The se­cret world of Ja­pan's hid­den Chris­tians

Kuwait Times - - LIFESTYLE -

Ja­panese rice farmer Masat­sugu Tan­i­moto doesn't think of him­self as a Chris­tian, and you'd al­most never find him in a church. But ev­ery so of­ten, he and oth­ers meet to re­cite prayers drawn from an­other time and place. The group, dressed in sober ki­monos and san­dals, rapidly make the sign of the cross as they sing a mish-mash of Por­tuguese, Latin and Ja­panese-evok­ing the mem­ory of their an­ces­tors, the so-called 'hid­den Chris­tians', who were bru­tally per­se­cuted in the 17th cen­tury, when Shoguns ruled Ja­pan.

Os­car-win­ning di­rec­tor Martin Scors­ese is bring­ing their har­row­ing story to the big screen just be­fore Christmas in his new­est movie 'Si­lence', based on the 1966 novel by famed Ja­panese nov­el­ist Shusaku Endo. "If the film prop­erly re­counts the story of my an­ces­tors, I'd gladly go see it," Tan­i­moto told AFP af­ter singing with sev­eral other de­scen­dants. The group, from the town of Ik­it­suki, near Na­gasaki, meet at a lo­cal mu­seum to con­duct th­ese rit­u­als. De­spite their Chris­tian roots, the mul­ti­lin­gual prayers, known as orasho, are not meant to honor God or any Chris­tian fig­ure, the 60-year-old added.

"We say 'Mary' sev­eral times but we're not pray­ing to her. We don't re­fer to a spe­cific god ei­ther, but rather to our an­ces­tors," he added. The link to mod­ern day Ja­pan, where Chris­tians make up less than one per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion, stretches back more than four cen­turies. The first mis­sion­ary, Je­suit Fran­cis-Xavier ar­rived in Ja­pan with two com­pan­ions in 1549 and was fol­lowed by Por­tuguese mis­sion­ar­ies who drew tens of thou­sands more Ja­panese to the faith. The priests were ex­pelled in the 17th cen­tury by mil­i­tary lead­ers who feared their growing in­flu­ence.


For Ja­panese con­verts, hid­ing their re­li­gion be­came a mat­ter of life and death for the next 250 years, as Chris­tian­ity was banned and Ja­pan closed it­self off from the out­side world. Some sus­pects were forced to tram­ple on holy images to prove they were not Chris­tians. Many went into hid­ing or dis­guised their faith. Those who re­fused to give up Chris­tian­ity faced be­ing burned to death, cru­ci­fied, or slowly drowned. Whether it was to cam­ou­flage their be­liefs or adapt to an en­vi­ron­ment with­out priests and bibles, the hid­den Chris­tians cre­ated a blended faith that left its mark on tra­di­tions still hon­ored by their de­scen­dants.

The Vir­gin Mary took the form of Kan­non, the Bud­dhist god­dess of mercy. Ave Maria be­came the some­what sim­i­lar "Abe Maruya." "Iso­lated, they had no choice but to recre­ate their be­liefs as faith­fully as pos­si­ble," said Shi­geo Naka­zono, an eth­nol­o­gist at the lo­cal Ik­it­suki Is­land Mu­seum. Fish­er­man Ma­saichi Kawasaki's home has four al­tars in his liv­ing room, in­clud­ing one de­voted to Bud­dhism, an­other for his an­ces­tors-com­mon in ru­ral Ja­panese homes-and a third for the Shinto faith.

The last one, stuffed with flasks, ap­ples, flow­ers, a melon, a cross and can­dles, fea­tures a ki­mono-clad woman with long black hair hold­ing a child-is un­mis­tak­able as an im­age of the Vir­gin Mary. On a ta­ble lay tiny white pa­per crosses like the ones Kawasaki's an­ces­tors would hide in the ears of de­ceased con­verts. "It was only nat­u­ral that I would learn this prac­tice as it was part of my daily life growing up as a child, a bit like one as­sim­i­lates a habit into every­day life," the 66-year-old said. Many de­scen­dants, known as Kakure Kirishi­tan (hid­den Chris­tians in Ja­panese), in the small com­mu­nity about 1,000 kilo­me­ters (620 miles) south­west of Tokyo have never joined the church and strug­gle to iden­tify with Chris­tian­ity.

Re­ally sad

Some of ear­lier un­der­ground Chris­tians con­verted to Catholi­cism af­ter priests re­turned in the mid-19th cen­tury, when Ja­pan lifted over two cen­turies of self-im­posed iso­la­tion. In 1865, a group of ner­vous peas­ants ap­proached a Chris­tian mis­sion­ary work­ing in Ja­pan. One woman whis­pered "our hearts are the same as yours", re­veal­ing the pre­vi­ously un­known ex­is­tence of what turned out to be tens of thou­sands of the orig­i­nal Chris­tians' an­ces­tors. Some think the Catholic church should reach out to help en­sure the story doesn't fade into the mists of time.

"It is some­thing that hap­pened here in Ja­pan and is a unique thing in the world," said Fa­ther Renzo de Luca, di­rec­tor of Na­gasaki's Twenty-six Mar­tyrs Mu­seum and Mon­u­ment, which com­mem­o­rates Chris­tians ex­e­cuted on the site in the late 1500s. But there are just a few hun­dred known de­scen­dants of the hid­den Chris­tians left, and many younger peo­ple don't show much in­ter­est in car­ry­ing on tra­di­tions to honor the long-dead con­verts. "It's re­ally sad," said 64-year-old car­pen­ter Yoshi­taka Oishi, his eyes welling up with tears. "If this doesn't get passed down, it's fin­ished." — AFP

In this photo, Ja­panese ‘hid­den Chris­tians’ per­form orasho prayers on Ik­it­suki Is­land in Na­gasaki pre­fec­ture.

This photo shows a woman vis­it­ing the grave of Ja­panese Chris­tian Gas­par Nishi, one of the 188 peo­ple who were ex­e­cuted at the site in 1609, on Ik­it­suki Is­land in Na­gasaki pre­fec­ture.

In this photo, a ‘hid­den Chris­tian’ al­tar is seen in the house of a Ja­panese faith­ful on Ik­it­suki Is­land in Na­gasaki pre­fec­ture.— AFP photos

In this photo, a Ja­panese woman walks past the me­mo­rial which com­mem­o­rates Ja­panese Chris­tians ex­e­cuted in the late 1500s at the Twen­tySix Mar­tyrs Mu­seum in the city of Na­gasaki.

This photo shows Kare­matsu ceme­tery where ‘hid­den Chris­tians’ are buried in the city of Na­gasaki.

In this photo, Ja­panese ‘hid­den Chris­tian’ Yoshi­nori Ya­mamoto, wear­ing a ki­mono, poses for a por­trait in a field on Ik­it­suki Is­land in Na­gasaki pre­fec­ture.

This photo shows a paint­ing of a mis­sion­ary pri­est in Ja­pan, at the Twenty-Six Mar­tyrs Mu­seum, which com­mem­o­rates Ja­panese Chris­tians ex­e­cuted on the site in the late 1500s, in the city of Na­gasaki.

This photo shows a sculp­ture of cru­ci­fied Ja­panese Chris­tian St. Paulo Miki at the Twen­tySix Mar­tyrs Mu­seum, which com­mem­o­rates Ja­panese Chris­tians ex­e­cuted on the site in the late 1500s, in the city of Na­gasaki.

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