How Japanese Christians have managed to camouflage their Christianity.

The first taste of Christianity to the Land of the Rising Sun came in the form of St. Francis Xavier who came over from India in 1549 with three Japanese who had converted to Roman Catholicism. Jesuits who arrived later enjoyed the patronage of Oda Nobanuga, a powerful warlord and one of the first to attempt to unify all of Japan. They were allowed to carry out their activities and convert the Japanese, christening them with Portuguese names at their baptism.

All this changed when Toyotomi Hideyoshi succeeded Oda Nobanuga and viewed Christian missionaries from Europe with suspicion, wondering if it was part of a grander design, as several European nations were colonizing large parts of Asia. He outlawed Christianity and had 26 Christians put to death via crucifixion at Nagasaki, including Paul Miki, a Jesuit, who had he lived, would have become the first-ever Japanese priest to be ordained. By 1630, Christianity had been driven underground.

When Japan was finally reopened to the Western world around 1870 following the restoration of power to the Imperial Family under Emperor Meiji, Christian missionaries returned, for the Japanese mission had formerly been the largest outside European rule. To their surprise, the Church had thrived, with tens of thousands still following Christian practices that were handed down to them two and a half centuries ago, even in the absence of priests.

The Meiji government made all religions legal, and so many came out of hiding and joined the formal Roman Catholic Church, while preachers from other Protestant denominations too arrived on Japanese shores and established a following.

Some of the Hidden Christians (Kakure Kirishitans) had managed to get along by camouflaging their prayers as Buddhist chants and by disguising their images of Jesus and Mary to look like Buddhist or Shinto imagery. These people found it difficult to abandon the ways of their ancestors and hence could not bring themselves to join a more formalized Church structure. They continue their practices even today, meeting in secret – secrecy is part of their faith – and although they are welcomed by the Church, their practices involve traces of Buddhism and Shintoism. This is evident at their meetings, such the panel of a shrine housing Shinto deities sliding to reveal Christian images and holy water behind it.

Those who continue with these practices say they do it out of respect for their ancestors and that it is hard to take out Christianity alone from their faith and separate it from Buddhist and Shinto rituals, for they have inevitably all become intertwined. Masahi Funabara, one of the hidden Christians, says that with youth migrating to various places across the country for work, it has become harder and harder to pass on these traditions. Only four such groups of hidden Christians exist in his area, while it used to be 20 some time back. Yet the thought of the sufferings and persecutions faced by his ancestors for centuries compel the 53-year-old to carry on.


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