A Flawed Search for Japan’s Hidden Christianity

Its inherently fascinating content and commendable literary quality notwithstanding, John Dougill’s "In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians" is not likely to satisfy serious researchers into the history of Japanese Catholicism.

John Dougill’s In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians: A Story of Secrecy, Suppression, and Survival is an impressive synthesis of existing histories of Japan’s fabled kakure-kirishitan community, crafted with the personal intimacy one would give to a contemplative travel journal. This engagingly-written and proficiently researched work tells the story of the ill-fated Catholic missions in late medieval Japan, and shares a fascinating update of the status of the descendants of those Christians who kept their faith alive during centuries of persecution.

Unfortunately, most of its historical content has been already been covered by such historians as C.R. Boxer, George Elison, and Stephen Turnbull; Dougill does not bring to light any new primary sources in Japanese, or new interpretations on the evidence known. As far as its religious content is concerned, the insights presented in Dougill’s periodic musings, reflections, and ponderings are neither particularly edifying, nor even devoutly informed. This is not to say that the book fails in its goals, but its goals have nothing to do with the promoting the religious values cherished by its subjects. To give Dougill credit, at no time does he describe his “search” as a spiritual journey—his pilgrimage through time and space seems to have been triggered more by personal curiosity into the odd phenomenology of Japanese Christians than by any desire to understand the faith that led in most cases to their martyrdom, and in others, to a long, dangerous period of hiding from political authorities.

The book is organized as an appealing interweaving of two narrative tracks, consisting first of the general history of Japanese Christianity, and second, of his personal 2010 trek through Christian sites and shrines of southern Japan. Accordingly the book works well as both a travelogue and a survey history. A reader quickly perusing such chapter titles as “Genesis,” “Commandments,” “Crucifixion,” and “Apocalypse,” etc., might also think at the outset that the book has some underlying religious significance as well, but might be disappointed to find that this is more of a literary device than a thematic map.

As a historical narrative, the book primarily traces the short, tragic arc of early modern Japanese Christianity that began with the arrival of St. Francis Xavier in Kyushu in 1549, and ended with the crushing of the Shimabara Rebellion in 1637. During Japan’s so-called “Christian Century,” Society of Jesus missionaries found themselves unwitting participants in a prolonged civil war known to historians as the sengoku jidai, or “warring states period.” The warring parties were Japan’s roughly 250 feudal lords, or daimyo, who were competing for hegemony during the long decline of the Ashikaga shogunate (1336-1573).

Owing to their immediate access to European weapons and trade, the padres found themselves being used as strategic assets by several of these lords. The Jesuits, no strangers to strategy themselves, took advantage of the prevailing diplomatic conditions to secure rights from their newfound daimyo patrons to preach and establish missions in their domains. As the fortunes of strong “cosmopolitan” daimyo rose, so did the fortunes of the Church. In 1600, Japan’s civil wars came to a decisive end as the xenophobic Neo-Confucian Tokugawa clan established a new shogunate and claimed sole central authority in the realm. As they consolidated their political supremacy, the Tokugawa came to regard the presence of Christians as not only as a nuisance, but as a destabilizing and destructive force as well. 

The Tokugawa were relentless in their suppression of the religion of Deus, and worked as hard to bring about public reversions, recantations, and apostasies as they did to kill believing Christians. Those who failed to renounce their faith, or refused to step on holy images (a test of loyalty called fumie) were subject to tortures, drownings, burnings, beheadings, and crucifixions. The last stand of Christianity was the Shimabara Rebellion of 1637-38, in which 37,000 peasants led by a sixteen-year old Catholic rebel named Amakusa Shiro were annihilated by the forces of Lord Matsukura Katsuie. Dougill only skirts the long-debated issue of whether the rebellion was expressly religious, but he does indicate that it was a pivotal event in Christianity’s transference from a hunted religion into a hidden faith. 

Amakusa’s Catholic zeal was unambiguous, and his followers marched under openly Catholic banners and slogans, but the rebellion itself was arguably an expression of popular resentment against the oppressive taxation of a tyrannical lord. As evidence of Matsukura’s objective incompetence as a ruler, we can look to the fact that in the aftermath of the rebellion, Matsukura became the only daimyo executed by the shogunate in the entire Tokugawa era (1603-1867). Matsukura’s dishonorable death did not lead to a sympathetic consideration of the Christians involved in the rebellion, but rather served as a pretext for the government’s final eradication of the “European” faith. 

After Shimabara, faithful Japanese Catholics retreated into hiding, and attempted to keep their outlawed religion alive. In remote places of southern Japan, in particular the Goto islands near Nagasaki, Catholic villagers preserved and practiced their faith without priests, liturgies, or any sacrament but “emergency” baptisms. Families passed down memorized liturgical calendars, prayers (orashio) and rituals, most of which became highly distorted over the course of the ensuing centuries, and embellished by sometimes bizarre Buddhist and Shinto accretions.

As Dougill reminds us, the return of Catholicism in its “orthodox” forms after the “enlightened” Meiji Restoration in the nineteenth century was not necessarily embraced by the hidden Christians, some of whose descendants continue their hybrid rituals into the present day. As “Old Christians,” or “old calendar Christians,” they are no longer hidden, but they are not integrated into the liturgical life of the Nagasaki Catholic Diocese. Their story of secrecy and survival is truly fascinating, and evidence is understandably in short supply. It is unfortunate that the acts of Japan’s hidden Christians—despite being the focal point of the title—only constitutes a small portion of this book. Obviously the English language historical record is minimal, but this project might have been more effective had it made a foray into Japanese sources, literary or human. Given the sources Dougill uses, he does a fine job of bringing this old and largely unknown story into the present day.

Its inherently fascinating content, and commendable literary quality notwithstanding, Dougill’s book is not likely to satisfy serious researchers into the history of Japanese Catholicism. While interspersed with thoughtful, meditations on the rise and fall of Japanese Christianity, the project is uniformly secular. The most spiritually edifying comments are those he accurately reproduces from such Japanese Catholic luminaries as Endo Shusaku, whose novel on the same period, Silence, is rightfully regarded as an international classic. 

It is probably safe to say that Dougill shares with most contemporary Japanese an abiding curiosity about the spiritual world, but no strong conviction that it has any practical significance. The Japanese attacks on Christianity that Dougill records, such as the irate outburst by the Buddhist priest Nichijo, “you may say that the soul remains, but you must show it to me now [. . .] I’m going to cut off the head of your disciple here so you can show me the substance that remains” (45), differ little in intellectual merit from the moderate “arguments” for the non-existence of God put forth by contemporary atheists.

I am not suggesting that Dougill’s treatment of Japanese Christianity is irreverent—it is not—but like many modern men, he does not seem to have any sense of the validity of the spiritual life or enough of an understanding of Catholic beliefs to render insightful judgments about them. As a case in point, Dougill reports an occasion in which a Zen monk dismissed a Japanese Catholic’s claim God’s glory was superior to the power of the Buddha. Noting that monk said that talk of all such matters was “childish and unworthy of wise men, for they lay in a realm beyond human knowledge,” Dougill adds, “He had a point” (47). The author might have pointed out that since Zen actually seeks a realm beyond human knowledge, the monk had no point at all, but Dougill seems to care less for theological clarity than for inserting the secular affirmation that all religion is a matter of unintelligibility.

A somewhat more jarring observation is Dougill’s commentary on the mummified relic of Xavier’s arm:

A severed arm might seem the stuff of horror movies, but for Catholics there must be a sense that something of Xavier lingers in the lifeless limb. It set me thinking [sic] about the relationship between spirit and body, for in Shinto objects such as a rock, a doll, a branch—a whole mountain even—can act as a sacred “body” (goshintai) into which the kami [god] descends. Not unlike the Catholic mass, in fact, when the holy spirit enters into communion wafers. Physical matter and the mysterious spark of life: isn’t that what underlies every religious impulse, regardless of the form it takes? (21)

The doctrinal misunderstandings (to say nothing of the one dimensional characterization of the “religious impulse”) in this utterance are too numerous to unpack in a short space. Dougill, like most modern commentators on Japan’s Christian Century, presents this period as a time of changing diplomatic and political dynamics, not as an essential evangelical project of an internationally expanding Christendom. The fact that certain daimyo clans converted to the Church with piety and zeal are noted simply as anomalies and short-lived events. It seems to be more or less assumed by the post-Christian modern thinker that the monks and samurai who sought to destroy Christianity in Japan were simply serving an inevitable historical process of secularization, not committing gross acts of violence against the Creator of the world and his beloved children.

It goes without saying that these criticisms would matter little to non-Christian readers, so in conclusion, I would recommend In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians as an engaging work of popular secular history, and a useful travel companion, but not as a spiritually uplifting read.

It is worth noting, and certainly lamentable, that this fascinating period has never been a particularly vital area of inquiry. Aside from the works alluded to above by Boxer, Elison, and Turnbull (only three major monographs in sixty-five years) there are only a smattering of academic articles on the topic. Only Ann Harrington’s 1992 monograph Japan’s Hidden Christians strives to place the religious dimension of hidden Christianity front and center; Endo’s novel Silence may forever remain the definitive work on the kakure kirishitan. With the rise of China as Asia’s new dominant power, scholarship on Chinese Christianity has become a cottage industry.

It goes without saying that what motivates the study of Chinese Christianity is the flourishing of Christian faith in China. As hard as it is to concede, Japan has never, even in the modern period, been a particularly fertile field for conversion. For this very reason the histories of its most faithful adherents ought to excite our interest and imitation. Unfortunately, they are in short supply. 

In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians: A Story of Secrecy, Suppression, and Survival 
By John Dougill
Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 2012 (hardcover), 2015 (paperback).
272 pages.

About Dr. Eric Cunningham 0 Articles

Dr. Eric Cunningham is Associate Professor in the Department of History at Gonzaga University. He specializes in modern Japanese history and also teaches courses in world and East Asian history.