So-called “hidden Christians” who practiced their faith while risking their lives for generations in Japan have finally been honored by the United Nations. Twelve sites associated with Japan’s persecuted Christian minority have been added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list. The sites include those places where Japanese Christians practiced their faith in secret in the face of persecution during the 250 years of the Tokugawa shogunate, which started in the 17th century and lasted well into the 1800s.
Christianity flourished in Japan after Catholic missionaries, especially members of the Jesuit order, arrived in the 1540s. But because of fears of the rival colonial powers, which featured the fierce Catholic-Protestant divide in Europe of the time, the Tokugawa shoguns banned the practice of Catholic Christianity in 1620. An untold number of the approximately 750,000 Christians were killed under orders of the shogun. Many were crucified. But still others went underground and practiced their faith secretly despite the risk of death.
The sites honored by UNESCO include Nagasaki’s Oura Cathedral -- the oldest surviving church in Japan, the village of Sakitsu in Amakusa, Kumamoto Prefecture where hidden Christians practiced their faith in secret; and the relic of Hara Castle, which witnessed the Shimabara-Amakusa Rebellion which led to the underground movement of Christians.
Once the Catholic missionaries were either killed or expelled, the hidden Christians (kakure krishitan) gathered secretly and passed on Scripture orally, while incorporating elements of Buddhist and Shinto practice into their worship.
Even today there are a few hidden Christians who live in Japan. Some came on Saturday to gather at a museum on Ikitsuki Island in Nagasaki Prefecture to celebrate the announcement. A congregation of about 100 chanted that had been transmitted down the centuries from their ancestors. According to Japan Times, Satomi Ogino, 31, said, “I’m proud that my hometown is now recognized globally.” Ogino added, “I’d like to convey the value of the heritage site to my 1-year-old son someday.”
Another 450 people showed up at Amakusa, where thousands of Japanese Christians were killed by their rulers, to celebrate the UNESCO designation. “They cast a spotlight on predecessors who kept their faith. I was able to witness a great day,” said Emiko Yoshimura, a 67-year-old leader of the congregation at the Sakitsu Church, according to Japan Times.