【Hidden Christians】Religious Consciousness of the Japanese


The idea of divine favor in this world is an extremely important element in the religious consciousness of the Japanese, and even today it remains very strong – one can ask God or Buddha to grant money, a cure for illness, or happiness in this world.

The religion is far from such expectations of divine favor in this world, but in the case of the Japanese, this aspect has always been the main element of belief.

In Buddhism, one form of this is seen in the worship of Yakushi Nyorai, who cures illness; and the present-day new religions use, for example, a guaranteed cure for cancer as a draw for new believers.




Early Christianity in Japan

Early Christianity in Japan also offered promises for health, profitable trade with the West, and a supply of weapons for the feudal lords who welcomed the new religion. It can’t be denied that the conviction that if they protected and believed in this religion they would also profit was a strong factor in the lord’s decision to accept Christianity.

And in those days, everything was handed down from above in the feudal social structure. If the lords believed in Christianity, their vassals would also believe, and the farmers underneath those vassals would be allowed to believe as well.



Thus Christianity spread in Japan, or, more accurately, the promise of divine favor in this world that Christianity brought along with it was accepted throughout the nation.




the second period of Christianity in Japan

When we reach the second period, during which the children of the first-generation Christians were active, the very fact of their being second-generation Christians resulted in a far stronger belief in Christianity itself than had been evident among their parents’ generation.

But what I mean by this is that the larger structure of Japan’s agricultural villages was at work in the belief patterns of that time, and we can see belief or familiarity taking hold in terms of large and small village groups.


If the head or leader of a village believed in Christianity, the rest of the villagers would also believe, and if the village head drifted away from his belief, the rest of the village would follow suit.


When we reach the latter part of the second period, we find the beginning of the suppression and persecution of Christianity by Ieyasu and Hidetada Tokugawa, the rulers who succeeded Hideyoshi Toyotomi.

And while there were indeed some individuals who persisted in their individual belief in Christianity, for the most part there was a very strong tendency for people to give up their belief if the head of the village made up his mind to abandon Christianity.


Two Japanese early Christian wood


Thus, I feel that the great prosperity that Christianity had been enjoying up to this time broke down and disappeared so quickly because belief was promulgated in village units rather than on the individual level.

Another important element that was involved at this time in the religion of the Japanese was their focus on ancestor worship and adoration. Francisco de Xavier explains that when he came to Japan, the greatest barrier to the acceptance and belief in Christianity by the Japanese was their fear that if they became Christians they would not be able to join their ancestors after they died.




the third period of Christianity in Japan

The third period covers the time when persecution of Christians was at its zenith. The missionaries disappeared from Japan, the churches were destroyed, and Christianity, with its roots in Western philosophy, maintained only a very tenuous existence among a small segment of the Japanese people. It is in this period that I have the greatest interest.

This is because, without churches or missionaries, it became necessary for the Japanese to really get their teeth into Christianity was free to change within their religious consciousness. My interest lies in the manner in which it changed under these circumstances. The ” Hidden Christian” movement is said to have been based upon an under ground Christianity in hiding from the Tokugawa government, but this is not the actual case.



What they believed in was not Christianity but a folk religion based on a mixture of Japanned Christian elements. Aspects of Buddhism, Shintoism, and many other things were all jumbled together.

There have even been times when I have seriously wondered whether what these Hidden Christians worshipped was actually the same God as that of other Christians, or whether they had any knowledge of Christianity at all.




Hidden Christian

Kakure Kirishitan (Japanese: 隠れキリシタン, “hidden Christian”) is a modern term for a member of the Japanese Catholic Church during the Edo period that went underground after the Shimabara Rebellion (Nagasaki) in the 1630s.

Kakure Kirishitans are called the “hidden” Christians because they continued to practice Christianity in secret. They worshipped in secret rooms in private homes.


As time went on, the figures of the saints and the Virgin Mary were transformed into figurines that looked like the traditional statues of the Buddha and bodhisattvas ; depictions of Mary modeled on the Buddhist deity Kannon, goddess of mercy, became common, and were known as “Maria Kannon”.

The Bible and other parts of the liturgy were passed down orally, because printed works could be confiscated by authorities. Because of the official expulsion of the Catholic clergy in the 17th century, the Kakure Christian community relied on lay leaders to lead the services.





As has been made clear by the investigations of scholars in the field…

The main object of belief was neither God nor Christ, but the Virgin Mary. And this Virgin Mary was more like their own human mothers than what we normally think of as the Virgin Mary.

The Mary in such pictures looks far more like a Japanese farmwife in her everyday work clothes than Virgin Mary we know from religious paintings of the West. It is here that my interest has concentrated.



The reason for this is that Christianity holds up God and Christ as the objects of belief, and while Catholics do place considerable importance upon the Virgin Mary, she is not the primary deity.

The fact that the Virgin Mary became the major object of belief among the Hidden Christians means that Christianity itself was greatly altered here.




The same sort of thing can be said of the other Japanese religions

For instance, Buddhism came to Japan after passing through China and Korea. Thoroughly assimilated by the Japanese, by the Heian and Muromachi periods it had also become a mother-oriented religion.

The feeling that the Japanese have as they worship the Amida Buddha is a strong reflection of the heart of a child making emotional demands of its mother.


There is a very strong mother-image in the case of the Amida Buddha in the hearts of the Japanese. The precept of the Pure Land Sect (Jodo Shinshu) – not only the good but the bad as well will be saved – can be interpreted as a religious expression of the Japanese maternal attitude that a bad child is the most lovable.

Thus, we find that in a sense this is a mother-oriented precept as well, and that as Buddhism became Japanned, it also became a mother-oriented religion.




a Japanese-style mother-oriented religion

Christianity, which matured as a father-oriented religion in Europe, was brought to faraway Japan, and after the missionaries and the churches disappeared, it was secretly passed on by the Japanese themselves, during which process it lost its spiritual substance.

And I feel that the fact it was converted into a Japanese-style. mother-oriented religion is a revelation of one of the main aspects of the religious consciousness of the Japanese people.


Of course, there are indeed mother-oriented aspects of Christianity. This tendency is seen particularly in the New Testament, and a mother-oriented consciousness is not peculiar to the Japanese race only.

It can be found in Southeast Asian nations as well. However, the mother-oriented consciousness has remarkable strength among the Japanese.