Arts & Books Comment

When Japan’s Christians rose up against the state

A 17th-century Japanese painting of the Christian martyrs of Japan

In late 1637, rebellion erupted in the Amakusa Islands in south-western Japan and quickly spread to the nearby Shimabara Peninsula. Thousands of people were involved and there was bloodshed aplenty, but we simply can’t be sure of why the catastrophe unfolded. Was it a “mundane peasant uprising”, asks Jonathan Clements, or a bold act of defiance stirred by the passions of Christian converts?

The locals clearly had their share of worldly grievances: a run of vindictive rulers had raised taxes to fund lavish building projects; farmers sometimes had to surrender 60 per cent of their crops; and famine stalked the land. All excellent reasons for a revolt, no doubt, but the religious motives of at least some of the insurgents is not hard to spot.

The youthful Jerome Amakusa’s role as leader may well have been exaggerated – exactly who was in charge being another of the rebellion’s imponderables – but his charisma was infectious. For him, at least, the aid of the Christian God was the only way to explain how humble peasants could muster the courage to confront the mighty armies of the state: it was “as if a child should try to measure out the great sea with a shell”, he is supposed to have said, “or as if a beetle should lift up its foot to fight against a cartwheel”.

Clements warns the reader against dismissing the religious element of the rebellion as a veneer. We should not read too much into the attacks on Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines – this was the kind of mischief in which rebels of all stripes routinely indulged. But the Christians of the region had very specific reasons to rise up against their masters. A newly acquired faith had been demonised, then outlawed, and now showed every sign of vanishing without a trace.

That turbulent story provides the backdrop to Clements’s account of the rebellion, and he tells it well. During the second half of the 16th century Christian missionaries, with Jesuits in the vanguard, made piecemeal but impressive progress in Japan.

It was the era of the “warring states”, with meaningful central authority a distant memory, and local rulers could convert to Christianity with impunity. The pursuit of, to borrow Clements’s phrase, “celebrity converts” carried risks, of course. The numbers could look impressive, but thousands of subjects being obliged to follow their ruler’s lead did not always make for a particularly authentic evangelical achievement. The sincerity of those rulers’ conversions was also sometimes rather hazy: did it derive from religious zeal or did they simply want to secure economic favours from the Iberian powers? For all that, we can be confident that, by the 1590s, Christianity had been genuinely embraced by a sizeable number of Japanese.

Their fidelity would be sorely tested over the coming decades. Political unity began to return to Japan and Christianity came to be seen as an alien pollutant, the seedbed of dissent and disloyalty, or even the cunning harbinger of European intrusion or invasion.

Such paranoia led to edicts of prohibition, tragic martyrdoms and a “litany of tortures and torments”. Priests were banished or forced into hiding while suspected converts were made to stamp contemptuously on images of Christ, Mary and the saints. The Christians of the south-west endured some of the worst tides of persecution, so it would be remarkable if their anger and confusion did not play some role in the outbreak of the Shimabara uprising.

Quite what the rebels hoped to achieve is harder to determine. Clements tells a tale of chaotic strategy and ever diminishing options. Progress northwards was stymied and everything ended very badly with the siege of Hara Castle, where the rebels made their final stand. Perhaps 37,000 men, women and children came to violent ends when the castle fell in April, 1638.

We still have no idea how many of them were committed Christians, and the broader issue of Christianity’s impact on early modern Japan remains deeply contentious.

Charles Boxer’s groundbreaking and still influential 1951 study of Japan between 1549 and 1650 was called The Christian Century, but the title (“delimiting and condescending”, as Clements puts it) was chosen above Boxer’s objections to his publishers. Boxer certainly knew that, while the arrival of missionaries was life-changing for some individuals in Japan, it had nothing like the epochal impact produced in other areas of Asia or across the Americas. Evangelical success was always fragile and fitful but, tellingly, not even the events in Shimabara managed to blot out Christianity entirely.

Over the next two centuries Japan was isolated, no priests came, but the kakure kirishitan (“hidden Christians”) managed to survive. They forged a muddled, secretive faith full of “strange drifts of meaning”, theological oddities and garbled Latin phrases, but there was no doubting their resilience. Clements sees them as the heirs of what happened in 1638 and I dare say he’s correct.

This article first appeared in the July 8 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.