Features

Japan: Persecution begins

International

Issue: "Troops hunt for weapons," June 14, 2003

Hideyoshi's officials seized Jesuit and Franciscan priests along with 20 Japanese Christians. Court connections led to release for the Jesuits, but beginning on Jan. 3, 1597, six Franciscan friars in Osaka and Kyoto, along with the 20 Japanese, had to walk-often through snow-450 miles to Nagasaki, the harbor town on the island of Kyushu that had become a key port for Europeans and the epicenter of Christian growth. (Buddhist and Shinto observances had largely vanished from the Nagasaki area, and people focused attention on three main churches [called by the Japanese Ki-kuwan (strange sight)] and numerous chapels.) The 26 were crucified-tied to crosses, they were stabbed to death by a soldier with a javelin-on Nishizaka Hill in Nagasaki on Feb. 5, 1597.

Among the dead was a 15-year-old boy, Ibaragi. One of the emperor's men didn't want a teenager to die, so he tried to talk Ibaragi into repudiating his faith by stomping on a picture of Christ. He refused. On that spot today stands the Museum of the 26 Martyrs, which contains an original, hopeful letter of Francis Xavier to King John III of Portugal (1546), and murals and papers concerning the sad finish. Rumors that Hideyoshi was going to visit Nagasaki in person to root out Christians (and any official who was soft on them) led the governor of Nagasaki, who had previously favored the Christians, to plan the destruction of the churches and missionary homes in 1598. But Hideyoshi died just in time, and Nagasaki Christians had a stay of execution.

The surcease was only temporary. Hideyoshi's successor, Ieyasu Tokugawa, enforced a law that daimyo could not be baptized, but otherwise allowed Christians to survive and even thrive during his first decade in power. Then he struggled for more power against Toyotomi Hideyori, son of the late Hideyoshi, whose base of support was in western Japan, where the Christian influence was strongest. Ieyasu hurt his rival and picked up Buddhist support by banning Christianity in 1611, and three years later ordered that missionaries leave the country and church buildings be torn down.

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Christians reviewed tactical errors and might-have-beens, and sometimes fought among themselves. Franciscan missionaries argued that compassionate service to the poor led to more conversions than intellectual arguments; Fray John Pobre wrote that Japanese who passed by a Kyoto hospice set up by Franciscans and saw friars washing the feet of lepers exclaimed, "We do not want any more arguments. This is it! There must be salvation."

Most missionaries departed but some 40, including Japanese priests, remained to continue their work undercover. Ieyasu and his successors stepped up the pressure. On Sept. 10, 1622, officials beheaded 30 converts and burned at the stake 25 others, including nine foreign priests. Officials persecuted up to 280,000 Christians for their beliefs between 1614 and 1635, and killed about 3,000. While some "conversions" were superficial, Christians who stuck to their faith proved faithful indeed. Some were tossed into boiling hot springs, or suspended upside down in a pit of excrement until they died, a process that could last for weeks with a tantalizing option offered: If they lifted a hand to renounce Christianity, they would be pulled out.

The ruthlessness of the persecution shows how close Christianity came to becoming Japan's leading religion; such desperate measures are usually a response to major challenges, not irritations. Christians finally rose in the Amakusa Rebellion of December, 1637, but the Shogun assembled 100,000 troops and overwhelmed the Christian army of 37,000 at the castle of Hara on April 12, 1638. A complete massacre followed.

Over the next 250 years persecution continued, with Buddhist priests required to report every year any information they had about Christians in their areas, and officials offering large rewards for information leading to the capture of Christians. The threat of Christianity was so great that even angry Nichiren adherents and sardonic Zen Buddhists agreed to enter into a national Buddhist parish system. From the 17th century to the late 19th century Buddhist temples took charge of the official annual census; each January every Japanese adult in Nagasaki and some other areas had to show his rejection of Christianity by trampling on a crucifix or a fumie, a picture on metal of Christ or His mother Mary.

One Kyoto museum includes a public notice on wood offering 500 silver coins for denunciation of a priest down to 100 for a catechist; these notices were common from the 1600s through the mid-19th century. The Nagasaki museum similarly displays offers of rewards for turning in missionaries and 20 bronze fumies-cast by an engraver from metal obtained from the altars of demolished churches-used for annual trampling. But throughout the era, some Christians worshipped in secret, passing along to children their faith and their Buddhist home altars, with small crosses on the back.

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