“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:10
Protestant Christianity came to Japan in 1859, but Catholic missionaries arrived approximately three hundred years earlier, making a significant impact.* Francis Xavier (1506-1552) was a Jesuit priest who is historically credited for introducing Christianity to Japan and he was followed by many other Catholic priests and monks. These early missionaries encountered an initial measure of success as they baptized over 100,000 converts, including a number of local feudal lords. This new religious movement was initially unopposed by the ruling Shogunate, but the Japanese leaders eventually became suspicious of the outsiders who represented countries intent on expanding their colonial empires. Fearing a loss of power, the Japanese rulers proceeded to launch a ruthless persecution of Christianity and its followers.
To aid them in this endeavor, these Japanese despots developed an effective method called “fumie” (踏み絵), to help identify adherents to the new religion. Fumie means literally “to stamp or trample on an image,” referring to a religious icon usually bearing a likeness of Jesus or Mary. Utilizing this devious scheme, suspected Christians (Kirishitan) were rounded up in each village and forced one by one to trample on the venerated image placed before them. If they refused to do so, the Kirishitans were turned over to the professional torturers to either recant or die for their faith. The commonly used methods of torment included immersing victims in scalding hot springs, burning some Kirishitans alive, hanging others upside down over pits full of excrement or attaching some to crosses in the ocean where they were slowly drowned by the incoming tide. Government authorities were so zealous in their persecution efforts that they continued the practice of fumie for several years, even to the fourth generation in their attempt to completely stamp out any remnants of Christianity in Japan.
Many believers understandably went underground with their faith and religious practices and were soon referred to as “Kakure Kirishitans” (隠れキリシタン) meaning, “hidden Christians.” In subsequent decades and even centuries to come, the Kakure Kirishitans continued to secretly gather for worship, using prayers modified to sound like Buddhist chants and retained portions of the Bible through oral transmission. The famous Japanese author, Shūsaku Endo, creatively captured the events of this dark period in Japanese history through his novel “Silence,” which was recently brought to life as a major motion picture by the same name. Viewer discretion is advised for the following clips from the movie:
A Jesuit priest recants his faith: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EOX8-c-_uVY
Martyrdom through drowning: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uhqa8KylUM8
On a hill in Nagasaki now stands the Church of the 26 Martyrs, which was erected in 1962 to commemorate the lives of 26 Christians who were executed on that exact site on February 5, 1597. It stands as a solemn reminder that those who identify with Christ and take up their own cross to follow Him are not exempt from persecution. Like the early Japanese martyrs who forfeited their own lives by living for the kingdom of God, we are called to pursue righteousness and godliness, while living among the kingdoms of this earth. We must resist all evil influences that would sway us to trample on the things of God.
*There is some evidence that Christianity was actually introduced to Japan almost 1,800 years ago through early Nestorian missionaries, but failed to achieve a significant foothold in the country.