Last month, the Japanese government formally announced its intention to make Churches and Christian Sites in Nagasaki its official candidate for UNESCO World Heritage status in 2016. This decision has shone a spotlight on a side of Japanese history that many around the world have little awareness of.

The story of the Catholic Church in Japan is a human story unlike any other. It begins with the arrival of the Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier in Kagoshima in 1549, and unfolds much like one of Shakespeare’s great tragi-comedies. It is complex and compelling, and certainly has the potential to be of interest to a wide range of people across the world.

It merits global recognition. Firstly, it is a crucial chapter in an even wider story: that of the history of Japan’s foreign relations. Xavier’s arrival was the catalyst for a hitherto unprecedented amount of cultural exchange between Japan and Europe, the great orchestrators of which were, in large part, Jesuit missionaries.

These missionaries soon established churches, hospitals, orphanages and educational institutions, which became venues whereby the two cultures could encounter one another. It was even a Jesuit who organized the first ever Japanese embassy to Europe (namely the Tensho Embassy — a mission comprising four Japanese boys, all Christians, which departed in 1582).

Another reason Japan’s Christian heritage is worth celebrating is because it contains many moving examples of friendships that were formed between people from very different cultures.

When European missionaries first arrived in Japan, they encountered a culture that was, at the time, almost entirely separate from their own. Huge geographical, linguistic and cultural boundaries had to be overcome. The remarkable thing is that in many instances, they were. Xavier himself quickly formed a high opinion of the Japanese, poignantly describing them as “the delight of his heart.” This heritage thus bears forceful witness to the possibility of cross-cultural friendship.

What happened next, on the other hand, serves as an iconic warning of the ever-present potential for misunderstanding when two very different cultures meet, as well as a reminder of the catastrophic consequences such misunderstandings can have.

In 1597, Japan witnessed its first ever Christian martyrdoms. Twenty six men and boys were crucified by order of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the ruler of Japan at the time. Less than two decades later, in 1614, an edict was issued by Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate, strictly prohibiting Christianity and expelling the missionaries from Japan. Some of the worst persecutions in the history of the Christian Church ensued, with thousands of Christians losing their lives.

The reasons why events unfolded as they did are complex, but what is clear is that from a state of promising beginnings, relations had deteriorated to the point where entire families of Japanese Christians were being burnt at the stake.

Many of the most formative events in Japanese Christian history occurred in the city of Nagasaki. When the Jesuits first began their work there in the late 1560s, Nagasaki was in fact no more than a group of desolated hamlets. It rapidly developed into a prosperous port town with a flourishing Christian community, and even came to be referred to as a “little Rome” owing to the amount of churches that were built (all of which were later destroyed).

Those Japanese Christians who survived the persecutions of the 17th century made the decision to continue their faith underground. In secluded villages and on remote islands across the Nagasaki region, they secretly recited prayers that the missionaries had taught them and hid Christian devotional items in their homes at profound risk to their lives. In the absence of priests, they baptized their children themselves, clinging to the belief that one day, missionaries would return to Japanese shores.

During this time, people living in Nagasaki and elsewhere were required at an annual ceremony to trample on a Christian holy image, often of Christ, to demonstrate that they were not a Christian. These ceremonies were a source of ongoing anguish for the Christians in hiding, who, without priests to absolve them, remained haunted by what they had done. In one community they would even return home and burn their sandals (which they hadn’t been allowed to remove), mixing the ashes with water and drinking them while begging God for forgiveness.

Following the opening of Japan in the mid-19th century, there was silent elation when these communities learned that foreign missionaries had once again set foot in Nagasaki. By that point, they had been underground for roughly two and a half centuries. Gathering the necessary courage, a small group of secret Christians made their way to the newly built Oura Cathedral and confessed their faith, whispering into the ear of a French priest the words “we are of one heart with you.” Pope Pius IX called it a miracle.

Further tragedy was to follow, however. When thousands more secret Christians were discovered in Nagasaki and beyond, the authorities were angry. A fresh wave of persecution ensued, killing many. After sustained pressure from Europe and America the persecutions ceased, and in 1873 the long prohibition on Christianity was lifted.

Despite further trials, churches were soon erected in villages across the Nagasaki region. Their subtle fusion of Japanese and Western architectural techniques gives them considerable worth, but what is equally significant is that they were built and paid for in part by the former secret Christians themselves.

As such, these churches today stand as quiet testimonies to religious freedom. Part of this UNESCO bid’s wider importance is that it focuses attention on this issue at a time when so many people throughout the world are still the subject of religious persecution. As poignant reminders of the terrible cost at which religious freedom was won in Japan, these churches would be worthy recipients of World Heritage status.

Another aspect of the bid’s wider significance concerns the city of Nagasaki. This city’s name has become engraved in the modern imagination as synonymous with tragedy, a desperate shame given Nagasaki’s rich and varied past. This bid sends a clear signal that the citizens of Nagasaki do not wish their city to be defined solely by the dreadful atomic bombing of 1945.

Above all, this is a story about hope. It is a story about how a tiny, marginalized group of people stayed true to what they believed in despite overwhelming odds. It is a story that unites cultures and continents, and a story that inspires. As such, it has universal appeal. It deserves to be shared with the world.

Simon Hull is a lecturer at Nagasaki University of Foreign Studies.

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