Missionaries brought Christianity to Japan in 1549. While it was initially greeted with suspicion, over time it attracted converts, and over the next sixty years some 300,000 people embraced the faith. But with popularity came a backlash, and in 1614 Christianity was banned in the country. Those who practiced it were persecuted, often with violence. For many, their faith had to become private as they became Kakure Kirishitan, or Hidden Christians. Their story is told by John Dougill, a professor of British Studies at Ryukoku University in Kyoto, in In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians, subtitled “A Story of Suppression, Secrecy and Survival.” Each chapter of Dougill’s book is headed by a relevant religious title (Genesis, Commandments, Crucifixion, Apocalypse, etc.) as well as a place in Japan associated with the story that Dougill visits.
The first Europeans arrived in Japan by accident in 1543, two or three Portuguese traveling in a trade ship blown off course from China’s coast. Six years later, in 1549, Christianity arrived in the country with Francis Xavier, the “Apostle of the East,” one of the founding members of the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits. From his home base of Goa, on the west coast of India, Francis did missionary work all over south and east Asia. While in the Philippines he met Yajiro, an outlaw from Japan (where he had apparently committed a murder), who became the first official Japanese convert to Christianity, as well as Bernardo, another early convert and the first documented native of Japan to visit Europe. Both Yajiro and Bernardo accompanied Francis on his first trip to Japan. Dougill speculates that Xavier would have seen many similarities between his faith and the Shingon Buddhism he encountered: “the chanting, the robes, the incense, the prayer beads, the monasteries, the meditation, the one Supreme Deity.”
Francis’s first two years in Japan were a struggle, but eventually, in Yamaguchi, he was given permission to preach by the daimyo (the local ruler) and won hundreds of converts. Xavier wrote of that time, “I think I could truly say that in my life I have never received so much joy and spiritual satisfaction.” Much later, the site where he preached became the site of Japan’s first church. After thirty years of missionary work, by 1579 there were around 100,000 Christians in Japan.
Winning over the fierce Oda Nobunaga, the sixteenth century unifier of Japan, was a major step. Nobunaga was not a believer, but he wanted the favor of all the local religions, mainly to further his political ends. He was delighted by many of the manifestations of European culture the missionaries brought with them. Music was one, and, as a missionary report noted, “of all the things introduced into Japan so far, the playing of organs, harpsichords and viols please the Japanese most.” Cannily, the report also mentions, “we have learned from daily experience that these things act as a bait, because they help people to get to know us and to listen to our sermons.”
Another important moment for the Japanese mission was the 1587 meeting between Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Nobunaga’s successor as leader-unifier of Japan, and the head of the Japanese mission, Father Gaspar Coelho. While in Coelho’s eyes the meeting seemed to go smoothly, shortly afterward Hideyoshi, for reasons unknown, ordered the expulsion of all missionaries from the country, accusing them of forced conversions, involvement in the slave trade, and the destruction of Buddhist and Shinto shrines. Heightening the ongoing tension was the crucifixion of twenty-six martyrs (twenty Japanese, four Spaniards, a Portuguese, and a Mexican) in Nagasaki in 1597. So momentous was that event that Pope John Paul II visited the site of the crucifixions, now known as Martyrs’ Hill, in 1981.
A few years later, Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first of the Tokugawa line than ruled Japan for the next 270 or so years, rose to power. Fearing that Christians were more loyal to their faith than his shogunate, in 1612 Christianity was outlawed entirely. Most missionaries left the country, but some stayed behind and continued their work in secret. Violence increased, and by some accounts the persecution of Christians in Japan in the coming years was even fiercer, and resulted in more deaths, than that of the Inquisition in Europe.
Officials found, however, that recantation was an even more effective deterrent than martyrdom. Korobi Kirishitan (fallen Christians) and korobi bateren (fallen priests) were encouraged in their renunciation by all manner of torture, described in detail by Dougill: “water torture, snake pits, branding, slicing open with a bamboo saw, amputation, roasting alive, crushing limbs, suffocation through overcrowding, suspension upside down, even being tied to stakes in shallow sea water to be slowly drowned by the incoming tide.” Priests and ordinary practitioners had to prove their abandonment of the faith by registering their names with Buddhist temples as well as the fumie, or standing on an image of Jesus.
In 1639, Japan was essentially sealed off from foreign influence, and for the next 200 years the only real point of contact with the outside world was carefully controlled trade at the port of Nagasaki. Once known as “Little Rome,” the city was one of the last homes for public Christianity in Japan in the seventeenth century. Dougill reminds us that Nagasaki was just a tiny village before a priest named Luis de Almeida saw its potential as a port. Within a few years the village had become a city of 25,000, very European in character with its Portuguese traders and ships and numerous churches.
With the crackdown on Christianity, the faith was forced to go underground, and followers had to find private ways to practice. An interesting manifestation of this was Maria Kannon, a combination (generally in sculpture) of the Madonna and Child and Kannon, the female deity of compassion also known as Guanyin, Kwannon, or Avalokiteshvara (one such sculpture recently appeared in this blog). Jesuits had actually started this sort of practice, finding it easier to explain Christianity by creating analogies between it and concepts the Japanese were used to – sin, for instance, was compared to the Shinto tsumi, or pollution. The wine and bread of the service became saké and sashimi or rice.
Because there had always been relatively few priests and missionaries – and none after their eviction from the country – lay people took on some of their functions. Services were performed in distant caves, with mounds of earth serving as altars, or in hidden room within homes. Since there were no Bibles, prayers, called orashio, were passed down orally through the generations (they were only written down in the twentieth century). Dougill had a chance to hear some of the orashio at a modern Buddhist-Catholic-Hidden Christian ecumenical ceremony. Words had, unsurprisingly, become corrupted – for instance, “Benedictus fructus” had become “Benekentsu onha,” and “Deo gratis, Amen” became “biya garassa, ammeizus.” Likewise, in the only surviving written Hidden Christian work from Edo times, Tenchi Hajime no Koto (translated as The Beginnings of Heaven and Earth), the Flood becomes a tsunami, the Virgin Mary was born in the Philippines, and, “As for the one you worship as a Buddha, he is called Deusu, Lord of Heaven.” Thus did this unorthodox version of Christianity survived for hundreds of years.
Dougill first encountered the Hidden Christians, as did I, through Endo Shusaku’s 1966 novel Silence. Set in the early seventeenth century, Silence is based on the true story of Christovao Ferreira, a Portuguese priest and one-time head of the Jesuits in Japan, who, after capture and torture, renounced his faith. He married a Japanese woman, took a Japanese name, and became an “inquisitor” himself. Groups of volunteers sneaked into Japan to find out what had happened to Ferreira, but many of them were likewise captured and forced to recant their faith. Endo creates one such volunteer, Sebastian Rodrigues, who, knowing that others would suffer based on his choice, gives up his desire for martyrdom and outwardly seems to commit apostasy while in fact becoming a Hidden Christian. More about Silence will be appearing in this blog shortly.
In the 1850s, with the country finally opened to outside influence thanks to the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry and the “Black Ships” of the U. S. Navy, treaties allowed some non-Japanese to practice Christianity within the country. Churches were built in Hakodate, Nagasaki, and elsewhere in the early 1860s. But public practice by Japanese remained outlawed until the 1870s. The presence of some 50,000 to 60,000 Hidden Christians only gradually became known, and Pope Pius IX called their existence “the miracle of the Orient.” Over subsequent decades about half of them converted to traditional Catholicism. The other half, however, kept to their hidden faith. They came to be known as Hanare Kirishitan, or “Separated Christians.”
A new Catholic church, possibly the biggest in the country, was completed in 1914 in the northern part of Nagasaki. Its towers, however, were used as ground zero in 1945 when the atomic bomb was dropped on the city. Once a center of Catholicism in Japan, Nagasaki was, as we know, laid waste. Some 9,000 Catholics were killed with that bomb, out of the 12,000 in the city. Dougill notes with some astonishment that the atomic bomb killed more Christians in a matter of moments than had the preceding centuries of Christian persecution in the country.
In the book’s last chapter, Dougill travels to the small islands of Hirado and Ikitsuki, off the northwest of Kyushu, to look for the remaining Hidden Christians. Francis Xavier himself visited Hirado three times (memorialized by the Francis Xavier Memorial Church built there in 1931), and the island briefly became a haven for Christians. An estimated 1,000 Hidden Christians now live on Ikitsuki, although some put that figure much lower, nearer 100. Most are elderly, as young people abandon the faith.
Even as Christianity has become acceptable in modern times, there are many Hidden Christians who continue to reject the traditional faith and practice their own in private. They do so in part because of reverence for their ancestors and their ways, and because of the unique elements of their faith, related to both Buddhism and Shinto. Dougill even quotes one professor as saying, “Kakure Kirishitan should be regarded as another form or expression of Japanese folk religion,” and it is true that many of those who give up Hidden Christianity turn to Shinto or Buddhism rather than Catholicism. As Dougill writes, “These days it’s said the Hidden Christians are no longer in hiding from persecution, but from journalists and researchers that descend on them in droves.”
Dougill draws a parallel between the Kakure Kirishitan and the Marranos, those Iberian Jews some of whom continued to practice Judaism in secret, while publicly professing themselves to be Christians, long after the Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal in 1492. Another comparison he makes is with St. Paul preaching the Gospel in the midst of the Roman Empire. Like Francis Xavier in Japan centuries later, Paul brought a message to ordinary people that was threatening to those in power. As Dougill puts it, “For societies in which most of the population was downtrodden and desperate, the message of spiritual equality proved liberating.”