In the more remote areas of southern Japan live communities known as the Kakure Kirishitan, a term that translates literally as the ‘Hidden Christians'. In 1992 I began a research project looking into the history and religious lives of these people. The result was a PhD thesis and then the book entitled The Kakure Kirishitan of Japan. This short article will give an introduction to them.
Historically, the story of Christianity in Japan begins in August 1549, when St Francis Xavier landed near Kagoshima. This issued in the period of about ninety years known conveniently as the Christian Century. One of the places where Christianity did very well indeed was the island of Ikitsuki. This was one of the most fertile grounds for missionary activity, and the Kakure of today on Ikitsuki have a direct link to this happier time. The daimyo of Hirado, Matsuura Takanobu, had a retainer called Koteda who was converted to Christianity, one of the first of the samurai class in Japan. So for the first twenty or thirty years in Ikitsuki, as for much of Kyushu, Christianity flourished, until the famous incident in 1597 of the martyrdom of the 26 saints of Japan in Nagasaki. This, the first serious persecution, came about as a result of a political decision on the part of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, but from then on, in contrast to the Mass being celebrated openly in houses, Mass tended to be performed on a beach, just for safety.
Ikitsuki acquired its first Christian Martyr in 1609,. His name was Caspar Nishi and he was one of the retainers of the Koteda family. When Christianity was outlawed he was executed. But around this time, as well as the persecution of native Japanese Christians, there began the expulsion of European priests. This started in 1614, and the only priests that were in Japan from then on were the ones that arrived secretly to carry on their work. Similar things happened on Ikitsuki itself. In the bay is an island called Nakaenoshima, where 16 Christians were executed in 1622. The island is now sacred to the Kakure Kirishitan, and even though it is in the middle of the sea, there's a fresh water spring, and the Kakure get their holy water for baptism from this one source.
In 1645 a new wave of persecution came to Ikitsuki when a samurai from the Matsuura landed with orders to seek out hidden Christians, and what he was looking for were examples of things like holy medals, scrolls and plaques. He first of all went to the little shrine on the hill, where he said a prayer for victory in the way of samurai generals of old, and then carried out a bloody raid. There are many martyr sites on the island that have been cared for by the Kakure ever since. One example is Danjikusama, where a family were discovered by patrol boats and massacred. Because of the way it happened, this place is also revered by the fishermen of Tachiura, which is the little town nearby, and once a year they visit Danjikusuma to pray for large catches and safety at sea. But they always walk there. No fishermen in Ikitsuki will ever go to Danjikusuma by sea.
With that one massacre the Matsuura daimyo concluded that the work was done, and reported to the Shogun that there were no Christians left in his territory at all. That was the official version. We now know that they continued to pray in secret to something very secret. Behind a pillar on the wall there may have been concealed a crucifix or a holy picture that only they knew was there. This was a time of the ‘Senpuku Kirishitan', the Secret Christians, who almost literally went underground in the sense of having as their churches and chapels the little store room round the back of their homes, that became the centre for worship and devotion.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century Japan was set into convulsion with the Meiji Restoration. Missionaries were allowed back in to minister to the Catholic traders from Europe. One of the first was Father Bernard Petitjean, a French priest who founded the church at Oura in Nagasaki. Now one of the great desires of the new missionaries was to find the descendants of these old Christians of Japan, but none of them suspected for one moment that Christianity had been kept going. There had been no contact with the outside world whatsoever for nearly 200 years, and yet one day Petitjean was surprised to find a group of Japanese come to him and explain to him that they were themselves Christians, and to prove it they recited prayers to him and told him what had been passed on. From these beginnings of the Hidden Christians, the numbers grew to scores, to hundreds and ultimately to thousands. Of course the priests' intentions then changed. They now wanted to make contact with these people and to protect them, because the new Meiji government was at first very intolerant of Christianity and second, they wanted to ascertain how Catholic they still were.
The results of such contact took two forms. Either the hidden communities rejoined the Catholic Church, thereby rejecting the syncretistic practices that had developed under the cloak of persecution, or they decided to stay separate and preserve the old traditions guardly so fiercely and at such a cost. This latter group are the Kakure Kirishitan, the ‘Hidden Christians' of today.
The most important person in their hierarchy is the oyajiyaku, who leads the particular group and preserves their holy objects used for rituals. I met Mt Ooka, whose home is the focus of worship and religious activity of the Ichibu group on Ikitsuki. His altar contains a strange painting of Jesus. The actual picture was painted in 1917. It was a copy of an old painting, which was a copy of an old painting, going back to something long since lost and preserved in the 16th century.
Two other interesting items are the straw whips and the holy water. The Christians of Japan in the 16th century were enthusiasts for flagellation as a popular form of devotion. The Kakure don't practise flagellation, but in many rituals the otenpesha, which is what the whip is called, is used like a Shinto gohei. The holy water comes from the island mentioned earlier. There are some holy medals. These are remarkable objects. Because these are originals from the 16th century that the Portuguese and Spanish priests gave them they were preserved at enormous risk to life. Another thing you will see are little paper crosses that replaced a crucifix, because if anyone was suspicious of what was going on, you pop it into your mouth and swallow it. Nowadays they're used for rituals of purification. They use the whips to drive out the evil spirits. They then cleanse the place with the holy water and place the paper cross there to prevent the evil spirits from returning.
The most interesting objects are the holy pictures. The images derive from sixteenth century originals long since lost. Memories may be broken when a scroll was confiscated or a scroll was hidden and forgotten about. Sometimes they would slip them into bamboo poles in the roof, and the house would burn down and the picture would be lost. Holy pictures were very popular at the time of the early missions, and it was difficult to get them to Japan, so a tradition of native religious art developed, continued in this fashion by the Kakure.
I was also very fortunate to be present at about seven or eight religious ceremonies held in the Kakure homes. There is very little in the room that indicates that a religious service is taking place. There is praying, and the important element of the communal meal, which has echoes of the Mass. It also has this practical side of concealment from any authority, as just a village celebration. Offerings are made at the shrine of raw fish and sake, which had taken the place of the bread and the wine of communion.
One fascinating aspect of Kakure life are the sung prayers chanted during ceremonies. One of the loveliest stories is of the first man who studied them, Professor Tagita, who researched them during the 1920's. They told him that the sung prayers were effectively nonsense syllables designed to confuse anyone who heard them chanting. Tagita transcribed what they had been singing to him and took the text back to the university. When he sat down and stared at it he realised that for the past 250 years, without knowing it, the Hidden Christians had been singing in Latin.
The most moving place I went to was not a Kakure shrine but the Shinto Hime shrine in Ikitsuki, the shrine where that general had prayed before going to massacre the inhabitants of the island in 1645. Every year they have their matsuri. They first of all carry the mikoshi down the steps and then through the streets of the town, just like any Shinto festival you could see anywhere in Japan. But this one has a strange feature to it, because it is taken through the torii of the martyr site of Sennizuka, the mound of the dead. The mikoshi is placed in front of the shrine of the Christian dead and the priest kneels there and prays in front of them.
The combination of a Shinto matsuri with a place holy to martyrs who were secret Catholics, now preserved by the separated Kakure Kirishitan, summed up for me the mystery of the Hidden Christians. As the population of the islands declines, so the faith may well die out, but I hope I have been able to record at least a little of this unique religious tradition.