With the inception of global trade and the beginnings of European Imperialism in the 17th century, the Catholic Church also seized the opportunity to spread its faith across the world. Missionaries first arrived in Japan on Spanish and Portuguese ships, and it was the Portuguese who established and maintained a strong trading and Christian base in the Japanese archipelago.
Christianity spread rapidly through Japan in the 17th century and at one point Japan had the largest population of Christians outside of European rule. Although Christianity did reach the ruling class of Daimyo*, Japanese Christians consisted mostly of peasant farmers during that time. The shogunate was suspicious of the European missionaries, considering them precursors of military conquest, and persecuted the Japanese Christians, questioning their loyalty to their daimyos.
In 1637, more than 30,000 Japanese Catholic peasants and samurai retaliated against the persecution of the feudal government in what is known as the Shimabara rebellion. The Christians destroyed many Buddhist relics and ransacked temples during the rebellion, faced an army of 10,000 samurai dispatched from the capital of Edo (present day Tokyo), and was eventually crushed, but not without huge losses on the side of the shogunate. Immediately following the rebellion, the Edo Shogunate outlawed Christianity in Japan, and progressively tightened restrictions on foreigners in Japan into what eventually became Japan’s closed border’s policy （鎖国 Sakoku).
With Christianity having been made illegal in Japan, the Japanese Church was forced underground and came to be called Kakure Kirishitan (隠れ切支丹, Hidden Christians). Missionaries in Japan were forced to leave or to apostasize. Many Japanese Christians and foreign priests were tortured in an attempt to make them denounce their faith. As proof of their apostasy, Christians were forced to tread upon a fumie (踏み絵、lit. “stepping picture”). The fumie was an image of Christ or the Virgin Mary which Japanese Christians were made to spit and stamp upon in order to prove their abandonment of the Christian faith.
The book Silence by Shusaku Endo deals with the psychological and spiritual struggle of a missionary priest during this time period. The book was controversial when it was published in 1966, and has since been hailed in Japan’s literary circles as an essential part of the Japanese literary canon. Silence is an astonishing literary work that explores cultural differences between Europe and Asia and serves as a vivid portrait of what happens when meetings between the East and the West go awry. The title of the book comes from the faith struggle that the priest goes through as he tries to justify God’s silence during his persecution.
The Christians were almost completely purged from Japan, with only a few Kakure Kirishitans continuing to practice their faith in utmost secrecy, reciting prayers in tongues they could not understand (Latin and Portuguese) and performing their own version of communion, substituting rice balls for the bread of the Eucharist. However, these practitioners are few, and there are fewer Christians in Japan than in any other Eastern Asian nation (less than 1%). Christianity continued to be outlawed in Japan until the overthrow of the Shogunate and reassertion of the Emperor’s power with the Meiji Restoration in 1868.
*Daimyo (大名)—powerful land owning lords in Feudal Japan.
Cole G. is the Wonders and Marvels Editorial Assistant for East Asian History/Nonfiction and Historical Fiction. You can read more about him here.