Martin Scorsese film recollects martyrdom of Japan’s hidden Christians

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Ban on Christianity in early 1600 s, the focus of movie called Silence, forced converts to practise in secret, leading to a localised sort of the religion still practised by a few cases dozen people today

At low tide, Shigetsugu Kawakami can just about make out the forbidden boulder from his home overlooking the beach in Neshiko, a tiny village on Hirado island in southern Japan.

According to verbal testimony, at the least 70 villagers were taken there and beheaded in the early 17 th century. Their crime had been to convert to Christianity. When we were children, the adults told us that if we climbed on to the rock the village “wouldve been” cursed, told Kawakami.

Today, ascension rock is a permanent reminder of the atrocities of virtually four centuries ago. But the martyrdom of Japans concealed Christians is in danger of being forgotten.

Tens of thousands of Japanese Christians were executed, tortured and persecuted after the Tokugawa shogunate banned the religion in the early 1600 s. With a wary eye on Spanish rule in the Philippines, the authorities dreaded Japan could be the next country targeted by European powers that used Christian teachings as a catalyst for colonial rule.

The ban left Japans 750,000 converts with a choice: renounce their religion or continue to practise their religion in secret, in the knowledge that discovery would almost certainly mean death.

Discussion of Japans Christian heritage has significantly been absent from public life since the mid-1 960 s, when Shusaku Endo explored the martyrdom of early converts in his critically acclaimed novel Silence.

Now, Martin Scorsese hopes to ensure their tale will not be forgotten with a film based on Endos novel that is due for release next year.

Starring Liam Neeson and Andrew Garfield, the movie also called Silence follows two Portuguese Jesuit missionaries who are sent to Japan in the early 1600 s to analyse reports that their mentor has committed apostasy. They arrive to find Japanese converts in the midst of a brutal crackdown by the Tokugawa shogunate.

While no official records are kept of the number of modern-day kakure kirishitan ( hidden Christians ), local experts say perhaps only a few cases dozen people still consider themselves believers.

Once its saviour, clandestine adore has contributed to a sharp decline in the number of believers. Combined with dwindling, ageing populations on the islands where it once prospered, disciples fear their crypto-Christian tradition is at risk of succumbing out.

Kawakami, 64, is one of the few hidden Christians who is happy to talk publicly about his faith. We dont practise our faith in public because we are effectively still in hiding, he said. We usually remain quiet and never out ourselves as Christians by appearing on Tv or giving interviews. We dont hold special ceremonies or pray in public. In fact, we dont do anything that would risk dedicating ourselves away.

Remote southern islands such as Hirado proved fertile ground for Catholicism after St Francis Xavier and other missionaries introduced it to Japan in 1549. After a nationwide forbid was enforced in the early 1600 s, converts devised ingenious ways to keep their faith alive.

They gathered in private homes to conduct religion ceremonies, and figurines of the Virgin Mary were altered to resemble the Buddha or Japanese dolls. To the uneducated ear, their prayers voiced like Buddhist sutras, even though they contained a mixture of Latin, Portuguese and obscure Japanese dialects. Scripture was passed on orally, since maintaining bibles was considered too great a risk. None wore crossings or other religious accoutrements.

The need for secrecy during the course of its 250 years that Christianity was banned meant the version of the religion observed by Kawakamis ancestors bore little resemblance to its mainstream Catholic origins. Instead, early Japanese Christians incorporated elements of Buddhism and Shinto into their faith until it became a polytheistic creed of its own.

In many ways it was a very Japanese version of Christianity, told Shigeo Nakazono, curator of the Shima no Yakata museum on Ikitsuki, an island near Hirado.

But even this localised form of Christianity met with fierce opposition from the Shogunate authorities, who devised a singularly cruel test of allegiance to uncover converts. Suspects were ordered to prove they were not Christians by trampling on fumie images of Christ or the Virgin Mary engraved from stone or wood or face being hanged upside down over a pit and slowly bled to death.

When the Meiji government lifted the ban in 1873, an estimated 30,000 secret Christians came out of hiding. Now, Christians of all denominations make up less than 1% of Japans population of 128 million.

Japan was coming under the influence of European industry and technology, and that meant that old objections to Christianity weakened, Nakazono said.

Nakazono wondered whether Scorseses film would remain true to Endos novel, which some have criticised for being preoccupied with martyrdom. If all concealed Christians had been martyrs, there would have been none left, he said. But there were enough people willing to stamp on the fumie , denounce Christianity and then implore God for forgiveness.

At Neshiko beach, ascension rock physical proof that there were those who refused to abandon their faith is half submerged by the incoming tide. Even today, centuries after the last executing, locals remove their shoes before setting foot on the beachs fine white sand as a sign of respect.

Like the rites of the kakure kirishitan , the memories of the executed converts have been preserved by word of mouth a tradition that devotes Kawakami hope that their heroism, and beliefs, will not be forgotten.

We feel we have a duty to pass it on to future generations, he told. This is something our ancestors risked “peoples lives” to tell us.

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