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Japan's Hidden Christians.

For more than 250 years, while Japan was isolated from the West and Christianity was forcibly restricted by the country's ruling potentates, a small group of Catholics struggled to keep their faith alive underground. Both Westerners and Japanese scholars have studied the kakure Kirishitan (hidden Christians) to learn how the faith of these people survived.

Sr. Ann M. Harrington, associate professor of history at Loyola University, draws from and enriches these studies. She argues that artifacts, documents and testimonies reveal that they established an underground community of believers that endures to this day. In this book she tells their story.

In 1549, Francis Xavier and two other Jesuits landed in Japan and began an intense and painful proselytism. They realized they could not impose upon Japan a religion with institutional roots in an alien civilization. They had to adapt to Japanese culture if they wanted any success. The missionaries curried the favor of Japan's rulers and were allowed to preach, administer sacraments and instruct converts in Catholic doctrine.

The Japanese shogun began suspecting the motives of the Jesuits. He grew concerned about a "double loyalty" that appeared to be developing among Christians. So in 1614, the Japanese banned all foreign missionaries and issued edicts closing Japan to Christian and Western influence.


Many Christians, especially in the cities, chose to return to religions sanctioned by the regime. Those who remained Christian were forced into hiding to escape religious persecution and avoid bloodshed. All contact with the missionaries ended and they were "lost" to the church for 250 years.

So what became of them?

For the most part they were uneducated villagers in some of Japan's remote southern islands. Living simple lives of bare subsistence and separated from the sacramental richness of the church, they nevertheless kept their faith alive and passed it on to succeeding generations of Japanese. Half-remembered prayers and token liturgical celebrations served as the foundation of this community.

The Japanese finally allowed Christianity to return in the mid-19th century. Harrington argues that the Catholic church and the missionaries who returned to Japan held quite a different outlook on the world than did the church of the 16th century. French missionaries in 1850 arrived from a church battling the forces of modernism and adopting a rigid orthodoxy on matters of faith and morals.

When these missionaries discovered small pockets of Christianity, they looked forward to wooing these descendants of Japan's first Christians back to an orthodox practice of Roman Catholicism. Some in this underground community accepted the teachings of the French missionaries. Others refused and continued to live their own brand of Christianity, practicing what they believed to be the true faith as passed to them by their ancestors.

Nearly 35,000 of Japan's hidden Christians refused to renounce their ancestral religion to "rejoin" the Catholic church.

Harrington sees the kakure Kirishitan as a folk religion and predicts they will remain stubbornly so to the end.

After I finished the book, I wondered about another small group of only 12 that proselytized, then was persecuted and then went into hiding.
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Author:DeCoursey, Vicent
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 18, 1993
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