The History And Spread Of Christianity In Japan

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Today temples and shrines are abundant in Japan. You can’t go a mile down the road without running into one, literally. But despite the heavy Buddhist and Shinto influences now, Japan had a huge Christian conversion during the 16th Century. So, what happened? Why don’t we see churches in abundance like we see shrines and temples?

Christianity was first brought to Japan by Francis Xavier and his Jesuit Missionary in 1549. Since then, Christianity has always been present within Japan even during persecutions under the Tokugawa Shogunate. However, because of such persecutions, only one percent of Japan’s population identifies as being Christian.

So how exactly did Christianity spread under Xavier’s missionaries, and what led to the persecution? Let’s dive into the history of Christianity in Japan!

The History of Christianity In Japan

The spread of Christianity in Japan didn’t begin until 1549 with the arrival of Francis Xavier, a Jesuit in charge of a small missionary from Malaysia. When Xavier arrived, Japan was going through the Sengoku Period, a time when the country was split among families vying for dominance and the prestigious title of Shogun. Just a few years before his arrival, a Chinese ship carrying Portuguese cargo such as guns was blown off course, and landed on Tanegashima Island, just south of Kyushu. The island was within the realm of the Shimazu family who took great interest in the guns, looking to use them against their enemies in Japan.

Initially, the missionaries were a huge success. The ruling Shimazu family of Tanegashima and Kagoshima favored the Europeans for their firearms. Because of this, they gave Francis and his missionary the same respect and accommodations they did the traders, giving him permission to speak and preach to the populace. They were also given a building to be used as a headquarters for their missionary. They’d first begin preaching through the help of translators, but would later learn the language, and then be able to hold full sermons in Japanese.

After almost a year, the Shimazu family started to ban and prohibit preaching and conversions. Another Portuguese trading ship had landed outside of the Shimazu Realm within Japan, ending the Shimazu’s hold on firearms and foreign imports. The family no longer had a use for the missionary and were only seen as a nuisance by this time. Being bound to Shimazu law, Francis would see no point in staying in Kagoshima, so he left for Hirado where the Portuguese trading ship had docked. Before leaving Kagoshima, Francis’s missionary had only converted an estimated 100 people and would see the same results in Hirado.

From Hirado, Francis would travel to Kyoto, then to Bungo. On his way to Bungo, he’d stop at Yamaguchi. Initially, he and the daimyo had a bad first impression but Francis would try again. He’d wear expensive clothes and gift the daimyo unique items from Europe including a telescope and a three-barreled gun. The daimyo was of course impressed by this and gave Francis permission to preach. He also had given his missionary an abandoned temple to operate from.

Although Francis had refuge in Yamaguchi, he continued for Bungo after hearing of a Portuguese ship arriving there. Upon arriving in Bungo, Francis took to the same strategy as before by requesting an audience with the daimyo, Otomo Sorin. Initially, Otomo didn’t want anything to do with Francis but was eventually convinced by a Portuguese captain. After the meeting, Otomo surprisingly gave the missionary permission to preach and a building to operate from. Historians believe that this was a move to try and bring in more Portuguese traders.

Shortly after the Jesuits were established in Bungo, Francis left Japan in 1551 on a trading ship headed for India, concerned about his missionary there. Before Francis had come to Japan, he was the head of a missionary in India and was still considered the head during his time in Japan. Francis believed that the seeds of Christianity had been planted in Japan and that the country would soon convert. This is the last we’d see of Francis in Japan as he’d pass away before returning if he ever had intentions on doing so.

Japan’s Conversion To Christianity

Shortly after Francis’s leave, Otomo Sorin converted to Catholicism following another daimyo by the name of Omura Sumitada who resided in the northwestern parts of Kyushu. Omura generously gave the Jesuits a port so that he could directly trade with the Portuguese. Unfortunately, Omura was very aggressive and zealous toward Buddhists, burning down many temples and shrines. This resulted in a revolt, and the Jesuit port destroyed during the rebellion. To keep the Portuguese in his lands, he offered them the port of Nagasaki.

Within years, Nagasaki grew from just a mere fishing town to a bustling trade city where the Portuguese would come to dock their ships. The Jesuit’s influences on Nagasaki can still be seen today from historic churches like Oura Church and Urakami Cathedral.

Going back to Bungo, Sorin’s conversion was said to have been triggered by a marital issue. His wife was a staunch Buddhist who hated the Jesuits. When Sorin fell ill, the Jesuits blamed her for it. While Sorin was recovering, he happened to have fallen in love with one of his wife’s maids who was nursing him at the time. To help Sorin in his predicament, the Jesuits convinced the two to convert so that they could be married under the Church. Sorin followed the Jesuit’s instructions, and his now ex-wife disposed of.

Despite Sorin’s near disreputable involvement with the Church, he did contribute to the development of Christianity in a major way. In an effort to gather support against the Shimazu family, he and two other daimyos decided to back a Japanese envoy to Europe in 1582. The envoy consisted of four Japanese converts and their teacher. They arrived in Lisbon in 1584 and traveled to Rome where they met several kings and two Popes. One of the Japanese was made an honorary citizen of the Papal States and later returned to Japan in 1590.

Christian Friends in Japan

By 1579, one of Japan’s most powerful and historical figures would come around to favor the Jesuits. Oda Nobunaga and the Jesuits shared a great disdain for the Buddhist clergies. It was during this time that Nobunaga was attempting to unify Japan beneath his reign, however, the Buddhists were doing the opposite as the Ikko-Ikki (Buddhist militants) were causing uprisings and general disruptions. Like past daimyos in Japan, Nobunaga also found that allying with the Jesuits would give him direct access to trade with the Portuguese, giving him much needed guns and cannons to carry out his dream of unification.

Just south of Kyoto across Lake Biwa, Nobunaga gave the Jesuits an opportunity to teach the elite and their children, giving them the benefit of making powerful allies. The school was named Seminario and was located in a town right below Nobunaga’s palace, Azuchi Castle. The Jesuits were free to teach about European and Japanese culture such as Latin, history, music, and literature. This didn’t last long as Nobunaga was betrayed in 1582 and forced to commit seppuku just three years later. The Seminario and Azuchi Castle were both burned down following Nobunaga’s death by the conspirators.

Fear and Suspicion

Unfortunately, after Nobunaga’s death, Christianity wouldn’t find much acceptance. Toyotomi Hideyoshi succeeded Nobunaga but didn’t show the same respect for the Jesuits as Nobunaga had. Hideyoshi worked his way up from peasantry to the most powerful in all of Japan, which might have led to his disdain for the Jesuits, and his preference for traditional Japanese ideologies. Although this might have been true, Hideyoshi did show some interest in European culture, receiving Sorin’s backed envoy at Osaka, and listening to their stories. They even brought back musical instruments from Europe and performed for Hideyoshi.

Despite all of this, Hideyoshi was highly skeptical of the Jesuits and their agenda. To curb the rise in Christianity, Hideyoshi passed an edict to prevent missionaries from converting Japanese. Initially, this wasn’t enforced, however with the coming of Franciscans and other missionaries who were yet familiar with Japan, they continued to do so openly. Several accidents happened where priests would publicly criticize the loyalty of the daimyo stating that their loyalty should lie with Christ and the Church. This didn’t help Hideyoshi’s paranoia.

As more foreign countries traded with Japan, different denominations of Christianity started fueling Hideyoshi with fear. The biggest belief being that a Catholic conquest would come to colonize Japan. To confirm his fears, a Spanish ship had run aground during a storm, and it’s crew and contents seized. While the crew was being held captive, the ship’s pilot threatened that Japan would soon become a Spanish colony, the missionaries being the king’s vanguard.

Persecution And Martyrs

Persecution began when Hideyoshi ordered head priests to be arrested. Out of the 4,000 that were arrested, only 24 were ordered to be executed, all coming from Jesuit, Franciscan, and the Third Order of St. Francis. He had them march to Nagasaki, the center of Christianity at the time. While marching, two others were arrested, more notably a twelve-year-old boy who helped the priests during their march. On February 5th, 1597, all 26 prisoners were crucified on a hilltop. Considering Hideyoshi didn’t execute everyone that was arrested, this was meant to send a warning to the Christians that their presence was no longer welcomed.

For a time Christians would be left alone with a few instances of martyrdom following the crucifixions in Nagasaki. With Hideyoshi’s death in 1598, the infamous Tokugawa Ieyasu would succeed Hideyoshi after the Battle of Sekigahara and unify Japan. Like his predecessor, Ieyasu showed interest in the Europeans, listening to what they had to say. More notably, he listened to an English ship pilot by the name of William Adams. The only issue was that William was a Protestant who disliked Catholics, and pushed the same idea that the missionaries were harbingers of Catholic conquest.

Not only did Ieyasu surround himself with people who opposed the missionaries, but he also feared Japan dividing again. To make things worse, there was a scandal involving a daimyo and a member of Ieyasu’s council, both Christians. This then raised a concern that the loyalty of the daimyos and samurai would soon go from the Shogun to the Church. This was enough for Ieyasu to force his hand in ending the missions, banishing them from the country in 1614.

Fall of the Christian Mission

Priests and missionaries were forced to leave Japan while converts had to renounce their faith. Those who refused had to go into hiding or face execution. In 1635 under the third Tokugawa Shogun, stricter anti-Christian measures were taken to rid Japan of Christianity. In an effort to root out Christianity, everyone was required to register themselves at a Buddhist temple, and neighbors had to keep tabs on each other, less the whole neighborhood is punished for having a Christian living among them.

It was later believed that executing Christians and making martyrs was less effective than forcing them to publicly denounce their faith. A common practice used by authorities was forcing Christians to step on images of Jesus or Mary to denounce their faith in a practice dubbed as fumi-e or “stepping on pictures”. In 1640 a new government office was made to handle persecutions with offices in each province. However, the authorities didn’t stick to just fumi-e. Crucifixion was still used, as well as torture and longterm imprisonment. These methods were proven to be very effective, and by 1625 the number of Christians in Japan would decrease from an estimated 300,000 to less than half of that.

If you’re looking for a movie or book, I highly recommend Silence that focuses on these events in Japan.

A Christian Rebellion

Although most Christians were suppressed by this time, they wouldn’t go down without a fight. In 1637, a rebellion known as the Shimabara Rebellion had broken out on the Shimabara Peninsula just east of Nagasaki. The local daimyo, Matsukura Katsuie had pushed for increased taxes to pay off the expenses of his castle and was also known to be very cruel to his subjects. The peasants, who happened to be mostly Catholic, had enough of Katsuie’s cruelty and rebelled against him.

Before the Jesuits were expelled from Japan, a local priest had prophesied that a child of God would come to save the people. After the rebellion had formed in Shimabara, a 16-year-old by the name of Amakusa Shirō and his contingent of ronin samurai had come to aid the rebellion and lay siege to Katsuie’s castle. Naturally, everyone thought that Shiro was the child the priest had foretold about and followed him during his rebellion. Shiro eventually retreated back to Hara castle, south of Shimabara where he’d hold out against the Shogunate.

The rebellion had successfully grown in numbers and laid siege to multiple castles in the area, but the Tokugawa Shogunate was swift to take action, sending over an army of 125,000 and a Dutch ship to suppress the rebellion. The siege would last throughout the year with heavy Shogunate casualties. The rebellious forces were able to hold out, even after the outer defenses were compromised. With late winter being especially brutal in Japan, the rebellion was forced to route and surrender due to attrition in 1638.

The Hidden Christians Of Japan

Throughout history during times of persecution, Christians have always had a way of staying conspicuous yet hidden. The Japanese were no exception. When Francis Xavier came to Japan, his missionary first had a difficult time conveying their message. Originally, the Japanese thought they were a foreign Buddhist sect for their reference of ‘Dainichi’ a Buddhist god to explain the Christian God. Despite being unorthodox, this type of thinking was what kept the Christians disguised for hundreds of years.

The most well-known practices of these hidden Christians were their ability to disguise statues of Mary and Jesus to look like Buddhist Kannon, and Jizo statues. These statues were placed conspicuously in houses and even Buddhist temples. In remote rural areas of Kyushu, Buddhist temples had accepted these statues, and placed them next to the statue Buddha. When the hidden Christians came to pray, they prayed to these disguised statues.

An issue that had commonly arisen among the hidden Christians was funerals and burials. The common belief was that if a Christian hadn’t had a Christian burial, their family would be cursed. At the height of the persecution, bodies were buried and rocks piled over the grave. This gave it an earthly look so that it wouldn’t be disturbed or destroyed by Christian hunters. Pebbles would be placed on top so that it marked the grave, and then arranged into a cross when someone came to pray.

Lastly, probably the most key practice in worship was the recitation of prayers. These prayers were passed down from Francis Xavier and his missionaries which included the Lord’s Prayer, Hail Mary, and the Act of Contrition. To avoid being caught, these prayers were passed down orally. Prayers that had already been translated into Japanese changed very little, but those that hadn’t were construed drastically and didn’t hold any meaning to an outsider. Imagine something like katakana for Latin and Portuguese.

The Rebirth Of Christianity

Toward the end of the 19th Century, we’d see the return of Christianity to Japan as the Tokugawa Shogunate had become complacent in their persecutions. I’d suppose over several generations, everyone had assumed that Christianity had died out, and wasn’t a threat to Japan any longer. However, regardless of complacency or not, the persecutions would come to complete end when Commodore Matthew Perry’s black ships had come to Japan in 1853.

By 1867, the Tokugawa Shogunate had been toppled by the Meiji Restoration during the Boshin War. Power was restored to the Imperial Court and Japan was reunified under the Meiji Government. Pressured by western powers to modernize, Japan had written a constitution and defined freedom of religion as a right in 1871. The Christian missions returned to Japan and begun rebuilding what their mission had to abandon hundreds of years ago.

Many hidden Christian families had come out of hiding, rejoining the Church. However, many refused to do so out of respect for their ancestors or were unable to give up their unorthodox practices. Despite the future looking bright, Christianity would be scrutinized during the Showa Period before the end of World War II as State Shintoism took root. The Christian community would also take a major blow after the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, much of the historic Church being destroyed in the explosion.

The Future Of Christianity in Japan

Currently, only 1% of Japan’s population identifies as being Christian and is considered a minority religion with the majority of Japanese identifying as Buddhist or Shinto.

As a Catholic in Japan, I’ve often run into conversations with friends and colleagues who are interested in Christianity. The most memorable event was when I brought my girlfriend to Sunday Mass at Akabane Church in Tokyo. Never having been to a Catholic mass before, she ended up liking it a lot and wanted to go back again. I asked her if she’d ever considered getting baptized and becoming Catholic. She said no, then explained that Christianity isn’t Japanese and is more of a foreign thing.

This answer surprised me, and I know to some could be quite ignorant. But after dwelling on it for several days, it made perfect sense as to why Christianity hasn’t grown in Japan despite the popularity hundreds of years ago.

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