In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians - A Story of Suppression, Secrecy and Survival
John Dougill Tuttle, 2012
I had the valuable opportunity to visit Japan during my long service leave, and experience the great beauty, energy, hospitality, enterprise, food, culture and courtesy of Japan and the Japanese. I enjoyed having a go at a bit of rudimentary Japanese, and being humoured by the locals as I tried. Approached well, visiting another country is a mind-and-heart-expanding moment, and I really wonder at how a short trip can make a big impact on your view of the world and your place in it, and it is good to learn something about other peoples and places.
Naturally, I was interested in the history of the gospel and the church in Japan. You probably know that Christians make up only a small percentage of Japan’s population, and that Japan has never embraced the gospel in a big way as a culture – Christian affiliation has never been large nationally. And if you are a movie-goer, you may have been to see the film Silence, which is now showing. Silence is a movie adaptation of a novel by the Japanese Catholic author Shusaku Endo, directed by Martin Scorsese, which is set in the period after the Tokugawa shogunate banned Christianity in 1614. Since hundreds of thousands of Japanese had become Christians by this time through the work of Catholic missionaries, this ban, and the consequent ruthless suppression backed by torture and executions, forced Japanese Christians, and the few committed Western missionaries who decided to remain, into hiding. Japan’s Hidden Christians passed down their faith secretly for seven generations, until in 1854, when Japan was forced to open again to the outside world, Western incomers were amazed to discover these Hidden Christians, who had remained loyal to their faith in secret, while concealing this from the hostile authorities.
I did not know about the film Silence, or about the Hidden Christians until I came across In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians by John Dougill in a bookshop in Kyoto. I was facinated and bought it immmediately and read it in the last week of our trip. Dougill, an Englishman who is a professor at a Buddhist university in Kyoto, is not a Christian, but writes with great sympathy and interest the story of the arrival of Catholic missionaries, their work and its successes and setbacks among the Japanese of all classes, the way the authorities turned against Christianity and the West, and the subsequent suppression, resistance and eventual complete submersion of Christian life and witness into a secret practice. It is a confronting and sad story to see the progress of faith in Christ so beaten down, yet holding on tenaciously, desparately.
The expulsion of missionaries from China did not stop the growth of the gospel there, but in Japan, the Hidden Christians did not see comparable growth of the gospel. They survived, but did not thrive, it seems. They retained the prayers and ceremonies they were taught, and the church organisation they developed in the missionary phase, but some did not necessarily understand all the prayers they said, and it seems to me that the Hidden Christianity was devout, tenacious and courageous, but tragically impoverished (even disfigured at points) for all that. Of course the Lord knows those who are his, and he is the one who sustains faith in the midst of trials, and a great proportion of the Hidden Christians did emerge to join the churches that were re-established after religious toleration was achieved. Overall it is a great testimony to the depth of loyalty and commitment the gospel won in the 60 years it had to establish itself before the ban. Although we might have wished for a little longer for that work to go further.
Dougill’s book is a personal exploration of a compelling piece of history. He weaves his own travels and reflections into his telling of the story, giving the book elements of travelogue and journal. This makes it an accessible read, without taking away its main task of being a historical account for the general reader. This book might prove to be a doorway to further reading for those who open its pages.