TECH & CULTURE

The Hidden Christian Sites in the Nagasaki Area

By Staff Writer
March 09, 2022
Japan’s modern constitution guarantees full religious freedom, and as a result nearly all of the world’s religions are practiced here to some extent, both by immigrants and by native adherents. The two main traditional religions in Japan, however, are Buddhism and Shinto, which are practiced to varying extents by the majority of the country. As neither faith has any tenets requiring exclusivity, most people in Japan observe both, participating in ceremonies, festivals, and rituals held at Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples over the course of their lives. While Shinto can be traced back to over 2,000 years ago, and Buddhism first arrived in Japan around the 4th century, most other religions practiced in Japan arrived after the mid-1800s, when the nation reopened to international trade at the end of the Edo Shogunate.
Large red brick church on a hill in Japan
Christian Church on Kuroshima Island in Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture
Christianity, however, has a more complicated history in Japan, one that has resulted in a unique set of historical sites that were recognized by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites in 2018. These are the Hidden Christian Sites in the Nagasaki Region, which had remained secret for over two centuries.

Nagasaki Becomes a Christian Center in Japan

Because of its location at the southwestern end of Japan’s main islands, the Nagasaki region was a thriving port for trade with China and other parts of Asia. When European ships began reaching eastward to India and China in the 16th century, they eventually found their way to Japan as well. As Japan at this time was in the middle of what was known as the Sengoku-jidai, or Warring States Period, in which regional lords were engaged in near-continual warfare and shifting fortunes, there was a great interest from many nobles in developing good relations with European powers who could provide advanced weapons and other useful goods. Part of these good relations included welcoming Christian missionaries who introduced their faith throughout friendly regions of the country. The message of the missionaries resonated with many in the Nagasaki region, and Christianity began to develop a significant following.

Old cemetery next to the seashore in Japan
Cemetery of Kakure Kirishitan in Kashiragashima.
By the start of the 17th century, the Sengoku-jidai came to an end as the last of the feuding nobles was brought under the strict rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate in Edo (modern-day Tokyo). After such a long period of turmoil and bloodshed, the Shogunate was primarily interested in maintaining strict order and suppressing any possibility of rebellion. Foreign influence was quickly identified as a source of instability and disobedience, and trade with the trade with the outside world was outlawed. Christianity, as a recently imported faith, was also branded as a disruptive influence as prohibited.

Stone church building on the site of a hidden Christian location
Church built in the Village of Kashiragashima. The remains of the old village are recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Going Underground

Going Underground

As foreign missionaries were expelled, Japanese priests and followers faced a choice of abandoning their faith or suffering harsh punishments. A significant number chose instead to go underground: living openly as followers of Buddhism or Shinto, but practicing Christianity in secret. These followers later became known as Kakure Kirishitan, or Hidden Christians.

Small stone building next to a forest in Japan
This small building in the Village of Ono, in Sotome, Nagasaki Prefecture, served as a church building during the Tokugawa Shogunate. Today it is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Kakure Kirishitan, needing to keep their activities secret from government officials or informants, adopted a number of unique practices. As it was impossible to meet together in large groups to hold church services, individuals and families would conduct their own services, performing the roles of the priest on their own. Some families build secret rooms within their homes, with Christian altars, bibles, and other materials concealed behind hidden doors. Inventive devices were also crafted, such as Shinto or Buddhist-style altars that contained secret compartments, or statues and other artwork that contained hidden meanings disguised as traditional designs and depictions of Japanese figures. In this way, these followers secretly carried on the traditions of their faith, passing their beliefs and practices from generation to generation, for over two hundred years.

Wooden Japanese statue of a seated woman
A wooden statue of the Virgin Mary, disguised as a statue of the Buddhist Kannon, on display at the Paris Foreign Missions Society. Photographed by PHGCOM (Creative Commons License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)

Reemergence and Discovery

The isolation of the Tokugawa Shogunate lasted until the 1850s when Commodore Matthew Perry, commanding a squadron of American warships, forced the Shogunate to begin trade and diplomatic relations with the west. By the 1860s, while missionary proselytizing was still forbidden, clergymen from Europe were allowed to enter and build churches.

Exterior of a cathedral in Japan
Oura Cathedral, completed in 1864, looks out over Nagasaki Harbor. The cathedral is one of the locations recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
Shortly after the Oura Catholic Church was built in Nagasaki, a member of the Kakure Kirishitan approached the church’s French priest, Bernard Petitjean, asking if he was really sent by the Pope in Rome. Petitjean soon discovered that there were many others, after meeting with them was amazed to see that they had carried on the ritual traditions in isolation for nearly 250 years.

Interior of a Cathedral in Japan
The Interior of Oura Cathedral

After the Meiji Restoration in 1868 brought an end to the Tokugawa Shogunate, the last of the old legal restrictions on religious worship were dropped. It was revealed that the Kakure Kirishitan numbered in the tens of thousands, most of whom rejoined the Catholic Church. New churches and cathedrals were constructed throughout the neighboring area, and still today the Nagasaki region retains a significant Christian population.

International Recognition

Recognizing the unique historical significance of the Kakure Kirishitan and their perseverance, the government of Japan applied to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to have several of the churches and other historic sites recognized for their cultural importance. In 2018, twelve of these sites in and around Nagasaki were approved as World Heritage Sites and added to UNESCO’s list. These include Oura Cathedral in Nagasaki City, Hirado and Kashiragashima Islands, the villages of Sakitsu, Ono, Egami, and elsewhere, and the remains of Hara Castle, where one of the final rebellions leading to the expulsion of Christian missionaries took place.

Small gray church building in Japan
Shitsu Church in Sotome, built near one of the old Kakure Kirishitan villages. The village has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Before Pope Francis made his visit to Japan in 2019, his advisor Fr. Antonio Spadaro came and gave talks about the Pope’s philosophy and vision. During a talk at Sophia University in Tokyo, he mentioned the Kakure Kirishitan, saying “[Pope Francis] spoke with admiration of the witness offered by the Japanese Church, which has remained alive despite the persecutions suffered between the 16th and 17th centuries. Meeting the Japanese bishops in 2015, he said ‘when all lay missionaries and priests were expelled from the country, the faith of the Christian community did not cool down. On the contrary, the sparks of faith that the Holy Spirit kindled remained safe thanks to the solicitude of the lay faithful.’”
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