Vatican, Japan to catalog ‘lost’ archive of Christians’ persecution


The Vatican Library and four Japanese historical institutes have agreed to inventory, catalog and digitize 10,000 documents from a “lost” archive in modern-day Oita Prefecture recounting the persecution of Christians in Japan from the 17th to 19th centuries.

The Rev. Cesare Pasini, head of the Vatican Apostolic Library, said the so-called Marega Papers represent the largest known civic archive of its kind.

An Italian missionary priest retrieved the 22 bundles of documents in Japan in the 1940s and took them to Rome. They sat in the library’s storage depository for decades until a Vatican researcher who could read the characters could read the characters realized their importance in 2010.

Contacts with Japanese experts ensued, and a team of researchers from Japan visited the Vatican in September to have a first look at the trove.

On Tuesday, a six-year agreement to inventory the documents and prepare them for study was signed between the Vatican Library and the National Institute of Japanese Literature, the National Museum of Japanese History, the Historiographical Institute of the University of Tokyo and the archive of the prefecture of Oita.

“It is clear that these documents are unique,” Pasini said Tuesday in an interview. “The Japanese experts say that there is no other collection this big.”

Jesuit missionaries first began spreading the faith in Japan in 1549, and had made considerable headway by 1585. But a backlash against Christians was already brewing and persecution became rampant and systematic, with Christians executed en masse, including the famous 26 martyrs crucified in Nagasaki in 1597. A famous anti-Christian edict was passed in 1612 and a few years later Christianity was banned outright.

The documentation in the Vatican archives illustrates how Japanese civic authorities enforced the ban, relying on local Buddhist centers to record and document when a Christian had renounced the faith or died, Pasini said.

Freedom of religion was reintroduced in Japan in the late 1800s, and by the 1920s a Salesian missionary, the Rev. Mario Marega, was living and working in Japan and came into the possession of the civic archive. It’s unclear when exactly the papers arrived in Rome, but it’s believed to have been in the 1950s. But the bundles of rice paper went untouched until Delio Proverbio, a researcher at the Vatican, found them in 2010.

Pasini said it was particularly significant that scholars from Japan, which had such a tortured relationship with Christianity in the past, would now be working in the Vatican Library to help bring to light a shared history.

“Culture creates bridges,” Pasini said.

  • Jud Mag

    I am not so surprised. Sophia is a private university and all the museums and institutions mentioned above are state sponsored. Not only that but even in Kirishitan research circles there are various factions in Japan and they are rather reluctant to share info with each other. Among all the peculiarities in Japan, the secrecy and lack of information transfer among researchers was what surprised me the most.

  • Jud Mag

    P.S.: the Kirishitan Archives at Sophia are NOT accessible to the public, not even via InterLibraryLoans. Many documents have to be requested in advance, even ones that saw reprints in India and other countries. However, the Laures docs are partially on the Internet and the library is making some efforts to digitalize many of their materials.

  • bombkiller007

    Extreme bias on this article, and potentially by the Catholic organization that released the information. The various Catholic Orders (Jesuits, Franciscans, etc) that went all over the world were spearheads of colonization from the Catholic church. South America was gripped in a brutal wave of servitude to the Catholics in a genocide of culture. The protective measures against Japan were enacted AFTER the various christian orders began to incite politically against first Hideyoshi then Tokugawa. In addition, in the Nagasaki area where the most converts were made, Shinto and Buddhist shrines were being burned by the converts at the instigation of the Catholic missionaries. Christianity back then was not as it has evolved into today due to the protestant movement. Christianity in the 15th and 16th century was a very political organization. Look at what Christians (Catholics) did to the Jews in Spain?

  • bombkiller007

    Your cause and effect is a bit off. The economics played very little into the equation of initially Toyotomi Hideyoshi who began to restrict the activities of the christian orders (but still believed he could play them against one another), upon his death Tokugawa Ieyasu then later his son noted the destabilizing elements of the orders (again the loyalty to the Vactican first, then the Daimyo/Shogun/Emperor) was antithetical to the Tokugawas policies that sought to maintain unity in Japan while maintaining peace. The uprisings in Nagasaki and burning of Shinto and Buddhist shrines were noted with alarm, and the Dutch (seen as the most unaffiliated of the foreigners) were allowed to maintain a presence for limited trade only. By now the foreign weapons were incorporated into Japanese artisans, and there was little that was beneficial technology wise at the risk of stability and peace. In hindsight it was a good policy (Korea enacted a similar policy against catholics) as the results in areas where orders were allowed a permissive entry were almost universally the same….eventual occupation by a Western Power.