Kakure Kirishitan – the Hidden Christians of Japan

How have you been managing without access to Mass? Have you been watching mass streamed online or on television? Or perhaps instead of that you have relied on reading the Bible or other devotional books? Have you been able to go inside your church for individual prayer? If nothing else, when you pass by a church and see the cross, does it strengthen your conviction that things will soon change and we’ll be back inside the church to worship together and receive communion again?

When All the Churches were Closed

Many will remember Christianity was illegal in the USSR for just over 60 years. Even with church closures, torture, and execution the faith of people remained and continued to be both practiced and taught. Beginning to end this did not last much more than a single generation. There were many living at the end who could remember the beginning.

How might the religion of the people have survived over a longer period of time – say 250 years? Would there have been any Christians left? Especially if there was no internet, no books, no prayer cards. Certainly no priests and no sacraments. What would you expect to find if there had been no way to practice our faith for 10 generations – all the way back to 1771?

Christianity was banned in Japan from 1612 to 1873. The country was completely cut off from the outside world. There were no priests or deacons to teach the faith or to administer the sacraments. One might struggle to believe that Catholicism could survive such an environment, but it did. For two and a half centuries, in hamlets and remote islands off western Kyushu, little communities of Kakure Kirishitan (Hidden Christians) persisted in their Christian faith for over 10 generations.

St Francis Xavier and Christianity in Japan

Christianity in Japan began in earnest with the arrival in 1549 of St Francis Xavier, co-founder of the Society of Jesus. In classrooms across Japan today, he is portrayed among the list of figures who shaped the country’s history. One of the few foreigners, he is unique in his outwardly Christian garments and the cross he has typically depicted carrying.

The evangelization by the Jesuit missionaries met with great success. Christianity was accepted among different social groups from the poor to the rich. Many converts were made both of daimyo (feudal lords) and the peasants. The poor especially believed in this Christian God who loved them and whose priests treated everyone with kindness and respect. Various rural communities took to Catholic Christianity enthusiastically. 

Most Japanese Christians lived in the large southern island of Kyushu, but by the end of the 16th century there were baptized people in almost every province of Japan, many of them organized in communities. Missionaries began to set up cultural strongholds for the propagation of the faith. Hundreds of churches had been built throughout Japan. Seminaries and religious schools were opened and the Jesuits made friends amongst the local daimyo. Most of the daily activities of the Church were performed by the Japanese from the beginning, giving the Japanese Church a native face, and this was one of the reasons for its success.

The Tensho Mission to Rome

In 1582, a group of four young seminarians, with their priests and translators, travelled from Japan to Europe in order to meet the pope in what is called the Tensho Mission. Their trip was a great success, sadly when they returned to Japan in 1590 they found that missionaries had been expelled from Japan. A fuller telling of their story and a much more detailed description of the history of the Church in Japan can be read at Light and Shadow: Christian History, Resurrected.

The Rome of Japan

In the early years, the laws against Christianity were not strictly enforced. In 1590, half the Jesuits in Japan were Japanese and there were 150 native brothers in 1609. In addition, various groups of laymen were trained to support Christian life in the Japanese mission. There were men who specialised in giving sermons and teaching the faith, others helped parishioners in the preparation of confessions, and provided spiritual support of the sick. They also organized funerals and baptized children with permission to baptize from Rome. The kanbō were those who had left secular life but not taken formal vows, while the jihiyakusha were married and had a profession.

Nagasaki was called “the Rome of Japan” and most of its inhabitants were Christians. It had two hospitals (one for lepers) and a large church. By 1606, there existed a women’s religious order called Miyako no Bikuni (Nuns of Kyoto).  By 1611, Nagasaki had ten churches and was divided into eight parishes.

Prohibition, and Persecution of the Faithful

Catholicism was thriving until the government began to severely enforce the law. The repression of the faith was brutal, many were tortured and crucified for their faith. It has been calculated that there were 3125 known martyrs during the times of persecution.   And yet, just as in the early years of the Church in the Roman Empire, there were people who kept the Faith and kept it alive when doing so was to sign your own death warrant.

All people were required to register as members of the state religion (at first Buddhism, later Shinto). A much-used method for weeding out believers of the Christian God was the use of fumi-e. These were images of Christ or the Virgin Mary meant to be trampled upon to demonstrate unbelief. If villagers showed distress in stepping on the religious images, they would be arrested and banished, tortured, executed. Christians who submitted to this felt so guilty about desecrating an image of Christ that they went home, burned their sandals and mixed the ashes with water, which they ritually drank as a form of penance.

On 2 September 1622 in Nagasaki fifty-two Christians were martyred, twenty-seven being decapitated, and the remainder being burned alive. This is called the “great martyrdom.”  This was an effort to frighten people away from Christianity and when it didn’t work the persecution raged more furious and extended throughout the empire. The cruelty and refinement of the tortures are unparalleled even in the early history of the Church. William Doino Jr describes the Heroism of Japanese Saints St Magdalene of Nagasaki, St Domingo Ibáñez de Erquicia, and St. Paul Miki.

To survive, Japanese Christians hid their faith from the authorities. As the generations passed, the original Japanese clergy died. Though they had no one to guide them, the Hidden Christians kept up the practices that they could such as teaching basic prayers and beliefs, baptism and marriage. In their homes were statues of the Virgin Mary disguised as the sun goddess. There were many other ways Christian worship and symbols were hidden or disguised. 

They could not evangelise, quite the opposite, they had to keep their faith a secret within the family or, at most, the local village. Over the centuries, the Latin of the prayers blended with Japanese and Portuguese, but you can hear the echo of Latin in the Hail Mary: Ame Maria karassa binno domisu herikobintsu…  compared to: Ave Maria gratia plena dominus tecum benedicta….  The sound of the prayers and some of the rites had changed or been forgotten, but the Hidden Christians never lost hope that one day the priests would return and the Catholic faith could be practiced legally. For 10 generations they waited for God to send them three signs. These never changed and by these three signs the returned missionaries were surprised to find they did not bring a new truth to the islands after all.

The Three Signs

Fr Bernard Petitjean, SJ arrived in Nagasaki in August 1864 to be the priest for the foreigners allowed in Nagasaki now the country had been opened to outsiders. The construction of the Ōura Church, now Ōura Cathedral, had been completed. The cross on top of the beautiful church was a clear sign for all to see of Christ’s redemption. In the city, Father Petitjean deliberately walked around town in his frock, showing locals that Catholic priests had returned to Nagasaki. 

When the Hidden Christians living in the surrounding villages noticed the presence of these foreigners, who were different in appearance from the others, they began to wonder if the “Bateren” (Fathers) who had taught the religion of Jesus to their ancestors had come back. They began to discuss the meaning of the foreigners’ arrival, and decided that they would be willing to recognise them as true successors to the ancient ‘Bateren’ if they fulfilled the three signs the Hidden Christians had so long waited for: 1) were the foreigners in communion with the pontiff of Rome, 2) did they honour the image of the Virgin Mary, and 3) did they lived in perpetual celibacy.

A Miracle on St Patrick’s Day

Thus, a small group from Urakami arrived in Ōura around noon on the day 17 March 1865 and stood outside Ōura Cathedral.  It was a frightening and dangerous act because Christianity was still banned for all except foreigners. However, it was possible for the Japanese to tour a church to see the strange architecture and furnishings. After much hesitation, a woman led the way up the steps. Fr Petitjean received them and took them inside, with the intention of speaking to them of the faith.

As he performed a brief act of worship before the altar, someone touched his shoulder. When he turned around, a woman, Isabelina Yuri Sugimoto, told him, “We have the same heart as you.”

She asked insistently where was Saint Mariasama. The priest took her to the altar of Our Lady. Seeing the baby in the arms of the Virgin Mother Mary, the woman said that it was Jesussama.

She told Fr Petitjean that there were 1,300 underground Christians in the area and explained some of their customs. “A few days ago, we entered ‘the sad season’ (Lent)”, and “We celebrate the birth of Jesus on the 25th day of the cold month” (December).

There were 30,000 Hidden Christians living in the area of Nagasaki. As many as could travelled to Ōura church to receive the sacraments they had only heard of before and had longed for all their lives. At last, they had Confession, the Eucharist, the anointing of the sick. However, Christianity was still banned in Japan and the Japanese government began persecuting the Hidden Christians in 1867. More than 3,600 Urakami villagers were banished to a remote island and 650 of them died. It was another six years until pressure by Western governments that freedom of religion was a requirement for international trade made the government change the laws.

There is a two-part program by Filmmaker Peter Barakan Hidden Christians from the NHK television show Japanology Plus. This link is to Part 1, Part 2 is available on the same page. You can see items in the Hidden Christian museum and places where they worshipped on their isolated island homes.

What type of Church do we want?

The story of the Hidden Christians of Japan has been called one of the most extraordinary acts of preserving faith in the long history of the Church. When it happened, the discovery caused so much joy that it moved to tears Blessed Pope Pius IX. Today’s pontiff, Pope Francis could not avoid seeing its importance for the Church. For him, it remains an eloquent example of the crucial importance of baptism as the sacrament that gives us roots and enables us to bear witness and truly pass on the holy faith.

Some people are afraid that because of the church closures parishioners will have lost the habit of coming to mass. That is entirely possible, especially with live-streamed mass and adoration. On the other hand, many people have found a yearning for God they did not realise was in their hearts. They will come to our churches seeking the True God. This time of crisis is exactly the moment for us to reimagine what type of church we want to be, and with God’s grace make it a reality.

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An open minded personality.. fun to be with, because of my positive vibes. God fearing, for without God I am nothing.. Moved with compassion when dealing with you, not selfish or self-centered...

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