The History of Christianity in Nagasaki
Introduction and Prosperity
1. Introduction of Christianity
Christianity was introduced to Japan for the first time by Francis Xavier in 1549. The following year, Xavier proselytized on the island of Hirado. Following Xavier, many missionaries from the Society of Jesus and other religious orders came to the Nagasaki region, and many people converted to Christianity in trading ports such as Kuchinotsu, and Amakusa, as well as in the Goto islands.
2. Flourishing of Christianity
Sumitada Omura, daimyo (feudal lord) of the Omura Domain, was baptized to be the first Christian Daimyo. Sumitada encouraged missionary work in his domain and in 1580 ceded ports such as Nagasaki to the Society of Jesus. Many churches were built in Nagasaki after that and Christian culture flourished to such an extent that it earned the name ‘Little Rome’.
Minor and major seminaries were built in the castle town of Hinoe in Arima, establishing a center for Christian education in Japan. The four teenage boys who later came to form the “Tensho Embassy to Europe” studied here, before setting off for Rome in 1582 from the Port of Nagasaki.
Suppression and Concealment
3. Crackdown on Christians Initiated by Hideyoshi
In 1587, Japan’s most powerful daimyo, Hideyoshi Toyotomi, issued an edict expelling Jesuit missionaries. In 1597, he had 6 missionaries and 20 laypeople crucified on a hill in Nishizaka, Nagasaki.
The religious ban initiated by Hideyoshi was expanded by the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1614 to prohibit Christianity throughout Japan. Though missionaries were ordered to leave Japan, some of them disobeyed and went underground. In 1622 the “Great Genna Martyrdom” occurred in which several missionaries continuing their missionary work in secret, along with laypeople suspected of harboring them (56 people in total) were publicly executed on a hill in Nishizaka.
4. Shimabara-Amakusa Rebellion
Suffering from famine and overtaxation, the peasants of the Arima domain and Amakusa took up arms in 1637 and revolted against their lords in what became known as the Shimabara-Amakusa Rebellion. Roughly 37,000 peasants gathered and were besieged at the site of Remains of Hara Castle. The siege lasted for 88 days, and ended with the slaughter of every rebel, including women and children. Remains of Hara Castle was completely demolished after that, but archaeological investigation has revealed countless human bones, crucifixes and medals. It is thought that the unity of the community (which had been united through its shared Christian faith since the middle of the 16th century) enabled the rebels to hold out in the castle site for so long both isolated and unaided.
5. Passing Down Christian Faith in Amakusa
Following the Shimabara-Amakusa Rebellion, Amakusa came under the control of the Nagasaki bugyo (governor). Several policies were put in place to crackdown on Christians, including the e-fumi ceremony (where people were forced to step on an image of Christ or the Virgin Mary to prove they were not Christians). The people of the Sakitsu village pretended to be Buddhist on the surface while continuing to practice their faith in secret as hidden Christians. According to records documenting the so-called “Amakusa Kuzure” crackdown in 1805, about 70% of the Sakitsu villagers were hidden Christians.
6. Suppression in the Omura Domain and Migration from Sotome
The Tokugawa Shogunate continued to aggressively implement the national seclusionist policy, known as ‘Sakoku’, that prohibited private trade with other countries. Missionaries were prohibited from entering Japan, and after the last priest was martyred in 1644, Christianity was forced completely underground and from then on Christians practiced and passed down their faith in secret without priestly leadership. Even in the Omura Domain where Christian culture had once flourished under the Christian Daimyo Sumitada Omura, thorough crackdown on Christians continued in the domain, and hidden Christians remained only in secluded locations such as the mountainous area of Sotome where the watchful eyes of the authorities could not reach.
From around 1800 the hidden Christians of Sotome migrated to undeveloped distant islands. Many of them dreamt of a place where they could observe their faith in peace, but the reality was one of continued hardship due to conflicts with the original inhabitants and barren soil.
7. Passing Down Christianity in Hirado
In Hirado, a strict religious ban was implemented from the end of the 16th century, resulting in the martyrdom of numerous Christians and forcing the remaining ones further underground. In place of churches, sites where their ancestors were martyred and other sacred sites such as Mt. Yasumandake and Nakaenoshima Island provided a focus for their worship and thus helped to sustain their faith. These sacred sites are still venerated to this day, preserving the unique landscape of the period of religious prohibition. The descendants of the hidden Christians in the Hirado region continued to pass down the unique religious customs and traditions taught by their ancestors even after the religious ban was lifted in 1873. These so-called ‘Kakure Christians’ continue to preserve their traditions even today.
8. Discovery of Christians at Oura Cathedral
By the mid-19th century, the shogunate repealed the seclusionist policy and re-opened Japan. A foreign settlement was established in the port of Nagasaki (which had now begun trading with five Western countries), and Oura Cathedral was built there. Soon after the completion of the cathedral, in March 1865, hidden Christians from Urakami visited it. They were risking their lives to confirm whether the Frenchman in the cathedral was the missionary they had waited so long for. "We are of one heart with you," they said as they confessed their faith to Father Petitjean. This event came to be known as the “discovery of Christians”. This stunning and moving discovery of Japanese Christians who had passed down the teachings of Christ in secret for 250 years despite religious suppression was reported to Europe.
9. Construction of Churches by Laypeople
Due to increasing criticism from the international community demanding religious freedom in Japan, the Meiji Government officially lifted the ban on Christianity in 1873. For the first time in 250 years of practicing their faith in secret, Christians in Japan were able to practice their faith openly.
Christians all over the Nagasaki region built churches in the villages where they had hidden as a testimony to their keeping of their faith. They managed to gather funds from cutting into their already scarce living expenses and from money received from the foreign missionaries’ private funds. Many lay people volunteered to help construct the churches and transport the necessary materials.
The quiet churches located in the mountains and island inlets whisper the story of Christians who kept their faith in these small villages and passed it down from generation to generation throughout the period of religious persecution and concealment.