“Humanity is so sad, Lord, and the ocean so blue.”
– Monument inscription to Catholic writer Endō Shūsaku
If Christianity is a religion that embraces suffering, then Japanese Catholicism has a claim to be one of the most authentically Christian churches in the world. Its story can be traced through the centuries in a cohesive lineage – a faith handed down, often in secret, for generations. Each generation has carried its own cross, suffering in its own way as the times demanded.
Christianity in Japan began in earnest with the arrival in 1549 of St Francis Xavier, co-founder of the Society of Jesus. In classrooms across Japan, his face sticks out among the list of figures who shaped the country’s history. One of the few foreigners, he is unique in his outwardly Christian garments and the cross he is typically depicted carrying.
Xavier and his fellow Jesuits were surprisingly successful in converting locals to the faith after years of effort and scepticism from the native population. Various rural communities took to Catholic Christianity enthusiastically, and the missionaries began to set up cultural strongholds for the propagation of the faith. Seminaries and religious schools were opened by the foreign clergy and the Jesuits made friends amongst the warriors of the local governments.
However, the more the Catholic missionaries succeeded, the more ire they drew from the ruling class, who felt threatened by the encroaching Western religion.
When Tokugawa Hideyoshi reunified the country in the late 16th century, after years of war between feudal domains, he made great effort to protect his power. Afraid that a sweeping religious revolution would result in a subsequent political upheaval, he began a campaign of persecution against Christianity that continued for centuries.
Japanese Christians and their clergy went underground, disguising their religious objects as statues of the sun goddess or various buddhas. Christians hid their faith from the authorities, but the government became increasingly efficient in finding these “Hidden Christians.”
The most infamous method for weeding out believers of the Western God was the use of fumi-e, images of Christ or the Virgin Mary meant to be trampled upon to demonstrate unbelief. If villagers showed distress in stepping on the religious images, they would be arrested and banished, tortured, or executed.
This repression was cemented when the Tokugawa shogunate began enacting a series of policies in 1633 aimed at keeping foreigners out of Japan altogether. Non-Japanese who arrived on Japan’s soil were executed, and even Japanese who visited other countries were often banished or put to death. The only outsiders allowed access were select traders from China, Korea, and the Netherlands.
Together, these migration restrictions became known as sakoku, or “closed country” policies. Isolated and persecuted, the Hidden Christians splintered and separated. Some apostatised and returned to Shinto or Buddhism to ensure their family’s safety. Others failed to hand on the faith taught by the early Jesuits, which became distorted by foreign beliefs. The outside world quickly assumed the shogun had successfully extinguished these flames of Christianity, and Catholics mourned a lost opportunity for the salvation of souls.
In 1854, more than 200 years after sakoku was established, an American commodore named Matthew C Perry forced Japan to open its borders under threat of military force. The Japanese were taken aback by the technological transformation of the world – Perry’s steam ship and firepower were seen as almost otherworldly.
An obsession with Western culture soon took hold and bans on Christianity began to loosen, allowing foreigners to bring with them clergy from their own countries.
In 1865, a secret envoy of Japanese villagers arrived at the doors of Ōura Church in Nagasaki, where they spoke to a French priest, Fr Bernard Petitjean, who was stunned to hear them profess themselves enthusiastically as Christians. The villagers told him that they had kept the Faith for over two and a half centuries, and that their ancestors had continued the sacrament of Baptism through the generations.
A network of Christian peasants was soon discovered, thousands strong, and by 1873, the Faith was once again permitted on Japanese soil. After generations of suffering, the Catholic Church could breathe again, still with the embers of faith kept alive through the centuries.
In 1890, a council of bishops was called to draw up a strategy for the future of Catholicism in Japan. The Church decided that the best form of evangelisation would be through the educational system, and it began establishing schools and universities nationwide.
The foreign language expertise of these institutions helped propel their students into positions of power in the rapidly internationalising Japan of the 20th century. In the run up to World War II, small but powerful cliques of Christians formed amongst this foreign-educated upper class.
During the war, however, Christianity was suppressed, along with Buddhism and all faiths outside of State Shinto, a spiritual-political movement that held the Emperor of Japan as an earthly deity. The Church was once again put under the government’s thumb, and participation in nationalistic Shinto ceremonies was enforced.
After the war, Catholicism, though still minuscule, continued to grow amongst influential men and women. In 1951, Prince Asaka, the royal family member often blamed for the Rape of Nanking, converted to Catholicism in a widely publicised ceremony – the first Japanese royal to do so. Then in 1959, the Crown Prince Akihito made history by marrying a commoner from a Catholic family named Michiko Shōda. Japanese society relished the news, and despite protests from traditionalists who insisted the Emperor should only marry members of former noble families with a faith in Shinto or Buddhism, the marriage proved incredibly popular.
Outside the royal family, Catholicism today still enjoys a certain level of prestige in its membership. Despite making up less than two per cent of the population, eight prime ministers have been Christian – three of them Catholic.
But Catholicism continually struggles to be taken seriously by the majority of Japanese people. Past religious conflict in Japan and disenchantment with the divinisation of the Emperor have left major scars in religious worship. Additionally, the rise of new-age cults in the post-war era gave minority religions a tarnished image.
Japan is also a culture of conformity and tradition. Christianity is seen as alien to the Japanese identity. Pope Francis’s visit in 2019 helped to challenge this narrative: his speeches in Nagasaki and Tokyo were attended by tens of thousands of Japanese Catholics, perhaps the biggest display of Catholic pride and social unity in many decades. But the belief that Christianity is a Western religion for Western people is bolstered by the large presence of foreigners in Japanese Catholic churches. Overcoming this scepticism remains Japanese Catholicism’s most difficult hurdle moving forward.
Given its educational, historical and political influence in the country, the Catholic Church in Japan is far from dead. But it remains a fringe religion with a foreign identity. And so, much as their ancestors had done before them, today’s Japanese Catholics continue to carry the embers of the faith, awaiting the day they will be rekindled into a raging fire.