The 'Hidden Christians' of Japan
In modern Japan where most people turn to Shinto shrines to bless babies, Christian-style chapels for weddings and Buddhist temples for funerals, it’s hard to imagine anyone worshiping in secret for fear of persecution. But in matters of faith, old habits can be as resilient as religious tradition.
In the Land of the Rising Sun there are still “Hidden Christians” among us.
Called “Kakure Kirishitans” in Japanese, their home and sanctuary is Neshiko Village in Nagasaki Prefecture’s Hirado City. They still keep religious artifacts under wraps and pray in secret. The threat of persecution may have long since passed, but that doesn’t make it any less memorable.
The Portuguese Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier introduced Catholicism to Hirado in 1550. The new faith soon took root on the city’s western coast and Ikitsuki Island. But by 1614, the Tokugawa Shogunate outlawed Christianity before closing the country to foreigners, especially Westerners, in 1641.
The crackdown on the foreign faith from the West was brutal. It’s estimated that more than 40,000 Christians were martyred in Japan between the 17th and 18th centuries. When Christians were discovered in Hirado, they were usually executed on the beach and their bodies disposed of in nearby Ushiwaki Forest.
“When I was a child, I often found human teeth and bones while playing around the forest behind the village,” said Tadashi Takiyama, 65. The farmer and Kakure Kirishitan cleric, or “omizuyaku,” added that the site is therefore sacred. “So we always take our shoes off when we go into the forest.”
In fact, the entire village of Neshiko and the surrounding area is considered sacred grounds by Kakure Kirishitans because of its historic role as a place for executing Christians once they were discovered, according to Tomoyuki Urabe, Hirado Christian Museum curator.
During times of persecution, the government conducted religious censuses annually in which citizens were required to stomp on Christian artifacts; those that refused were tortured and killed, Urabe said.
To survive, Hirado’s Christian communities went underground, pretending to be Buddhists in public. They hid their religious icons, paper crosses and medallions in storage cabinets, or “nando,” continuing to venerate them in secret. These cabinets became known as “nandogami,” or cabinet gods, before which believers chant their prayers. Today, Takiyama and other Kakure Kirishitans are their descendants.
“We are alive today because our ancestors kept trampling on those holy paintings,” said Takiyama. “If I were Christ, I definitely would have asked them to tread on me to live and keep their faith in me alive.”
As admirable as this appreciation for life is, the cleric’s expression may seem odd to some Christians. It’s likely not the only thing. Having been passed down under the guise of Buddhist practices with no connection to the Catholic Church for so long, the faith, like its religious practices, have changed over the centuries.
Chanting prayers, or “orasho,” is the core practice of Kakure Kirishitans. Takiyama said the language of the prayers is a mix of Latin, Portuguese and dead Japanese dialects that even he does not understand, but he has memorized them and recites them at length: “It is much more important to chant them smoothly without mistakes.” There are a variety of group and priestly chants, including prayers for a good harvest, a large catch, recovery from disease and other good fortunes. The longest can take up to eight hours.
A typical community service begins with Takiyama’s call to prayer in Latin, with everyone replying “Amen.” The spirits of martyrs, saints and, Buddhist and Shinto gods are then called on. The canting is performed in a low voice. Once in a while participants stop and start chatting about everyday events, a through back from times when being caught holding such prayer meetings meant certain death.
“By hiding in Buddhism for more than 250 years, our belief in Christianity gradually veered off, merging with Buddhism and Shinto to become kind of a local religion,” Takiyama explained, adding he believes in all three faiths. “When I visit a church, I make the sign of cross our way; when I visit a temple, I put my hands together; and when I visit a shrine, I worship God in the Shinto way.”
He’s the first to admit that, thanks to history, his faith is not the Christianity most are familiar with.
“Now, our belief is far from that of the Catholic Church,” he said. “We cannot go back to the original belief anymore.”
In fact, since Japan’s ban on Christianity was lifted in 1873, Takiyama says none of the Kakure Kirishitans in his village have returned to Catholicism. He’s not alone. Priest at two Catholic churches in the area said they do not know of any either.
“The church has repeatedly appealed to them to return, but I have never heard of any coming back to us,” said the Rev. Satoshi Yamada, a priest at Hirado’s St. Fransisco de Xavier Memorial Church. “We should not force them but just respect their free will.”
Museum curator, Urabe, believes the reason they never joined the many Catholics in the region may not be so simple.
“Because of the strong bond of rules and tradition between community members over time, each member felt like they could not convert on their own,” he said. “But if the community as a whole decided to convert, they might have returned to the Catholic Church.”
These days, however, the point maybe mute. Of the approximately 30,000 Kakure Kirishitans in Japan after the legalization of Christianity, only a few remain, mostly at Neshiko, Ikitsuki Island and Hirado, according to Urabe. And the official Kakure Kirishitan community in Neshiko disbanded in 1992, despite nearly half of the 200 households in the village being members at the time, according to Takiyama.
“We could not find a successor in the community anymore,” he said of a younger cleric needed to someday take over his duties. “So, I talked with other members and determined to disband the community.”
Nonetheless, Takiyama said he still serves. He offers prayers at believers’ homes on request, blesses nearly 200 of their homes during Christmas and New Year’s, and – as has always been the custom – he secretly “purifies” their deceased loved ones from Buddhist prayers after their official funerals.
Hirado Christian Museum
Located on the entrance to the Forest of Ushiwaki near Neshiko Beach, Hirado Christian Museum accommodates many artifacts, such as “nandogami” (cabinet god), icons, statues and paintings that the area’s “Hidden Christians used to keep and venerate. Exhibits abd documents tell about the history and community of local so-called Kakure Kirishitans.
Hours: Thursday – Tuesday, 9 a.m. - 5:30 p.m.
Address: 1502-1 Oishiwakicho, Hirado City, Nagasaki Prefecture
Admission: Adults 200 yen ($1.25); high school students, 150 yen; elementary-middle school students, 70 yen.
The story of Ascension Stone
Just off the shore of a mile-long white sandy beach in Neshiko is Shoten-Ishi, or Ascension Stone. More than 70 local Christians that were discovered here by the authorities were executed on it in 1635.
According to local lore, this is where the Orokunin-Sama, or The Sacred Six, were martyred for their faith.
A master of Neshiko village had a wife and three daughters. One day, a nice young man came from wherever and settled in the house. The man was really industrious and well-liked, he was allowed to marry the master’s eldest daughter. Several years passed, and when the daughter became pregnant, the master, trusting his son-in-law, told him about his family’s hidden Christian faith.
The bridegroom, however, was a secret agent and immediately reported this to government officials. The entire family was arrested and severely prosecuted to determine if there were any other Christians in the village. To protect other residents, they insisted that they were the only Christians in the region.
The five – including the unborn child – womb were executed on the stone on Aug. 26 of the old lunar calendar (currently in mid-October) and their bodies were disposed of in the Ushiwaki Forest.
Locals started calling the stone Shoten-Ishi and have venerated it as one of the area’s most sacred sites. It is believed that if anyone climbs on the stone, a huge wave will sweep the village and its residents out to sea.