Christian heritage of Japan


Special To The Japan Times

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.

  • zer0_0zor0

    Less than 1% of the population of Japan is Christian. I suppose it’s not grammatically incorrect to call the early encounter “heritage”, but I find the characterization to be somewhat incongruous. Obviously the events are of historical significance, but there seems to be marginal relevance to the present.

    It’s common knowledge to historians that missionaries and the like have been a part and parcel of colonial efforts during the age of imperialism, and I dare say that the persecuted Christian missionaries in Japan were engaged in politically subversive activity.

    The fact that there are so few Christians today is a testimony to the fact that Japanese religious traditions have become stable and mature, even after the turmoil of the Meiji era and WWII. The only East Asian country with a fairly large percentage of Christians is Korea, if I’m not mistaken.

    • You are rather lightly dismissing thousands of Japanese people being murdered for their religion. I suggest you visit the shrine in Nagasaki.

    • Dan Li

      They are of historic significance, which is what generally matters when designating such sites. Many things that are considered part of a nation’s heritage are of ‘marginal’ importance to the current zeitgeist; this doesn’t mean that their effect was marginal.

      As for on missionaries acting as a subversive influence… how? Such a thing may have worked on smaller nations with a far less coherent people, and I doubt Spain’s intent towards Japan stemmed much further than getting excellent trade ports and trading agreements. Most of the early missionaries were likely more concerned with the God part of “Glory, Gold, and God”.

      … I suppose it is a matter of perspective or philosophy whether or not you view those religious traditions as stable and mature or admirably/frustratingly stubborn. Taiwan has a somewhat larger population than Japan, and in SE Asia there is the Philippines & East Timor (with majorities) and several others with somewhat significant percentages.

  • KennethStevensIIIEsq

    That’s right Sharad, they had it coming. Especially the 37,000 plus murdered during the Shimabara rebellion. That doesn’t sound like the “traditional Japanese value of tolerance” to me. Perhaps you should consult a few Zainichi Koreans on how that worked out for them. Maybe they’re “terrorists,” too?
    Oh and guess what – being killed for your faith doesn’t make you a “martyr” with sneer-quotes, it makes you a martyr period.
    But that’s OK, Sharad, as the Christians of Nagasaki had an atomic bomb dropped directly on top of Urakami Cathedral for their trouble, a fact which I’m sure makes you squeal with delight.

    • zer0_0zor0

      Yeah Buddhist terrorists.

      Some of that rant is rather incoherent. Japan was not a stranger to religious strife before the arrival of Francis Xavier.

      Nobunaga attacked the Tendai “warrior monks” because they had torched all of the temples of the Nichiren sect in Kyoto, threatening to burn the city down in the process in their sectarian strife.

      It’s a little better now that religion and the state are separated under the Constitution.

  • tommy92

    The truth is Ieyasu probably saved Japan and Japanese culture.

    Europeans had a tendency to promote Christianity as a means to control the local population and to build a loyal following that would be on the side of Christians rather than the local indigenous population. A population more loyal to European powers as they controlled the Church and through them access to God, heaven, etc.

    Of course many Christians tried to and did do things to serve the local people, but often it was used as a path to dominance and colonization in the long run. Christians at that time were not regularly welcoming towards non-Christians, particularly non-Abrahamic religions.

    • KennethStevensIIIEsq

      Well! Kim Il Sung saved Korea and Korean culture (of course he wasn’t saving them from… Christians). See how easy this game is to play?

      • tommy92

        Don’t really see that as the same thing. Kim II Sung actually spent a considerable amount of effort to eradicate traditional Korean culture, tearing down historic buildings, suppressing traditional beliefs and removing people from the history books who disagree with official policies or party beliefs.

        You cannot deny that Christianity (perhaps no fault of the actual religion itself) has been used as a means to control local populations. Perhaps they were abusing and manipulating the religion for political and financial gains, but at that time Europeans controlled the religion and were the connection to God for the faithful. This gave them enormous power over followers and allowed them to build a base to challenge traditional systems.

  • Ostap Bender

    Christianity is an evil cult that encourages prejudice and discourages compassion. American and European people complain about the slightest inconvenience while Japanese endure it. Say no to the Christian and avoid going to churches.
    Japan should revise the Edo prohibition on foreign religions.

    • KennethStevensIIIEsq

      “The National Church is determined to exterminate irrevocably…the strange and foreign Christian faiths imported into Japan in the ill-omened year 800… The National Church has no scribes, pastors, chaplains or priests, but National orators are to speak in them.

      “The National Church demands immediate cessation of the publishing and dissemination of the Bible in Japan…'”

      “On the day of its foundation, the Christian Cross must be removed from all churches, cathedrals and chapels…and it must be superseded by the only unconquerable symbol…..”
      Sound good, Ostap?
      Replace “Japan” with the name of another world power and you have the manifesto of Alfred Rosenberg.