Friday, February 2, 2024

Why Wakayama

A little over a year ago, my wife Maki and I moved from the greater Tokyo metropolitan area to rural Wakayama. Our move defied a lot of contemporary missions thinking. We left the heart of Japanese culture, education, economics, and politics and came to a part of Japan that gets very little attention.

When we moved here, we doubled the number of formal long-term Christian missionaries in the prefecture. For most of the three decades only a single missionary couple, the Hinsons, have been faithfully ministering in a prefecture with almost a million-person population. 

With a population of 944,000 people, half of whom reside in and around Wakayama City in the north, Wakayama only has about 70 Protestant churches, some of which have dwindled to less than ten members. Most of Wakayama's churches are in the northern part of the prefecture near Wakayama City; the southern half of the prefecture only has a hand full of churches. The interior of the prefecture is entirely unchurched. Wakayama is one of the least reached, least evangelized prefectures in Japan. 

Map from the Rural Church Planting Network. 
Yellow and green are municipalities with no church, 
blue has one church, red more than one.


Over the past hundred years, Wakayama has received sporadic attention from Christian mission agencies. Following the Second World War, which coincided with the formation of the Baptist General Conference’s own mission board, Converge began sending missionaries to Japan, and the first ones to arrive eventually made their way to Wakayama.

Many churches and denominations responded to General MacArthur’s call to send 10,000 missionaries to Japan. To best saturate the country, many missions organizations and denominations worked out informal agreements on territory so that their missions efforts would not overlap redundantly.

Converge drew Wakayama. Despite its reputation for being a difficult field, Converge missionaries eagerly took on the challenge. Aside from a concerted effort from a handful of Church of Christ missionaries, in the intervening period, Wakayama has almost entirely been overlooked by other Japanese denominations and foreign mission organizations.

Starting in 1949, and for the next thirty years, BGC/Converge would send many of their missionaries to rural Wakayama to establish churches in sleepy fishing villages from Mihama to Katsuura, and worked to evangelize the mountain hamlets. The first BGC missionaries to arrive in Wakayama were the Youngquists and the Swansons. 

Dr. Sten Lindberg and his wife Alice, the new board's first appointees, would eventually move to Wakayama in 1951 and establish Shirahama Baptist Church.

Dr. Lindberg was raised in China as a missionary kid, and later returned to China as a missionary himself. When the Communists defeated the Nationalists in China, missionaries had to escape with their lives. Dr. Lindberg’s heart for China never dissipated, but when the door closed. In 1949 went on an exploratory mission for the BGC to Ethiopia, and then headlined Bethel College's missions focus week in 1950, before he followed God’s call to Japan.

In 1954, Dr. Lindberg planted the first, and to this day, only church in Shirahama Japan. He would labor the rest of his life to win as many Japanese to Christ as possible. Other BGC/Converge missionaries would follow them to Wakayama through the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, when southern Wakayama was still located in deep and difficult to penetrate mountains.

Converge labored tirelessly over the decades to establish churches around the Kii Peninsula (which contains southern Osaka, Nara, Wakayama and Mie prefectures). Japanese pastors from other parts of the country like Dr. Mitsuhashi came to join them in the effort. Eventually establishing a string of small churches along most of the southern coast. In the 1970’s Dr. Lindberg handed off the baton to his successor Dr. Emi, a Japanese pastor.


However, Wakayama proved to be very difficult soil. Many of the churches struggled to take root in their communities. Some of the churches planted by missionaries were unable to find a Japanese pastor willing to come and shepherd them. Over the decades, churches have closed, merged, membership has dwindled, and more and more churches are unable to call a pastor when their pastor retires.

Thankfully, some pastors in small rural communities in Wakayama have continued to faithfully minister into their twilight years. Their persistence and faithfulness are a testament to the depth of their love for Christ and their neighbors.

Wakayama is not unique in Japan when looking at the decline of the church, but there are challenges unique to Wakayama that compound it. Firstly, Wakayama was never fully evangelized. There are still mountain hamlets and villages that have never had a Christian community in their midst since the time Jesus ascended to the seat next to the Father.

Many churches were not capable of self-propagation and support when the missionaries left. This was exacerbated by the economic and demographic issues that face the peninsula. Many young people leave Wakayama looking for their fortune elsewhere. The only University is in Wakayama City near Osaka. Christian young people have often left Wakayama in pursuit of work and education.

In my travels around Japan I have met almost as many Christians from Wakayama now living in other parts of the country as I have met in Wakayama. This brain-drain has syphoned off potential leaders and laborers from the local church here.

This is compounded by the spiritual hardness of the area. The Kii Peninsula is home to some of the most important Shinto shrines in all of Japan, and many consider it to be the spiritual heart of the Japanese nation. As a result, there is a great deal of pride in their traditions and history. Those most willing to hear the claims of Christ are also the most likely to leave the peninsula looking for opportunities elsewhere.


With all these challenges and more facing ministry in Wakayama, we have been amazed to see how God has been working here since we arrived.

Due to the faithfulness of our previous generation of missionaries, Converge has an open door to work with the existing churches here, many whom still have a living memory of the missionaries that came before. Often overlooked within the Japanese church, the small churches in Wakayama are eager and excited to partner with missionaries, and are willing to try new things.

Since our arrival last year, Shirahama Baptist Church has been a great partner. Shirahama is a unique church. Nearly fifty years ago, Dr. Emi, seeing a need in his community, established a suicide prevention hotline that has subsequently grown into an NPO and a residential recovery program.

In many more developed parts of Japan, there are few ways for missionaries to engage in ministry to the physical needs of Japanese people. Here in Wakayama, we have the chance to work alongside those in the recovery program, whether at the greenhouse planting spinach or helping with the bento shop where they learn job skills.

Since Pastor Fujiyabu took over the suicide prevention ministry 25 years ago, he has successfully talked over a thousand people out of taking their lives at the nearby cliffs. Some of those have entered the recovery program and found new life in Jesus.

Our hope is to continue partnering with Shirahama Baptist church, to build a training center to help both missionaries to Japan and Japanese Christian leaders learn how to do fruitful ministry in challenging parts of Japan.

Wakayama needs a renewed church planting and evangelistic movement. The existing churches here need laborers and assistance. However, without solving some of the issues that make ministry in Wakayama uniquely difficult, we would likely face similar results in twenty or thirty years time. That is why any sustainable lasting Christian movement in Wakayama is going to be one that helps Japanese Christians develop healthy Christian marriages, families, communities, businesses, and schools.

In order to plant churches that will remain faithful should Jesus continue to tarry, we need to establish healthy growing Christian communities, not just institutional churches.  


The task of reaching Wakayama and seeing growing churches take root in the peninsula is a God sized one. Only with the prayers of saints around the world, and Spirit filled laborers will we see this part of Japan won for Jesus. Please pray that God would send out more laborers into his harvest field.

In order to start the training center that we have envisioned, we are going to need co-laborers and continued financial support. Please pray that God would lead the right people to partner with us in reaching the Kii Peninsula for Jesus.

We want to build on the legacy of those that have gone before us and finish the task yet to be done. That is going to require a variety of gifts that we currently don’t possess, but in the global body of Christ there are those that even now God is preparing to join us in reaching the Japanese of Wakayama. Please pray that God would be glorified in our labor--we want to attempt great things for God, and we expect great things from God.