Christian Tours | A Brief History of Catholicism in Japan

 

Christianity first made its way to Japan in 1549, brought by the dedicated efforts of St. Francis Xavier, a member of the Jesuit Order. Landing in Kagoshima, Xavier embarked on a mission to spread the faith, tirelessly evangelizing in Hirado and Yamaguchi over a span of 2 years. His efforts bore fruit, baptizing more than 500 people and gaining the crucial protection of Oda Nobunaga, one of the most powerful figures of the time. Under Nobunaga’s patronage, the number of believers grew steadily.

St. Francis Xavier statue in front of the Catholic Church Xavier Memorial Church in Yamaguchi Prefecture.

 

However, the story of Catholicism in Japan is also one of trials and tribulations. Nobunaga’s successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, wary of the growing influence of Christianity and its clashes with Shinto and Buddhism, issued the Order to Expel Missionaries in 1587. This decree aimed to halt missionary work, but due to the lucrative trade with Europe, enforcement was somewhat lax. Yet, the arrival of the Franciscans in 1593 and the subsequent “San Felipe Incident” in 1596 led Hideyoshi to initiate severe measures against Christians. This period of persecution reached a grim milestone in 1597 with the crucifixion of 26 Christians in Nagasaki.

A painting of the martyrdom of the 26 martyrs of Japan

 

For the next 250 years, Japan adopted an isolationist policy, effectively shutting out Christianity and banning all trade with Christian countries. This era, known as Sakoku, aimed to cleanse the country of foreign religious influence.

The Meiji Restoration in the mid-19th century brought significant changes. As Japan opened its doors to the world, the isolationist policies were lifted, and the Catholic Church was revived. In 1865, Oura Cathedral was built in Nagasaki, marking the resurgence of Catholicism. This period saw the establishment of numerous churches, Catholic schools, hospitals, and other institutions across Japan. Religious orders such as the Salesians, Franciscans, and the Holy Spirit Society arrived, spearheading educational and social missions that laid the foundations for the vibrant Catholic community in Japan today.

Oura Cathedral

 

The resilience and dedication of Japanese Catholics have been acknowledged and honored by visits from Pope John Paul II in 1981 and Pope Francis in 2019. Their trips to Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki left a profound impact, not only on the Catholic Church but also on the broader Japanese society. The words of the Popes resonated deeply, reinforcing the values of peace, compassion, and faith.

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The Tradition of Hidden Christians

During the 17th to 19th centuries, when Christianity was banned in Japan, a remarkable phenomenon emerged among the faithful known as the “Tradition of Hidden Christians.” Under strict policies aimed at eliminating Catholicism, Japanese Christians found ingenious ways to preserve their faith and community. This period saw believers worshipping unique objects and choosing isolated places to maintain their religious practices in secrecy.

These Hidden Christians, or “Kirishitan” as they were called (a term derived from Portuguese), managed to sustain a phantom religion that was never supposed to exist. Outwardly living as Buddhists, they secretly adhered to their Christian beliefs. They adapted by creating fake Amaterasu Omikami and Kannon statues or pictures that were actually representations of Jesus Christ and Mary, and offering prayers in the local language. This blend of outward conformity and inner faith allowed them to avoid detection while staying true to their religion.

A painting depicting the Annunciation. The bottom left shows the angel Gabriel, while Mary on the right holds Jesus.

 

When the ban on Christianity was lifted, the landscape of faith in Japan shifted once more. Those who returned to Catholicism are known as “Senpuku Christians”. However, some chose to preserve the traditional practices passed down from their ancestors, distinguishing themselves as “Kakure Christians.” This unique aspect of Japan’s religious history highlights the resilience and ingenuity of believers who, despite immense pressure, found ways to keep their faith alive.

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Official Vatican pilgrimage site

In addition to the World Heritage Sites consisting of 12 locations related to the Hidden Christians in Nagasaki and the Amakusa region, 16 sites related to the Hidden Christians in Nagasaki and the surrounding area have been officially recognized as pilgrimage sites by the Vatican.

1. The site of the martyrdom of the 26 martyrs of Japan
A hill with a memorial hall and reliefs of saints that tell the history of Christian oppression.

 

2. Hirado’s Sacred Grounds and Villages (Nakaenoshima Island)

 

3. The site of the martyrdom in Hotorahara
The place where 131 people were martyred in 1658.

4. Hongochi Lourdes
It is also known that Pope John Paul II made a pilgrimage and offered prayers there when he visited Japan in 1981.

5. Mount of Crosses
After returning, the believers atoned for their sins of trampling on the picture of Jesus. In 1881, they purchased the hill here and erected a cross.

6. Monument to the Martyrdom of Father Camilo Constanzo
Father Camilo was exiled to Macau under the prohibition of Christianity and re-entered Japan in 1621. The following year, he was captured in Hirado territory and burned at the stake in Tabira.

 

7. Kurose No Tsuji Martyrdom Site
The site where Gaspar Nishi, the first martyr of Ikitsuki and one of the 188 Blessed, was executed in 1609.

 

8. Monument to the Martyrdom Site of Unzen Hell
From 1627 to 1631, Christians were tortured and executed in the burning Unzen Hell to make them renounce their faith.

 

9. Remains of Kusuhara Prison
A building used as a prison to persecute Christians at the beginning of the Meiji era.

10. Head Mound
The site where the heads of the 131 martyrs executed at Hotorahara were buried separately, fearing that they would rise from the dead if connected to their bodies.

11. Site of the Execution Grounds
The place where the heads of executed martyrs were displayed.

12. Arima River Martyrdom Site
The site of the martyrdom of three senior vassals of Arima Naozumi and their families who refused to renounce their faith. Among them was an 11-year-old boy. He became one of the 188 Blessed.

13. Suzuta Prison Site
The site of the prison where missionaries were held for five years from 1617.

14. Shimabara Martyrdom Site
In 1627, 15 Christians had their fingers cut off, were put on a boat, and were martyred by being drowned in the bitterly cold Ariake Sea.

15. Dozuka
The place where the bodies of 131 martyrs were buried.

16. Adam Arakawa Martyrdom Site
Adam Arakawa, who served the Arima family, was forced to renounce his faith by his guardian while taking care of believers in place of the missionaries in 1614. He was tortured in the castle and martyred at the age of 70. He is one of the 188 Blessed.

 

Read more: Classic Japan Tour for Catholics