SHINGO, Japan (AP) _ Nearly 2,000 years ago, a man fled for his life from the Middle East, crossing Siberia and Alaska before living out his days in this snowbound hamlet in northern Japan. The tale is fanciful enough, but even more so when townspeople tell you the name of the visitor they say is buried here: Jesus Christ.
This strange historical theory is founded on a radical rewriting of the Christian belief that Jesus was crucified, resurrected three days later and then rose to heaven _ all in Jerusalem. It has its roots in shaky archaeology and shadowy local customs some say came from the Holy Land.
Many officials here disavow the theory, but nevertheless, some 10,000 people visit the Shingo burial site each year. Perhaps it”s because the legend fits in with the fascination in Japan _ where fewer than 1 percent of the people are Christians _ with such trappings of Christianity as Christmas and church weddings.
The Jesus-in-Japan theory first emerged in the 1930s when researchers claimed to have found a “will of Christ” _ the original of which was lost during World War II _ indicating that Jesus was buried in Shingo. Later, a burial mound believed to fit the theory was found in the village about 370 miles north of Tokyo.
According to the story, Jesus came to Japan in his early 20s, studied Japanese culture and religion and then returned to Judea when he was 33 to begin his ministry. He was never crucified _ having switched places with his younger brother Isukiri _ and managed to flee across Siberia to Alaska and on to Japan by boat. In Shingo, Jesus is said to have married, had three daughters and lived until age 106. No one has actually ever burrowed into the mound to study its contents, as far as town officials know.
Townspeople are reluctant to profess much belief in the story. But the town is not resisting its fame _ or the money tourists bring with them. The hamlet has held a “Christ festival” every June since the early 1960s at the mound, where a signboard declares the tomb “holy ground.” In 1997, a small exhibition hall was built nearby. On display there is the other half of the Jesus in Japan story: Exhibits on age-old Shingo customs that the villagers say indicate an ancient link with the Middle East and Christianity. Displays include a doll of a child with a cross painted on its forehead, which officials say Shingo villagers used to do to infants. Traditional clothes in the exhibit are hung with Star of David emblems. One display tells the story of a village chant that is meaningless in Japanese, but is supposedly derived from an ancient Hebrew song.
The museum says the town”s former name, Herai, comes from the word Hebrew. Mitsuru Takahashi, a liquor store owner who sells “Christ hometown sake” and tea cups with crosses on them, said he isn”t sure about Jesus really being buried here. “But I wonder if there is someone great in that tomb, someone we should respect and praise,” he said. Some say the grave might be that of a leader of the Ainu, the indigenous people who inhabited the islands before the ancestors of today”s Japanese arrived from the Asian mainland. Another theory raises the possibility that the tomb holds the body of a missionary who came to the remote north to escape a crackdown on Christians in Japan in the late 1500s and early 1600s. The nearest Roman Catholic priest, the Rev. Marcel Poliquin, a Canadian who has been in Japan for 40 years, looks at the legend with amusement. “It”s just a way of attracting tourists, making money,” he said in Towada, about 45 miles from Shingo. “I say it as a joke: `Christ died in my parish.””
We appreciate your support
Our website includes affiliate links, which means we get a small commission — at no additional cost to you — for each qualifying purpose. For instance, as an Amazon Associate Religion News Blog earns from qualifying purchases. That is one reason why we can provide this service free of charge.