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Once Banned, Christianity Withers in an Old Stronghold


27 Aug 2003
December 25, 2003
Once Banned, Christianity Withers in an Old Stronghold

IKITSUKI, Japan -- In 1865 a group of 15 Japanese peasants cautiously approached Bernard Petitjean, the first Christian missionary to work in Nagasaki since 1614.

Speaking in the sanctuary of the new church, the peasant leader confessed, "Our hearts are the same as yours." He asked to see an image of "Maruya-sama," or the Virgin Mary.

It had been a long road for Japan's "hidden Christians," descendants of people converted by Portuguese missionaries in the late 1500's during a brief window of religious freedom in Japan.

They survived some 300 years of bannings, burnings and beheadings. The repression began to ease in 1853, after the arrival of Commodore Perry, and was ended officially with the legalization of Christianity in 1873. In the late 19th century, missionaries returned to the remote islands of southern Japan and coaxed about 50,000 hidden Christians into the open.

"Santa Maria, Santo Filio," four elderly men dressed in indigo blue robes chanted here on a recent Sunday afternoon in this fishing village north of Nagasaki, their voices rising and falling like an ancient Gregorian chant planted half a millennium ago on this rocky island. Their long "orasho," or oration, included a "conchirisan," or contrition, and a vaguely familiar "Abe Maruya," or Ave Maria.

While Ikitsuki has had a Catholic church since 1912, the ceremony was held at the Ikitsuki Island Museum, in a wing devoted to Christian history. Shigeo Nakazono, the museum's curator, said after the ceremony, "By my research, their faith is pretty much well preserved as it was in Europe in the 16th century."

But the hidden Christians now are facing perhaps the greatest challenge to their faith. It comes not from official persecutors but from a force perhaps more powerful and less easily resisted: indifference.

For young people, hours spent learning ancient chants and rituals detract from time spent driving over a new half-mile bridge to Kyushu Island and on to Nagasaki for the weekend. With only 7,500 people, the island has lost a third of its population since the 1960's.

"The ceremonies are on Sundays, but young people just want to enjoy their day off," said Masatsugu Tanimoto, who at age 47 is perhaps the youngest person on the island to learn the chants and rituals of the faith. "People are brought up in an affluent environment. I don't think my children will take it over."

Christianity came to Japan with St. Francis Xavier in 1549, during a time of weak central government. Spreading fast through southern Japan, Christianity counted as many as 750,000 converts, or 10 percent of the population, by the 1630's. Today, by contrast, about 1 percent of Japan's 127 million people are Christians.

Alarmed by Spain's colonization and conversion of the neighboring Philippines, Hideyoshi, the general who united Japan in the late 16th century, banned Christianity and ordered the expulsion of missionaries as early as 1587.

The heaviest repression took place in the early 1600's, when about 6,000 Christians were killed, largely in Japan's southern fringe, an area most influenced by missionaries sailing from the Portuguese colony of Macao.

In contrast to the stereotype of the samurai dying for his beliefs ? an image popularized by the current Hollywood movie "The Last Samurai" ? records show that most samurai and noblemen renounced their Christian faith under pressure. It was mostly peasants, artisans and merchants who died for their new faith, often after enduring horrible tortures.

To root out Christians, officials administered an annual loyalty test in which peasants were required to trample a cross or an image of the Virgin Mary and the Baby Jesus. At the museum here, a copper medallion with the image of the Mother and Child appears buttery and smooth, worn down by thousands of bare feet.

Because of this ceremony, hidden Christians placed a high value on the prayer of contrition and elevated the veneration of a compassionate Mary.

During nearly 300 years of separation, Ikitsuki's Christians masked their faith with the rituals of Buddhism and Shintoism. In the museum, a "magic mirror" projects an image of Buddha to the outside world. But taken from the wall and held to a light, it projects the shadow of a cross.

"Because of the repression we used Buddhism as a camouflage," Mitsuyoshi Okawa, 72, said over a dinner of dumplings at the pastor's house. While the ceremony was held openly at the museum, the prayer leaders recalled that as teenagers they had learned the chants in secret, under blankets, out of earshot of snooping neighbors.

But now the only young people studying the chants are students and professors.

"No one is taking over," lamented the Rev. Tomeichi Ohoka, the 85-year-old pastor. "I am worried about the future. I am not sure it will last."

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

Ikitsuki Journal; Once Banned, Christianity Withers in an Old Stronghold (Published 2003)
I ask for proofs they were: 1) so numerous about fifty years after the first christan came in Japan
2) that 6000 were killed. And officials saying"we killed 6000" or 6000 000, doesn't count a proof.
Easy to badmouth and refuse to understand that the reasons are deeper than just "poor christians", harder to think whatever happened, maybe averted worse changes.
Right, I hate christians, when they try to convert people. I don't believe in Roman martyrs, or the implied legend about Roman cruelty ... so why should I believe such claims about Japanese persecution of Christians without proofs ? It's not like I deny the persecution, but to persecute a bunch of 100 stupid guys who don't understand they are disrupting the social tissue and national character by their very existence, and killing off 150 000 people, is vastly different.
The thread was stillborn 13 years ago. Please don't necropost; it is against forum rules.
Sorry. Gonna create a new thread, then . Haven't seen it was that old ... or the entire forum was by the way.
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