The Christmas edition of the New York Times carried an article about Japan’s hidden Christians that intersects with other threads in the history of Kyushu, Japan’s southwesternmost main island.
Christianity came to Japan with St. Francis Xavier in 1549, during a time of weak central government. Spreading fast through southern Japan, Christianity counted as many as 750,000 converts, or 10 percent of the population, by the 1630’s. Today, by contrast, about 1 percent of Japan’s 127 million people are Christians.
Alarmed by Spain’s colonization and conversion of the neighboring Philippines, Hideyoshi, the general who united Japan in the late 16th century, banned Christianity and ordered the expulsion of missionaries as early as 1587.
Hideyoshi went on to invade in Korea in 1592 and again in 1598, wreaking considerable havoc and kidnapping the Korean craftsmen responsible for introducing exquisite Arita porcelain techniques in Japan. A desire to emulate Hideyoshi’s imperial adventures in Korea was the real motivation for Saigo Takamori‘s rebellion in 1877 that inspired the movie The Last Samurai. Saigo was the lord of Satsuma, the feudal domain that managed to run its own foreign policy even during the isolationist Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1867), conquering the Ryukyus (Okinawa) in 1609 and exploiting its extensive trade network to build up its wealth and later modernize its own weaponry. In fact, gun-running from Nagasaki was a key factor in enabling the three southern domains of Satsuma (in the far south of Kyushu), Choshu (in the far southwest of Honshu), and Tosa (on the south side of Shikoku) to overthrow the Tokugawa and restore the Meiji emperor to power in 1868. During the 1877 Satsuma rebellion, according to the Russo-Japanese War Research Society:
The samurai were armed with Enfield muzzle loading rifles and could fire approximately one round per minute. Their artillery consisted of 28 mountain guns, 2 field guns (15.84 pounders), and 30 assorted mortars.
Before the Tokugawa shoguns pacified Japan and sealed it off from the outer world during the early 1600s, the archipelago had gone through a long period of anarchy and warfare, the Sengoku or “warring states” era (1467-1615). No wonder ordinary Japanese people were so open to Christianity and new ideas. Their own elite warriors had gone berserk. After pacification, some of the surplus warriors apparently found work overseas. According to Giles Milton’s account in Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, Japanese mercenaries helped the Dutch East India Company fight the Portuguese in the Spice Islands in 1608. In 1609, the Dutch showed up in Japan, seeking to break the Portuguese trade monopoly there. The Shogunate was increasingly suspicious of the Portuguese missionaries and their growing flock of converts. After martyring many Christians and suppressing the 1637-38 Shimabara Rebellion in a heavily Christian area near Nagasaki, the Shogunate expelled the Portuguese and moved the Dutch trading post (or “factory”) to the artificial island of Deshima in Nagasaki Bay. The remaining Christians went underground, adapted their rituals, and remained hidden until Japan began reopening to the outside world in the 1850s.
As the country opened up, the Nagasaki foreign settlement flourished, attracting not only a British arms merchant and a Romanian Jewish innkeeper, but also American doctors and a sizable Italian community that indirectly inspired Puccini to write his opera Madama Butterfly, which debuted in 1904.
Although Tokyo people may think of Kyushu as being the back of beyond, it was Japan’s most important crossroads with the outside world for many centuries.
Filed under cinema, Japan, Korea