The Persecution of the Kirishitan (Christian) Faith in Japan
Those who used to be called as Kakure (Hidden) Kirishitan (Christian in old Japanese), are now called Senpuku Kirishitan (潜伏キリシタン), Underground Christian.
I first heard the name during a junior high history class about 30 years ago. At that time, I did not have any impression on them and only acknowledged their past existence. However, as the time passed, I found that the story of these underground Christian is not about the past but rather a dynamic drama that continues to live even now.
There is a statement that shakes the thought lurking under unconsciousness:
“Priests from Portuguese and Spain continue to preach against the government order, speaking ill of Shinto, blaming Buddhism, and lacking righteousness and goodness. Kirishitans are joyfully and willingly praising (martyr’s) corpse who was executed (crucified) because they refused to abandon their faith, and they claim it as the fulfillment of their faith (martyrdom). This behavior demonstrates their teaching is truly evil, and this teaching is truly against our gods and Buddha. If we don’t hurry to stop this teaching, our nation will suffer in the future. Unless we wipe it out by the orders of Shogunate, Japan will suffer divine punishment. We must reject this evil teaching and bring about true teachings. Although some say it is already the end of the world, good governance is to continue to support Shintoism and Buddhism for the future. Everyone in this country should understand this. We should not underestimate the urgency.”
The paragraph above is an excerpt from the Christian expulsion order for which Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first Shogun (the top military dictator) of the Tokugawa shogunate, told the Buddhist monk Ishin Suden to write a draft. The decree was later published under the name of the second Tokugawa Shogun Hidetada on February 19 of the 18th Keichō Era (January 28, 1613). Around that time, being Christian was subject to a death sentence because the government tried to convince all Japanese that Christianity was an evil way, was an enemy of Shintoism and Buddhism, and if not abolished sooner, would cause troubles in the future. People became afraid that as long as Christians existed, gods would punish them all.
A martyr is the witness of a victory of human’s spiritual dignity/grace/virtue. Many Kirishitans were killed because of the forbiddance policy that had begun in 1587 with the Toyotomi Hideyoshi's Bateren (Catholic priests in old Japanese) Expulsion Order. Well-known are 26 saints who martyred in Nishi-zaka of Nagasaki in 1597. The survivors and witnesses praised any martyrs as saints and further strengthened their faith in response to these martyrs’ profound faith kept until their deaths. Their deaths are never in vain, and their spirits still continue to live among today’s Christians.
Unfortunately, the Buddhist monk Suden banned Christianity, claiming "Kirishitan are joyfully and willingly praising corpse who were executed because they refused to abandon their faith, and they claim it as the fulfillment of their faith. This behavior demonstrates their teaching is truly evil.”
This remark indicates no understanding about the martyr and is a declaration against the Christian faith. In fact, the Shogunate at his time ended up adopting a strategy of torture and crackdown on believers to force them to abandon their belief instead of killing them. Many martyrs resulted from such severe torture. Especially after the Shimabara Rebellion in 1637, the government strengthened the policy, and all Christians resulted to perish on the surface.
During the Edo period (1603-1868), the temple contracts and the test of stepping on Christian symbols (踏絵) propelled the stigma against Christian and Christianity among Japanese people. Even the Meiji government statesmen who defeated the Edo shogunate kept the Christianity Forbiddance as it was and indeed persecuted Kirishitans (Christians). I wonder how much concrete and legitimate reasons the Meiji government had, if there was any, to continue to prohibit the Christian faith in Japan. I suspect these statesmen unconsciously inherited the 250 years old idea that Christianity was dangerous and the country would inevitably suffer if Christianity were not extinguished.
The Discovery of the Kirishitan Faith
Despite these long years of brutality, the Christian faith was alive among unnamed farmers in Japan. There were three prophecies secretly passed down from generations to generations among the Underground Christians in Urakami of Nagasaki.
Priests come from Rome after seven generations
The priests are single men
Come with the statue of the Virgin Mary
The Virgin Mary was one of the symbols often used by the Japanese government for a forced test of stepping to identify Christians.
In 1858, the Edo Shogunate signed the Treaty of Amity and Commerce with the United Statues, followed by the ones with Netherlands, Russia, the UK, and France. Each port in Hakodate, Yokohama, and Nagasaki was opened to many foreigners. It was on February 19, 1865, the French Catholic priest Fr. Petitjean dedicated a Catholic Church inside the foreign settlement of Oura, Nagasaki. The church, designated as a national treasure of Japan now, is known as Oura Tenshudo (大浦天主堂).
Although Japanese were prohibited to go to the completed Oura Catholic Church by the magistrate, they were allowed to see the “French Temple” during its construction. During this construction time, some saw the statue in the distance, and a rumor was secretly circulated among the community.
Past noon on March 17, 1865, a group of 12 to 15 poor Japanese stood in front of the church. When the priest ended a prayer, one woman among them modestly came up to the priest and asked a question in haste.
"Are you a Padre (priest), and are you single?"
"Yes, I am."
“Where is the statue of Santa Maria (St. Virgin Mary)?"
The priest brought the group to the altar, where they found the statue of the Virgin Mary, holding the child Jesus. How excited these faithful Japanese were when they saw Mary’s statue there.
"We are of one heart with you. In Urakami, almost everyone has the same heart."
This event was reported to the Western countries as the “Discovery of Christians (信徒発見),” and the Pope at the time called it a miracle. For Japanese Christians, it was the resurrection of the faith, a quiet but powerful and beautiful moment to take a step towards the freedom of religion.
You can find the statue of the Virgin Mary still standing by the altar on the left back inside the Oura Catholic Church.
Inside of the Freedom of Religion in the Japanese Constitutions
Well, in today’s Japan, freedom of religion is stipulated by the Article 20 of the Constitution.
"Freedom of religion is guaranteed to all. No religious organization shall receive any privileges from the State, nor exercise any political authority."
Yet, what does the freedom of religion mean to those who live in Japan?
Right after I started working in a laboratory as a first-year graduate student in Japan, an assistant professor learned I was Catholic and told me to not engage in any religious activity in his lab I worked because his lab is a public place of the national university. I did not understand what made him tell me not to practice my faith in his lab. It was very shocking that a faculty of a national university was not hesitant to make such a comment toward a student. His understanding of freedom of religion was completely different from mine. The assistant professor had lived in the US for three years as an adult, but he probably did not think about religion during that time, even before or after.
After defeating the Edo Shogunate in 1868, the Meiji government kept regarding Christianity as a heresy. Along with the oath of five clauses implemented as a national policy in the first year of the Meiji period, there is an indicative statement of banning Christian faith. One can see how profoundly Meiji government inherited the attitude and belief of the Christian Banning Order.
Kaoru Inoue and Shigenobu Okura were in charge of the crackdown on Kirishitans. They captured and repressed more than 3000 Urakami Kirishitans to 22 places of the 20 clans including places such as Kanazawa, Nagoya, Wakayama, Kagoshima, Hiroshima, and Okayama.
It is due to protests from Western, foreign countries that this repression ended. The so-called Japanese delegation aiming to revise the inequality treaty with western counties received criticism and protests against the Christian persecution in all the places visited. The members of the delegation such as Iwakura Tomomi, Okubo Toshimmento, Kido Takayoshi wrote to the Meiji government that “Unless we release Urakami Christians, we can't conduct equal diplomacy with other countries.” In response, the government quietly removed the public notice of the Christian Banning Order in February 1873 and connived the Christian faith.
Then, in 1889 (Meiji year 22), the Meiji government stipulated the Article 28 of the Constitution of the Empire of Japan.
"Japanese subjects shall, within limits not prejudicial to peace and order, and not antagonistic to their duties as subjects, enjoy the freedom of religious belief."
There is no doubt that Christians was the primary consideration for the freedom of religion in those days. The Article 28 is yet explicit that the government still suspected Christians as prejudicial to the social order and peace. At least, the government officials did not have a real understanding of freedom of religion when the Article 28th was getting written.
Now, going back to the assistant professor, it turns that his stance toward religious freedom aligns with the provisions of the Japan Imperial Constitution from Meiji era rather than the current constitution. In response to his remark, I was only able to say yes to him, but I understand that he was giving a warning that I was dangerous just because of being Catholic. I surely didn't have any intention to threaten social peace and order.
In the United States, the first amendment of the Constitution in 1791 protects the freedom of religion.
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."
Even though I am amateur to interpret any legal documents, the Article 20 of the current Constitution of Japan appears very similar to the Article 1 of the Constitution of the United States of America, and in fact, it was meant to be. The current Japanese constitution, including the Article 20, was drafted by GHQ after World War II before it was slightly revised by the Japanese government.
Just like the associate professor, many Japanese may still consciously or unconsciously acknowledge the freedom of religion, especially the freedom of Christian faith, in term of the Article 28 of the Meiji Constitution of the Empire of Japan. In other words, the religious freedom is superficially understood and protected in the modern Japanese society only for the country to go with the West. Suden’s words in the Edo period decree continue to live among many Japanese.
I’ll keep the torch of faith. The Load says
“You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32)
How glorious victory of faith we will see in Japan!