Refocus on persecution angle helped Japan set stage for latest UNESCO site

by Takaki Tominaga


The dozen sites related to Japan’s persecution of “Hidden Christians” have been awarded World Heritage status largely due to the fact that they show how the believers protected their faith at all costs, experts say.

UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee recognized that the “Hidden Christian Sites in the Nagasaki Region” — 12 locations that include small villages where people secretly practiced Christianity — “bear unique testimony to a distinctive religious tradition.”

A UNESCO advisory board offered its own suggested sites to the government, which led to their being selected as World Heritage sites on June 30.

Christianity was introduced to Japan in 1549 by Saint Francis Xavier — a Basque and Jesuit hailing from what is now northern Spain — and his companions. The hidden Christians of Japan have come under the spotlight in recent years since Pope Francis, the first Jesuit pontiff, mentioned them in a speech.

“Even when all lay missionaries and priests had been expelled from the country, the faith of the Christian community did not grow cold,” Francis said in his 2015 address to the bishops of the episcopal conference of Japan to commemorate the discovery of the hidden Christians in 1865 despite a ban and persecution that lasted more than 200 years.

“These two pillars of Catholic history in Japan, missionary activity and the ‘Hidden Christians,’ continue to support the life of the Church today,” the pope said.

When Japan initially nominated the “Churches and Christian Sites in Nagasaki” in 2015, it proposed 14 sites but withdrew the nomination because the International Council on Monuments and Sites suggested Japan put more focus on the persecution of Christianity, enforced by the Tokugawa shogunate from the 17th century.

Japan dropped two sites ICOMOS did not consider to be sufficiently connected with the prohibition period, and reapplied in 2017.

The World Heritage site in southwestern Japan includes the remains of Hara Castle, the most important site of the Shimabara Rebellion (1637-38), which involved mostly Christian peasants and subsequently led to the country’s seclusion policy.

Also included were villages on Kashiragashima Island, where hidden Christians camouflaged their faith under the guidance of a Buddhist man. They migrated to the island, which was then used to quarantine smallpox patients, to avoid persecution.

“They took our suggestion positively and demonstrated flexibility and creativity in changing components of the property and its boundary,” said Toshiyuki Kono, a professor of international law at Kyushu University who became the first Japanese to head ICOMOS last December.

“We were able to hold very effective academic dialogue, which led to ICOMOS’ high evaluation,” he said.

Officials expressed appreciation for ICOMOS’ concrete and constructive advice.

“If you look at cases of the country’s World Heritage sites in the past, ICOMOS did not give any specific advice on things to do,” said Chihei Suzuki, senior World Heritage specialist at the Cultural Affairs Agency.

“This time, however, ICOMOS showed a clear direction and they also said we shall work together to achieve that goal. It was significant,” said Maki Sakamoto, who is a unit chief at the Office for World Cultural Heritage.

Compared with other World Heritage properties directly associated with religious suppression, the sites in Nagasaki are unique because the communities involved continued to independently practice their religion in secret and under difficult conditions for an extended period.

They also hid themselves from society by outwardly behaving as Buddhists and Shinto followers. Japan points out such differences in its “justification for inscription” to the World Heritage list.

For example, in comparison with Turkey’s Goreme National Park and the Rock Sites of Cappadocia, “Japanese lay people passed on the Christian faith by themselves in the complete absence of priestly guidance, while it is thought the clergy remained in the communities in Cappadocia and that contact was maintained with Constantinople and other centers of Christianity,” the document claims.

In addition, the Christian communities in Cappadocia hid in caves to take refuge from attacks, whereas the hidden Christian communities in Nagasaki coexisted with local people of other faiths, despite the threat of persecution.

With all Catholic Church leaders banished, hidden Christians in Japan were led by community leaders called chokata, who administered the observance of the liturgical calendar, and mizukata, who performed baptisms.

“We basically shifted our focus from the value of the architecture to the hidden Christians themselves, how they hid, as well as their daily lives and customs,” Suzuki said.

After the ban on Christianity was lifted in 1873, many of the hidden Christian communities rejoined the Catholic Church under the guidance of missionaries sent by the Vatican, while others continued their distinctive beliefs and practices.

Those who were not reintegrated into the Catholic Church were called kakure kirishitan, and a small number of them still exist in the area today. There were also those who converted to Buddhism and Shinto.

In villages where hidden Christians rejoined the Catholic Church, people helped build churches in places dating back to the period of the ban, such as the houses of former hidden Christian leaders, some of which are now considered part of the World Heritage site.

It is relatively easy for the U.N. to recognize churches in terms of cultural heritage, but residents in Japan needed explanations about why their farmlands received the same status, Suzuki said.

“People were wondering why this field, bush or forest is part of the World Heritage site. They needed justification of its significance in relation to the history and tradition of hidden Christians,” Sakamoto said.

Those overseeing the properties in Nagasaki, especially those on remote islands, are facing difficulty securing enough people to preserve the sites due to aging and depopulation, just like other heritage sites across Japan.

“Since they were awarded the World Heritage status as villages, they have to be preserved as villages first (to maintain their value),” Kono said, adding that broad knowledge and coordination among personnel in different fields are essential.

Kono stressed the importance of developing sustainable tourism, in which visitor numbers are kept low enough to maintain an area’s structural integrity and protect the villagers’ daily lives.

“I think the parties concerned need to find a new direction, to find new forms of tourism, which no one has thought of or discussed before,” he said.

He also expressed hope for Japan’s further international cooperation in protecting and restoring cultural properties around the world, as it has a long history of performing such activities domestically.

“Japan has been conserving cultural properties in difficult conditions: frequent natural disasters, high temperatures and high humidity,” Kono said. “Sharing such know-how with others would be greatly appreciated.”

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