An NPR Weekend Edition story profiles the kakure kirishitan, Japanese Christians who hid their religion after Christianity was outlawed in the late sixteenth century, and who continue to practice in the same ways since the ban was lifted well over a century ago.
Their religion morphed into what is arguably a separate faith, barely recognizable as the creed imported in the mid-1500s by Catholic missionaries, including the Spanish Jesuit Francis Xavier. …
Catholicism only had about 40 years to take root in Japan before military ruler Hideyoshi Toyotomi banned Christianity and kicked out the missionaries.
Icons and Christian symbols were used to root out believers. The curator of a local museum, Shigeo Nakazono, describes what happened.
“People were ordered to trample on it,” he says. “Anyone who hesitated or wouldn’t do it was arrested and forced to recant his or her faith. If they didn’t, they were tortured or killed.”
The remaining Catholics went underground. They disguised their images of Jesus and Mary to look like Buddhas. They camouflaged their prayers to sound like Buddhist chants.
After the ban on Christianity was lifted in 1873, some returned to the Catholic church; an estimated 1% of Japanese people identify as Catholic. But the secrecy of the “hidden Christians” had become part of the religion itself, and many did not want to give it up.
To escape persecution, the covert Christians got rid of all visible signs of Christianity, including churches and crosses. The faithful organized into groups of households, which even today jointly own ritual objects and hold collective religious services in their homes.
A group leader, whose position is passed down from older generations, presides over ceremonies and organizes celebrations such as Christmas Eve.
Believers often put shrines in their homes which hold offerings to their ancestors and Shinto deities. Beside them is a secret wooden panel, which opens to reveal Christian votive images and vials of holy water.
The secret faith of their ancestors continues to keep these “hidden Christians” true to their centuries-old roots.
Photo credit: “A Japanese hidden Christian wall scroll depicts the Virgin Mary holding the young Jesus Christ, with two saints looking on. To avoid persecution, hidden Christians disguised their religion under a veneer of Buddhist and Shinto imagery. Courtesy of Shimano-yakata Museum, Ikitsuki,” via NPR.