By Martin Roth
One of the lesser known facts of history is that in the 16th century Japan was on its way towards becoming a Christian nation, with many of the nobility accepting the religion.
But towards the end of the century a lengthy period of persecution began, and Christianity was outlawed. Under the threat of extreme torture, many Christians were forced to worship in secret. They later become known as the “Kakure Kirishitan” – hidden Christians.
I write about this in my novel “The Maria Kannon:”
What if he surrendered? Gave himself up without a fight? The samurai might choose to keep him alive, in order to carry him back with them to Edo. Torturing the Christians, forcing them to recant their beliefs, was a spectator sport there, as it was throughout Japan. Their reward for bringing him back alive might be more than simply returning with his head.
And if that happened, could he withstand the torture? Might he too eventually give in and tell the Buddhist interrogators that he no longer believed?
Father Lopez, the gentle Spanish missionary priest with the white beard and red face, had whispered to him the horror stories.
“You need to know, Anjiro-san,” he had said. “You must prepare yourself. But my son, you are blessed with youth and strength, and you are single. You can escape.”
Father Lopez told him about the first martyrs, twenty-six of them, way down south in Nagasaki, who had been roughly crucified on makeshift crosses. One of them was a twelve-year-old boy, Ibaragi Kun. An official urged him to recant his faith. Instead the youngster replied that it would be better for the official to become a Christian, so he too could go to heaven. Then looking the man in the eye he asked, “Sir, which is my cross?”
When directed to the smallest of the crosses on the hill the young man knelt in front of it and embraced it. He sang praises to God as the jeering soldiers trussed him to the cross and then lanced him to death.
As he continued his climb, Anjiro silently prayed that he too might have strength to be a powerful witness to God’s love.
He knew that, if captured alive, he would be ordered to undertake fumie – demonstrate his apostasy by stepping onto a picture of Jesus or Mary.
But once he refused, as surely he would – well, then the torture would commence. He knew that the torture methods had become increasingly refined.
Simple crucifixion was no longer enough. Sometimes the soldiers would crucify people upside-down, or at sea, where the rising tide steadily engulfed the martyrs over many hours. Others were chopped into pieces, or slowly burned – the fire deliberately lit some distance away so it engulfed them only slowly – or scalded to death in one of Japan’s many hot springs.
Worst of all, according to Father Lopez, was being left to dangle upside-down over a pit filled with excrement. For those who were strong and healthy, like Anjiro, blessed death might take a week to arrive.
Now comes word that local government officials in Kyushu, where many of the hidden Christians lived, are calling for some Christian historical sites to be granted UNESCO World Heritage status.
Asia News reports:
The 13 sites include Nagasaki’s Oura Cathedral, built by two French missionaries from the Société des Missions Étrangères in 1864 to honour 26 Christian martyrs, nine European and 16 Japanese, crucified in 1597 on the order of Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
…After its inauguration, people from the village of Urakami asked Fr Petitjean, one of the two missionaries who built the church, if they could go inside to “greet Mary”. The Frenchman thus discovered that they were Kakure Kirishitans, descendants of the first Japanese Christians who went underground as a result of imperial persecution.
Tens of thousands of underground Christians followed this first group, visiting the cathedral and openly practicing their Christian faith. Told about it, Pope Pius IX called the event “a miracle of the Orient”.