The Case of Japan’s Hidden Christians

They say prayers in languages they don’t understand whispered down the generations for more than 400 years. These are Catholic prayers composed in Latin and 16th century Portuguese and Japanese. Their mumbled sacred phrases are preserved only in memory, hidden from those who in decades past would have killed those found speaking them.

The Kakure Kirishitan were once an estimated 150,000 in number. They were those who, newly infused with the Catholic faith four centuries ago, took their religion underground to escape persecution, torture and death.

The Catholic faith was brought to Japan in 1549 by the great Jesuit missionary to Asia, St. Francis Xavier. Last year Japan celebrated the 450th anniversary of his arrival at Kagoshima at the bottom end of Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s four major islands. Warmly welcomed by Japanese leaders, Xavier and his fellow missionaries baptized hundreds of people before he departed two years later.

Jesuits missionaries under the Portuguese flag continued Xavier’s missionary efforts, mostly on Kyushu, reporting 300,000 converts before the century’s end.

It wasn’t long, however, before Japanese lords began to view the enthusiastic Christians as a threat to the stability of the nation. They began a systematic persecution that led to the torture and death of thousands of Japanese Catholics. The canonized Nagasaki martyrs were victims of the persecution of 1597.

Another great persecution took place in the mid-1600s. Catholics who did not renounce their faith were crucified, dismembered, lowered headfirst in excrement, or suffered other cruel means of torture and death.

Thousands took their faith underground. In order to practice their religion without detection, they eliminated most external symbols and books, disguising their rituals, and committing prayers and snatches of Scripture to memory.

Missionaries were banned from Japan for 200 years until the middle of the 19th century when the French reintroduced Catholicism to the country. At this time, some of the Hidden Christians came forth and rejoined the Catholic Church. Others did not recognize the French Catholicism as the faith of their ancestors. Centuries of concealment and isolation had changed their faith into something unique with secrecy an integral part of its doctrine.

Otaiya Ceremony in observance of Christmas eve, during which a Kakure Kirishitan priest places a ball of rice in the palm of another priest in a rite reminiscent of the Eucharist. photo by Christal Whelan
Otaiya Ceremony in observance of Christmas eve, during which a Kakure Kirishitan priest places a ball of rice in the palm of another priest in a rite reminiscent of the Eucharist. photo by Christal Whelan

The Hidden Christians worshiped and prayed together and offered each other mutual support. But because the initial introduction to Christianity lasted barely one generation, their education in the faith was somewhat rudimentary. Nevertheless, they turned their inadequate instruction into a practice that developed its own hereditary priesthood, observed holy days and administered the sacrament of Baptism.

On the picturesque Japanese island of Ikitsuki, where the ways of farmers and fishermen die hard, two old men squat before a home altar and chant prayers carefully entrusted to them by their ancestors. The ritual is intense and moving. But something is askew. The rite is partly Buddhist, partly Christian. The language sounds odd, a sort of pidgin Latin. And what do the ancient prayers mean? One of the worshipers admits, “I don’t understand a word of this.”

Neither does anyone else. The men at prayer are among 10,000 surviving Kakure Kirishitan (crypto-Christians)—members of a fossilized faith that is unique in church annals. The poignant tale of the sect begins in 1549, when Jesuit Missionary Francis Xavier brought Roman Catholicism to Japan. The new creed soon gathered 300,000 followers, including most of the inhabitants of Ikitsuki, but its success also spelled its doom. Fearing the Christians’ growth and foreign links, the warlord ruler Hideyoshi and later shogun mounted terror campaigns in which tens of thousands perished, often gruesomely. Christianity was all but stamped out.

But the Christians on Ikitsuki and neighboring islands, who were among the first to suffer, early on developed a way to preserve elements of their faith. Adopting a complex sham, they worshiped publicly at Buddhist temples, then slipped away at night to hold secret Christian prayer meetings. At home, they prayed overtly before Buddhist and Shinto altars, but their real altar became the nan do garni (closet god), innocuous-looking bundles of cloth in which revered Christian statues and medallions were hidden. For 2½ centuries, their fierce faith endured, but it inevitably also turned inward. Because their prayers and rituals had to be transmitted secretly among illiterate peasants, they slowly became garbled. Over the years the words were repeated while the meaning was forgotten, though some prayers retained a discernible Latin antecedent: “Ame Maria karassa binno domisu terikobintsu . . .” obviously derives from “Ave Maria gratia plena dominus tecum benedicta . . .”

In 1865, when Japan permitted a Catholic church to open in Nagasaki to serve Western visitors, the Kakure, then numbering around 30,000 in the region, suddenly came out of hiding. But the missionaries took a hard line with the newfound faithful. “Many were bewildered when they were told to throw away everything connected with their ancestral way,” explains Father Shigeshi Oyama, who runs the tiny Roman Catholic parish now on Ikitsuki. Only half of the underground Christians decided to reunite with Rome. The others persisted in their insular worship.

Today on Ikitsuki, the center of the Kakure population, there are 80 house churches with their closet god. At such public ceremonies as Kakure funerals, a Buddhist priest is always asked to officiate, but, says one of them, “these people make sure to give a prayer in secret to erase the effect of ours.” The sect’s leader, the Ojisama (Revered Uncle), conducts a baptism-like ceremony with water drawn from a site of 17th century martyrdom.

Are the Kakure Christians? Jesuit Diego Yuuki calls their faith “a melange of Buddhism, Shintoism, animism and what Kakure think is Catholicism. They have no Bible. The meaning of the Trinity has been lost on them.” Nonetheless, the church would like to bring its long-sundered sons and daughters home again. During the first papal visit to Japan last February, John Paul II pointedly embraced four Kakure who turned out to greet him and held a meeting with a number of the sect’s chief priests. But one of those who greeted the Pope, Dominico Hayakichi Masuyama, 73, says they had come only to “register the fact that we exist. We have no interest in joining his church.” After all, he adds solemnly, “we, and nobody else, are true Christians.”

-Article from TIMES Magazine. Japan’s Crypto-Christians.Monday. January 11, 1982

Here is the link to the documentary film about the Kakure Kirishitans

This is a sad fact and an unfortunate event of the history of Christianity in Japan. At some point in time, Christian missionaries (most notable the Jesuits) were able to lead numbers of souls to Christ in Japan. However, due to persecutions and expulsions of these missionaries, and a lack of priests to teach these new converts about the faith, some of these sons and daughters of the church went astray, remaining elements of the Christian faith and mixing it with some Buddhist elements-a new syncretic cult. In the Philippines, we never run out of priests even though they are in small numbers, we have lay catechists, more than that we also have  Catholic Faith Defenders, all of them are able to teach us of the essentials of our Christian faith. But how come many of us go astray willingly, how come increasing numbers of Filipinos are becoming indifferent to the church. We enjoy all the freedom to express our faith, and some have used this freedom to express disbelief.

As I have noticed in the articles, there is a lack of recognition of Jesus among the Kakure Kirishitan, there is no mention of their strong devotion to Jesus, there were only mention of Christian martyrs and the Virgin Mary. While I don’t disagree with giving honors tothe  saints or the Virgin, but all these are meaningless without Jesus, Jesus is central, He is the goal, the aim, the reason, the meaning, the all to the Christian faith.  Perhaps this is due to the short time the missionaries had spent with them when  the missionaries  were expelled. We may not know the exact reasons, but here is the catch for all of us, let us consider once again the center of our faith- Jesus, and be faithful to the Church He entrusted us with.

Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam!


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