KANAZAWA, Ishikawa Pref. — When construction workers first dug human bones out of a ridge on Mount Utatsu in Ishikawa Prefecture in October, they had no idea what they had unearthed.
Kuniko Kigoshi, a member of Catholic Kanazawa Church, believes the bones are the remains of “Kakure Kirishitan,” or underground Christians, who were brought to Kanazawa from Nagasaki’s Urakami district in the early Meiji Era (1868-1912).
Catholic missionaries from Portugal landed in the Urakami district in the late 16th century and had a great deal of success there.
“Facts add up to say that it is highly possible they are the bones of Christians from Urakami,” Kigoshi said. The remains were found during construction of a tunnel through Mount Utatsu, northeast of central Kanazawa.
When police found no indication of foul play linked to the remains, the prefecture’s board of education took over the investigation to determine whether they constituted cultural assets. “They were buried in a bamboo grove as if meant to avoid the public eye,” Shuhei Yujiri, an education board official, said, adding that no gravestones were found.
The board determined that the site held the remains of nearly 40 people, ranging in age from around 5 to their 60s, interred in a crouching position in wooden boxes, according the report it submitted to the prefectural government earlier this month.
From the shape of the boxes’ nail heads, officials believe the remains were buried in the late Edo Period (1603-1867) or early Meiji Era.
But Hiroshi Motoyasu, a curator at the Ishikawa Prefectural Museum of History, pointed out that most people in the area at the time were buried on Mount Noda in southwest Kanazawa. “Mount Noda is like a graveyard mountain,” Motoyasu said. “Domain lords were buried at the top of the mountain, and samurai of lower ranks were buried at the foot of the mountain.” Families of the samurai were buried at temples in town, Motoyasu added.
All of the remains the researchers have been able to make a gender determination on have been female. They were only able to determine the sex of about a dozen of the remains because shovels smashed many of the skulls and pelvises — the parts that make gender identification easiest.
The sex of the children also could not be determined because the bones had not developed enough, the researchers said. Even experts cannot give a logical explanation as to why only women might have been buried. “I have never heard of a case in which only women and children were buried,” Motoyasu said. “Usually, people are buried in the same grave with their family.”
But since the burial site was near a “yuzaya” (hot-spring lodge) where women and children from Urakami were initially taken, Kigoshi said she believes there is a strong possibility the bones are of Christians.