- 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
- 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 Taro Jurai.
- 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 riddle.
- 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
- 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
- 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