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History In Search of Japan's Hidden Christians

A journey in both space and time, In Search of Japan's Hidden Christians recounts a clash of civilizations—of East and West—that resonates to this

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John Dougill's In Search of Japan's Hidden Christians sets out to document Japan's Hidden Christians before they fade to extinction, and also to find within their story a greater understanding of the Japanese. He succeeds brilliantly with both goals. Those who are interested in Japanese religion, history, and culture will likely be as fascinated as I was.

Dougill is a professor of British studies who has been in Japan since 1986. The book's introduction to him says that he has “a special interest in intercultural relations and Japanese religions.” Along with several publications in British studies, he wrote Kyoto: A Cultural History.

The book's historical survey begins with the arrival of Portuguese missionaries in the 1540s. Their efforts to convert Japanese were successful for the first several decades, at least on the surface. Communication difficulties and disparate cultures were a formidable challenge. Dougill gives several examples of mismatches between what the Europeans were teaching and what many Japanese were comprehending. As the missionaries made strides in quantity of converts, they were also becoming entangled in feudal politics. Between that and the threat of Christianity destabilizing the absolute loyalty that Japanese officials demanded, friction began to develop. In the 1580s, Christianity was banned and a thorough system of finding Christians was put in place. Some Christians decided that rather than being martyred or risking apostasy under torture, they would deny their Christianity publicly and even disguise it within the trappings of Buddhism. These were Japan's first Hidden Christians. With only handed-down memorization to maintain their faith, they survived in secrecy for over three hundred years. When some Hidden Christians revealed themselves to a French priest in 1865, people were stunned to learn of their existence. It became evident, however, that these Hidden Christians came out of secrecy greatly transformed by seclusion and the re-integration of Japanese religiosity. As a nun said of the Hidden Christians to Dougill, “We can't say they're bad, but they are a kind of new religion like some sects of Buddhism. We should respect them.”

Dougill relates a lot of interesting history, providing the reader ample context for understanding the motivations behind the flow of events. From confused converts, to power-hungry warlords, to scheming Jesuits, the reader is often treated to a “fly on the wall” experience of Japanese history. For example, Dougill recounts a negotiation between a shogun and a Jesuit: “Coelho not only said he would help secure [Portuguese ships for an invasion of Korea], but even mentioned the possibility of Spanish-led forces … Hideyoshi suggested in turn he would set up churches all across China.” By the end of the book, I had gone from knowing practically nothing about the history of Christianity in Japan to feeling like I have a solid grasp of the basics.

The understanding of the Japanese that lies within the Hidden Christians' story is in the Japanese tendency to synthesize new approaches in a way that complements their world view. That's reasonable enough, but hardly news to readers who are familiar with Japan. Dougill's deeper conclusion – the same conclusion I reached after nine years in Japan – is that this fundamental trait arises out of Shinto, the native religion of Japan. Being an animist religion that allows for a multitude of deities, Shinto makes room for new religions and other influences to be pragmatically incorporated into a flexible whole. By examining how the Hidden Christians wove Christianity with Buddhism and Shinto, Dougill and his reader indeed come to a better understanding of how the Japanese make sense of their world.

In Search of Japan's Hidden Christians is one of those books I wish I had read a long time ago. I enjoyed it thoroughly and will probably read it again. I recommend it highly.
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John Dougill
Tuttle Publishing
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Number of pages
¥2200 hard cover

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