National / Social Issues

Museum chronicling history of Japan’s persecuted Christians opens in Nagasaki

Kyodo

A museum displaying items related to Japanese Christians persecuted in the 17th to 19th centuries recently opened at a major Catholic church in Nagasaki, a candidate site for the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage list.

The museum was set up on April 1 at Oura Church to show items such as a Maria Kannon — an object of worship by Christians who had to hide their faith in the Virgin Mary. The object is in the shape of a Buddhist statue representing a deity of mercy and compassion.

The Catholic Archdiocese of Nagasaki renovated the former Latin seminary and a former residence of bishops on the premises of Oura Church — which is designated as a national treasure — into the museum.

The new facility highlights Japan’s religious history with panels explaining different time periods, such as the introduction of Catholicism to the country and a period in which Christians practiced their faith in secret amid persecution by authorities.

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee will decide whether to add 12 sites linked to the history of Japan’s persecuted Christians in Nagasaki and neighboring Kumamoto Prefecture to its list this summer.

On opening day, a number of tourists visited the museum at the nation’s oldest church.

“I thought Christianity had once been completely wiped out in Japan. I was surprised to learn that people in Nagasaki continued to uphold the faith,” said Natsumi Sato, a 29-year-old housewife from Tokyo who visited the museum with her husband.

The Christian faith was introduced to Japan by missionary Francis Xavier in 1549, but the religion was banned for most of the Edo Period (1603-1868) under the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate, when followers suffered brutal persecution.

After Japan ended its self-imposed isolation in 1854, Catholic missionaries returned to Nagasaki and completed the construction of Oura Church in 1864.

The following year, a group of hidden Christians from the region visited the church and confessed to a French priest that they had been secretly practicing Christianity. The discovery of those Christians in Japan was considered a miracle overseas.

The Meiji government, which wrestled power from the Tokugawa shogunate, lifted the ban on Christianity in 1873 after Western countries lodged strong protests.