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Sunday, Dec. 23, 2007

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An uprising in 1637 by Christians and peasants on the Shimabara Peninsula of Kyushu led to death for tens of thousands of them and their leader, Amakusa Shiro, 15, whose statue (left) now stands near the rebels' last holdout at Hara Castle. PHOTOS COURTESY OF CHRIS 73, © 2004 and 2000, 2001, 2002 (left)/ FREE SOFTWARE FOUNDATION

From Bliss to blood

Japan's 'Christian century' began in 1549. By 1640, most of the nation's 300,000 converts had been killed.


Special to The Japan Times

Some scholars say Japan's Christian history began long before the so-called "Christian century" (1549-c.1640). Their claim takes us all the way back to 7th- and 8th-century Nara, where Nestorian Christians from Persia are said to have built churches, operated a leper hospital and even converted the Empress Komyo, wife of the devout Buddhist, Emperor Shomu (reigned 724-749), to Christianity.

The evidence is tantalizing but inconclusive. If they existed, Nara's early Christians left no mark on the culture. Spanish and Portuguese Jesuit missionaries who arrived some 800 years later not only had to start from scratch, they had to define scratch. How to begin to explain, in an alien language, such alien and mysterious concepts as transcendent Godhead, the Virgin Birth, the sacrifice on the Cross of the Son of God for the redemption of mankind?

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Francis Xavier PHOTO COURTESY OF CROSSROADS INITIATIVE

The scale of the task is a measure of the determination of the men who faced it, and Francis Xavier, the Basque Jesuit whose landing at Kagoshima in August 1549 inaugurates the "Christian century," was nothing if not determined.

A prayer attributed to him begins, "Eternal God, Creator of all things, remember that the souls of unbelievers have been created by thee and formed to thy own image and likeness. Behold, O Lord, how to thy dishonor hell is being filled with these very souls . . . Do not permit, O Lord, I beseech thee, that thy divine Son be any longer despised by unbelievers . . . ''

Thus fortified, the future saint went to work on the Japanese.

* * * * *

Xavier had by then been in Asia seven years. He arrived in Goa, "the Rome of India," capital of Portugal's Far Eastern empire, in 1542. He traveled vast distances, much of his missionary work unfolding among cannibals and warriors of remote South Asian islands.

In 1547 he was on his way back to Goa when he heard at Malacca, in today's Malaysia, encouraging reports of a new Asian discovery. Four years earlier some Portuguese traders blown off-course by a storm had been the first Europeans known to set foot in Japan. "There," wrote Xavier, "according to the Portuguese, much fruit might be gained for the increase of our holy faith, more than in any other part of the Indies, for they are a people most desirous of knowledge, which the Indian heathen are not."

At Malacca he met a Japanese, a sometime pirate named Yajiro: "He came to seek me with a great desire to know about our religion." Yajiro, christened Paul, became Xavier's companion and interpreter. He proved a mixed blessing.

* * * * *

Japan in the 16th century was disintegrating. Feudal lord fought feudal lord; combat had become endemic. "There was not a province in Japan," writes the historian George Sansom, "free from the armed rivalry of territorial barons or lords of the [Buddhist] church." Few in 1549 would have foreseen the firmly united nation that was to emerge 50 years later.

Nor was there much in Xavier's first faltering steps in this unknown land to suggest the groundswell of success soon to reward the Jesuits' unshakable confidence and dedication. The success was brilliant but fleeting. It ended tragically in what Engelbert Kaempfer, a German physician and chronicler stationed at Nagasaki early in the 18th century, called "the most cruel persecution and torture of Christians ever witnessed on this globe . . . lasting more than 40 years until the last drop of Christian blood was spilled."

Xavier, Yajiro and two Jesuit companions boarded a Chinese pirate ship at Malacca and disembarked at Kagoshima in southern Kyushu. Xavier was impatient to push on to Kyoto and convert "the king of Japan." The trouble was, there was no "king of Japan," only an emperor who was powerless and a shogun, Ashikaga Yoshiteru, who was even more so. Central authority had altogether broken down. The bringers of the Word would have to be content to deal with warlords.

These were, for the most part, accommodating. The Kyushu and southern Honshu daimyo were quick to see the value of Portuguese backing, Portuguese trade and, of course, Portuguese guns, first introduced into Japanese warfare around this time. If a courteous reception of the missionaries brought such rewards, it seemed a small price to pay.

Xavier and his little band were first welcomed at Kagoshima by the "king of Satsuma" — the daimyo Shimazu Takahisa. He granted them permission to preach in the streets, and listened to them dispute the finer points of ultimate reality with a group of Zen monks. Yajiro's skills as an interpreter, which modern scholars do not rate highly, must have been taxed to the limit. Still, the mutual goodwill among the parties was such that the missionaries were deeply distressed when the monks declined baptism — "preferring," laments the contemporary Jesuit chronicler Luis Frois, "to land lost and miserable in hell."

The padres did better on the streets, baptizing, according to Frois, 150 people in the 10 months they were there.

Yamaguchi in southern Honshu was their next stop, and there too the "king" was cordial, at least at first. His sudden change of mood suggests the thin ice the missionaries trod. Here is Sansom's account: "Xavier had an audience with [the daimyo Ouchi Yoshitaka], at whose request he told the interpreter to read in Japanese a document, already prepared, which gave the elements of Christian doctrine. This included a discourse upon error and sin. When the reader came to a passage on sodomy, describing those guilty of this offense as filthier than swine and lower than dogs, the daimyo changed color and dismissed them, no doubt because he, in common with many military men and monks in that part of Japan, was given to such habits. The interpreter thought they might have their heads cut off, but they left safely . . . "

As in Kagoshima, Xavier in Yamaguchi got on well with the Buddhist priests. Here the prevailing sect was Shingon, which worships the Buddha Vairocana, Dainichi in Japanese. A befuddled Yajiro convinced Xavier that Dainichi was none other than the Catholic "Deus-sama" in Oriental dress, that Shingon and Christianity were essentially one.

This was good news indeed, but it did not bear scrutiny. "[Xavier] approached the monks again," writes Sansom, "and questioned them on the mystery of the Holy Trinity, asking whether they believed the second Person of the Trinity had become a man and had died on the cross to save mankind. The Shingon monks were accustomed to mysteries, but these things were so strange to them that they seemed like fables or dreams, and some laughed at what the father said."

Realizing his mistake, Xavier turned acerbic. He now taught, says Frois, that Shingon was "an invention of the devil, as also were all the other sects of Japan."

* * * * *

Xavier left Japan in 1551, strangely enough more hopeful than discouraged. Stranger still, his hope was borne out — for a time; a very brief time . . .

On July 24, 1587, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the second of the three great unifiers of Japan — and by then Japan's most powerful warlord — issued an edict giving the foreign purveyors of the "pernicious doctrine" 20 days to leave the country.

It was a bolt out of the blue. Christianity's prospects had flowered splendidly in the 36 years since Xavier's departure. By 1582 there were 200 churches serving an estimated 150,000 native Christians. Common people aside, the Jesuits had friends and allies in high places, none friendlier or higher than Hideyoshi himself, or so it seemed. Had he not, in 1586, granted the padres the right to reside and preach the gospel unmolested "in all the lands of Japan?"

Here and there, though not everywhere, Christianity was starting to look like the wave of the future. Omura Sumitada, lord of the territory surrounding Nagasaki, became Japan's first Christian daimyo, receiving baptism in 1563 and being given the Christian name Bartholomeu. Eleven years later, beset by regional enemies, he was extricated by a Portuguese fleet — in return for which, suggested the Jesuit Gaspar Coelho, Bartolomeu ought, as the chronicler Frois records, "to extinguish totally the worship and veneration of the idols in his lands" until "not a single pagan remained."

The result was Japan's first forcible mass conversion. Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines were burned to the ground, and Christianity at one stroke gained 60,000 new converts. (A similar if less violent mass conversion was imposed in 1577 on the nearby Shimabara Peninsula. It bore tragic fruit six decades later, as we shall see.)

To the east of Bartolomeu's domain lay the province of Bungo, whose daimyo, Otomo Sorin, had been well-disposed towards the Portuguese since Xavier's passage through his territory in 1551. His lively protestations, in letters to the Portuguese base at Macao, of respect for "the things of God" and "the Christians who are in my kingdom" accompany requests for arms, making it difficult to ascertain which side of the spiritual-temporal divide was uppermost in his mind. On the one hand, he did not accept baptism until 1578; on the other hand, having accepted it, he seems to have embraced the new faith wholeheartedly. History knows him best as "Good King Francisco" — and his wife, deeply and (so it is said) shrewishly anti-Christian, as "Jezebel."

Like his neighbor Bartolomeu, Good King Francisco indulged a passion for temple- and shrine-burning — most notably in a neighboring province he invaded in May 1578, intending, Frois tells us, to turn it into a model Christian community.

Alas, the victory proved short-lived. The defeated enemy rallied and Francisco fled back to Bungo — evidence, to Frois, of God's wish to "punish the people of Bungo" for sins which "had accumulated to an extent that God could no longer ignore."

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