Several years ago, a Lutheran theologian and former Japanese newspaper correspondent uncovered an unusual phenomenon in Japan.

In one of the most secular countries in the world, many people were avid fans of Christian classical composer, Johannes Sebastian Bach. Their favorite piece? St. Matthew Passion.

We recently caught up with theologian Uwe Siemon-Netto to revisit the anomaly, and what effects it could have on the re-evangelization of the Eastern nation.

How did you first learn that the Japanese people loved Bach’s music?

I am from Leipzig, Germany and I saw a lot of Japanese there all the time, and the regional bishop, and he told me about Bach Japanese professors coming to Liepzig to do research on the weekday lectionary of Bach’s composition.

Then I used to be the Far East correspondent for a newspaper in Germany and later of course often traveled to the Far East. And in the process, I discovered the love of the Japanese for Bach’s music, and that baffled me.  

I’m a Westerner, I was raised to the tunes of Bach and Beethoven and Mozart, and if you will, lighter music or jazz, but Japanese music would never get me excited. I would find it sweet and nice, but how is it that they find Bach so appealing?

Who helped bring about the popularity of Bach’s music in Japan?

On one of my many visits to Japan, I (found) there’s a very famous Bach scholar, he’s the one who got the whole thing rolling in the 20th Century. His name is Suzuki, and I looked him up, and he was a Christian, a Presbyterian as a matter of fact, and an organist at the local church. I met him for a number of interviews and went to a number of concerts with him.

He was a student of Tom Koopman, and he showed me that the interesting thing is that the Japanese (after the performance of Matthew’s Passion, for which they paid $1,000 per ticket, that was huge, and this was in the 1990s), they follow the text in German and Japanese in the program, and there are certain words which they didn’t understand, or for which there’s no Japanese translation — one being a word for 'hope.' They would surround him after the concert, asking him to explain to them what these words meant.

There aren’t many Christians in Japan today. Why do they so enjoy Bach’s Christian music?

Bach’s music has been all but forgotten even in Germany until Mendelssohn rediscovered him in the mid-19th century in Germany. Then shortly thereafter, elements of that came to Japan, probably from a German musician or conductor, to huge success.

Then Japanese musicologists slowly unraveled “What is this phenomenon?” That same question I asked as a journalist; the phenomenon that the Japanese somehow click to this very Western sound of Baroque music, or Western music all together — in this particular case, Bach’s music.

The musicologists discovered that this dates back to the late 16th century, when the Jesuits and the Franciscans came to southern Japan and Christianized (the region).

...there’s a strong mathematical element in Bach’s music, so the beauty of God is reflected in the universe, it’s reflected in your surroundings...and it’s reflected of course in the music by which faith is brought to man.

About a third of the population of the entire nobility of southern Japan became Christian. It was fashionable for southern Japanese to wear crucifixes on their chest and go to bible study and all that sort of thing.

The Franciscans introduced organ builders and they built organs in Japan, especially in Nagasaki, (which) was considered the Vatican of Christianity in Japan in the late 16th century. They trained princes and nobility to play the organ. They were so brilliant that they were flown to Portugal and to Madrid and to the Vatican and played before the Pope and kings.

Then the Shoguns squashed Christianity in the early 17th century through martyrdoms: they burned (Christians) hanging upside down with their mouths hanging over cesspools...crucified them upside down.

Christianity was annihilated in southern Japan with the exception of some outer fishing islands — there you have Christian fishing communities. But the only thing that evidently remained of Christianity until the new wave of missionaries arrived was the sense of music, the Western music, and in this case, Gregorian chant resonated with the Japanese sense of music.

What does this phenomenon say about the hope that Christianity could return to Japan?

It’s very evident to me as a Christian theologian that this is the work of the Spirit. As scripture says, God’s days are like a thousand years, he obviously handles history, gets involved in history for the benefit of His church. And this is to me absolutely is so exciting, the thought that in the 16th century a bunch of missionaries come to Japan, and then Christianity gets wiped out, but what remains and has an impact on the religiosity of the Japanese is the musical part of it.  

I am not saying that music triggers the faith, but the music triggers curiosity about the faith...and of course Bach, being very Lutheran, if he were asked, would say: “What I am doing is setting the word of God to music.”

(The Japanese people today) are not entirely resistant to Christianity, quite to the contrary, they are open to it. As I said in Tokyo, they were asking Suzuki to explain to them the Christian concepts, the meaning of hope and love and peace and all these things, and so it’s there.

The Holy Spirit works over centuries and over generations, so I wouldn’t be surprised if say in 200 years from now, you suddenly have a Christian awakening in Japan.

Why is it that beauty, such as in Bach’s music, opens the mind and heart to God?

Of the members of the hard sciences, mathematicians tend to be the ones more inclined to be believers, and that is because of the beauty of mathematics.

Which leads us to Bach, because there’s a strong mathematical element in Bach’s music, so the beauty of God is reflected in the universe, it’s reflected in your surroundings...and it’s reflected of course in the music by which faith is brought to man.

One of the reasons that I am so ardently opposed to contemporary liturgies, or non-liturgical worship, is because in contemporary liturgies, you have these nonsense, asinine noises being made, and you have the altar replaced by a drum set, and people screaming about and shouting the same garbage, just repeating the same thing, that is not beauty, and I think it is counterproductive theologically to do that — this is my personal prejudice.

I am fervently in favor of a full liturgy that has been brought to us through the ancient Church. It’s the vehicle by which God might make himself known. To me it’s incomprehensible how anyone could say that the creation of the universe was a random operation when it’s so beautifully organized and structured, that’s just crap, it makes you sound so ridiculous, but it is not that saves the world, it is a vehicle. Christ’s work at the cross for us has and is saving the world.