Tag Archive: Buddhism

Tales of the Otori by Lian Hearn



While still living in Kamakura, a friend told me about a Buddhist temple that had sheltered Japanese Christians about 400 years ago, so we immediately walked to Koshoji. The friendly priest offered to show us the cross that was attached beneath the thatched roof of the temple gate. Then, he shared an elaborate European candlestick in the shape of a cross. As we heard the story of the Hidden Christians (Kakure Kirishitan) who had been sheltered there during the Tokugawa period (1600-1868), we made comparisons with stories of Christians who hid Jewish people in their homes during the Nazi occupation of Europe. This meeting was a real moment of east/west unity for the three of us.

The Arrival of Spanish and Portuguese Missionaries on Japanese Shores

Beginning with Francis Xavier’s arrival in 1549 on Japanese shores, Portuguese and Spanish missionaries began to teach and evangelize to the extent that these years are often referred to as “The Christian Century”. According to scholar Michael Cooper, “It has to be borne in mind that if Europe was interested in Japan, so Japan was also interested in Europe.” Many of the missionaries like the Portuguese Fr. Luis Frois became fluent in the Japanese language and customs; thus, they were invited to speak with the military rulers of the land, Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi HIdeyoshi, Tokugawa Ieyasu or Hidetada.

Two of the Most Famous Japanese Christians

The priests established seminaries and also taught Western “theater, singing, music and painting.” In 1582, four young Japanese converts traveled with Jesuits on a ship to Lisbon and Rome. As the years went by, there were up to 100,000 or more Japanese who were baptized, including samurai and townspeople. Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi were fairly tolerant of the foreign priests in the beginning.

Takayama Ukon was one of the most outstanding Catholic converts (Kirishitan). Hideyoshi often partook of the tea ceremony with Ukon and foreign priests. One day, Ukon heard from some priests about a very cultured woman who had visited their church to ask to be baptized. She quoted from The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis. Intrigued, they sent someone to follow her home and found out she was Hosokawa Tadaoki’s wife. She had formerly lived in exile after her father, Akechi Mitsuhide, assassinated Nobunaga. During that time, she had become inspired by her Christian maid, Maria. Once she moved back with her husband, he would not let her leave the house because of her beauty; thus, Ukon advised Tamako to be baptized at home with Maria as a proxy. Afterwards, she was known by the Christian name of Gracia (Garasha). Though Tadaoki had an interest in Christianity, he was livid about his wife’s baptism.

The Beginning of Martyrdom

Ukon had been tested by Hideyoshi to give up his faith and to stop his evangelizing. When he refused, Hideyoshi took away his lands and position, so for a while, Ukon went into exile until he was in favor again. In 1597, Hideyoshi ordered the death by crucifixion of 26 priests and converts in Nagasaki. Ukon had been on the list, but had been crossed out.

In 1600, When Tadaoki was away, Hosokawa Gracia and other samurai wives were taken hostages in a ploy for power. Gracia refused to give in and was probably killed by the hand of one of the Hosokawa retainers to preserve her honor by order of her husband. There are conflicting reports about whether she was killed or committed suicide; however, the priests believed it was the former, not the latter.

Christianity was Banned in Japan for Over Two-hundred Years

After Tokugawa Ieyasu became Shogun, Ukon was expelled from Japan, sent to the Philippines, and died in 1615. The same year, Ieyasu conquered Osaka Castle where Toyotomi Hideyori’s support included Christian warriors and Western priests. In the following years, the third shogun, Iemitsu banned Christianity. By 1643, Westerners were expelled and trade with Europe was halted (but trade with the Dutch was allowed on one island). All Japanese Christians were told to recant their belief or be tortured to death. Christianity was outlawed for over 250 years, yet there were those who went underground, the Hidden Christians.

The First Protestant Missionaries and the Return of the Catholic Fathers

After American Commodore Matthew Perry landed in 1853 on his black ship, various treaties for trade and allowing foreigners to live in port cities were made with the Japanese government (bakufu). Soon afterwards, Protestant and Catholic missionaries arrived. In 1865, a church was built in Nagasaki at the location of a church in “The Christian Century.” A few Japanese approached the French priest, Fr. Petijean. They asked about Jesus and Mother Mary. These were descendants of the Hidden Christians who had passed on their tradition from generation to generation.

The Meiji Restoration in 1868 ended feudalism and the 250 years of the Tokugawa military government. Three years later, the Meiji government planned the Iwakura Embassy as a fact-finding mission to the USA and 17 countries of Europe. A plea to revoke the edits against Christianity, was one of the results of Japanese leaders meeting with heads of state across the world. Soon after the Iwakura Embassy returned to Japan, the 250 years of prohibition ended.

Kunitake, Kume. Japan Rising: The Iwakura Embassy to the USA and Europe. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. 2009.
Kuno, Akiko. Kirsten McIvor trans. Unexpected Destinations: The Poignant Story of Japan’s First Vassar Graduate. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1993.
Miura, Ayako. Lady Gracia: A Samurai Wife’s Love, Strife and Faith. Tokyo: IBC Publishing, 2004.