When people outside Japan hear the word “Nagasaki,” they often think only of the atomic bombing. This tragic event seems to have obliterated not only much of the city, but also global awareness about its rich and fascinating past.
Being proposed for UNESCO World Heritage status in 2016 are a collection of historical sites which tell of the city’s unique Christian history. These sites bear outstanding witness to Christianity’s development within the Nagasaki region over a period of four centuries. They speak of how Christianity briefly flourished there following its introduction in the mid-16th century, of how it was subsequently banned and forced underground, and of how it remarkably resurfaced over two centuries later and was revived with strength and speed across the Nagasaki region following the lifting of the ban on Christianity in 1873.
One reason these sites have been proposed for UNESCO status is owing to their architectural value. The churches that were built after 1873 display a subtle fusion of Western and Japanese architectural techniques, and many also incorporate Japanese details such as sliding doors and window shutters or tatami mat floors. They are also rich in local character. For instance, one depicts images of indigenous flora within its stained glass, while in another the floor around the altar is comprised of blue and white tiles made from a distinctive type of local porcelain.
Nagasaki’s churches also have profound contemporary relevance. As symbols of how Catholicism was revived across the Nagasaki region following a lengthy period of suppression, they speak of the survival of a religious minority that overcame intense persecution. At a time when many people around the world are still persecuted for their religious beliefs, Nagasaki’s churches bear important witness to the value of religious freedom.
Perhaps the most compelling reason these sites have universal appeal is because of the remarkable story that lies behind them. It is a story about hope, and one that is certainly capable of capturing the imagination of people across the world.
Christianity first arrived in Japan in 1549, when the Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier landed in Kagoshima. It briefly flourished, and the newly opened port of Nagasaki developed into one of Asia’s most important Christian centers, becoming known as “a little Rome.”
In 1614, a strict ban on Christianity was issued. Churches were destroyed, and Christians in Japan faced various possibilities. Some suffered exile, forbidden from ever returning. Others were martyred, refusing to renounce their faith despite, in many cases, being severely tortured. There were also those who committed apostasy, unable to bear the torment they were subjected to.
By the 1640s, not a single priest was left in the whole of Japan. Christians in Nagasaki realized that if they, too, were to die as martyrs, the Japanese church would die with them. As persecution raged and the prospect of the Christian faith’s complete eradication from Japan became imminent, these Christians made a decision that was to have dramatic consequences over two centuries later: to continue their faith in secret.
The story of the underground church is one of suffering. Throughout the ban on Christianity in Japan, people in Nagasaki were required at an annual ceremony to trample on an image of Christ or the Virgin Mary, known as a fumie, to prove they were not Christian. These ceremonies haunted the imaginations of the secret Christians, who were without priests to absolve them. Every year they would creep home and utter penitential prayers, begging God to forgive them for what one scholar has called “this most necessary of sins.”
As the years wore on, the plight of many of the Christians in hiding became increasingly desperate. Some were deprived of almost all tangible reminders of their Catholic faith. This was especially true of those who poverty and persecution drove to cross the sea in tiny fishing boats and live in inhospitable corners of remote islands. At these windswept extremes, the flame of faith had grown so fragile that the secret Christians living there had almost nothing, save for a firm hope that one day, missionaries would return to Japanese shores.
Following the opening of Japan in the mid-19th century, a Catholic church was erected in Nagasaki, the first to be built there since before the ban on Christianity. This ban remained strictly in force, and permission for the church was granted on the understanding that it was solely for use by foreigners residing within Nagasaki’s newly established foreign settlement.
Among the secret Christians, there was silent elation. By that point, they had been underground for over two hundred years. On March 17, 1865, a small group of them gathered courage and approached the church. Here they met a French priest named Father Petitjean. Kneeling before him, one whispered: “All of us have the same heart as you.” They then asked the stunned priest “Where is the statue of Santa Maria?”
This moving episode became known as the “Discovery of Christians,” and today the same statue of the Virgin Mary that Father Petitjean showed them can still be seen inside the church. In the wake of this event, thousands more secret Christians from across the Nagasaki region also came forward and confessed their faith.
The Catholic churches that were erected following the lifting of the ban on Christianity in 1873 stand in the remote locations where the secret Christians had lived. Each one being proposed for UNESCO status tells in its own unique way of how Christians in Nagasaki gave everything they had for the sake of their faith. At one church, for instance, the brickwork is slightly uneven, bearing poignant testimony to how former secret Christians themselves helped to finance and construct it. In another, it is thought that the altar stands in the exact spot where fumie trampling used to occur.
As such, Nagasaki’s churches and Christian sites speak to us today of a resurrection that had once seemed impossible. They stand as symbols of hope, inviting us to reflect upon what it means to be human.
Simon Hull is a lecturer at Nagasaki Junshin Catholic University. He specializes in the history of Christianity in Nagasaki, and has been closely involved in many aspects of this UNESCO bid.