DESTROYING JAPANESE CHRISTIANITY

This year marks a singularly grim anniversary in Christian history. In 2014, it is exactly four hundred years since the start of the horrific persecution that destroyed the once flourishing church in Japan.

When we think of persecutions on this scale, we normally tend to set them in an ancient or medieval context. The world of 1614, though, was in some ways remarkably modern, not least in terms of its literature and culture. Shakespeare had just retired, and Cervantes was about to publish the second volume of Don Quijote. Colonial North America already existed in crude form: St. Augustine, Santa Fe, Jamestown and Quebec City were already in existence, and the Dutch would soon be settling New Amsterdam. Yet contemporary events in eastern Asia seem to take us back to the earliest church.

During the sixteenth century, Catholic missions enjoyed stunning successes in Japan. By the end of that century, though, the official mood was turning more sour and intolerant. Persecution abated until 1614, when the violence intensified sharply following the establishment of the shogunate. Tokugawa Hidetada prohibited the practice of Christianity, so that “All missionaries, catechists and anyone who gives shelter to missionaries, and all seminarians, are expelled from the country.” Those who refused to obey faced the death penalty. These laws were renewed and expanded under his despotic successor Iemitsu (1623-1651), who was fanatically anti-Christian. Between the deadly year of 1614 and the 1640s, Japanese Christianity was rooted up, at the cost of (at least) tens of thousands of lives, probably more.

This persecution marked a lethal turning point in what had, up to that point, seemed to mark the spectacular progress of Christianity in Eastern Asia. Although we often recall Muslim/Christian conflicts, it was the Shinto/Buddhist nation of Japan that perpetrated one of the most thorough extirpations ever recorded of a church. The Japanese exceeded any Muslim successes in how totally they destroyed once-booming Christian communities. This movement had significant long-term effects for the direction of the Christian movement, as the annihilation of the Japanese missions decisively prevented Christianity resuming its movement towards global status, striking a dreadful blow against its progress in Asia. By eliminating potential rivals, both these campaigns contributed to maintaining the near-total European monopoly of Christianity.

In my next couple of posts, I will describe these events, and suggest their implications for wider Christian history.

Catholic missions first arrived in Japan in 1549, when the Jesuit Francis Xavier landed at Kagoshima, in the southern island of Kyushu. The timing was important because Japan was at that time in political chaos, lacking a decisive central authority that might have excluded the alien new religion. Japan was in the era of Warring States, in which several different warlords contended for supremacy, each ruling in effect as an independent sovereign. One of the most significant was Oda Nobunaga, whose struggle to unite the country put him at odds with the powerful Buddhist sects. Tension with Japan’s traditional religious authorities predisposed him to favor new religions like the Christians, who were also useful in importing new military technologies, including modern artillery. Christians were rewarded by being allowed to proselytize freely.

The Jesuits directed their attention particularly towards the lords and gentry, the daimyo, knowing that in such a feudal society, the masses of ordinary people would have little alternative but to follow the lead of the upper classes. Significant numbers converted, and their long endurance under later persecutions shows that their Christian loyalties went far beyond merely obeying the commands of their landlords. By 1582, Japan had perhaps 200,000 Christians and 250 churches, an amazing growth in such a short time. At the height of Catholic power, around 1610, the Japanese church had at least 300,000 followers, concentrated in southern Japan, especially in Kyushu, in Omura and Nagasaki. (Just to put that number in context, the British colonies in North America would not have a population on that scale until after 1710).

But Japanese Christians were in a weaker position than most realized. From multiple sources, Japanese authorities were receiving alarming signals about what the long-term intentions of the visitors might be. Some loud-mouthed Europeans were heard boasting that soon, Japan would be a colony quite as subject to the Spanish empire as the Philippines was already. Such stories were reinforced by several groups deeply hostile to the Jesuit missions – from rival Catholic orders, notably the Dominicans, and from Protestant travelers, English and Dutch. Other more subtle signals pointed to the foreign nature of the faith, however hard the Jesuits tried to promote native clergy and a Japanese liturgy.

Warnings about foreign subversion found a ready audience in a new regime pledged to restore imperial unity. By 1590, Japan was reunited by one of Nobunaga’s generals, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. In 1603, another warlord, Tokugawa Ieyasu, created the strongly centralized Shogunate regime that remained in power until 1868. The new rulers had no sympathy for any movement that threatened to fracture Japanese unity, especially if that meant drawing in foreign imperialism. From the 1590s, Christians faced increasingly severe penal laws. Once secular protectors were removed or deterred, the next obvious targets were the clergy themselves. In 1597, Hideyoshi ordered the execution of 26 Christians, who were mutilated and then paraded for public display, before being publicly crucified in Nagasaki.

Local lords and daimyo were the first to withdraw their support, leaving the clergy and ordinary believers to face the consequences. We know the names of at least 1,200 who perished between 1614 and 1630, and one day in 1622, 52 Christians were executed in Nagasaki, by beheading and burning. This was “the Grand Martyrdom.” One English visitor “saw 55 martyred at Miyako at one time . . . and among them little children 5 or 6 years old burned in their mother’s arms, crying out: ‘Jesus receive our souls’. Many more are in prison who look hourly when they shall die, for very few turn pagans.” Executions were accompanied by extraordinary tortures and mutilations, which were so extreme that even later Catholic martyrologists shied from describing them in detail.

Yet the recorded cases are only a tiny minority of the actual persecutions, The martyrologies are heavily weighted towards remembering the names of Europeans, and of clergy, rather than of ordinary lay people or peasants, especially when these occurred in out of the way corners of the land.

The complete roster of victims ran into many thousands, not counting those who were imprisoned, mutilated or had their property confiscated.

Under lethal pressure, by the 1630s Christians were able to survive only in a few areas where they retained the sympathy of local lords. Even these refuges came under threat when Christians led the peasant rebellion in Shimabara, in western Kyushu, in 1637-38. This uprising was only suppressed after battles in which the government mobilized a hundred thousand men, and tens of thousands of Christians were among those massacred in the war and the ensuing repression. The outbreak was all the more terrifying to a society only just becoming accustomed to public order after long civil wars. Worse, the crisis pointed yet again to the strength of Christians along the southern coasts, regions that could easily be the targets of future naval assault: Christian enclaves could become a fifth column for foreign empires.

The government decided that Christianity was a menace to national security that had to be utterly rooted out, and the draconian penal laws were fully enforced. Already in 1636, Japan had opted to become a wholly closed society, fearing that any European visitors might bring unwelcome Christian influences, or might even be clergy in disguise. The government permitted very limited trade only with the Dutch, and then under rigidly limited circumstances. In 1640, a party of foolhardy Portuguese visitors was refused entry with the warning that “While the sun warms the earth, let no Christian be so bold as to enter into Japan.” Except for occasional martyrdoms recorded through the eighteenth century, Japanese Christianity largely vanished from official view.

The Japanese experience tells us much about the potential of religious persecution. On occasion, persecution can and does succeed, when applied with sufficient determination and violence, and repressive regimes did not need the technology available to a modern state, with its rich resources in means of communication and transportation. Much of the Christian religious decline in the Middle East involves gradual, long term, force applied over centuries, massive pressures to conform, reinforced in extreme cases by ethnic cleansing. In contrast, the Japanese story testifies to the power of governmental terror unleashed against a domestic population in intense bursts.

Contrary to the noble sentiment that is sometimes heard, you really can kill an idea.

 

  • Keen Reader

    Very interesting. I’ve read a little about Chinese Christianity but nothing about Japanese Christianity. Can you mention a few books on the subject in your next post?

    • philipjenkins

      A classic account would be C. R. Boxer, The Christian Century in Japan,
      1549-1650 (originally published 1951. Berkeley: University of California
      Press, 1967).

      Choosing a few others randomly, see Ikuo Higashibaba, Christianity In Early Modern Japan (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2001);

      Andrew C. Ross, A Vision Betrayed (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1994).

      Also easily available are
      “Japanese Martyrs,” Catholic Encyclopedia,

      http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09744a.htm
      and
      “Japan,” Catholic Encyclopedia,

      http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08297a.htm

      • Keen Reader

        Thank you very much; I’ll seek out at least one of these.

  • MichaelNewsham

    “When we think of persecutions on this scale, we normally tend to set
    them in an ancient or medieval context. The world of 1614, though, was
    in some ways remarkably modern, not least in terms of its literature and
    culture.”

    It was also in the midst of the Wars of Religion ion Europe, where Protestants and Catholics were slaughtering each other in numbers that dwarfed anything that happened in Japan.

    • philipjenkins

      True, and I will address that in my next post. Actually, though, the pace of killing in Japan was quite equal to anything in contemporary Europe.

    • carlolancellotti

      Oh, please, name any episode in post-Reformation history in which literally hundreds of thousand of people were murdered in order to stamp out a religious sect. Even the worst episodes of the 30 years war do not fit that description, and certainly did not “dwarf” what happened in Japan.

      • philipjenkins

        Well, the Thirty Years War certainly involved millions of deaths on both sides. Some of the massacres ran into the tens of thousands, eg Magdeburg in 1631. The Irish massacres of the 1640s were also horrible.

        • carlolancellotti

          Certainly, but I would argue that many casualties of the 30 years war were “normal” effects of widespread warfare over an extended period of time (including massive famines and outbreaks of plague, like in 1628).

          On the other hand, situations in which one religious sect was targeted for extermination by another group did not take place on such a massive scale as to “dwarf” the events in Japan, although that certainly happened in some cases. To Magdeburg and Ireland I would add, if I recall correctly, the events in Bohemia after the battle of the White Mountain in 1620.

  • Ian Smith

    Mr. Jenkins, thank you for this thoughtful article. One edit I might suggest, in one of the latter paragraphs you state, “By 1590, Japan was reunited one of Nobunaga’s generals…,” but do not refer to the name of that general. However later in the paragraph you go on to refer to Hideyoshi by name, but without context. I believe this was a simple oversight, and it may be worth adding in the name Hideyoshi in the above mentioned sentence for clarity.

    I am looking forward to your future posts on this topic with great interest.

    • philipjenkins

      Edit done! Thanks.

      • Ian Smith

        I can’t believe I missed the more obvious omission! Should probably read “reunited BY one” or “reunited UNDER one.” I’d offer you a cup of coffee, something I clearly need myself, but I can’t send one through the interwebs.

  • Grotoff

    So much for the blood of martyrs being the seed of the church.

  • Jeremiah

    Aren’t we Evangelicals a little schizophrenic with regards to Catholicism? Is it a works-based Romish cult or is it Christianity? Should we assume that the Jesuits were more than political pawns of the Rome via Spain? Were the concerns of the Japanese unfounded?
    Had Moravian missionaries landed on Japan around that time, would not the Jesuits have had them persecuted and cast out (if not killed), as was the case with interactions with protestant missions in Latin American and elsewhere? Has not everywhere that Rome has gained any significant foothold become a culturally repressed vassal of the Roman Power Structure, where “tithes” are just another word for taxes?
    I do not doubt that genuine believers exist within the confines of the Roman Catholic Church, but I cannot accept that Rome represents Christianity simply because they say it does (with exclusivity, I might add), or that those masses of Japanese peasants under pressure from their lords should be assumed to be Christians for their submission to the Pope (The violent revolt they spear-headed later would seem to go against this).
    To look at these historical events and assert that Christianity was once flourishing in Japan and then completely extinguished within a couple of generations, requires a very questionable assumption about the nature of what constitutes Christianity.

  • Jeremiah

    Aren’t we Evangelicals a little schizophrenic with regards to Catholicism? Is it a works-based Romish cult or is it Christianity? Should we assume that the Jesuits were more than political pawns of the Rome via Spain? Were the concerns of the Japanese unfounded?

    Had Moravian missionaries landed on Japan around that time, would not the Jesuits have had them persecuted and cast out (if not killed), as was the case with interactions with protestant missions in Latin America and elsewhere? Has not everywhere that Rome has gained any significant foothold become a culturally repressed vassal of the Roman Power Structure, where “tithes” are just another word for taxes?

    I do not doubt that genuine believers exist within the confines of the Roman Catholic Church, but I cannot accept that Rome represents Christianity simply because they say it does (with exclusivity, I might add), or that those masses of Japanese peasants under pressure from their lords should be assumed to be Christians for their submission to the Pope (The violent revolt they spear-headed later would seem to go against this).

    To look at these historical events and assert that Christianity was once flourishing in Japan and then completely extinguished within a couple of generations, requires a very questionable assumption about the nature of what constitutes Christianity.

    • Guest

      To add to the discussion, I just saw a documentary featuring the English trader William Adams and how he became an honorary Samurai – the first Christian Protestant in Japan. The Jesuits wanted the King (Ieyasu) to have him crucified on arrival! The reformation was going on in Europe. Here is an extract of Adam’s letters to his wife:

      “Coming before the king, he viewed me well, and seemed to be wonderfully favourable. He made many signs unto me, some of which I understood, and some I did not. In the end, there came one that could speak Portuguese. By him, the king demanded of me of what land I was, and what moved us to come to his land, being so far off. I showed unto him the name of our country, and that our land had long sought out the East Indies, and desired friendship with all kings and potentates in way of merchandise, having in our land diverse commodities, which these lands had not… Then he asked whether our country had wars? I answered him yea, with the Spaniards and Portugals, being in peace with all other nations. Further, he asked me, in what I did believe? I said, in God, that made heaven and earth. He asked me diverse other questions of things of religions, and many other things: As what way we came to the country. Having a chart of the whole world, I showed him, through the Strait of Magellan. At which he wondered, and thought me to lie. Thus, from one thing to another, I abode with him till mid-night.”

      Adams further explained that Ieyasu finally denied the Jesuits’ request for punishment on the ground that:

      “We as yet had not done to him nor to none of his land any harm or damage; therefore against Reason or Justice to put us to death. If our country had wars the one with the other, that was no cause that he should put us to death; with which they (the Jesuits) were out of heart that their cruel pretence failed them. For which God be forever praised.”
      (William Adams’s letter to his wife).

      Quite shocking that the Jesuits were prepared to crucify an innocent man (and his crew) for being a Christian.

    • Glenda Smith

      Very well,stated. To now Chritianity from a biblical perspective is to know that Roman Catholicism is NOT Christianity according to the Bible but have their own interpretations and with no doubt horribly skewed theological doctrines. Ir is a very hierarchical religious organization that has historically evovled with each generation of its leaders to a point that it cannot be recognized by the Apostles of Jesus Christ, much less conformed to the Imaage of Christ, as is the goal of Christianity. Jesus, Who came not to do His OWN Will but that of His Father, to reconcile those who will to a holy and just and loving God… The Crusades and the Reformation are the historical proof that the Roman Catholic religions is a hybrid of paganism and mystical Judaism with a pinch of Jesus added for some amount of Truth….just enough to deceive many. It leaves no room for true faith. I had not known of these poor Japanes people, and I know God is a Just and Merciful God Who will judge them justly and will NOT judge anyone unjustly, even the perpetrators of theses evil atrocities. The catholics also used torture on noncatholics, so am wodnering if they got their ideas from these Japanese warlord.We can easily see why there NEEDS to be a Heaven and a Hell.

      • http://youtube.com/user/BowmanFarm Brian Bowman

        It’s all pagan. Including yours. Are you going to celebrate Ishtar/Eostre this spring equinox season?

        Pagan Origins of the Christ Myth
        pocm.info

        The mythmakers weren’t the Catholics, it was Paul and his band of imposters who turned a Jewish peasant into a magical godman.

        “Of this band of dupes and impostors, Paul was the great Corypheus, and first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus.” ~Thomas Jefferson (Jefferson’s Works, Vol. ii., p. 217)

  • rlhailssrpe

    “Contrary to the noble sentiment that is sometimes heard, you really can kill an idea.”

    This certainly may be possible but it did not happen to Catholicism in Japan. In the late 1500 through the mid 1600s, Catholics were slaughtered, in Japan, by the thousands due to their faith. The hill of martyrs in Nagasaki is filled with the bones of European and Japanese, men, women, children, Jesuits, Franciscans, Augustinians, and Dominicans. Torture was the norm; the intent was to discourage the foreign faith, and root out the “traitors” due to Xenophobia, with some cause. A Spanish ship, was discovered in Japanese waters with a secret cargo of canons in her hull. No doubt many caved and squealed; everybody is not a hero.

    However, in 1860s, when Christianity was once again permitted in the homeland, Catholics were discovered practicing their faith with no priests for 250 years. (And it was in this time, that sword bearing samurai went out of business, after centuries of domination.)
    .
    http://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-voices/16th-and-17th-century-ignatian-voices/st-paul-miki-sj/

    http://www.augnet.org/?ipageid=1331

    http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/saint.php?n=139

    I look forward to the subsequent posts.

    • philipjenkins

      And I will indeed be posting on those issues over the next week or so!

      In the context btw, I do appreciate the typo about having a secret shipment of canons! Assuming it’s a typo….

  • Garrett

    To the contrary, the noble sentiment remains true. “An idea whose time has come can not be stopped by any army or any government.”

  • FA Miniter

    Please at least get the names of the Japanese Shoguns correct. Ieyasu was a given name like Barack or George or Bill. Tokugawa Ieyasu (the clan name comes first) was Shogun only from 1603 to 1605, though he lived until 1616 (dying in the same year as Shakespeare and Cervantes) and retained some power until his death. He was followed by Tokugawa Hidetada who was Shogun from 1605 to 1623. So you named the wrong Shogun as instigating the laws. Tokugawa Iemitsu succeeded Tokugawa Hidetada.

    • philipjenkins

      I appreciate the correction

  • Jack

    My question is this – given that Spanish and Portuguese Catholicism had drifted a very long way from Christ, probably as far as ever, at that time what was the Christianity it was preaching in Japan? Was it preaching Christ, or was it preaching Mary worship, live burnings, indulgences and government over throw a.k.a Guy Fawkes?

  • http://youtube.com/user/BowmanFarm Brian Bowman

    The danger of preaching human sacrifice on a Roman torture instrument as a medicine to strangers is that you risk a dose of your own medicine.

    I’ll just stay home, mind my own business, and contemplate what America’s founders thought of the cult of the Cross.

    “I almost shudder at the thought of alluding to the most fatal example of the abuses of grief which the history of mankind has preserved—the Cross. Consider what calamities that engine of grief has produced!” ~John Adams, letter to Thomas Jefferson, September 3, 1816

    “Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined and imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity.” ~Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, 1782

  • Fallulah

    Maybe you should stay out of other people’s countries and not try to pollute their culture with your lies and judgement! Ever think of that? No, of course you haven’t cuz yours is the right way and everyone else is barbaric.

  • Triune

    I trust you are familiar with Endo’s “Silence.”. It’s historical fiction but presents the view with a Japanese regard for the foreign faith and the inherent problem of missions in non-western contexts.

  • SuchindranathAiyer

    This purely religious version ignores the facts of History. Silver was more expensive in Japan than the more abundantly available gold. During the Momo Yama (Peach Mountain) period and Shogunate of Japanese History when Japan was open to foreign winds, the sea faring Portuguese took advantage of this to trade and used cheap silver to spread Christianity. So far, so good. They then hit upon the bright idea of taking it all. A la the Conquistadores who exterminated the Aztec and Inca civilizations. Given logistics, it was necessary to have a sizable local population on their side and so prozelytization to Christianity took on a different shade and urgency. The Japanese discovered it and kicked the Portuguese out, purged Christianity (i.e. the Portuguese “take over” plot) and restricted all foreign presence to a Dutch trading post in Tokyo Bay, and revived Shintoism (analogous to Aryan Brahmanism) with its foundations rooted in patriotism and loyalty to the Emperor as the State Religion relegating Budhism that had been the State religion since Empress Komyo and Prince Shotoku, to the back ground. Japan continued in this splendid state of isolation till the corruption of the Bakufate (the Bureaucrat-Soldier nexus) and the resultant galloping inflation led to the Meiji Restoration when the Emperor took over effective rulership from the Shoguns (the Military Dictators) who had ruled on Imperial behalf for millenia.Christianity in those days is what Islam is clawing its way back to these days. Had Japan not purged Imperial Christianity from its shores, it would have ended up like the Inca and Aztec empire, exterminated by plunder, rape, gonorrhea, syphilis, and the inquisition. The ethnic cleansing of Kashmir looks almost gentle by comparison.


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