St. Nicholas of Japan as born in 1836 in Smolensk Province, the son of a deacon. After graduating from the St. Petersburg Theological Academy in 1860, he became a priest-monk and volunteered to be a chaplain in Hakodate, Japan. At first the rector of the Academy tried to dissuade St. Nicholas from becoming a chaplain saying that he would be wasting his abilities as a consular chaplain. St. Nicholas said he planned to be not only a chaplain, but a missionary to Japan.
St. Nicholas arrived in Japan in 1861. At that time Japan had only recently been opened to foreigners. For over two hundred years Japan was closed to foreigners. Foreigners, with few exceptions, were forbidden to enter Japan and Japanese were forbidden to leave. It was only Western military pressure that forced Japan to open itself. During this period Christianity was illegal. Any Japanese who was found to be a Christian was tortured and executed unless he renounced Christianity. When St. Nicholas arrived in Japan, Christianity was still forbidden. Foreigners could practice Christianity but they were forbidden from teaching it to the Japanese.
Because he could not preach to the Japanese, he spent the following seven years mastering the Japanese language and studying Japanese history and culture.
During this period he made some contacts with Japanese and four men were secretly baptized in the consulate chapel.
In 1868 there was a change of government in Japan, which brought about many other changes. Although it was still technically illegal, there was a tremendous interest in Christianity. In 1871 St. Nicholas moved to Tokyo. Over the years in Tokyo, St. Nicholas established a theological seminary and a girl’s school. He also organized a library, a publication department and an iconography school. A great cathedral was also built. St. Nicholas and various Russian and Japanese priests went throughout Japan converting thousands of Japanese to Christianity.
St. Nicholas most difficult time was the Russo-Japanese War from 1904 and 1905. He was the only Russian to remain in Japan during the war. He did a great deal to help Russian prisoners of war in Japan and was later given awards for this from the Japanese and Russian emperors for his work during the war. St. Nicholas died on February 16, 1912.
During his over fifty years in Japan, St. Nicholas translated most of the Orthodox services and bible into Japanese. He ordained many Japanese men as priests. In general, one can say that St. Nicholas successfully founded a genuinely Japanese Orthodox Church which survived the Russo-Japanese War, the Russian Revolution (when all support from Russia was cut off) and World War II. It still exists today and is a living church. It is an autonomous church within the Moscow Patriarchate. When St. Nicholas was canonized in 1970, he was given the title “Enlightener of Japan”, which he truly was.