There are many historical reasons for the relative failure of Catholicism within China and Japan, but among them, the culture itself plays a huge role, as this article from Chiesa about Catholicism in Korea and Japan reveals.
Japan and Korea have a very different history and culture, which is why Christian missions have produced very different results.
In Japan, almost five centuries after the arrival of missionaries with Francis Xavier in 1549, those baptized into the Catholic Church number 440,000 out of 128 million Japanese, 0.35 percent, while the Protestants number around half a million.
In Korea, where Catholicism arrived with a few laymen at the end of the 18th century, there are approximately 5.3 million Catholics out of 50 million inhabitants, more than 10 percent, while the Protestants of various denominations add up to about 8 million, 17 percent. At night Seoul looks like a Christian city because of the great number of crosses on churches, schools, hospitals.
The Christian faith has been received with great difficulty by Japan, while on the contrary South Korea seems to receive it with open arms today. In Korea Christianity is becoming the engine of the nation’s activity. From the 1970’s until today about half the presidents of South Korea have been Christian, including Kim Dae-jung (1925-2009), who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for his vigorous efforts for reconciliation between North and South Korea.
Why do the Japanese convert in such small numbers? Essentially for a religious-cultural reason.
The religions of Japan, like Shintoism, teach that man is one of the many elements of nature, in which the unknown God is manifested.
Confucianism presents a static vision of society, where the supreme moral norm is respect and obedience for the sake of maintaining harmony between heaven and earth, between superiors and subjects, between politics and economy. According to Confucian morality, each one must carry out his work with the greatest diligence in the place that has been assigned to him.
Buddhism, teaching detachment from oneself, disdain for the passions and personal ideals, which are considered harmful illusions, makes the individual willing to accept anything and patient beyond measure.
The Japanese is a child of these religions: an excellent worker, sober, obedient to commands. In a society where everything must function like a machine, the Japanese is the ideal subject, because he acts as part of the group. The people have a powerful awareness of their unity, but little awareness of personal rights. Common life begins in the family, continues in the schools, and ends in the business firm, which is conceived of as a big family. The spirit of collaboration that predominates in the company makes work highly efficient and productive. The success of the firm for which one works is considered an ideal of life worthy of self-sacrifice, even with hours of overtime that are often repaid with little or nothing.
“The influence of the traditional religions,” Fr. Alberto Di Bello, a missionary in Japan since 1972, has told me, “has instilled a lively awareness of one’s duties, more than of one’s rights. Christianity, entering Japan through modern Christian missions and the influence of the West, has brought to this country the fundamental concept of the modern world, that of the charter of human rights: the absolute value of the individual human person. Society, the state, the fatherland are at the service of the human person, it is not the person who is at the service of society, the state, the fatherland.”
Retrieved June 17, 2014 from http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/articolo/1350817?eng=y