Hidden Christians: Part 1
Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.
February 19, 2019
Hidden Christians: Part 1
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When the West first established trade relations with Japan, one of its major exports, alongside goods, was religion. Brought in by foreign missionaries, Christianity began to catch on—especially around Nagasaki, the port that became Japan’s key link with the Western world. Fearing Christianity’s expanding influence, Japan’s rulers banned the religion and persecuted its followers—but rather than abandon their faith, many of Japan’s Christians went underground, practicing in secret for around 250 years. These so-called Hidden Christians have been brought to worldwide attention in recent years, with both a major Hollywood film and the 2018 addition of some of Nagasaki’s Hidden Christian sites to UNESCO’s World Heritage list. In this two-part series, Japanology Plus visits Nagasaki to learn more.
The interior of a church in Nagasaki.
On the program, we learn that one of the key figures in bringing Christianity to Japan was St. Francis Xavier, a Roman Catholic missionary from Navarre in what is now Spain. Xavier, who was the first Christian missionary in Japan, arrived in 1549 along with a group of fellow Jesuits. The mission to Japan was sparked by an encounter in Malacca, Malaysia (controlled then by Portugal) between Xavier and a Japanese man named Anjiro, sometimes referred to as Yajiro. Anjiro, who could speak some Portuguese, educated Xavier about Japan, served as his interpreter and even became the first recorded Japanese Christian, baptized as Paulo de Santa Fe.
Host Peter Barakan speaks to Takaharu Matsukawa, a descendant of Hidden Christians.
As we learn, Xavier arrived in Japan during the turbulent Sengoku, or Warring States, period, when there was no single leader ruling over the country. For Xavier and his fellows, this state of affairs had its advantages. For one, because there was no central ruler, there was little risk of expulsion from the country—if one warlord was unfavorable to the missionaries, they could simply move on to another territory, independent from the last. For another, if a lord were to convert to Christianity, those living in his territory would be induced to do the same. This led to rapid increases in the number of Japanese Christians.
Considering how long they kept their faith during the strict ban on the religion, Nagasaki’s Hidden Christians clearly had deeply held beliefs. That ban, we learn, was implemented nationwide in 1614 under the Tokugawa Shogunate, and only ended after Japan dissolved its policy of isolation in the 1860s.
Hidden Christians would bury their dead under unmarked graves and create crosses with rocks when praying, scattering them afterward.
The Shogunate implemented many policies to keep Christianity out of the country. Perhaps the most infamous of these was the creation of fumi-e, which Peter Barakan gets a look at in Nagasaki. Literally meaning “stepping-on pictures,” these were likenesses of Jesus or Mary that suspected Christians were requested to step on. For Hidden Christians, who considered these images holy, this must have been a harrowing experience. Eventually, it is said, the practice was extended to the few non-Japanese allowed to remain in the country. It is also said that some of those who refused to step on the fumi-e were boiled alive in the hot springs of Mount Unzen.
Though Japan was officially isolated from the rest of the world, rumors of fumi-e appear to have reached the West: the practice of stepping on holy images made its way into works like Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Voltaire’s Candide. As researcher Simon Hull notes, fumi-e also appear in the novel Silence by Shusaku Endo and the recent film adaptation thereof.
Due to their long isolation from the rest of the Christian world, the beliefs of at least some Hidden Christians began to take on unique elements drawn from Japanese culture. The great flood that occurs in the Bible, for example, became a tsunami. Even now that Christianity is allowed in Japan, some descendants of Hidden Christians remain separate from the Catholic church, practicing their own version of the religion instead.
A replica of a fumi-e.
Hidden Christians used this Buddhist statue as a stand-in for the Virgin Mary.
These days, Christian believers in Nagasaki and the surrounding region are no longer the subject of persecution, but instead they face a challenge that’s affecting Japan at large. As the rural population ages, and young people move to large cities, participation in religious activities seems to be fading.
Still, the recent designation of Hidden Christian locations as World Heritage sites has prompted a new wave of interest in the fascinating history of Japan’s Hidden Christians—and has highlighted the importance of preserving their story of incredible resilience and perseverance.
Kiyomi Morooka is a priest at Oura Cathedral, the oldest existing church in Japan. He has been working there since 1994.
British native Simon Hull is a professor of humanities at Nagasaki Junshin Catholic University. He specializes in Christian theology. Hull moved to Japan in 2010, and since then he has been conducting research on the history of Japan’s Hidden Christians.
Takaharu Matsukawa was born in 1940 in Nagasaki’s Kurosaki district, which was known for its population of Hidden Christians. He is a direct descendant of those Hidden Christians and is involved in research related to their lives. Matsukawa also works as a guide, and teaches visitors about Nagasaki’s Hidden Christian Sites.
Shuken Shioya is the 11th generation head priest of Tenpukuji Temple in Kashiyamamachi, Nagasaki. The temple is affiliated with the Soto sect of Japanese Zen Buddhism. Before the ban on Christians was lifted, all of Tenpukuji Temple’s worshippers were Hidden Christians who were secretly being protected. The "Maria Kannon," a statue of the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy which they prayed to as a stand-in for the Virgin Mary, is still in the temple’s custody today.
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