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April 3, 1997

Lack of Oppression Hurts Christianity in Japan

Related Article
  • Catholics in China, Facing Crackdown, Return to the Underground (Jan. 26)


  • Ikitsuki, Japan

    IKITSUKI, Japan -- When Kinshiro Ichinose was beheaded here in 1622 for believing in Jesus, his last words were, "The time will come when the teachings of Christianity will spread once more."

    He was half right. These days, young people on this rocky fishing islet in southern Japan can indeed worship Jesus freely and loudly sing hymns that once had to be whispered. But paradoxically, nothing has killed off traditional Christianity in Japan like freedom of religion.

    Back in the 1500s, Christianity spread rapidly in Japan, until a fierce repression began 400 years ago this spring. That sent believers into hiding, and these Hidden Christians, as they are called, survived hundreds of years of torture and executions with their faith intact.

    Yet now believers say their ranks are shrinking under more insidious pressures: televisions, cars and video games.

    A faith that endured centuries of unfathomable repression is collapsing in just a couple of generations. "I haven't been able to teach my kids the prayers," fretted Yoshiaki Isomoto, 49, a lean clerk whose heavy eyebrows waggled in despair as he reflected on Christianity on the rocky, remote island of Ikitsuki.

    It was partly Ikitsuki's isolation that protected its Hidden Christians, and a century ago, 90 percent of the island's residents were still Christians. Now only a bit more than 10 percent are.

    In all of Japan, less than 1 percent of the population are Christians of any denomination; only a small portion of those are Hidden Christians.

    "I wonder how long this faith can last," Isomoto said, "because there aren't many young people among the believers. They haven't been baptized yet, and they have no faith in their minds."

    It is a tribute to human orneriness -- and to courage and tenacity -- that persecution sometimes sustains what collapses in freedom. That may be one explanation for why young people in these rocky islands are uninterested in living the religion for which their ancestors died.

    This paradox may also help explain why the country in Asia where Christianity may be growing the fastest is China, where religious persecution is among the most severe. Early in this century, Christian missionaries could proselytize freely in China but made relatively few converts. Today missionary work is banned and worship can be risky, yet underground churches are booming.

    "It's ironic that our faith is fading at a time of religious freedom," mused Hisami Taniyama, a postal worker and local Hidden Christian pastor. "My ancestors kept this faith despite severe repression, and I want it to survive further. It shouldn't end here."

    St. Francis Xavier helped bring Christianity to Japan in 1549, and he and other missionaries were initially spectacularly successful -- although for his first two years St. Francis, because of a poor translator, inadvertently preached salvation by worshiping Buddha. Within a few decades, Japan had at least 300,000 Christians.

    Hideyoshi, the general who unified Japan in the 16th century, reportedly toyed with the idea of becoming a Christian but decided against it after he learned that he would then be allowed only one wife. Alarmed by the threat that he believed Christians posed to his rule, he soon banned Christianity, and 26 Christians were executed in the spring of 1597.

    This part of Japan, near Nagasaki, was a center of Christianity and soon became legendary for the torments used to force Christians to recant. Christians were crucified, tied up in bags and thrown into the sea, dipped repeatedly in boiling hot springs and subjected to what was reputedly the most agonizing death of all: the torture of the pit, in which they were suspended upside down in a hole half-filled with excrement, with a light cut on their forehead, and left to bleed to death.

    An hour of this was said to be excruciating, yet some Christians lingered in the pit for weeks before dying. Some were left with one arm untied and told that they could save themselves at any time by simply lifting a hand to renounce their faith.

    The centuries passed and everyone assumed that Christianity had been exterminated in Japan. But when the country reopened to the outside world in the middle of the last century a French priest was amazed to get a visit from a group of Japanese who knelt and told him that they were secret Christians.

    Up to 50,000 of these Hidden Christians had maintained the faith, although it became transformed over the centuries.

    "I have a Buddhist altar and Shinto shrine in my house," said Tomeichi Oka, a genial Hidden Christian pastor, as he knelt on the tatami floor of his living room. "In the old days that was just for camouflage, because our Christianity was hidden, but now I believe in the other gods as well."

    This acceptance of other religious beliefs is common in Japan; most Japanese identify themselves as followers of both Buddhism and Shintoism. But this pantheism has led to tensions between the Hidden Christians and those Japanese who in modern times have converted to Catholic or Protestant churches.

    Because of the centuries of persecution, the Hidden Christians have no tradition of churches or public displays of their faith, although some have crucifixes that were secretly handed down from generation to generation.

    When someone dies, a public Buddhist funeral is held, and then the Christians secretly gather to chant prayers -- often in Latin, still recognizable despite mistakes introduced over the centuries.

    "After the Buddhist funeral is held, we tell our God that it was all a mistake," Oka said. "And then we hold the Christian funeral and sing the Christian hymns."

    The doctrine of the Hidden Christians is a fascinating example of how a religious faith can evolve to match local ideas and history. For example, the bible of the Hidden Christians, published last year in English as "The Beginning of Heaven and Earth" (University of Hawaii Press), describes not a great flood but a sudden tsunami, and the Noah-like figure survives not in an ark but in a canoe.

    Mary is a 12-year-old girl from the Philippines who studies hard, turns down a proposal from the Philippine king and apparently visits Japan. Holy Sacrament is the name of a tutor for Jesus, the chief disciple is the pope, and Jesus is betrayed by Judas, "who eats his rice with soup every morning."

    Later, the Crucifixion is arranged not by Pontius Pilate but by two different men, Ponsha and Piloto.

    Some Hidden Christians rejoined the Roman Catholic Church after freedom of religion was introduced late in the last century, while others continued to follow Hidden Christian practices.

    Ikitsuki Island is filled with sites like the eerily named Thousand Corpse Mound, where the authorities executed and buried Christians. Officials sometimes ordered the heads of Christians to be buried far from the rest of their bodies, to reduce the risk of resurrections.

    But most of the Christians here were executed on a tiny islet that today is a sacred spot where water is believed to gush forth when Hidden Christians repeat their traditional prayers.

    The Hidden Christians say that one of their pastors once visited the spot with a Catholic priest, and that first the priest repeated prayers to no avail.

    "Then I hear that our pastor chanted our prayers," said Taniyama, the pastor, "and water came gurgling from the rock."

    Other Places of Interest on the Web
  • "Religion in Contemporary Japanese Society," a paper from Ask Asia, a service of the Asia Society
  • The Kirishtan Holocaust: In Memoriam
  • Christian Nagasaki, from A Brief Guide to Nagasaki, Nagasaki Junior College of Foreign Languages

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