A Laughing Matter: Parahistory & the Historical Jesus

Shingo, Aomori
Deep in the mountainous northern countryside of Japan’s main island of Honshu, in the agricultural prefecture of Aomori, a good day’s travel from the metropolis of Tokyo (some 300 miles), one will find the village of Shingo (called Herai in former times) nestled in the landscape. A few farmhouses unobtrusively scattered among terraced rice paddies and apple orchards, no big thing, Shingo is your typical rural Japanese village. There’s nothing that's obviously out of place about this place, really—nothing, that is, until you begin noticing the sign of the Christian cross () everywhere. Crosses lead a kind of yellow brick road path into the center of town, becoming more and more numerous as you approach: on street signs, on the façade of the general store, on the uniforms of its few municipal employees. They finally converge on a building of modest size that serves as the town’s official museum. Boasting over 10,000 visitors annually, this museum was erected to commemorate one specific piece of local mythology, a legend that is quite extraordinary for such a small rural Japanese village.

Now, here comes the laughing matter. Ready?

Shingo, Aomori, according to local tradition, is the final resting place of … [wait for it … ] … Jesus. Yes, Jesus. The Jesus— Jesus of Nazareth, Christ himself— the world-famous healer, magician and teacher from first-century Judea, the cornerstone figure in the religious development of Western civilization of the last two thousand years. That Jesus. His body is said to lie in a burial mound on a charming nearby hill just down the road from the museum a click.

A large white cross marks the spot.

Let me pause here to ask the reader: Is this your first time hearing about this? If it is, and if you’re like me, you probably shook your head and maybe giggled a bit. It’s obviously a joke. Right? Obviously. But no; people really do claim that Jesus is buried in Shingo, Aomori. There’s an entire tourist industry devoted to the perpetuation of this peculiar legend, in fact. Officially sanctioned by the town and celebrated annually with a festival that features music, poetry, and dance, the Christ Festival (Kirisuto Matsuri), as it is known, is a significant yearly source of revenue for the town. The locals therefore take it pretty seriously. They get into it. They look forward to participating in it every first Sunday in June.[1]

But if you have never heard of Shingo, the notion of Jesus having been in Japan is such a bizarre concept, so far removed from the traditional Jesus legend’s cultural and historical context in first-century Judea, that we can’t help but raise an eyebrow upon first hearing this weird take on a familiar story. We find it weird, humorous. We're liable to reflexively and impulsively dismiss the whole thing out of hand as a frivolous proposition. A one-liner or a pun is all it seems to elicit.

Why on earth would someone think that Jesus is buried in the land of the rising sun?

A tourist brochure from the museum provides the curious visitor with a brief introduction to this strange tale:

“When Jesus Christ (イエスキリスト) was 21 years old, he came to Japan and pursued knowledge of divinity for 12 years. He went back to Judea at the age of 33 and engaged in his mission. However, at that time, people in Judea would not accept Christ’s preaching. Instead, they arrested him and tried to crucify him on a cross. His younger brother Isukiri (イスキリ)  [2casually took Christ’s place and ended his life on the cross.

Christ, who escaped the crucifixion, went through the ups and downs of travel, and again came to Japan. He settled right here in what is now called Herai village, and died at the age of 106.

In this holy ground, there is dedicated a burial mound on the right to deify Christ, and a grave on the left to deify Isukiri.

The above description was given in a testament by Jesus Christ.”
So Jesus went to Japan and then wrote about it. How about that? Who knew? (It’s hard to restrain sarcasm, I know.)
Although I do not subscribe to Christianity (or indeed to any other religion), I did grow up here in the West, where the story of Jesus is foundational, pervasive, deeply ingrained into the culture, so I find this notion of Jesus having escaped the crucifixion and then running away to Japan to be surreal, absurd, non sequitur, ludicrous. A joke.

But why? This is the question I begin with. Why is it so easy to resort to sarcasm and derision in this case? Is there some threshold of ludicrousness beyond which a proposition becomes absurd enough to be considered laughable? How is this threshold to be delineated? Is mockery justified beyond this threshold? Ever? Is vitriol? What are the social or mythological parameters at play in making these determinations?

Thomas Jefferson once wrote: “ridicule is the only weapon that can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them.” It’s an easy enough maxim to accept and to exercise in cases where little attempt (if any) has been made to produce evidence in support of a given proposition. Were someone to claim, for instance, that Elvis is now living as a homeless vagabond under the Santa Monica boardwalk, or to claim to have regular discourses with angelic beings from another dimension, beings who compel a select few to make their message from the great beyond known to the rest of humanity, it would probably be safe to laugh on first listen. But what about when someone has actually taken the time to compile a body of evidence in defense of the intelligibility of an idea? At what point can one let one’s derision flow freely?

The answer ultimately lies, as it does for all truth claims, in analyzing the evidence as objectively as one can, and then following it wherever it leads. Is the evidence fraudulent or real? Is it valid? Is it tenable? Is it relevant? Is it precise? Is it corroborated? One can of course opt to exercise one’s prerogative to simply dismiss a proposition altogether as folly without further ado, of course. That’s certainly one option. But that kind of dismissive mockery would be based more on social pressures than it would on any discernable rationale. Outright dismissal without analysis would be an emotional response. A distinction needs to be made. To offer any kind of informed objection about such a radical claim, one should at least be willing to look at the evidence, and then go from there. If no good evidence is offered, then it is probably safe to laugh. Likewise if plausibilities are all that are offered as evidence. Either way, if there is any verisimilitude at all to a story, evidence will bear it out.

In the case of Jesus having traveled to Shingo, Aomori, Japan, there are some people who in fact do cite a body of evidence. And as I explore the claim, in fact, it turns out that the evolution of this legend is as convoluted and as full of moxie, fantasy, and intrigue as a Dan Brown novel.

In 1935, while researching his family’s library in the prefecture of Ibaraki (about 60 miles northeast of Tokyo), a man named Kyomaro Takeuchi claimed to have discovered some very ancient documents which turn out to be the source of this peculiar, lesser-known variant of the Jesus legend. These documents included the Legend of Daitenku Taro Jurai (the Japanese name that Jesus reportedly took on for himself). The legend revealed that Jesus first came to Japan during the reign of the eleventh emperor Suinin, landing at the port of Hashidate (on the western coast of Honshu), and that he eventually settled in the Etchu province, where he studied Japanese language, literature, and philosophy under a Shinto priest.

After this formative period of immersion into pre-classical Japanese culture, it is reported that Jesus then returned to Judea. The New Testament tells us what happened next. The part where Jesus less-than-triumphantly marches into Jerusalem one Passover weekend to usher in the new Davidic age, only to botch it all up and end up getting himself crucified in the process for all his trouble, ... this story is deeply ingrained into our collective cultural frontal lobe. There’s no need to revisit here the details of that familiar passion play. The Takeuchi documents, on the other hand, have a different, happier ending than the New Testament does. They tell us that Jesus was in fact spared the undignified death outlined in the gospels. Cancel the passion. Cancel the resurrection. Cancel Pentecost. These presumably ancient texts tell us that Isukiri, Jesus’ baby brother, voluntarily took his place and died instead. Having thus escaped death by the hand of Rome, Jesus hurried eastward, carrying with him his martyred brother’s ear and a lock of hair from their mother. After much hardship along the long way from Judea to Japan (via Siberia and Alaska—!!—, we are told), Jesus eventually made it home to Japan. The legend then tells us that during this second visit, Jesus finally settled down in Herai. He married a woman named Miyuko, worked as a simple rice farmer, raised a couple of daughters, and later died there at an extremely advanced age. The Takeuchi documents further reveal the Sawaguchi family to be the direct descendants of Jesus of Nazareth.[3]

It is worth mentioning that at the time of their “discovery” these documents caused very little stir (and most of what little stir there was was negative) in the Japanese press, who would have been understandably highly skeptical and hostile toward such a disparate interpolation of gaijin (alien/outsider) religious symbolism into pre-axis Imperial Japanese culture. Therefore, Takeuchi wasn’t taken very seriously. But, still, there are those who even now perpetuate this extraordinary legend, or else there would be no yearly festival. Right?

In addition to the Takeuchi documents, those who take the authenticity of the story seriously offer a few lines of ‘evidence’ in support of their belief. First, we are asked to notice the similarity between the Sawaguchi family emblem and the familiar star of David, symbol of the Hebrews since ancient times.


Seeing this comparison, I can't help but think to myself, ‘Wait … That's evidence?, You have got to be kidding me!’

Well, that's not all; there is also some evidence from a certain body of ancient songs of the region which have survived through the ages and that are traditionally sung at the yearly festival. This corpus of music, of special interest to ethno-musicologists, has been exclusively performed in this region for ages and ages. The songs and chants are all in what is essentially a long forgotten language. They go further back than the Japanese language itself, in fact. These songs are so ancient that they were sung eons before anyone ever heard of Jesus in Shingo. Their syllables have been faithfully handed down from generation to generation, taught phonetically, even though no one remembers what they mean any longer.[4]  “Jesus-in-Shingo” proponents will often cite one scholar in particular, Eiji Kawamorita, who has suggested that the lyrics of one such song could have come from [my emphasis] some Hebraic source that has been babble-ized over time. In his ethnography of the songs of the region in 1935, he stated, "This is a military song of ancient Judea and it means to give glory to God in Hebrew." An approximate pronunciation of this particular festival chant is:
Naniyaa dorayayo ................... (ナニヤアドラヤヨ)
Naniyaa donasare inokie..........(ナニヤアドナサレイノキエ)
Naniyaa dorayayo ................... (ナニヤアドラヤヨ)

Offered up as evidence of its Hebraic origin is the suggestion that, in the middle of the song is a string of syllables (“nasare”) which closely resembles the name "Nazareth."[5] Moreover, the old name of the town, Herai, can be said to derive from the word for "Hebrew." My spidey sense is tingling like crazy at this point and I am tempted to respond facetiously: (‘Yes, and the "inokie" part clearly is a reference to Enoch. … Oh, yes. I see it now. And obviously the "yayo" is a theophoric allusion to the tetragrammaton. Of course! It’s obvious!’)[6]

As you can see, I find this kind of thing mildly hilarious. It really is hard to not resort to sarcasm, presented with such flimsy scraps of circumstantial 'evidence.' It's hard to imagine that anyone could be drawn in by it at all. The bit about the similarity between the Sawaguchi family emblem and the star of David, for example, is clearly just ad-hoc and forced from the git-go. It’s downright silly.

Still, some people really do buy into this. Professor Kawamorita, cited as having supported the hypothesis that the songs are Hebraic in origin, was not the only scholar to have examined these ancient songs, however. On the other side of the fence is Dr. Kunyo Yanagida, for example, a premier Japanese ethnologist who has interpreted the words of that same song (Naniyaa Dorayayo - see above) to translate as, "You must have nerve to express your heart." He thinks it was a love song in the local proto-Japanese dialect of the region. So is it a Hebrew battle cry or is it an aboriginal love song? How would Occam cut this knot? 

Digging a bit deeper still we learn that Professor Kawamorita, despite his Hebrew-song theory, wound up in fact later rejecting and detesting the whole Christ-burial business. He resented the fact that his work was being used to support the ideas of the hyper-nationalistic Takeuchi. So annoyed was he at Takeuchi that he would (in his work “Research on the Hebrew Song Words in Japan”) eventually write about the matter:

During the summer of 1935, when I set foot in Herai, the tomb of Christ did not exist yet [...] I have nothing in common with Kyomaro Takeuchi, who posed as an oracle and a remote descendant of Sukune Takeuchi  (武内宿禰), and his group, Katsutoki Sakai, Banzan Toya, history researcher Kikue Yamakawa etc. who created that "Christ's grave" fantasy in Herai, and I refuse to bear that responsibility.

If this weren't damning enough, after a few inquiries into the region’s tourist attractions, one soon discovers that the tomb of Jesus is not Shingo’s only popular spot; there are some ancient (older than Giza, or so the brochure claims) pyramids nearby, as well. You can also find, just a few kilometers from Jesus’ grave, the actual location of the Garden of Eden. How about that? Talk about harmonic convergence! Apparently, Shingo, Aomori is the Sedona, Arizona of Japan, i.e., a groovy place to titillate all manner of gullible and credulous mystic visionaries in their quest for is-ness and otherness and what-not-ness. Whatever one may think of the kirisuto matsuri (it seems like a fun party-- I’d love to attend it sometime), it is not looking so good for the historical veracity of the legend it purports to celebrate, I’m afraid.

But since the legend doesn’t seem to be fading away any time soon, and though there doesn’t seem to be any validity to the parallels presented as evidence thus far, we can have a little fun and at least ask to see the original Takeuchi documents. Maybe they can lend some insight on this matter. Instantly we run into a caveat, though. You see, the originals were so precious that they were transferred from Ibaraki to Tokyo, where’d they were thought to be safer. However, they did not survive the subsequent bombing of the capital city during the war. They were destroyed. But, lucky for us, copies had been made by the Takeuchi family and these are on display at the museum in Shingo.

‘I see,’ I think at this point.  'So… the originals no longer exist; only copies do. What’s more, the people claiming to have "discovered" the documents are the very people who did the copying.'  [My spidey sense is tingling.]

Okay. Suspending my suspicions for the moment …
What about these copies? What, if anything, can we glean from them? On close inspection, not surprisingly, we find that if the circumstantial evidence above seems thin, the textual evidence is even thinner. In fact, the textual evidence is blatantly fraudulent. To begin to illustrate just how blatantly, first consider that the copies of the various Takeuchi documents on display at the Shingo museum are written in what are legible kanji, hiragana, and katakana characters — all of which are standard in the written Japanese language. Though this won't attract the suspicion right away with most people, it is actually a huge problem, so big a problem in fact that it is enough by itself to conclusively betray the Takeuchi documents as a forgery. Why? Well, in short, this sort of combination of hiragana, katakana and kanji is a convention within a Japanese writing system that did not exist until the ninth century. What's more, the Japanese didn’t even have any writing system at all until the sixth century or so. The following excerpt is from Japan: A Short Cultural History[7]:

Apart from Chinese chronicles, our chief sources of information about early Japanese history are two official records, the Kojiki ('Record of Ancient Things') and the Nihongi, or more correctly Nihon-shoki ('Chronicles of Japan'), compiled in 712 and 720 respectively, […] It must be repeated that both these records were compiled at a date when Japan had been for centuries under the influence of Chinese culture, and that they are both written in Chinese script—since the Japanese had no writing of their own.  (my emphasis)

It is my understanding (indeed, it is explicit in the museum literature) that the Takeuchi family claims to have "copied" —not "translated"— the documents before the originals were destroyed in the war. If this is so, then it follows that the originals must also have been written in this modern Japanese script. No? Thus, whoever "copied" these documents has to explain why Jesus of Nazareth (the supposed author of this scroll) was expressing himself using modern Japanese script near the turn of the second century C.E.

Let's give the Takeuchi family the benefit of the doubt for the sake of argument. Let's allow for the possibility that the original documents were actually written in ancient Chinese characters and that there were members of the family who were qualified to translate them from this archaic form of Chinese script to the more modern Japanese one. But even then there would still be major problems within the text itself which would be very hard to explain or to reconcile with what we know. These are insurmountable hurdles.

A single glaring example should suffice to conclusively make this point. One of the pages of the documents is signed:


"Isukirisu, Christmas God."

a copy of Jesus' signature
So, not only is this supposedly a testament written by Jesus himself, it is written by a Jesus who apparently thinks that he’s Santa Claus. Clearly, this could only have been written by a modern Japanese person with a very limited understanding of Christian belief and ritual, circa 1935. Thus, it doesn’t take a genius to declare the Takeuchi documents a forgery.

We have enough to make our own informed estimate of the historical viability of the legend of Jesus in Shingo.

Let's see:
  1. —The legend originates with the discovery of an “ancient text” whose blatant anachronisms and absurdities betray its spuriousness at every turn.
  2. —The legend’s plausibility is appealed to from the point of view of semantic speculation based on what is essentially an unknown (and arguably unknowable, lost as it is to the fog of time) source of ancient song. 
I’d say that there’s very little chance (I'd say "zero") of the legend being factual. Forged documents and tepid ‘could be’s can only dance one from here to there. Not very far. I think that it is safe to say that Takeuchi invented the story from whole cloth, just as I think that Joseph Smith’s having “discovered” his Book of Mormon means that he is its sole source and author. Having sufficient evidentiary warrant to deem the legend of Jesus in Japan to be completely made up, then, I now return to the question with which I began: namely, I’m curious about how to determine the threshold of tolerance for a given historiographical claim. What is the burden of evidence that is called for in establishing such a claim laughable or ridiculous (or even merely impossible)? For the purpose of illustration, any one of a few other easily refutable legends could have served as examples. There are several funny Jesus legends out there to choose from:

Ever hear the one about Jesus going to Kashmir as a teenager to become a yogi?

Ever hear the one about Jesus teleporting to the Americas during the three days he was reportedly dead?

Ever hear the one about Jesus sailing to England with his uncle Joseph in tow?

We are dealing in each of these cases with either mere hearsay, or else with fabricated evidence and pious fraud, as in the Jesus of Shingo phenomenon. Just as Jesus’ Kashmir sojourn is attested to by Nicolas Notovitch’s infamously ‘discovered’ Issa document, the Takeuchi documents “support” the Shingo legend, but in both cases the documents forwarded as evidence are demonstrably fakes. Jesus’ English sojourn is based on folk tales going back through the fog of time. That legend was beautifully immortalized in William Blake’s verse:
“And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?”
Poetic as the notion may be, the answer to these questions posed by the poet is a resounding ‘no’ on both counts. It is just as unlikely that Jesus (if he ever existed) went to England as it is unlikely that he went to hang out with the swamis in the Himalayas or that he settled down to farm rice in middle-of-nowhere Japan or that he appeared to fictional meso-Americans during his alleged three-day sojourn to the netherworld. It is unlikely, not simply because the stories seem absurd, prima facie, but because close examination of the ‘evidence’ bears the absurdity out. This is a very crucial point that needs to be stressed. No matter how much one’s spidey sense may tingle, we can’t just rely on an intangible gut feeling as our sole aid in orienting ourselves to a fanciful proposition. It is the evidence which must have the last laugh.

I think Jefferson was right. Some claims can be dismissed as laughable due to their heavy reliance on bogus fanciful speculation, and deserve to be so deemed, but a gut-feeling is not sufficient for this purpose. Some minimum of a triage process is necessary in order to make this determination: —1) Is there textual or evidentiary support for the claim?… 2) Is this supporting evidence spurious or valid?  This simple two-step check list should suffice in this particular case, regardless of one’s orientation toward current scholarship on Christian origins or the historical Jesus. In other words, one need be neither mythicist nor historicist to be able to call 'bullshit' on claims that have either fabricated texts or folktales as their only supporting evidence. There is simply no reason to take a text seriously once its fraudulent nature is discovered. The legends of Jesus in Kashmir and of Jesus in Shingo are nothing more than ad hoc solutions to the “problem” of Jesus' “missing years,” for which only anecdotal and/or discredited evidence can be forwarded. More than just being wrong, anyone who would believe in any of these supposed epic travels of Jesus (or Issa, or Iesukirisuto) does so at the peril of the credibility of their own rational faculty, given the available evidence. They are simply taking a logical leap without warrant and will likely wind up paying a high social price should they choose to continue to defend such unsubstantiated absurd views as true. You are free to believe that Elvis did not die but is instead living in exile in Santa Monica (or in Paraguay, or wherever) if you want to, by all means, but you will inevitably get funny quizzical looks or facepalms from your less-eccentric neighbors if you insist on promoting this belief. That’s just the way life is. And so I would hazard to say that, yes, there may sometimes in fact be good valid reasons to react with mockery when encountering certain types of bizarre ideas.

This Jesus-in-Shingo scenario is, historiographically speaking, laughable.

But what about mythicism?

Is mythicism one of these crazy, completely fraudulent and unsupported ideas like these others? Do its proponents display the same sort of disregard for evidentiary standards?

Mythicism’s most vocal detractors invariably reflexively answer “yes” on both counts. It’s hard to blame them sometimes, I confess. On the one hand, there is a lot of self-serving quackery out there, especially online and, to be quite honest, there is a type of adolescent, reactionary hipster-like mythicism out there that deserves a lot of the mockery that it gets. But there nevertheless are formulations of the Christ myth theory which are valid and tenable, historically speaking, and which cannot be simply glossed over or grouped together with those more-absurd or facile formulations. Doing so would be premature and reactionary in itself, and an ultimately lazy cop-out for any scholar who would take that route.

I don't intend to lay out a case for mythicsm here.  It is enough to say that, whether or not one accepts the arguments for it, it is obvious that in the case of the best formulations of the theory, they are not the same kind of arguments as the ludicrous one outlined above.  Therefore I find the invective directed at the mere mentioning of the idea that I witness in print and on the bloggosphere to be undeserved at best and intentionally malicious at worst.   

The Christ myth theory (as formulated by Doherty, Carrier, and Price) is at the very least viable precisely because it does not rely on the kind of whole-cloth fabrication and fraud or misguided analogues that are the hallmark of fanciful parahistory like the examples above.  Given that the evidences outlined in defense of the Christ myth theory by these scholars are based on demonstrably solid scholarship (whether one agrees with the mythicist interpretations or not is not the point now) it is troubling to see scholars behaving so badly toward fellow scholars (or even interested laypersons). This is something that I say as someone who has spent much time poring over the materials that call historicity into question, it’s not a call I make in haste. In fact, I confess that when I first encountered the idea of mythicism, I argued against it forcefully. But the various formulations of the Christ myth of these men are defensible and cogently expressed, and so the kneejerk tendency to dismiss them out of hand like I had previously done eventually diminished.  Given the valid, defensible scholarship,  it won’t be so easy to swat the theory away with the derision that it has been dismissed by those who detest it once the historical problem has been properly defined and inductively and deductively outlined .  I'm sure that the self-appointed silverback guardian academics will keep hurling shit and sticks and stones up in the air, trying to dissuade others from entertaining the possibility. Mythicism is so reviled by these people, their hatred is so irrationally out of proportion to the implications resulting from the theory that I can't help but paraphrase the line from Hamlet:  "Methinks the gentleman doth protest too much."  Let them. They're easy enough to ignore. 

We'll have to grin and bear it for a while, I suppose. It's not easy to overturn the weight of two thousand years of enculturation, after all.  However, Jesus' aphorism concerning the futility of trying to keep a light hidden is a beautiful truth, no matter who said it.  Whether Jesus was a historical person or not, this is something in which I have faith.

. . .

1It is a summer festival. It has to be. Shingo, a village of about 6,000 people, is actually in a remote region that is virtually inaccessible in winter.

2 The phonetic quality of written Japanese katakana highlights a curious relation between the names of the two brothers. The name of Jesus,
イエスキリスト (= Iesukirisuto) contains the name of his brother  イスキリ (=Isukiri). It’s really a condensation of the first five characters of the former name to four (just omit the ‘e’=エ). Compositionally, this link between the names sets up a potential doppelganger motif to the tale. Note that the name Isukiri is a far cry from Jacob, Judas, Simon, or Joses, the names of Jesus’ brothers as listed in the Gospel of Mark.

3 The Sawaguchi family curiously parallels the St. Clairs in the Dan Brown novel The DaVinci Code in this regard, except that they are not fictional characters, but actually existed in history (and still exist to this day).

4 This reminds me of the various Lucumí chants that are sung to the Orishas (in the Yoruba-derived syncretic religions of the Americas). No one really knows the meaning of the phrases, they are taught phonetically by a priest(ess) to a catecumen.

5 This is doubly ironic in light of the recent work of Frank Zindler and René Salm, who have cogently argued that Nazareth didn’t really exist per se as an inhabited town during the time in which Jesus presumably lived, that it only became so during the time of the composition of the New Testament books, which would be the late first century at the earliest. 

6 The tetragrammaton is the Hebrew theonym ( יהוה‎ ), commonly transliterated into Latin letters as YHWH (Yahweh - common variants include Yaveh and Jehova). 
7 Japan: A Short Cultural History by G.B.Sansom, Stanford University Press, 1931 (1988 edition) pp. 20–21



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