Japanese Christians

The Christians of Nagasaki

 

Nagasaki was founded as a city by Portuguese missionaries and traders. It was once known as ‘the Rome of Japan’ because it became the centre of Christianity in Japan.

 

During Japan’s violent past however, rulers sometimes persecuted and banned the Christians. In the sixteenth century, so many barons and Samurai were becoming Christian that Emperor Hideyoshi sought to destroy the faith. The event is known as the 26 Martyrs of Japan. Leading Christian figures were arrested in the capital of Kyoto and force marched over 500 miles back to Nagasaki. Their left ears were cut off and they were crucified in Nagasaki in 1596. The victims were cut to pieces with bamboo spears as they hung on the crosses. Many Christians fled north to more remote western areas like Sasebo and the nearby western islands such as Kuroshhima. The Urakami area of Nagasaki became the stronghold for oppressed believers in the city who lived their religion in secret.

Each year the Samurai rulers forced each Nagasaki resident to desecrate Christian Holy images and objects to show their rejection of Christianity.

In 1868 under the new Meiji government, Sawa Nobuyoshi was put in charge of public order and he tried to destroy the secret Urakami Catholic community. He arrested and banished about 3,500 Christian men, women and children to different areas of Japan, splitting up families in the process. After international pressure the Christians were allowed to return to the Urakami district of Nagasaki 27 years later.

In 1945 the Urakami district of Nagasaki was still the main centre of the Catholic community in the city. In that year, as part of World War II, the Americans dropped the second atomic bomb of the war on this city. It was centred on the Urakami district. This terrible weapon destroyed most of the city and caused the Japanese surrender. Of the 12,000 Catholics in this district alone, 8,500 died in the blast with most of the remaining survivors having already fled out of the city before the day of the bombing.

 

 

 

Student Questions

 

What are three new words or phrases from the text that you would like to be explained?

 

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In which country is the city of Nagasaki? How did the city begin?

 

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Why was Nagasaki once known as the ‘Rome of Japan’?

 

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Why do you think some of the Japanese persecuted Christians?

 

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What happened to the 26 martyrs of Japan?

 

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Why was the Ukrami district special for Nagasaki Christians?

 

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Nagasaki is famous for being bombed in World War II. Which type of bomb was used?

 

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What caused the Japanese to surrender in World War II?

 

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What are two things that you have learned from this text or by investigating this subject?

 

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The Secret Japanese Christians

 

On 17 March 1865, a French missionary priest, Father Bernard Thadeo Petitjean, was kneeling to say his evening prayers in the Oura Catholic church, which stands on a hill overlooking the harbour of Nagasaki, and was the first Christian church allowed in Japan in modern times.

 

St Francis Xavier had begun his mission to Japan in 1549; Christianity was prohibited in 1614; the last priest was killed in 1644. All missionaries were either killed or expelled. All native priests had been executed, and thousands of Christians killed by burning, crucifixion, bombardment by Dutch gunners (the Dutch were not regarded by the Japanese as Christians), and various other ways of torture. Not a trace of the religion remained. At its height Christianity had claimed two hundred thousand adherents in Nagasaki alone.

 

As Father Petitjean prayed, he became aware of around a dozen Japanese standing at the back of the church, staring curiously. Father Petitjean went and introduced himself to them. Speaking in Japanese, he said: “I am a Christian Father.”

A woman asked him: “Do you obey the Father in Roma?” “Yes.” “Do your priests marry?” “No.” “Do you observe the Sad Season and the Rising from the Dead?” “Yes.” Then: “Where is Maria?” In growing astonishment, Father Petitjean took the group to a statue of the Virgin and Child, which still stands to the right of the High Altar. The Japanese were evidently much moved, and the woman put her hand on her breast and said: “We are all of the same heart as you.”

This was the first evidence of what no one in the West had suspected, and would certainly have found incredible – the existence of “hidden Christians” in Japan, who, for nearly 250 years, without priests, prayer-books or scripture, and in total secrecy and silence, had preserved some memory and practice of the faith. These people had walked into Nagasaki from a village a few miles away

Student Questions

 

What are three new words or phrases from the text that you would like to be explained?

 

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How many years between the time Saint Francis Xavier began his mission to Japan and the time Father Bernard knelt to pray at Oura Cathedral?

 

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In the time between Saint Xavier and Father Bernard, what was the highest number of Christians in Nagasaki?

 

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If the Sydney football stadium can fill 40,000 people, how many similar stadiums are needed to fill the number of people in your previous answer ?

 

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What are the four questions the secret Christians asked Father Bernard?

 

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What do you think the Japanese women meant by the ‘sad season and the rising of the dead?’

 

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Pretend that you are Father Bernard and you are writing in your diary about the day you met these secret questions. The first part of the diary entry has been done for you

 

One night as I knelt to pray an amazing thing happened. It started when    _________

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Persecution of Japanese Christians

The Japanese shoguns had become convinced that Christianity was part of a plot by the Spanish and Portuguese to conquer Japan. They tried to extinguish the faith in a brutal way.

The chief method of getting people to prove they were not Christians – or to renounce their faith – was the famous “treading of the fumie”. The fumie were bronze (usually) representations of Christ or the Virgin, set into a wooden board. You were required to trample on these images.

Since Nagasaki had been the greatest Christian centre, all the inhabitants of that part of Japan were required to tread the fumie. Once a year, with great ceremony and special music, the images were brought from the Magistrate’s house, and taken to all the houses in the district. The sick were compelled to do the treading in bed.

Memories of Christianity survived only in a few villages. Without scriptures or prayer-books – and being, anyway, illiterate peasants and fishermen – the hidden Christians had only a few symbols. A family might have a kannon – a Buddhist goddess of mercy – standing in the kitchen. She would often be holding a child, or have children holding her skirts (you can see these in the little museum in a village near Nagasaki). Sometimes there was a small cross engraved on the back. Of course this kannon was the Virgin and Child.

 

Over more than two centuries, the religious practices of these peasants mixed with Shinto and Buddhism. They worshipped Buddhist demi-gods, but especially an important spirit by the name of “Deus”. They sang what they called an orasho – which must be from the Latin oratio – in a sort of plainsong. Acting on the instructions of the last priests, before they were killed, they appointed men to special offices: to memorise the Feasts, to baptise with water from an island spring, to memorise Latin prayers.

 

When the Meiji Restoration of 1868 brought religious freedom to Japan, about 15,000 Hidden Christians emerged. Today the number of Christians in Japan is over half a million.

 

 

Priests instructing Japanese Christians        Treading the fumie   Monument to 26 martyrs

 

 

 

 

Questions

 

What are three new words or phrases from the text that you would like to be explained?

 

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Explain what was the process and reason of the treading of the fumie?

 

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How often were people expected to tread the fumie?

 

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How did Christians hide their devotion to Mary, the mother of Jesus?

 

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What are two other religions present in Japan?

 

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How did the last priests organise the people to remember Christian teaching?

 

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How many hidden Christians were left when Japan allowed religious freedom?

 

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Secret Baptism in mountain spring              Japanese painting of            Hiding Japanese Christian

Mary with Jesus

 

 

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