Whatever happened to Christianity in Japan?

10 Feb

From Philip Jenkins:

I posted about the deadly Japanese persecution of Christians in the thirty years or so after 1614, and how this violence effectively destroyed organized Christianity in that nation. In 2014, we are commemorating the four hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the worst of the persecution.

In describing Japanese acts against the Christians, I am not of course denying that contemporary Christians could be just as brutal in their way. Coincidentally, 1614 also marks the culmination of Spain’s expulsion of its Moriscos, former Muslims who had accepted conversion to Christianity. In Germany, meanwhile, the same year saw anti-Jewish riots. Intolerance, obviously, was the prerogative of no one faith.

Japan, though, was extremely efficient in its repression. Please note that the following account includes some gruesome descriptions, which I am reporting in detail because they are essential to understanding the story.

Although we naturally pay most attention to the spectacular acts of mass martyrdom, such violence in its own right need not be absolutely destructive. We remember the saying that “the seed of martyrs is the blood of the church.” Much more effective in the long term is systematic repression associated with intense surveillance and police work, which really does ensure that a crushed church cannot rise again. The Japanese were brilliantly successful at such policies. Much like modern-day totalitarian regimes, they ran a superbly effective mechanism of repression and thought control. They offer a terrifying model of the means by which a faith – any faith – truly can be destroyed.

Japan had a long tradition of effective magistrates and policing, far superior to anything the Inquisition had ever operated in Europe. Already by the 1630s, an extremely modern-sounding security apparatus sought out Christians by means of “letters, pictures [wanted posters], secret agents, road check points and border controls.” Governments deliberately sought out dissidence and subversion, while the reforms of the shogun Hideyoshi reforms relied for their enforcement on mutual denunciation.

In 1629, the government made it even more difficult for Christians to escape public notice when they introduced the fumie, requiring all Japanese to trample upon the crucifix or an image of Mary, an act that no Christian could do in good conscience.

In 1636, an edict laid down rules for the investigation of alleged Christians, offering two or three hundred pieces of silver for information leading to the capture of priests, bateren (that is, padres). Smaller rewards were available for lay believers.

A hundred years ago, the Catholic Encyclopedia asserted that, “There is not in the whole history of the Church a single people who can offer to the admiration of the Christian world annals as glorious, and a martyrology as lengthy, as those of the people of Japan.” But the story was more complex than a straightforward tale of brutal terror and heroic resistance. When suspects were found, authorities placed immense pressure on them to renounce their views, to recant their deviant religion, and to assert their loyalty to orthodox Japanese principles.

Read the rest

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