By Shinji Takagi, MTS, PhD

A Brief History of Mormonism in Japan

Mormonism’s formal beginnings in Japan go back to the turn of the twentieth century when, in 1901, Mormon apostle Heber J. Grant and three associates established Asia’s first continuous mission.[1] This occurred as the LDS church, freed from government harassment over the practice of polygamy, was beginning to think of extending its proselytizing work to a new field. Japan was a natural choice, given its spectacular rise to the ranks of modern nations in a brief period of time after 220 years of national seclusion; the LDS leaders also favorably remembered the visit in 1872 of a high-level government delegation to Salt Lake City (as part of their round-the-world tour). Almost coincidentally, the promulgation of a written constitution and associated statutes toward the end of the previous century had formally allowed its citizens to practice a religion of their choice and foreign missionaries to travel freely in the interior.

The prewar Japan Mission operated for 23 years from 1901 to 1924, when it closed after seeing 169 convert baptisms. Following the conclusion of World War II, in 1948, the LDS church returned to Japan after 24 years of official absence. Under the postwar Japanese Mission (renamed in 1955 as the Northern Far East Mission), missionary work was scaled up, with an estimated 9,570 individuals embracing the Mormon message before the mission was split in 1968. The number of missionaries assigned to Japan remained small, however. From 1901 to 1924, for a country of about 50 million people, the number averaged 12.5 and never exceeded 20 at any given time; from 1948, the number gradually increased from less than 20 to exceed 100 in the early 1960s for the first time. The church’s geographical expansion only began from the late 1960s as it multiplied the numbers of missions and missionaries.

The LDS church now claims a membership of about 130,000 in Japan, making it the country’s second largest nationally registered Christian religious corporation.[2] In fact, it has been among Japan’s most successful Christian denominations. From 1960 to 2018, its membership grew at an average 6.5 percent per year; the growth, at more than 15 percent per year, was particularly impressive during the period 1970–80. Yet, in this largely non-Christian nation, the church’s growth performance pales in comparison with such new Buddhist movements as Sōka Gakkai and Risshō Kōseikai, which claimed millions of converts each over the same period. This should put into perspective any notion of the LDS church’s success. After more than a century’s proselytizing work, Latter-day Saints remain a tiny fraction of Japan’s total population, accounting for no more than 0.1 percent.

The LDS church, along with many other religious groups, faces a challenging future in Japan, posed by the country’s adverse demographic trend and rising religious indifference. Japan’s population peaked in 2008 at 128 million and has been declining since, diminishing the pool of young people from which the church has typically drawn its converts. Many religious groups in Japan have been experiencing stagnation, and even an outright fall in some cases, in membership. Non-traditional, non-Christian religions, for example, began to suffer a membership decline from the 1980s; the membership growth of all Christian churches combined has been stagnant since the 1970s (and membership has actually been falling more recently). The LDS church has not yet experienced an outright fall in membership, but its growth virtually stopped in the early to mid-1990s.

Was the Prewar Japan Mission a Failure?

Most of the extant writings on Mormonism in Japan are historical and devotional in nature; and the quality of scholarship is mixed. The few scholarly works have utilized archived official and personal records (mostly housed in the LDS church historical department) and American missionary journals (some of which are archived both in the LDS church historical department and in the special collection libraries at Brigham Young University and the University of Utah) to elucidate interesting episodes in prewar Mormon experience. Murray Nichols was a pioneer in this approach.[3] His master’s thesis submitted to BYU in 1957 presents a comprehensive history of the Japan Mission based, among other things, on the newly located journals of Alma O. Taylor, an early missionary who remained in Japan from 1901 to 1909. Nichol’s thesis and Taylor’s journals are both available electronically from the BYU library.

Other scholars followed suit, utilizing new primary sources. Lanier Britsch discusses the circumstances that led to the closing of the prewar Japan Mission in 1924.[4] Christopher Conkling provides a historical account of member activities during the period of no official LDS church presence.[5] Ronald Walker, based in part on the journals of Heber J. Grant, a Mormon apostle who served as the first mission president in Japan, gives an interesting account of early Mormon experience.[6] These studies are reprinted in a volume edited by Reid Neilson and Van Gessel, which also includes additional studies and a useful chapter entitled “Mormonism and the Japanese: A Guide to the Sources.”[7]

Reid Neilson, based on his doctoral dissertation at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, takes an analytical approach to early Mormon history in Japan.[8] He asks why the number of converts (at 169) was so small, especially compared to the tens of thousands of converts that the Catholic and Protestant churches were able to claim during the prewar period. Neilson’s thesis is that the relative success of the mainline Christian churches came from their emphasis on education work, which was more adapted to Japanese society. In contrast, the Mormons “merely imposed or translated their message” almost exclusively through “personal contacting.”[9]

I am not sure if Neilson’s explanation takes sufficient account of the diverse approaches and experiences evinced by the Catholic and Protestant missionaries in Japan. Regardless, his whole argument is based on the fundamental premise that the prewar mission was a failure, a view widely shared by students of early Mormon history in Japan. He is in good company. A person of no less authority than Gordon B. Hinckley (the LDS church’s 15th president, 1995–2008) characterized the prewar Mormon experience in Japan as “a work of devotion and disappointment probably without parallel in the history of the missions of the Church.”[10] I discuss this topic at some length in my book The Trek East.[11] My conclusion is that the number of converts was small because the number of missionaries was small.

From 1901 to 1924, the total number of missionaries sent to Japan was less than 0.5 percent of the global total. If each mission had received an equal allocation, the number of missionaries sent to Japan would have been about ten times the actual number; and the number would have been even larger if the allocation had been made in proportion to the population of the country. If you divide the number of convert baptisms by the number of missionaries, the average was 0.58 baptisms per missionary per year, with a discernible rising trend. In fact, the average for the 1915–22 period, at 1.02,[12] was higher than the productivity of LDS missionary work in Japan observed in recent years.

It is true that the Japan Mission was not as productive as some of the other missions: a comparable figure for the Swiss–German Mission, then the LDS church’s highest baptizing mission, was 16.6 for the period 1919–24. Even so, if the Japan Mission had received the same number of missionaries (ninety missionaries at the end of 1920), the same productivity observed for the nine missionaries serving in Japan would have produced 100 baptisms, placing it in eighteenth place (or eleventh place outside the United States) out of the twenty-five existing missions of the church. This would have been almost the same number as the Australian and Norwegian Missions (with 102 baptisms each), more than the French (62) and Swedish (54) Missions, and slightly below the Canadian Mission (121).

Why Was the Japan Mission Closed?

Given such a widely held view that the Japan Mission was a failure, it comes as a surprise to serious students of Mormon history that what has emerged as the dominant explanation of the prewar mission’s closing is political: it was due to the deterioration in the Japan–United States relationship (needless to say, my view is that it was closed mainly because the church leaders considered it a failure). In 1948, on the occasion of the reopening of missionary work in Japan, an editorial in the LDS church periodical Improvement Era attributed the withdrawal of missionaries in 1924 to “intense nationalism, fanned by ambitious militarists, [which] discouraged every foreign contact and stifled every breath of personal freedom and privilege.”[13] Mormon belief in prophetic power added another dimension to this narrative. Hilton A. Robertson, the mission president who was instructed to close the mission, remarked at the April 1947 general conference: “I feel that the Lord knew what was going to transpire and he called the missionaries home … Later on we find that the other denominations … were forced to close their missions and return to America at great loss and sacrifice.”[14]

This is another topic I discuss at length in The Trek East. Suffice it to say that those who have related the mission’s closing to the Pacific War in some way all made their remarks from the vantage point of the postwar era, when the war and the events in Japan that had led up to it were a fait accompli. In 1924, the war was more than seventeen years away; events could still have gone either way, and war may well have been averted with a different sequence of political decisions.

To be sure, there was a latent rise in nationalism, militarism, and totalitarianism, but the rest of the 1920s and the early 1930s in Japan actually witnessed a remarkably improved relationship with the United States in commerce and culture. The United States remained Japan’s most important trading partner; a number of prominent American companies came to Japan to form joint ventures or to build production facilities. Things American, from Hollywood movies to Major League baseball, flooded the Japanese market.

Missionary work by other Christian denominations went on as usual. Certainly, no major denomination left Japan; some new Christian mission organizations, numbering at least twenty-nine, arrived in Japan between 1925 and 1938. Among them was the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, whose pacifist teachings resonated with the Japanese society of the late 1920s. In the early months of 1940, Christian missionaries were still able to carry out their assignments without hindrance from the authorities and missionaries were being sent to Japan from their headquarters.[15] While it was the LDS church’s prerogative to decide whether and when to leave Japan, one must keep in mind that it did so during a period of relative success and when the country’s religious climate held some promise, in order to make a proper historical assessment of that decision.

Growth, Stagnation, and the Future of Mormonism

The devotional narrative on the postwar Mormon experience is the exact opposite of the narrative for the prewar experience: it was an astounding success. Lanier Britsch, writing for an LDS church periodical, characterizes the “blossoming” of the church as “impressive by any standard,” attributing the presumed success to postwar reforms, especially the disbanding of State Shinto.[16] It is true that important postwar reforms led to profound socio-cultural changes in Japan; in the realm of religious belief and practice, the social costs of switching religions are now probably much smaller than they were in the prewar period. Even so, I believe that socio-cultural factors explain only a small part of the postwar growth of the LDS church. The church has made little institutional acculturation to adapt its teachings and practices to Japanese society. It has therefore only appealed to a small fraction of the population. Even an unadulterated foreign cult can attract a small following in any socio-cultural setting.

In a recent paper, Meagan Rainock and I formally unbundled the sources of LDS membership growth among various competing factors, such as the number of missionaries, demographics, and a measure of societal religiosity.[17] We used two proxies for the level of religiosity: (i) growth in the number of nationally registered Christians excluding Latter-day Saints and (ii) growth in the number of non-Shinto, non-Buddhist adherents excluding Christians. Applying an ordinary least squares regression model for the years 1975–2017, we found that as much as 60 percent of annual membership change could be explained by the number of missionaries and demographics, with religiosity playing an additional but marginal role. This implies that, unlike many other Christian and non-traditional religions, the LDS church has not yet experienced an outright decline in membership only because evangelical work has offset the decline in membership due to demographics and natural attrition.

This finding does not bode well for the future of the LDS church in Japan. Adverse demographics is here to stay. Japan is the world’s most rapidly aging society. If the current trend continues, the country is expected to lose about a quarter of its population by the year 2050.

On its part, the LDS church has been assigning fewer missionaries to Japan. The average number of missionaries declined from about 1,300 during 1975–95 to about 810 during 1996–2013 even as the church-wide number increased (following a temporary pickup when the eligibility age was reduced in 2012, the number has since dropped further to around 600). On top of this, attrition, high for any Christian denomination in Japan, is especially high among the Latter-day Saints. In fact, the LDS church’s ratio of active to total members (at less than 20 percent) is the lowest of any Christian denomination in Japan, for which church attendance data are available.[18]

The lower member activity of the LDS church in Japan may be an indication that the social costs of remaining an “active” member are higher for the LDS church than for other Christian denominations. In contrast, the activity rate is much higher for such indigenous churches as the Spirit of Jesus Church (43.0 percent) and the Holy Ecclesia of Jesus (52.7 percent), which have pushed the cultural adaptation of Christianity to the limit. The LDS church’s lack of institutional adaption means that acculturation has been taking place at the individual level (acceptance of a foreign religion requires acculturation at some level) and has collectively created a hybrid culture that is neither Japanese nor American. The resulting cultural distance from the rest of society, compounded by the prevalence of transliterated words and other non-traditional language out of line with conventional colloquial usage, is a barrier preventing the LDS church from becoming acceptable to a larger population.

Yet, the simple argument for greater indigenization of the LDS does not follow. A well-known theorem in the sociology of religion, attributable to Rodney Stark, posits that, for a new religion to thrive, it requires a moderate level of tension with the host society. Consistent with this theorem, most of the indigenous Christian denominations in Japan, after prospering for some time, now appear to be heading toward institutional extinction. Speaking of such Christian groups in 1998, Mark Mullins, presciently observed that while Christianity was “too deviant for widespread acceptance by Japanese,” churches could “dig their own graves through ‘over-indigenization.’”[19]

Directions for Mormon Studies on Japan

Only limited analytical work exists on the contemporary Mormon experience in Japan. This is understandable. Few scholars are bilingual in Japanese and English, to begin with, and, for those rare scholars, doing serious work on Mormonism in Japan does not pay in terms of academic recognition. If Mormonism is a niche in Japan’s religious world, so is Mormon studies on Japan in academia. In my own life, Mormon studies (alas, with a focus on Japan) has been little more than a hobby, something I do during my “free” time (and I started Mormon studies only after I was reasonably established in my own home discipline). Perhaps this situation may change for the better in coming years, as genuine interest continues to strengthen in Mormonism as a world religion.

Looking to the future, abundant information available on the contemporary Mormon experience (even in Japan) argues against taking the dominant historical approach of the past. I can think of only a few areas where the conventional mode of inquiry may still be useful (e.g., Jiro Numano’s work on the controversial “hasty baptism” era of the early 1980s).[20] There is thus little to discover, but much to explain. What is needed is an explicitly social-scientific analysis of Japanese culture and society, and how they interface with Mormonism. My own sociological work with Meagan Rainock provides a glimpse of how such an approach may work in practice. John Hoffman’s analysis of the quality characteristics of Japanese Mormons in a small LDS branch in Hokkaido is likewise a promising start.[21]

Ultimately, the question of why the LDS church remains a niche religion in Japan can only be answered within the broader question of why Christianity likewise remains so. Lanier Britsch makes a first worthwhile attempt to explain cultural barriers to the wider acceptance of Mormonism in Japan, but the argument is not fully convincing.[22] A phenomenon (e.g., religious acceptance) cannot be explained by another phenomenon (e.g. Japan’s group orientation; status consciousness; lack of individualism);[23] phenomena are the outcome of deeper, fundamental causes. I believe that we must go much beyond cultural and social phenomena to provide a fully satisfactory explanation. In my book The Trek East, I assumed the perspective of an intellectual historian to explain prewar Japan’s changing attitude toward Christianity. This approach served the modest purpose at hand (that is, to explain the ebbs and flows of Christian converts, which remained small in absolute value). To explain why the number of Christians (and Latter-day Saints) remains so small relative to the population would seem to require a grander exploration of what fundamentally constitutes a Japanese person.


Britsch, Lanier R., “The Closing of the Early Japan Mission,” BYU Studies 15 (1975): 171–90.

Britsch, Lanier R, “The Blossoming of the Church in Japan,” Ensign 22 (October 1992): 32–38.

Britsch, Lanier R., “Historical and Cultural Challenges to Successful Missionary Work in Japan,” in R. L. Neilson and V. C. Gessel (eds.), Taking the Gospel to the Japanese: 1901 to 2001, Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1–29.

Clissold, Edward L. Untitled. Improvement Era 51, no. 4 (April 1948): 206.

Conkling, Christopher J., “Members without a Church: Japanese Mormons in Japan from 1924 to 1948,” BYU Studies 15 (1975): 191–214.

Hinckley, Gordon B., “The Church in the Orient,” Improvement Era 67 (1963): 167–70.

Hoffman, John P., Japanese Saints: Mormons in the Land of the Rising Sun, Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2007.

Mullins, Mark R., Christianity Made in Japan: A Study of Indigenous Movements, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1998.

Neilson, Reid L. and Van C. Gessel (eds.), Taking the Gospel to the Japanese: 1901 to 2001, Provo: Brigham Young University Press.

Neilson, Reid L., Early Mormon Missionary Activities in Japan, 1901–1924, Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2010.

Nichols, Murray L., “History of the Japan Mission of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 19011924,” MA thesis, Brigham Young University, 1957.

Numano, Jiro, “Hasty Baptisms in Japan: The Early 1980s in the LDS Church,” Journal of Mormon History 36 (2010): 18–40.

Parker, F. Calvin, The Southern Baptist Mission in Japan, 18891989, Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1991.

Rainock, Meagan and Shinji Takagi, “The LDS Church in Contemporary Japan: Failure or Success?” in R. Gordon Shepherd, A. Gary Shepherd, and Ryan T. Cragun (eds), The Palgrave Handbook of Global Mormonism, forthcoming.

Robertson, Hilton A., untitled sermon, in Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Conference Report, April 46 (1947): 5356.

Takagi, Shinji, The Trek East: Mormonism Meets Japan, 19011968, Salt Lake City: Kofford, 2016.

Walker, Ronald W., “Strangers in a Strange Land: Heber J. Grant and the Opening of the Japanese Mission,” Journal of Mormon History 13 (1986–87): 21–43.

Shinji Takagi is Professor Emeritus of Economics at Osaka University and Distinguished Research Professor at the Asian Growth Research Institute. He is the author of over 200 publications in international economics, Mormon studies, and related fields. His book, The Trek East (Kofford, 2016), received the 2017 biannual Best International Book Award from the Mormon History Association.
His current research in Mormon studies relates to why Mormonism (and Christianity more generally) remains a niche religion in Japan. Professor Takagi has an MTS (Mediterranean and Near Eastern studies) from Vanderbilt Divinity School and a PhD in economics from the University of Rochester. He commutes every other month between his home in Nashville and his office in Kitakyushu, Japan.


[1] Short-lived missionary work had been carried out, in the early 1850s, in Hindustan (India), Siam (Thailand), and Hong Kong.

[2] The LDS church is the third or possibly fourth largest when those not nationally registered are considered.

[3] Murray L. Nichols, “History of the Japan Mission of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1901–1924” (MA thesis, Brigham Young University, 1957).

[4] Lanier R. Britsch, “The Closing of the Early Japan Mission,” BYU Studies 15 (1975): 171–90.

[5] Christopher Conkling, “Members without a Church: Japanese Mormons in Japan from 1924 to 1948,” BYU Studies 15 (1975): 191–214.

[6] Ronald W. Walker, “Strangers in a Strange Land: Heber J. Grant and the Opening of the Japanese Mission,” Journal of Mormon History 13 (1986–87): 21–43.

[7] Reid L. Nielson and Van C. Gessel, eds., Taking the Gospel to the Japanese: 1901 to 2001 (Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 2006).

[8] Reid L. Neilson, Early Mormon Missionary Activities in Japan, 1901–1924 (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2010).

[9] Ibid., 84,90.

[10] Gordon B. Hinckley, “The Church in the Orient,” Improvement Era 67 (1963): 167–70.

[11] Shinji Takagi, The Trek East: Mormonism Meets Japan, 1901–1968 (Salt Lake City: Kofford, 2016).

[12] With a peak of 1.82 in 1922.

[13] Edward L. Clissold, untitled, Improvement Era 51, no. 4 (April 1948): 206

[14] Hilton A. Robertson, untitled sermon, in Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Conference Report, April 4–6 (1947): 53.

[15] Calvin F. Parker, The Southern Baptist Mission in Japan, 1889–1989 (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1991), 158. On a personal note, my own uncle, who was preparing to enter a military academy and whose mother was the official of a women’s patriotic association, received a Protestant baptism in 1941, just months before Pearl Harbor.

[16]  Lanier R. Britsch, “The Blossoming of the Church in Japan,” Ensign 22 (October 1992): 32.

[17] Meagan Rainock and Shinji Takagi, “The LDS Church in Contemporary Japan: Failure or Success?” in The Palgrave Handbook of Global Mormonism, eds. R. Gordon Shepherd, A. Gary Shepherd, and Ryan T. Cragun, forthcoming.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Mark Mullins, Christianity Made in Japan: A Study of Indigenous Movements (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1998): 167, 169.

[20] Jiro Numano, “Hasty Baptisms in Japan: The Early 1980s in the LDS Church,” Journal of Mormon History 36 (2010): 18–40.

[21] John P. Hoffman, Japanese Saints: Mormons in the Land of the Rising Sun (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2007).

[22] Lanier R. Britsch, “Historical and Cultural Challenges to Successful Missionary Work in Japan,” in Taking the Gospel to the Japanese: 1901 to 2001, eds. R. L. Neilson and V. C. Gessel (Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 2006), 1–29.

[23] As a student of biblical and classical studies, I am aware that these cultural traits frequently associated with Japan were also embedded in the ancient societies where Christianity was born and spread. I don’t see how they can explain why Christianity has not been widely accepted in Japan.