“It is 12:30 p.m. in Nagasaki, on March 17, 1865. Father Bernard Petitjean, a priest of the French Societe des Missions Etrangeres, hears a noise at the back door of his little chapel. On opening he is surprised to find a group of 15 middle-aged Japanese men and women — surprised because all native- born subjects of the Mikado are strictly forbidden to associate with Christians and his chapel has been declared to be reserved only for foreigners.”
So begins Part 17 of a series titled “Great Moments in Catholic History,” published in 1983 in the journal The Catholic Register. The article’s author is Fr. Jacques Monet, who vividly captures the emotional intensity of this charged moment.
“Until now,” he continues, “[Fr. Petitjean] has had no visitors. But here, standing before him are these 15 people, looking very frightened and not a little unsure of themselves . . .
“Then a young man speaks up. His name is Peter. He is a catechist, he says timidly, and wonders whether Fr. Petitjean owes allegiance to ‘the great chief of the Kingdom of Rome.’ The missionary answers that the Vicar of Christ, Pope Pius IX, will be very happy to learn of their interest.
“Peter, however, wants to make sure he has been understood. He asks, ‘Have you no children?’ ‘You and all your brethren,’ answers the missionary, ‘Christian and others, are the children whom God has given me. Other children I cannot have. The priest must, like the first apostles of Japan, remain all his life unmarried.’ At this, Peter and his friends bend their heads down to the ground and cry out: ‘He is celibate! Thank God.’ Then they mention their village [Urakami, north of Nagasaki]: ‘At home, everybody is the same as we are. They have the same hearts as we.’ ”
“Peter” and his friends were the first evidence of an astonishing historical fact. More than 200 years earlier, Japan’s thriving Christianity had been outlawed, its adherents tortured and slaughtered by the tens of thousands. So determined was the new Tokugawa Shogunate to protect its subjects from the “evil doctrine” that, having bloodily suppressed a Christian and peasant uprising at Shimabara in 1638, it built a virtual wall around the entire country.
Fr. Petitjean was among the first wave of foreigners to arrive after the forced entry effected by U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry in 1854. For two centuries before, in hamlets and remote islands off western Kyushu, little communities of Kakure Kirishitan (Hidden Christians), some 30,000 individuals altogether, without priests or religious instruction — “without any other sacrament than baptism and marriage,” as Monet puts it — had persisted in their Christian faith. Monet calls it “one of the most extraordinary acts of preserving faith in the long history of the Church.” Pope Pius called it a miracle.
Kakure Kirishitan worship is an odd blend of Shinto and Buddhist observances — initially to deceive the authorities — and dimly remembered Latin prayers whose distortions as they were handed down in secret from generation to generation acquired, in the minds of worshipers, a sacred character of their own.
“I have a Buddhist altar and Shinto shrine in my house,” Kakure pastor Tomeichi Oka told the New York Times in 1997. “In the old days that was just for camouflage . . . but now I believe in the other gods as well.” And his congregation on tiny Ikitsuki Island off Nagasaki would pray, for example, “Ame Maria karassa binno domisu terikobintsu . . . “ — in which Catholics will discern an echo of “Ave Maria gratia plena dominus tecum benedicta.’‘
Fr. Petitjean encouraged the Kakure Kirishitan of Urakami to practice their faith openly. This was premature. Christianity was still an outlawed religion, and Petitjean’s new flock paid a harsh price for his enthusiasm: 3,400 were arrested, some of them tortured, 36 put to death. It was only in 1873 that, under intense foreign pressure, the anti-Christian edict became a dead letter. In 1889 a new Constitution granted religious freedom. Even so, Kakure forms of worship persisted, surviving to this day on the remote Goto Islands of Kyushu.
Up to this point in the story, Japanese Christianity is, in however altered a form, Roman Catholic Christianity. Protestantism’s first inroads came with the forced opening of the country in the mid-19th century. The early success of the mostly U.S. Protestant missionaries owed much to their status as teachers of the “Western” knowledge that Japan, after the 1868 Meiji Restoration, was suddenly eager to acquire.
It also owed more than a passing nod to Confucius. In an essay titled “The First Generation,” theologian Akio Doi introduces several Meiji Era Christian thinkers whose earliest childhood education had taught them that the highest thing in life was to serve and be prepared to die for your feudal lord.
They had much in common, those early Japanese Protestants. All were of warrior stock, steeped in the samurai and Confucian ethics of loyalty, filial piety and self-sacrifice. All were, in a sense, looking for a new lord to serve, a new “father” to receive their reverence. And all saw in Christianity not a repudiation of their old beliefs but a purification and completion of them.
Danjo Ebina (1866-1937) was born in northern Kyushu and entered the Kumamoto Western School as a child of 6. There, under the influence of an American Protestant missionary teacher, “he came to feel,” writes Doi, “the working of a God who created and ruled everything . . . Having lost a lord to serve, he had been living a self-centered life. Now he realized that he was to serve God, the Creator of all. For him, God was his lord and he was His subject . . . ”
Later, as a student at the Protestant- founded Doshisha University in Kyoto, “Ebina underwent a new religious experience,” writes Doi. “[He] came to discover his deep desire to seek God the Father as His child . . . ” — to render Him, in short, the homage of filial piety as enjoined by Confucius. “This way of understanding his religious experiences shows that Ebina thought of Christianity as analogous to Confucianism.”
Hiromichi Kozaki (1856-1928), also a Kumamoto Western School alumnus, charted a similar spiritual course. He discovered, explains Doi, that “though Confucianism speaks of evil and of the necessity of finding a way out of it, it does not teach salvation, as does Christianity. Confucianism is limited to one nation, and speaks of the distinction between upper and lower classes and high and low ranks. In Christianity, the kingdom of God is extended to all nations, and the gospel preaches the equality of all people.
“[Kozaki] gave Christianity a place,” Doi sums up ominously, “in the doctrines of an emperor-led nation which sought to enrich and strengthen itself and which engaged in the invasion and conquest of other Asian nations.”
Was it all for naught? The epic missionary zeal; the heroic martyrdom of unresisting but unyielding peasant men, women and children in the face of a ruthless regime; the suffering serenely borne (“We’re on our way to Paradise,” they sang as they died in agony); the revolt at Shimabara (see main story) that government troops needed five months to crush — and yet today, fewer than 1 percent of Japanese (0.7 percent, according to the CIA World Fact Book) are practicing Christians.
“Few nations on the face of the earth are more resistant, more difficult for Christian mission endeavors,” said Lawrence Spalink, Japan Field Director of the Christian Reformed World Missions, in a recent e-mail interview. “Japan rivals and even exceeds the resistance often seen in the Islamic world. Iraq’s Christian population is higher.”
“It is estimated,” he continued, “that up to 200,000 people gave their lives rather than renounce their loyalty to Christ. There has never been an adequate acknowledgment or meaningful atonement for this terrible government-sponsored atrocity. Is this veiling of understanding tied to God’s judgment for rejection of his Messiah and the persecution of his people?”