversary of the Archbishop's arrival in Japan. He was then seventy years old and had to begin thinking about an assistant. On June 27 Bishop Sergius arrived and was appointed Bishop of Kyoto.

Archbishop Nicholas had begun to suffer from heart disease in 1910, and the activities of the Church and the celebration in 1911 had worsened his condition. In the beginning of the winter of 1911 he became ill and in January of 1912 was admitted to St. Luke's Hospital in Tsukiji. The newspapers published daily bulletins about his illness and many people called on him. On February 5, regardless of the fact that there was no improvement in his condition, he decided to leave the hospital, saying that there were too many things that needed to be done and there was no time to waste in a hospital. He returned to Nikorai-do and continued his translation work of the Old Testament. By February 15 he had recovered his strength enough to write a final report to the Holy Synod and discuss with Bishop Sergius his ten-year plan for the Church. While this meeting was in progress Archbishop Nicholas noticed that the choir was not practicing as usual. He was told that his doctors had advised the choir not to practice for fear it would disturb him. He said he preferred that they practice and requested his favorite piece, "By the Waters of Babylon".

The Apostle of Japan reposed at 7:15 a.m. on February 3 (OS), 1912, as Bishop Sergius was reading the prayers for the departure of the soul. His last word was "resurrection." At that moment the doctor and the nurse-both unbelievers-fell to their knees in honor of their great patient. The righteous hierarch-his life, his spiritual countenance-made such an impression on the nurse that she said later: "Definitely, I'm definitely going to get baptized."

The bell of the cathedral announced his passing and the Japanese Orthodox Church fell into a state of mourning, as did the rest of Japan. After being dressed in his archepiscopal vestments, the body of the hierarch was taken to the cathedral which was already packed. Memorial services alternated with reading of the Gospel. Countless wreaths arrived from parishioners, from Japanese nobility, the diplomatic community, the mission; there was one from the Emperor himself.

In accordance with his will, mourners paid respect to Nicholas bearing palm branches in hand. His funeral was the largest one ever given a foreigner in Japan and none has surpassed it since. The local English-language newspaper reported the details which included the fact that the streets of Tokyo were lined with people, ordinary Japanese citizens, who wished to say goodbye to the Enlightener of Japan. He was buried in Yanaka Cemetery, close to the grave of the last Tokugawa shogun.

There are those who think that sanctity must necessarily be attested by miracles-and they look in vain for such signs in the life of Archbishop Nicholas of Japan. During his final illness he himself found nothing in which to boast. "Here I look back upon my life... And what do I find? Only darkness! God alone accomplished everything, while I... such a nonentity, zero, literally zero! And if a righteous man shall scarcely be saved, then where shall I, a sinner, find myself? I'm worthy of the very depths of hell." This was, however, but evidence of his extraordinary humility which crowned and safeguarded his outstanding achievements By the time of his death, Japanese Orthodoxy had grown from one man with his single convert to over 35,000 believers and thirty-two priests, all native Japanese! In addition there were seven deacons, fifteen choir directors, 121 lay preachers, a cathedral, ninety-six churches and 265 chapels. What further "sign" is needed? And there is the miracle of his enduring legacy. For the last twenty years or so, the Japanese Orthodox Church has been headed by Metropolitan Theodosius (Nagashima) as an autonomous Church. Having recovered from the devastation of the Great Kanto Earthquake and World War II, plus the cutting off of funds from Russia after the Russian Revolution, the Church is now back up to around thirty-thousand faithful. The cathedral itself has been declared a national historic landmark and receives over five thousand visitors per year. Services are sung entirely in Japanese and all the clergy are Japanese. A visit to the cathedral is a must on any Tokyo itinerary.

Sources: Nicholas Kasatkin and the Orthodox Church in Japan, by Roberta Takahashi; "The Missionary Activity of St. Nicholas of Japan", Master's Thesis by The Rev. John Bartholomew; A History of the Japanese Orthodox Church, by A. Bakulevski (translation by Fr. John Bartholomew); Archbishop Nicholas of Japan: Reminiscences and Characteristics, by Dimitrii Pozdneev (translation by Fr. John Bartholomew).

Those acquainted with the life of this hierarch have no doubt that he now dwells in the choirs of the saints. He has already been glorified by several local Churches, and after the glorification of Metropolitan Innocent (Veniaminov), Apostle to America, now in preparation, it is earnestly hoped that the Russian Church Abroad will accord the same official recognition to Archbishop Nicholas, Apostle to Japan. Grant this, O Lord!

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