Spanish Jesuit Francisco Xavier brought Christianity to the shores of Kagoshima (Japan) in the year 1549.
His arrival came near the end of a century-long period of national strife and an important turning point in Japanese history, and in the midst of this great social chaos, the Japanese people were ripe for his spiritual message.
The Shimabara Rebellion (島原の乱) was an uprising in what is now Nagasaki Prefecture in southwestern Japan lasting from December 17, 1637, to April 15, 1638, during the Edo period (1603〜1868) .
It largely involved peasants, most of them Catholics. It was one of only a handful of instances of serious unrest during the relatively peaceful period of the Tokugawa shogunate’s rule.
In the wake of the Matsukura clan’s construction of a new castle at Shimabara, taxes were drastically raised, which provoked anger from local peasants and ronin (samurai without masters).
Religious persecution of the local Catholics exacerbated the discontent, which turned into open revolt in 1637.
The Tokugawa Shogunate sent a force of over 125,000 troops to suppress the rebels and, after a lengthy siege against the rebels at Hara Castle, defeated them.
In the wake of the rebellion, the Catholic rebel leader Amakusa Shiro was beheaded and the prohibition of Christianity was strictly enforced. Japan’s national seclusion policy was tightened and official persecution of Christianity continued until the 1850s.
Following the successful suppression of the rebellion, the daimyo of Shimabara, Matsukura Katsuie, was beheaded for misruling, becoming the only daimyō to be beheaded during the Edo period.
“Bombed Mary” is the name given to the surviving head of a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary, as it rests today in the Urakami (Nagasaki). The statue’s glass eyes melted away in the blast of the atomic bomb dropped on the city at the end of World War II.
When people outside Japan hear the word “Nagasaki,” they often think only of the atomic bombing. This tragic event seems to have obliterated not only much of the city, but also global awareness about its rich and fascinating past.
Being proposed for UNESCO World Heritage status in 2016 are a collection of historical sites which tell of the city’s unique Christian history. These sites bear outstanding witness to Christianity’s development within the Nagasaki region over a period of four centuries.
(“Hidden Christian Sites in the Nagasaki Region” are nominated in 2018)
They speak of how Christianity briefly flourished there following its introduction in the mid-16th century, of how it was subsequently banned and forced underground, and of how it remarkably resurfaced over two centuries later and was revived with strength and speed across the Nagasaki region following the lifting of the ban on Christianity in 1873.
One reason these sites have been proposed for UNESCO status is owing to their architectural value. The churches that were built after 1873 display a subtle fusion of Western and Japanese architectural techniques, and many also incorporate Japanese details such as sliding doors and window shutters or tatami mat floors.
They are also rich in local character. For instance, one depicts images of indigenous flora within its stained glass, while in another the floor around the altar is comprised of blue and white tiles made from a distinctive type of local porcelain.
Nagasaki’s churches have profound contemporary relevance. As symbols of how Catholicism was revived across the Nagasaki region following a lengthy period of suppression, they speak of the survival of a religious minority that overcame intense persecution.
At a time when many people around the world are still persecuted for their religious beliefs, Nagasaki’s churches bear important witness to the value of religious freedom.
Perhaps the most compelling reason these sites have universal appeal is because of the remarkable story that lies behind them. It is a story about hope, and one that is certainly capable of capturing the imagination of people across the world.
Christianity first arrived in Japan in 1549, when the Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier landed in Kagoshima. It briefly flourished, and the newly opened port of Nagasaki developed into one of Asia’s most important Christian centers, becoming known as “a little Rome.”
In 1614, a strict ban on Christianity was issued. Churches were destroyed, and Christians in Japan faced various possibilities. Some suffered exile, forbidden from ever returning.
Others were martyred, refusing to renounce their faith despite, in many cases, being severely tortured. There were also those who committed apostasy, unable to bear the torment they were subjected to.
By the 1640s, not a single priest was left in the whole of Japan. Christians in Nagasaki realized that if they, too, were to die as martyrs, the Japanese church would die with them.
As persecution raged and the prospect of the Christian faith’s complete eradication from Japan became imminent, these Christians made a decision that was to have dramatic consequences over two centuries later : to continue their faith in secret.
The story of the underground church is one of suffering. Throughout the ban on Christianity in Japan, people in Nagasaki were required at an annual ceremony to trample on an image of Christ or the Virgin Mary, known as a fumie, to prove they were not Christian.
These ceremonies haunted the imaginations of the secret Christians, who were without priests to absolve them. Every year they would creep home and utter penitential prayers, begging God to forgive them for what one scholar has called “this most necessary of sins.”
As the years wore on, the plight of many of the Christians in hiding became increasingly desperate. Some were deprived of almost all tangible reminders of their Catholic faith.
This was especially true of those who poverty and persecution drove to cross the sea in tiny fishing boats and live in inhospitable corners of remote islands.
At these windswept extremes, the flame of faith had grown so fragile that the secret Christians living there had almost nothing, save for a firm hope that one day, missionaries would return to Japanese shores.
Following the opening of Japan in the mid-19th century, a Catholic church was erected in Nagasaki, the first to be built there since before the ban on Christianity.
This ban remained strictly in force, and permission for the church was granted on the understanding that it was solely for use by foreigners residing within Nagasaki’s newly established foreign settlement.
Among the secret Christians, there was silent elation. By that point, they had been underground for over two hundred years. In 1865, a small group of them gathered courage and approached the church.
Here they met a French priest named Father Petitjean. Kneeling before him, one whispered: “All of us have the same heart as you.” They then asked the stunned priest “Where is the statue of Santa Maria?”
This moving episode became known as the “Discovery of Christians,” and today the same statue of the Virgin Mary that Father Petitjean showed them can still be seen inside the church.
In the wake of this event, thousands more secret Christians from across the Nagasaki region also came forward and confessed their faith.
The Catholic churches that were erected following the lifting of the ban on Christianity in 1873 stand in the remote locations where the secret Christians had lived.
Each one being proposed for UNESCO status tells in its own unique way of how Christians in Nagasaki gave everything they had for the sake of their faith.
At one church, for instance, the brickwork is slightly uneven, bearing poignant testimony to how former secret Christians themselves helped to finance and construct it. In another, it is thought that the altar stands in the exact spot where fumie trampling used to occur.
As such, Nagasaki’s churches and Christian sites speak to us today of a resurrection that had once seemed impossible. They stand as symbols of hope, inviting us to reflect upon what it means to be human.
A prophecy is alive in the hills of Nagasaki. For centuries Christians stayed hidden under a historical ban on their religion by the Tokugawa Shogunate, a government system that lauded itself for the most peaceful era in Japanese History.
Bastian was a priest in Nagasaki whose life is shrouded in mystery. He prophesied just before his execution in 1659 that:
“All of you shall be my sons and daughters down to the seventh generation. After that, a reverend father will come on a large ship and expiate your sins, by hearing your confession.”
“Then you will be able to chant Christian hymns in a loud voice, anywhere in the public. Heathens shall give you the right-of-way, wherever you may be walking.”
Long before the atomic bomb was dropped, Nagasaki was famous for being Japan’s beacon to the west. Chinese, Portuguese, and Dutch traders have all passed through Nagasaki’s harbor and imparted a part of their culture along the way.
Portuguese sponge cake called castera is still sold today as a Nagasaki staple. Dejima warf is a downtown tourist hot spot constructed to look like a 16th Century Dutch market, and Nagasaki’s China Town is Japan’s oldest and most vibrant.
To further complicate the spread of Christianity, the majority of the country practiced Buddhism and Shintoism. Learning from the lessons of Western colonization in surrounding countries like the Philippines who were invaded by the Spanish after most of the country had converted to Catholicism, the Shogunate banned Christianity from Japan in the early 1600s.
Japanese Catholics were hunted out, and to determine if they had kept their faith, were forced to step on the image of Mary. Those who didn’t were punished and tortured until they recanted. Those who still believed in their faith and stepped on it anyway would wash their feet afterward, and drink the water they used as penance for their sin.
The most famous case of persecution would be the 26 martyrs who were prosecuted in Kyoto and forced to walk for months to Nagasaki where they were crucified.
Minamishimabara City, Nagasaki Prefecture, the site of the historical Shimabara Rebellion, has been nominated as a world heritage site.
Christianity didn’t go down without a fight, and in 1637 poor Catholic laborers rebelled against their feudal lord in what was called the Shimabara rebellion.
In order to construct the Shimabara Castle taxes had been raised to exorbitant levels ; coupled with religious persecution, it was a recipe for unrest.
However, the revolt was unsuccessful. The Catholic rebel leader Amakusa Shiro was beheaded, and the ban on Christianity went into strict enforcement. The rebellion was the main reason behind Japan’s self-imposed isolation.
Only Dutch merchants were allowed to continue selling their goods in Nagasaki. They agreed to the terms of the Japanese, including no proselytizing and living on a confined island called Dejima. The Portuguese would not agree to the terms, so they left.
The “Bombed Mary” as it rests today in the Urakami Cathedral. Some regard its survival as a miracle. The wooden statue’s glass eyes melted due to the intense heat of the nearby atomic blast, but the wood didn’t burn.
For seven generations Christians practiced their religion in secret. Their rediscovery at the end of the 19th century is noted as one of the miracles of Christianity.
Finally after the Meiji Restoration and subsequent opening of Japan, religious freedom was granted to Japanese citizens. Bastian’s prophecy had come true : Christians could practice their faith freely, and were allowed to build their own cathedral in Urakami.
The Urakami neighborhood was at the center of the atomic bomb’s explosion, the cathedral resting on a hilltop meters away from the bomb’s hypocenter.
While the church was destroyed by the blast, the head of wooden statue of the Virgin Mary inside the building remained intact, except for the eyes that were melted out of their sockets. That wooden head still rests inside the cathedral today.