Silence Part 2: The ‘Hidden’ Japanese Christians

A few weeks ago I posted about an upcoming movie titled Silence. (For that post see Silence: The End of Triumphalism). I just found out that it will be out in limited release on December 23, and full release early in the new year. (Hope that will be globally and not just in the US, but not sure). This movie, over two decades in the making by award winning director Martin Scorsese, concerns Christian missionary efforts in Japan in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. It is based on one of Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo’s most gripping books.

In this past week, as the US election ended in a way that surprised many, I was thinking again of how political power and religious faith make for very strange bedfellows. The danger of trusting in political power is of course not only the corrupting influences on true faith, but also how the whims of a ruler can mean the rapid rise or fall of favor.This is in some ways what the indigenous Christians and missionaries in Japan went through, and has been a similar story in many periods of history as well.

An excellent book on this period of Japanese history is by John Dougill, titled In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians: A Story of Suppression, Secrecy and Survival (2012). It is the third book I’ve read focused on the persecution of these Christians, and in many ways the most accessible. Dougill writes of the wave of persecution (not the first)that broke out afresh on the believers after 1623 when the third Tokugawa Shogun came to power. Here are just some of the ways people were tortured and killed: “water torture, snake pits, branding, slicing open with a bamboo saw, amputation, roasting alive, crushing limbs, suffocation though overcrowding, suspensions upside down, even being tied to stakes in shallow sea water to be slowly drowned by the incoming tide. In public burnings, fires were lit just far enough from victims so as to scorch the skin without the release of a swift death.” (The photo of the stone carving memorial with this post is of Juan of Goto, one of the 26 Martyrs who were crucified in Goto in the far south of Japan in 1597.)

Some of these tortures are written about in Endo’s novel, and pictured in the upcoming movie. As I said in my previous post, it will not be an easy movie to watch, but the deep issues of faith and doubt are too important not to engage with. Just listing all of those punishments above makes me again feel rebuked as a North American for the easy-believism we experience. Yes, there were some of the Japanese believers and missionaries who gave up their faith, at least outwardly, in the face of these persecutions. But many did not, and thousands went underground for over 200 years, for the period of overall Japanese isolation. These “Hidden” Christians lived without priests, no Bible (as all had been destroyed except for small bits of scripture), no contact with any organized church inside or outside of Japan.

As Dougill writes, it was not until 1873 that “signboards forbidding Christianity were taken down , and de facto toleration was signaled shortly afterwards by release of exiled villagers” (who were Christians). So it was over 250 years that these Christians lived in isolation, cut off from any nurturing of their faith through outward means. Though the Christianity that still existed after that time was very different than versions in Europe, it is a miracle that it resembled the faith at all. At least three thousand believers had remained over all that time, and when Pope Pius IX found out, he called it the “miracle of the Orient.” As Dougill writes, “In the long history of the Church, here was one of the most extraordinary developments: the faith had been handed down orally by generations of illiterate peasants without recourse to priests or Bible.” (emphasis mine.)

You can still visit sites in southern Japan, especially in the areas around Nagasaki, and see the monuments and memorials to these “Hidden Christians.” (I plan to do that someday-I’ve been to Japan several times, but never there) And that is to me one of the most horribly ironic parts of the story. It was the city of Nagasaki that was very important to the history of these earlier Christians in Japan, and also a center for modern Christianity as well. On August 9, 1945, an atomic bomb named Fatman was dropped by  the United States on Nagasaki, and the epicenter was just 500 yards from the largest Christian cathedral. Nagasaki was not even the primary target that night, it was Kokura which had a major munitions dump. But cloud cover prevented the first target, opening the way for the destruction of Nagasaki. As Dougill writes, in a great irony of history,. “In a single flash the Truman administration had killed more Christians than in the whole history of Japanese persecution.”

There is so much more to tell in one of the most fascinating stories in religious history. How a faith can survive when all outward props are taken away. How does it change? What implications may that have for how Christianity has continued to struggle today in Japan? The movie Silence will probe questions about faith and doubt. I don’t know how faithful Scorsese will be to Endo’s book. After seeing it I will post my thoughts. This movie will be centered around issues of persecution of the local believers and missionaries. But I would love to see another movie made about the story of the “Hidden Christians” of Japan, and their survival over 250 years. Actually even longer, because even today there are some people that still trace way back to those believers long ago.

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