But for the paltry handful of Dutch traders, kept cooped up like zoo animals at Dejima, Japan was closed to the West. A Shōgunate inscription said it all: ‘For the future, let none, so long as the Sun illuminates the world, presume to sail to Japan, not even in quality of ambassadors, and this declaration never to be revoked on pain of death.’
Japan remained closed in such a manner for more than two centuries, until modern powers, with modern colonial ambitions, began to bang on the gates of seclusion. After centuries in control, the power of the military aristocracy began to wane. It was eventually brought down by the arrival of foreign powers, when the Shōgun, supposedly appointed as a Great Barbarian-Suppressing General, proved unfit for purpose. Not only did the Shōgun fail to keep out American, British and French warships; he proved unable to assert his authority against foreign merchants and priests. Christians were still forbidden from missionary activity in Japan, but by the later half of the 19th century, the growing community of foreign merchants and industrialists in Nagasaki was allowed to have its own bishop. The rules, however, were strict – he was not supposed to talk to the Japanese, only to meet the religious needs of his fellow foreigners, at the newly completed Ōura Catholic Church in Nagasaki’s Glover Hills district.
Shortly after midnight on 17th March 1865, barely a month after the church was completed, Father Bernard Petitjean heard a timid knock on his door. He opened it to find a group of over a dozen Japanese people, peering at him curiously. Petitjean was equally curious himself, as his presence in Nagasaki was barely tolerated by the authorities.
‘May I ask,’ said a young man after a while, ‘if you owe allegiance to the great chief of the kingdom of Rome?’
The baffled Petitjean hemmed and hawed through his beard, and carefully said that Pope Pius IX was probably who they had in mind.
‘Have you no children?’ asked the same man.
Petitjean was used to strange questions and his missionary gears, although somewhat rusty after months without preaching to unbelievers, began to grind back into action.
‘Christians and others are the children that God has given me,’ he replied. ‘Other children I cannot have. The priest must, like the first apostles in Japan, remain all his life unmarried.’
Just when Petitjean thought that the meeting could not turn any more surreal, the Japanese bowed low to the ground, chattering excitedly. A woman among them attempted to make things clearer.
‘The heart of all of us here is the same as yours,’ she said, explaining that the delegation had come to visit him from a nearby village. ‘At home, everybody is the same as we are. They have the same hearts as we.’
Father Petitjean was speechless. He could not believe what he was hearing, and truly doubted that the people who had knocked on his door knew the implications of what they were suggesting. One of the women then said something that made Petitjean’s heart leap.
‘Where,’ she asked in Japanese, ‘is the statue of Santa Maruya?
For two centuries, scattered enclaves of Kirishitan had continued to worship Deus, despite the Shōgunate’s prohibitions. In urban areas and major population centres, it was impossible to be a believer. But out on the periphery, in remote fishing villages and island farmsteads, Christianity clung to life. These ‘Hidden Christians’ (Kakure Kirishitan) adapted Buddhist rosaries for their own purposes. When called upon to tread upon the image of Christ, they duly obeyed to mislead the government inquisitor, and then sneaked off to confess their sin to a sympathetic fellow, who would absolve them. They pretended to worship Kannon, the Buddhist ‘Goddess of Mercy’, but gave the deity features suspiciously like that of the Virgin Mary. It was the virgin Maruya to the hidden Christians – the name gaining a vowel shift to bring it into line with the secret Christian symbol, the maru, or circle. When the mere possession of a crucifix was liable to land an entire village in deadly danger, the hidden Christians found new ways to hide their symbols. Huddled around a table in their hiding place, the Kirishitan would form a cross made of coins on the floor – a symbol that could be removed with a sweep of the hand. Christian icons were hidden in phony table bases, or in a false back to a household shrine. The city of Nagasaki, under direct government control, supposedly had no Christian presence at all, although it somehow gained four shrines to Matsu, the Chinese Goddess of the Sea, and several more to Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy.
With the Jesuit books burned or rendered illegible by the absence of those who could read Roman letters, there was no longer a way to preserve the words of the original missionaries. Transmission of the religion proceeded solely by word of mouth, from generation to generation in isolated communities, and inevitably there were strange drifts in meaning. In some places, Christianity became little more than a cult of ancestor worship, where the ancestors who were revered were secretly remembered as Christian believers.
Book extract from Christ’s Samurai: The True Story of the Shimabara Rebellion, by Jonathan Clements.