The Heart of Darkness

There’s a haiku by Masaoka Shiki that doesn’t get translated all that often, because it ruins people’s image of peaceful, Buddhist Japan: “At the temple / beneath peonies in full bloom / we trample on the face of Christ.” It refers to a common annual sight, nationwide in the samurai era, of locals lining up to walk across a picture of Jesus or Mary, in order to prove that they were not secret Christian believers.

The novelist Shusaku Endo, baptised as a child at his convert mother’s insistence, was fascinated by this cul-de-sac in Japanese history, specifically by the undercover Christians that such ceremonies were designed to root out – men and women so devout in their faith for a foreign religion that they were prepared to die an agonising death rather than step on a holy image. Endo’s work was suffused with a question about his own faith. Would he be as brave as his forebears, or, if ever put on the spot with such high stakes, would he take the easy option and cave in?

Endo’s 1966 novel Silence was pressed into the hands of the famously Catholic Martin Scorsese at a 1990 screening of his controversial movie The Last Temptation of Christ. The director soon resolved to adapt it into a film, intrigued by its deep investigation of the nature of religious faith. The story focusses on two priests sneaking into the closed country of Japan, not only to administer to the Hidden Christians, but also to hunt for a fellow Jesuit who has reputedly gone native. Eventually played, after two decades in pre-production purgatory, by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, they search for the missing Liam Neeson, and inevitably fall into the hands of samurai Christian-hunters. Not unlike the similar quest narrative of Apocalypse Now, it’s a journey into the heart of darkness, in search of a phantom figure that might best remain unfound.

Endo’s book, and by association, Scorsese’s film taps into one of the most fascinating stories in Japanese history – the savage suppression of the Christian religion in Japan, and its long aftermath. Christian missionaries found thousands of willing converts in the 16th century, particularly in the south, where communities of believers flourished around the ports that had contact with foreign traders. Nagasaki, in particular, became a Christian enclave, handed over to the Jesuits by a devout local warlord, in gratitude. Gratitude for what? Well, there was all that spiritual awakening, of course, plus the money brought in by the silk trade, and (almost forgot) all those guns brought in from the West.

Gunpowder helped turn the tide in the long civil war that left the Tokugawa clan in charge, but Christian samurai were unluckily to be found largely on the losing side. Thousands of them were packed off for a time-wasting crusade in Korea, and the survivors resettled as farmers in the south. But with the conclusion of the civil war came the end of the political uncertainty that gave Christianity a foothold in the first place. The Tokugawa Shoguns were deeply suspicious of a religion that owed its allegiance to a foreign god-king in Rome, particularly after an angry Spanish captain had boasted that missionaries were merely the vanguard of an insurgency that would eventually be followed by conquering soldiers.

Christianity was hunted down and stamped out. A rebellion in the south, led by a teenage messiah, ended with the massacre of 37,000 Christians. The survivors went underground, worshipping in shadows and caves, hiding their icons inside Buddhist statues, and passing on the Bible by word of mouth. It’s these “Hidden Christian” communities that Silence documents, nests of forbidden believers among the most remote fishing communities, hosting a dwindling number of foreign priests smuggled in from the outside world. As the decades passed, their understanding of religious doctrine grew garbled and confused, but their faith remained strong.

Scorsese’s movie also boasts a who’s-who of big-name Japanese actors, including Tadanobu Asano as a creepy interpreter and Shinya Tsukamoto, director of the cult classic Tetsuo, as one of the Japanese faithful. Snubbed at the Golden Globes, for which it may have been released a few scant weeks too late, it was sneaked out in America late last year in a bid to secure last-minute Oscar nods. By the time you read these words, you will know whether that was a matter of blind faith or not [Time Travel Footnote: Yes, apparently it was].

Jonathan Clements is the author of Christ’s Samurai: The True Story of the Shimabara Rebellion. This article first appeared in Geeky Monkey #17, 2017.

“History writing at its best” — Fortean Times

Christ's Samurai coverIn 1638, the ruler of Japan ordered a crusade against his own subjects, a holocaust upon the men, women and children of a doomsday cult.

The sect was said to harbour dark designs to overthrow the government. Its teachers used a dead language that was impenetrable to all but the innermost circle. Its priests preached love and kindness, but helped local warlords acquire firearms. They encouraged believers to cast aside their earthly allegiances and swear loyalty to a foreign god-emperor, before seeking paradise in terrible martyrdoms.

The cult was in open revolt, led, it was said, by a boy sorcerer. Farmers claiming to have the blessing of an alien god had bested trained samurai in combat and proclaimed that fires in the sky would soon bring about the end of the world. The Shogun called old soldiers out of retirement for one last battle before peace could be declared in Japan. For there to be an end to war, he said, the Christians would have to die.

The shocking true story behind Martin Scorsese’s film Silence.

“A concise and lucid account of a unique period in Japan’s history” — Japan Times

“History writing at its best” — Fortean Times

Christ’s Samurai: The True Story of the Shimabara Rebellion, is available now in the UK (and here in the US). Read extracts here and here.

Out of the Silence


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.

Christ's Samurai cover smallWith 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.