The following article is from our December 2005 issue.

Why Nippon Is Nuts About J.S. Bach. The Japanese yearn for hope. By Uwe Siemon-Netto

Germany's greatest composer is a star in Japan, 255 years after his death. He indirectly owes his popularity to one of the first Jesuits.

As always in the season of Advent, performances of Johann Sebastian Bach's "Christmas Oratorio" will be sold out in non-Christian Japan. A Bach boom is sweeping this Far-Eastern nation. It has spawned many superb interpreters of this German Lutheran composer's work. Many call Bach the most significant missionary to Japan since the Jesuit Francis landed there in 1549.

The Japanese are good with numerals. So now guess what the figure "14" stands for to music aficionados in the Land of the Morning Sun? Well, it's Johann Sebastian Bach. Here's how one arrives at this curious end result: First you attribute a number to each letter of the Latin alphabet, beginning with a "1" for "A." You add up 2 (B) and 1 (A) and 3 (C) plus 8 (H). And, bingo, the total is 14 - B-a-c-h.

Hence there exists in Tokyo the superb Ensemble 14, an amateur chorus group that performs nothing but Bach cantatas. Its singers say they named themselves thus out of sheer humility. They thought it would have seemed presumptuous of them to call themselves the Bach Ensemble.

Others are less modest, and rightly so. Take the Bach Collegium Japan. Its foundation by organist Masaaki Suzuki less than 15 years ago triggered the seemingly inexorable enthusiasm for Bach in that country. The collegium now ranks as one of the world's most admired performers of Bach's work and has prompted hundreds of other groups throughout the island nation.

More than any other, Suzuki's concerts have inspired scores of young Japanese to go on a pilgrim­age to Leipzig in Germany, where Bach lived and worked for 27 years until his death in 1750. There they sit in his church, the "Thomaskirche," following with shining eyes, the rich Lutheran liturgy performed by the "Thoma­nerchor" whose cantor Bach used to be. They also fill the classes of Leipzig's conservatory, which is named after composer Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy.

Some Japanese come to Leipzig with idiosyncratic tasks. Musicologist Keisuke Maruyama, for example, showed up to study the influence of the weekday pericopes or prescribed readings in the early 18th-century Lutheran lectionary cycle on Bach's cantatas. When he had finished, he went to the late Rev. Johannes Richter, then Leipzig's superintendent (regional bishop) and said: "It is not enough to read Christian texts. I want to be a Christian myself. Please baptize me."

And so once again Nathan Söderblom (1866-1931) was proven right. Söder­blom, a former Lutheran archbishop of Uppsala in Sweden, once called Bach's cantatas the "fifth Gospel." "Bach is a vehicle of the Holy Spirit," agreed Yoshikazu Tokuzen, the former president of Japan's National Christian Council. "Bach works as a missionary among our people," Suzuki told me in an interview a few years ago. "He is teaching us the Christian concept of hope."

"Our language does not even possess an appropriate word for hope," explained Suzuki. "We either use 'ibo,' meaning desire, or 'nozomi,' which describes something unattainable." Yet hope is precisely what the Japanese are yearning for, he went on, given their desperate spiritual crisis which manifests itself in many ways.

No other country in the developed world keeps as many palm readers busy. Japan also produces a great deal of pornography, which is openly consumed in trains and subways. Suicide rates are skyrocketing, even among children. According to opinion polls, 60 percent of the population admit to being afraid every day.

So when Suzuki conducts the "Christmas Oratorio" or - on Good Fridays - Bach's "St. Matthew Passion," the audience studiously follows the Japanese translations of the German lyrics in their programs. "After each concert people crowd the podium wishing to talk to me about topics that are normally taboo in our society - death, for example. Then they inevitably ask me what 'hope' means to Christians," said Suzuki, who is also an organist in a Reformed church. "I believe that Bach has already converted tens of thousands of Japanese to the Christian faith."

One famous convert is Masashi Masuda from Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island. Curiously, it wasn't one of Bach's religious compositions that led Masuda to have himself baptized. He became a Christian after hearing a recording of Bach's "Goldberg Variations" played by Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist.

That too makes sense - at least in the eyes of Arthur Peacocke, a renowned Anglican priest and biologist who is a leader in the rapidly expanding international dialogue between science and theo­logy. Peacocke found that even Bach's most abstract and intellectually challenging work, "The Art of the Fugue," was so full of pristine grace that the Holy Spirit himself must have dictated it into the composer's plume.

As for Masuda, the effect of Gould's masterly rendering of the "Goldberg Variations" was such that he became a Jesuit. Today he teaches theology at his order's Sophia University in Tokyo, which is ironic, given that Bach was an orthodox Lutheran and that the Jesuits were founded precisely to undo the 16th-century Protestant Reformation.

But then church history has always been full of ironic twists and turns. How, do you suppose, could a Bach boom occur in an Asian culture to which the melodies and rhythms of 18th-century Germany should logically seem as alien as the ting-ting of Japanese or Chinese music does to Western ears?

Well, according to Tokyo musicologists, it was - of all people - Francis Xavier, a founding member of the Jesuit order who planted the seeds of this Bach boom back in the 16th century. On Aug. 15, 1549, this Navarre-born patron saint of missionaries landed in Kagashima and soon preached the Gospel throughout southern Japan. Over the next decades, the Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries who followed Xavier baptized 20 percent of the Japanese population, including members of royal families. It soon became fashionable to promenade around Nagasaki carry­ing rosaries.

However, in 1587, the shogun Hideyoshi expelled all missionaries. A murderous persecution of Christians followed. Believers were crucified, burned at the stake, tortured to death or hanged upside-down over a cesspool to intensify their suffering. Soon Christianity disappeared from Japan, except for a few small islands where it mixed with other faiths.

Yet one thing never vanished, musicologists say: the Japanese' appreciation of the Western tonality Xavier and his brethren had introduced to their country. For they brought with them the Gregorian Chant and built roaring organs from bamboo pipes. The Jesuits and Franciscans trained Japanese children so well to handle the Queen of the Instruments that in the 1560s three young princes from Nippon were competent enough to play before the most illustrious audiences, including the Pope in Rome.

By the time Christianity was eradicated in Japan in the early 17th century, elements of Western music had infiltrated Japanese folk song. That influence evidently remained strong enough to help Bach's art sweep that nation four centuries later.

Yet it would be overly optimistic for Christians to expect Bach's music to trigger by itself a general awakening in Japan anytime soon. Two-thirds of its people profess no religion, opinion polls show. On the other hand, many Japanese feel a sense of a great spiritual void, said Martin Repp, a German Lutheran theologian who is deputy director of the National Christian Council's Kyoto-based Center for the Study of Japanese Religions.

"Buddhism and Shintoism, Japan's traditional faiths, have long lost their credibility. Today their roles are only ceremonial, and most of their temples are mere tourist attractions." Churches could pick up the slack if they were not so self-absorbed, especially the mainline Protestant denominations to which most Christians in Japan belong, believes Repp. "Alas, most wealthy congregations only think of themselves and give little money to missions; meanwhile, international missionary societies are busy curtailing their budgets for Japan."

Still, there remains the possibility that a future generation of Japanese might turn to the faith that intrigues contemporary audiences of Bach concerts so much right now. A recent study by Oxford University's psychologist Olivera Petrovich has shown that previous researchers were wrong in assuming that the Japanese were just "ontologically godless."

Petrovich put identical faith questions to groups of British and Japanese children, for example: "Who placed the sun in the sky?" Surprisingly, both groups gave the same answer: God. Yet the Japanese kids hailed from families where God was never discussed.

"It is quite possible that my children will be less uptight about religion than I when they are asked to express their feelings about God," said my interpreter Azusa, a young international lawyer, who always carries a CD with Bach's cantata "Vergnügte Ruh', beliebte Seelenlust" ("Contended rest, beloved soul's desire") in her handbag. Its lyrics explain that God's real name is love.

"I have still not taken the leap of faith," Azusa admitted, using a term coined by the 19th-century Danish theologian and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. "But this cantata has taught me what the words, God and love, mean to Christians. And this I like so much that I play this record whenever I can - especially when I feel sad."

- Uwe Siemon-Netto, a veteran foreign correspondent and university lecturer, is a scholar in residence at the Concordia Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri.