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Suppression, secrecy, and survival: the Hidden Christians of Japan

23 September 2016

A new book explores Christianity in Japan. Its author, John Dougill, talks to Malcolm Doney

John Dougill

“Unzen Hell”: Christians were martyred in the boiling waters of the hot springs at Unzen, near Nagasaki

“Unzen Hell”: Christians were martyred in the boiling waters of the hot springs at Unzen, near Nagasaki

JAPAN and Roman Catholicism are not an obvious marriage. But there was a time when it looked as if things might be different.

In 1549, Jesuit missionaries, led by one of the order’s founders, Francis Xavier, landed in Japan with the intention of converting its people to Christianity. Over the next 60 years, as John Dougill writes in his book In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians, the missionaries “managed to convert more than 300,000 Japanese to their belief, including some of the most powerful people in the country”.

Despite the numbers, the Japanese — notwithstanding their fabled agreeability — were not an easy conquest. Just 90 years after Xavier’s arrival, Japan closed its doors to the “contagion” from the outside world, and its leaders did their violent best to eradicate this foreign religion.

“Because it threatened the power of the shogun, torture and execution were used against believers as authorities grew increasingly determined to make them recant,” Dougill writes. “Over 4000 people are known to have died for their faith and thousands of others suffered misery and ruination.”

The public recantation often involved a darkly imaginative symbolic drama. Christians were forced to trample on fumie, religious images, often of Jesus or Mary, in order to demonstrate that they were no longer believers. Refusal usually meant death.

I ask Dougill, who is Professor of British Studies at Ryukoku University, Kyoto, why this particular rite was developed. “In Japan, showing respect is an important and ritualised part of the culture,” he says. “Stepping on a Christian image is the ultimate show of disrespect.” But this was not simply a one-off act of apostasy: “Because the fumie ritual was so effective, it was made into an annual event, which was a way of showing the authorities on high that the community was ‘clean’.”


THIS ritual trampling of icons is at the heart of a cult 1966 novel, Silence, by the Japanese author Shusako Endo, which has now been made into a Hollywood feature film by the director Martin Scorsese. Starring Liam Neeson and Andrew Garfield, it is due for general release later this year.

Endo, who has a Roman Catholic background, explores the competing calls of martyrdom and compassion, as a young Spanish priest is told by his captors to trample the face of Christ in order to save the lives of others.

Endo’s novel, Scorsese’s film, and Dougill’s book point up a fascinating historical era in the history of Japan. It emerges that, after the banishment of the missionaries, and despite the martyrdoms, torture, and ritual recantations, Christianity survived for more than 200 years until the country “reopened” in 1854.

Dougill writes: “For seven generations they had passed the religion down to their children despite having no Bible, no priests, and no sacraments except for baptism.”

While the nuances of Christian theology seemed strange and alien to many Japanese, “the idea of equality, and a better life in the world to come”, was attractive, he says, particularly to the poor. “The Japanese lower classes lived in terrible conditions and abject subservience. The notion that all were equal in Christian terms gave them hope and a sense of dignity.”

While Xavier and some of his lieutenants showed a degree of sensitivity to Japanese culture and beliefs, and made attempts to embed Christian teaching in their converts’ lives, there was “an emphasis on breadth over depth. There was a desire to convert as many as possible before it was too late. And the decision to promote the ordination of Japanese priests was left too late.”


IT IS a question of much debate why Japanese elites originally welcomed the Christian missionaries. “Let’s just say”, Dougill suggests, “that conversion was very convenient for some feudal lords, as it gave them military advantages.” But they feared that the price of Christianity came at a cost. “The Portuguese were in Macao; the Spanish were in the Philippines, as well as Mexico and South America. It was a real possibility that Japan was next. The rulers came to see Christianity as a tool of colonisation; so they stamped it out. Ruthlessly.”

When the missionaries were sent packing, and the persecution started, most of the elite gave up their faith; and the believers, mostly from the lower classes, “were left to their own devices, and had to make things up as they went along”.


THE Christianity of these lay-led Kakure (“Hidden”) Christians focused heavily on baptism. “Catholic priests taught that baptism led to salvation. The Hidden Christians were left with no Bible, priests, or manuals to guide them; so they retained a belief in the essential nature of baptism. On top of that, it was relatively simple to carry out, and the notion of ‘purifying water’ was already part of Japanese culture.”

The Hidden Christians shrouded their Christianity in an elaborate disguise. On the surface, they appeared to be devotees of Buddhism or Shinto. Prayers were adapted to sound like Buddhist chants, while retaining untranslated words in Latin, Portuguese, and Spanish. Such deflections were something that the Japanese were particularly good at, Dougill says. “It’s an integral part of the culture. Promoting harmony while keeping hidden one’s real thoughts is a social virtue. It’s a well-known concept in Japanese culture, known as tatemae, “public face”, and honne, “real feelings”.

It was not uncommon for Hidden Christians to place in their homes statues of what appeared to be the Buddhist deity Kannon, the goddess of mercy, which, to their owners, were depictions of the Virgin Mary. These “Maria Kannons” were often central to the worship of Hidden Christians, who responded particularly to Mary, finding female figures of worship more amenable than male ones.

“Shusaku Endo claimed that Japanese have a particular fondness for their mothers,” Dougill says. “It fits in with the psychological theory of amae, which claims that Japanese remain emotionally dependent on their mothers and fail to fully develop as adults. By contrast, fathers are distant figures. The closeness to mothers is reflected in the deity of compassion, Kannon, which in Japan has strong female characteristics, whereas it originated in India as a male deity.”


IT IS difficult to know precisely how Hidden Christians worshipped. It seems that, in places, some form of mass might have taken place, with sashimi, or rice, and sake replacing bread and wine. “These groups were isolated from each other; so, over the years, practices developed in different ways. Since worship was highly secretive, and nothing was ever written down, it’s impossible to know the details of what went on.”

Some groups appear to have maintained a thread of ancestor worship, something deep in Japanese religious make-up: “Honouring the spirits of one’s dead parents and grandparents underlies both the Shinto and Buddhist traditions. This was a major issue in terms of Christianity; for missionaries like Francis Xavier taught that ancestors who were not Christians could not have entered heaven. That was too painful a thought for many Japanese.”

What is known is that Hidden Christians were distressed by having publicly and regularly to deny their faith, and to participate in fumie. “Denying one’s faith went against the whole teaching of the priests, who promoted martyrdom,” Dougill says. “Hidden Christians felt so guilty about this that they developed various means of atonement, including burning their sandals and swallowing the ashes.”

Endo became fascinated with this period of his country’s history, and was “very conscious of the conflict between being Japanese and being Christian”. He talked of the culture as a kind of “mudswamp”, by which Dougill thinks he had in mind “the ability of the Japanese to accept contradictory truths at the same time, [which] meant that the terrain was difficult for monotheism to take root”.


AS A British immigrant to Japan, Dougill, although he does not share Xavier’s faith, shares some of the perplexities that Xavier faced. He has the Western stranger’s fascination with Japanese culture, which prompted the writing of the book. “Figuring it out has been a great puzzle for me; so I couldn’t help but wonder how the first Europeans coped with the cultural conundrums. And how did they go about explaining the very alien concepts of Christianity?”

What appears to have happened was that the Hidden Christians did not so much take on the faith of the Jesuits as develop an East-West fusion which, over the years, grew into a distinct religious identity. This became evident in 1854, when, under pressure from the United States, Japan reopened its doors to foreign trade and visitors, also lifting its ban on Christianity.

A second wave of Christian missionaries arrived, telling the Japanese congregations — mostly clustered far from officialdom on distant islands and in isolated villages — that they were in error, and that they should rejoin the Mother Church. Many did, but at least half refused. They became known as Hanare (“Separate”) Christians. This, Dougill says, had much to do with the dishonour given to their ancestors. “Recognising Catholicism would mean that the teaching handed down by their parents and grandparents, etc., was wrong; so this was a classic example in which Japaneseness clashed with Christianity.” Hanare Christians believed that their religion was at least as authentic as that of the Roman Catholic Church.


ENDO felt a decided empathy with the Kakure and Hanare Christians. Despite his Roman Catholic background, “Endo was not exactly orthodox. Above all, he identified with Hidden Christians rather than with the martyrs, in that he recognised that he himself was ‘weak’ and would have chosen to deny his faith and then practise in secret. By championing the Hidden Christians, he upset those who honour the martyrs.”

Scorsese — who caused controversy with his 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ — has now decided to revisit this little-known slice of Japanese history. Dougill thinks that what has prompted Scorsese’s revival of the novel Silence after more half a century is the tenacious hold of these brave believers on national and local identity, in the face of a colonising imperative.

“Like Endo, Scorsese was brought up a Roman Catholic, but suffered doubt in later life. And I think both of them were troubled by the claim of universalism. Endo wrote of Christianity feeling like an ‘ill-fitting suit’, and I think in Scorsese’s case his thinking was influenced by American intervention in countries like Vietnam and Iraq, with its lack of cultural sensitivity. He could see a parallel in the imposition of a European religion on the Far East. In this sense, far from being dated, Endo’s story has grown in relevance in the past 50 years.”


AT THE very least, the film could prove to be a memorial to what will soon be a lost generation. While a few remaining pockets of Hanare Christians cling on in remote corners of Japan, the communities are dwindling, and successive generations are declining to continue their more recent ancestors’ religious beliefs and practices.

It is a tragic paradox, Dougill believes. “When they faced the most terrible torture and death, the Hidden Christians clung on to their faith with amazing tenacity. Now, in a secular age, when there is no obstruction at all to their practice, they are fast disappearing.”


In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians: A story of suppression, secrecy and survival by John Dougill is published by SPCK at £9.99 (CT Bookshop £9). A hardback edition of Silence by Shusaku Endo, is published on 17 November by SPCK at £14.99 (£13.50). The film Silence is due for general release in November.

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