Francis Xavier, one of the founding members of the Jesuit order, was among the first Christian missionaries to Japan. He, two more Jesuits, and a few Japanese and Indian converts arrived on a Chinese ship from Malaysia in 1549.
Because of their interest in what earlier merchant vessels had brought, the Japanese were curious about these visitors and allowed them to stay. Soon after, the missionaries began preaching to the people—first through translators and soon in Japanese, since they had studied the language and culture, and lived much as the Japanese people did.
Christianity didn’t catch on quickly. Rather, small groups in different locations embraced it as the missionaries traveled throughout the region.
In the 16th century, Christianity in Japan thrived, occasionally helped along by generous trade concessions for believers. But it would be a mistake to assume that conversion was largely forced or opportunistic.
Only a mile from Nagasaki’s atomic Ground Zero stands Martyrs Hill—a memorial to the 26 Christians tortured and crucified there in 1597. These Christians, 20 of them Japanese, did not die for earthly gain. And given the opportunity to recant and live, they chose to walk bravely into the next life.
The monument to them bears this verse in Latin:
Laudate Dominum Omnes Gentes
("Praise the Lord, all you nations.")
Early on, Japanese officials weren’t sure what to do with this unfamiliar religion. Some of them viewed it as a death cult with an obscure secret language, since Catholic liturgy at that time was still in Latin.
Mostly, Christianity was tolerated—particularly when it was a faith of the people, not of the rulers. When rulers converted, others began questioning whether Christianity would interfere with traditional Japanese hierarchy. These doubts were fed and added to by merchant vessels passing through, whose captains assured the rulers that the missionaries were the advance force for Spanish invasion.
The shogun officially expelled missionaries in 1614, although some remained in Japan in hiding. At the same time, officials instituted a number of anti-Christian measures.
Before Christian oppression, there were amazingly 300,000 Christians in Japan. Only a couple of decades later, there were less than half that many.
Finally, in 1637 the Shimabara Rebellion occurred. Peasants, frequently treated harshly, were being starved and treated so cruelly, they decided to rebel against their lord, Matsukura Shigemasa. Some of these peasants were Christian. And at some point, they gained the support and leadership of some Christian ronin (wandering samurai) and a semi-legendary Christian youth, Amakusa Shiro, who became their general.
Around 37,000 of the rebels were killed in the ensuing fights—nearly the same number as those killed by the atomic bomb at Nagasaki.
Meanwhile, persecution methods were designed to force Christians to publicly recant or dishonor their faith. This method was more effective at preventing conversion to Christianity than martyrdom would be in a country that values saving face and embraces ritualized death as a means of preserving honor.
Remaining Christians faced harsh suppression, sometimes torture if discovered, and annual anti-Christian rituals to prove their loyalty. And without a trained clergy, they developed a number of unorthodox practices over the years.
When officials began to lighten up on Christians toward the end of the 19th century, many hidden Christians revealed their faith. Some rejoined the Catholic church. Others (mostly around Kyushu) maintained the worship of their faithful ancestors.
Today, around 1.5% of Japanese people are Christians—roughly 1.8 million.
Pilgrimage Sites of Japan's Hidden Christians
Oura Churchin Nagasaki City: Built in 1864 (a few years before the ban was lifted) by a French missionary for foreign merchants, it is the oldest Christian church in Japan. It is considered a national treasure. Oura Church is near the Ouratenshudo tram station, Line 5. There is an admission fee to enter its Christian Museum. Information in the museum is (perhaps not surprisingly) mostly in Japanese.
Shitsu Church and (former) Aid Centre in Sotome: The parish priest, Fr. de Rotz, cared so much for the people in his parish that he built the church from his own funds and began an aid centre to educate the local women and teach them practical skills. According to custom, it has separate entrances for women and men, each leading to a different side of the church. It overlooks the Sea of Goto.
Ono Church, also in Sotome: This rural, impoverished region was often a haven for Christian groups. The church itself was built using stones, according to the local style during the Edo Period. The inside is in bad shape, so you can only view the outside.
Kuroshima Church on Kuroshima Island: Built in 1918 in a Romanesque style using red brick and many materials that were locally produced to save on expense. As such, you can find hand-drawn “grains” for some of the boards and in the ceiling. The people of the church did much of the building themselves, which makes the finished result all the more amazing. A ferry docks at the island, and the church is a 20-30 minute walk from there.
St Francis Xavier Memorial Church & the Shima no Yakata Museum in Hirado: The Hirado Catholic Church built in 1913 was soon after moved to a hill overlooking the city and renamed in honor of St Francis Xavier. Buddhist temples are nearby. It takes around 15-20 minutes for the uphill walk from the Hirado bus station.
Tabira Church, Kyushu: Architect Tetsukawa Yosuke designed Tabira Church. It and Imamura Church in Fukuoka are considered his masterpieces. The beautiful building with its 3-story central tower face Hirado Strait. To get there, you can take the Matsuura Railway to the Nishi-Tabira Station and either walk or take a taxi from there. (It’s about a 30-minute walk, but hey … we’re pilgrims, right?)
Hara Castle in Minamishimabara: This castle, now ruins, was the site of the failed Shimabara Rebellion in 1637. Around 37,000 Japanese peasants, mostly Catholic, rebelled against the religious persecution and bad administration of their region. Their general was the young “Japanese samurai” Amakusa Shiro, who died at the age of 17 and is now a hero in manga, anime, and video games.
Nakae no Shima Island: This small, uninhabited island near Hirado is where numerous Christian leaders were taken to be executed during the persecutions. It’s considered a sacred site. Water collected here is used in baptism.
Hirado Kirishtan Museum: Lots of artifacts from the time when Christians were in hiding in the region. It’s open from 9am to 5:30pm for 200 yen (at the time of writing). There’s not a lot of public transportation in this area, so a rental car may be your best option.
Things to Know
Martin Scorsese’s epic historical drama Silence starring Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver (of Star Wars fame), and Tadanobu Asano was about the spread of Catholicism in Nagasaki. I'm not going to lie ... it's not light viewing for a night when you want to laugh. It's a complicated movie with complicated outcomes. Lots to think about in terms of how God speaks, the role of religion in culture, and how politics ruin everything.
These churches, which came into being starting at the Meiji Restoration, are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Visitors are asked to give prior notice of their visitbefore stopping into the churches to ensure worship or other services aren’t disturbed.·Because this isn’t one long, defined pilgrimage path, as with the Kumano Kodo, travelers will require at least some transportation between churches—particularly to get to the islands. Apart from that, there’s a lot of opportunity to stroll and contemplate, often with the sound of the sea as a backdrop. Many of these remote areas remain uncrowded and are beautiful places to visit.
Christians in the remote Kasuga Village were so isolated (read: left alone) they developed their own brand of Christianity. Once the ban on Christianity was lifted, they kept on doing their own thing. They never (re)joined the Catholic church or put up church buildings, so to outsiders, the existence of Christianity is pretty invisible there.
Lost in Sight is French-American photographer Virginie Kippelen's immersive exhibit of the endangered Flint River and its lost origins. This art pilgrimage could just as easily be called a nature pilg…