Japan's introduction to Christianity came in 1549 by way of the Portuguese and Saint Francis Xavier. He established the first Christian church in Yamaguchi at Daidoji Temple, whose ruins are now part of Xavier Memorial Park and the Xavier Memorial Church was built in his honor.
When Toyotomi Hideyoshi came into power, Christianity was banned and Christians were persecuted. Nagasaki is the most famous persecution site where 26 Japanese Christians were crucified. They are saints today and you can visit the memorial for these martyrs in the city. The Shimabara Rebellion is the most famous Christian uprising in Japan, and it was this rebellion that led to the ousting of the Portuguese and Catholic practices from Japan (although Christianity had already been banned by this time), along with approximately 37,000 beheadings of Christians and peasants. In Shimabara, you can visit the ruins of Hara Castle, where the Christians gathered and were attacked, see old Portuguese tombstones, and the samurai houses, some of which were occupied by Christian samurai. Oyano's Amakusa Shiro Memorial Hall contains videos of the Shimabara Rebellion and great displays related to Christian persecution. Less famous sites may be off the beaten path, like the Martyrdom Museum and Memorial Park for martyrs in Ichinoseki. When the nation reopened, some Christians assumed that meant that they were able to practice Christianity freely and openly, so they came out after 200 years of practicing secretly. Unfortunately, it was still not legal and these Christians were brought together in various parts of the country and tortured. You can see one of these sites at Maria Cathedral in Tsuwano, built in the Otome Pass in the area where Christians were put into tiny cages and tortured.
Along with the Martyrdom Site, Nagasaki is also home to Oura Church, the oldest church left in the nation, built in 1864. Because of Nagasaki's status for many years as one of the nation's only ports where outsiders could come, the city is rich in Japanese Christian history, so even the museums here have artifacts and information about the Christian community.
The Japanese word for Christianity, キリスト教 (Kirisuto-kyō), is a compound of Kirisuto (キリスト), the Japanese adaptation of the Portuguese word for Christ, and the Sino-Japanese word for doctrine (敎 kyō, a teaching or precept), as in Bukkyō (仏教, "Buddhism").
While there may be up to 3 million Japanese Christians, Christianity in Japan is spread among many denominational affiliations (roughly 36% Catholic, 36% Protestant, 15% Jehovah's Witness, 9% Mormon, and 2% Orthodox). 70% of Japanese churches have an average attendance of less than 30, though membership is often double this figure. While Christians represent roughly 1-2% of the population, there have been eight Christian prime ministers in Japan (out of 66 as of 2020, or around 12%).
Strangely, you can often find Christian objects in temples and shrines throughout the country. This is because many of these objects were hidden in temples and shrines back when Christianity was forbidden. Christians had been persecuted and martyred during the Tokugawa shogunate starting around 1617, and by 1638 the ban on Christianity became more strongly enforced and the remaining Christians had been forced to publicly renounce their faith. Many continued practicing Christianity in secret, becoming what are known in modern times as Kakure Kirishitan (隠れキリシタン "hidden Christians"). They disguised figurines of the saints and Virgin Mary as statues of the Buddha and bodhisattvas, adapted prayers to sound like Buddhist chants, and passed down the Bible and parts of the liturgy orally.
After Japan ended its isolationist foreign policy in 1853, many Christian clergymen were sent and began building churches. On March 17, 1865, shortly after the completion of the original Ōura Church in Nagasaki, a group of people approached Father Bernard Petitjean and asked to see the statue of the Virgin Mary. Petitjean discovered that these people were Kakure Kirishitans from the nearby village of Urakami. Before long, tens of thousands of underground Christians came out of hiding in the Nagasaki area. Petitjean found that they had kept the rite of baptism and the liturgical years without European priests for nearly 250 years, leading to Pope Pius IX declaring this "the miracle of the Orient". The majority of Kakure Kirishitan rejoined the Catholic Church after renouncing unorthodox, syncretic practices, although some did not and became known as the Hanare Kirishitan (離れキリシタン, "separated Christians").
In 2018, 12 Christian sites were added to the World Heritage Site List, under the name "Hidden Christian Sites in the Nagasaki Region".
Nagasaki and Amakusa
Nagasaki is the prefecture of Japan with the highest number of Christians due to its ties with Europe. The Amakusa islands in nearby Kumamoto Prefecture also became a center of Christianity with many Christians from Nagasaki immigrating to Amakusa to escape persecution. In 2018, twelve locations in Nagasaki and Amakusa were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
World Heritage Sites
- 1 Basilica of the Twenty-Six Holy Martyrs of Japan (Ōura Church), Nagasaki. Built soon after the end of the Japanese government's Seclusion Policy in 1853. It was built in honor of the Twenty-Six Martyrs of Japan, nine European priests and seventeen Japanese Christians who were crucified in 1597 by order of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Shortly after completion in 1865, Kakure Kirishitans approached the cathedral and revealed themselves to the priest, leading to the "miracle of the Orient"; a white marble statue of the Virgin Mary was imported from France and erected to commemorate this event, and a bronze relief in the courtyard shows the memorable scene of the discovery. It's said to be the oldest remaining church in Japan, although the present structure is a much larger Gothic basilica that dates from around 1879. While not used as a church now, it still offers a look at 19th-century worship after Japan repealed its ban on Christianity
- Nagasaki Ōura Church Christian Museum, Small museum that is included in the admission price of Ōura Church
- 2 Hara Castle, Shimabara. Hara Castle was the Christian stronghold during the Shimabara Rebellion. It was attacked by the government with help from the Dutch who were trying to gain favor with the Japanese and get rid of the Portuguese, which they succeeded in doing. Nothing remains of the castle itself, but the foundations are clearly visible and some remnants from the rebellion are still visible
- 3 Kasuga Village, Hirado
- 4 Sakitsu Village, Amakusa. A small village on Amakusa's eastern side once became the islands center of Christianity. During the ban on Christianity many Christians were forced to practice their faith with household objects like seashells rather than standard devotion items.
- Sakitsu Church The village's main church was built in a Gothic style and fuses Japanese and European design. The church's interior features tatami mats and high steeples jut from the church's roof. Visits must be reserved beforehand at the church's website.
- 5 Nakaenoshima Island, Hirado. During the beginning of Japan's ban on Christianity many Christians were martyred on the island. It is uninhabited and inaccessible to outside visitors, but you may be able to view it by chartering a boat from a nearby island.
- 6 Shitsu Village, Nagasaki
- 7 Ono Village, Nagasaki
- 8 Kuroshima Island, Sasebo
- 9 Nozaki Island, Ojika
- 10 Kashiragashima Island Shinkamigoto
- 11 Hisaka Island
- 12 Egami Village, Naru
- 13 Immaculate Conception Cathedral (Urakami Cathedral), Nagasaki. Rebuilt after its destruction in the atomic bombing, Urakami Cathedral was once the largest church in Asia.
- 14 Museum of 26 Martyrs of Japan, Nagasaki The museum presents the history of Christianity in Japan since the arrival of St. Francis Xavier.
- 15 Hirado Christian center, Hirado. Museum with exhibits on the art and folklore of hidden christians.
- 16 Amakusa Shiro Memorial Hall, Amakusa. Exhibits about the Shimabara Rebellion. Amakusa Shiro was responsible for leading the rebellion against the Tokugawa Shogunate. The museum has 13 exhibits that tell the story of Christianity in Amakusa from its arrival in 1549 to its suppression.
- 17 Arima Christian Heritage Museum, Shimabara. Museum that tells the history of Hidden Christians on the Shimabara peninsula. It aims to educate visitors about the history of the Shimabara rebellions that took place at nearby Hara Castle. It also holds artifacts unearthed from the Shimabara rebellion.
- 18 Father de Rotz Memorial Hall, Sotome. Museum dedicated to Father de Rotz, a French missionary who engaged in welfare work around Nagasaki.
St. Francis Xavier visited Japan as a missionary in 1549–51 and spent close to a year in Yamaguchi.
- 1 Xavier Memorial Church (ザビエル記念聖堂), 4-1 Kameyama-chō. Dedicated to St. Francis Xavier. The first floor is a museum in honor of "Zabieru", and mass is held on the second floor. An Italian architect designed the church's dazzling white interior and angular sea-blue windows.
- 2 Xavier Park (サビエル公園). A memorial park built where Daidoji Temple (大道寺) once stood. It has the distinction of being the first Christian church in Japan, established by Saint Francis Xavier, who lived and preached here for a short time. Daidoji was a defunct temple at the time when Francis Xavier arrived, so the building was granted to him as a place where he could live and preach, and the name was not changed, so it is still known as a "temple" even thought it was a place of Christian worship rather than Buddhist. About preaching at Daidoji he wrote, "I think I could truly say that in my life I have never received so much joy and spiritual satisfaction". Nothing of the church remains but there are markers and monuments where buildings once stood.
- Ichinoseki: 3 Okago Christian Martyrdom Museum (大籠キリシタン資料館), 28-7 Unazawa Okago Fujisawa-cho. During the days when Christianity was banned, 300 Christians and missionaries were brought here and killed where the Memorial Park is located. The small museum displays the history of Christianity in Okago and in the greater Tohoku Region. Other features of the park include the Okago Christian Martyrdom Memorial Kurusu Museum housing three Crucifixion statues (closed in winter), History Trail with quotes and letters along the path from various Christian religious figures, and Okago Church.
- Tsuwano: 4 Chapel of Saint Maria (瑪麗亞教堂), Ushiroda, Tsuwano-cho. In the area known as Otome-toge (Otome Pass) behind the station. 36 Japanese Christians were tortured and killed here during the Meiji Period. When Japan "opened" to the West, many Japanese Christians mistakenly thought that meant it was okay to come out and admit their faith but Christianity was still illegal, so those found to be Christian were taken here (and to other special places) and killed. This small church is run as a memorial to them.
- 5 Karuizawa Shaw Memorial Church, Karuizawa. The first church in Karuizawa, founded by the missionary A.C. Shaw. Shaw is also considered the founder of Karuizawa's resort area, which was initially used as a retreat for church workers and other western expats in Japan.