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Feb 5 - Japans hidden Christians

Updated: Jul 22, 2021

Today we remember 26 Christians who were crucified in Nagasaki in 1597. Tracing the rollercoaster story of Christianity in Japan, early successes, brutal persecution, an underground church that created quite a fascinating oral tradition and rituals. Recently made famous by Japanese novelist Shusako Endo and filmmaker Martin Scorsese.... listen to the pod below.


We remember today 26 Christians who were executed by crucifixion at Nagasaki. Many of them were Franciscan missionaries and converts linked to them, there were also three Jesuit priests killed. This was part of a new wave of persecution in response to the Shimabara Rebellion, an uprising of mostly Catholic peasants, the largest civil conflict in Japan during the Edo period, and a force of over 125,000 troops supported by the Dutch was sent to suppress the rebels. An estimated 37,000 rebels and sympathizers were executed by beheading, and the Portuguese traders suspected of helping them were expelled from Japan. Afterwards the local ruler also was investigated for misrule, and eventually beheaded. As a result, Japan enacted policies of national seclusion and persecution of Christianity until the 1850s, which included todays executions.

The early missions in Japan had been very successful, with perhaps as many as 300,000 Catholics by the end of the 16th century. Japan was coming to the end of a period of near-constant civil war, social upheaval, and political intrigue, referred to be historians as the Sengoku or ‘Waring States period’. Emerging from this chaos, there was growing alarm at the success of missionaries and by 1630, Catholicism had been driven underground. When Christian missionaries returned to Japan 250 years later, they found a community of "hidden Catholics" that had survived underground, the famous ‘Kakure Kirishitan’.

As history progressed Japan entered, the Edo period. There was a growing confidence in a national self-identity which saw a flourishing of Neo-Confucianism. This ancient teaching was emerging from Buddhist Control and growing in influence in secular society, and would become Japan's dominant legal philosophy. A new code Bushido, based on Confucian thought and Buddhist tradition, stressing a combination of sincerity, frugality, loyalty, martial arts mastery, and honour until death was enthusiastically adopted by members of the samurai class. There was a renewed interest in Japanese history and cultivation of the ways of Confucian scholar-administrators. In this battle for ideas, proscriptions against Christianity benefited Buddhism in 1640 when everyone was ordered to register at a temple.

The "hidden" Christians continued to practice Christianity in secret. The saints and the Virgin Mary were transformed into figurines that looked like the traditional statues of the Buddha and prayers were adapted to sound like Buddhist chant. The Bible and other parts of the liturgy were passed down orally. Approximately 30,000 secret Christians, some of whom had adopted these new ways of practicing Christianity, came out of hiding when religious freedom was re-established in 1873 after the Meiji Restoration. The majority of them rejoined the Catholic Church after renouncing unorthodox, syncretic practices. However, a group on Ikitsuki Island which had been overlooked by the Japanese government, made their beliefs public in the 1980s and now perform their rituals for audiences. The anthropologist Christal Whelan uncovered some Kakure Kirishitans on the Gotō Islands. There were only two surviving priests on the islands, both of whom were over 90, and they would not talk to each other. Whelan made a documentary about them.

There was a resurgence in Interest in this period when a 1966 novel by Japanese author Shūsaku Endō was published called ‘Silence’. It is the story of a Jesuit missionary sent to 17th century Japan, who endures persecution in the time of Kakure Kirishitan ("Hidden Christians"). It is haunting in its depiction of a God who has chosen not to eliminate suffering, but to suffer with humanity. A sensation, it received Japans most prestigious literary award, the Tanizaki Prize and was soon translated all over the world. Martin Scorsese turned it into an Oscar nominated film in 2018. Scorsese who had trained to be a priest before a career shift had read the novel as a young man, it had made a deep impression on him, and he had even written an introduction to recent editions of the novel.


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