Nagasaki : A Uniquely Japanese Form of Christian Belief


The Continuation and Transition of Hidden Christian Belief

From the Story of Nagasaki to the Story of the World

Japan lies at the far eastern edge of the area in which Catholicism was introduced during the Age of Exploration. The Nagasaki region, located in the western part of Kyushu in the south-western part of the archipelago, has served as Japan’s gateway for exchanges with the Asian Continent since antiquity and, in the latter half of the 16th century, Catholic missionaries were very active throughout the region. As a result, newly-baptized Japanese in the region could receive pastoral guidance from those missionaries over a longer period than anywhere else in Japan, and Catholic communities became firmly established there.

Based on these communities, even after Japan banned Christianity in the 17th century with not a single missionary being allowed to remain in Japan, some Catholics in the Nagasaki region nurtured their own unique religious system and continued to practice their faith in secret whilst coexisting with conventional society and its religions. After the prohibition was lifted in the latter half of the 19th century, the faithful, who had remained hidden for 250 years, returned to Catholicism and, together with foreign missionaries, built churches in each hidden Christian village.

The quiet churches located in the mountains and island inlets of Nagasaki whisper the story of Christians who kept their faith in those small villages and passed it down from generation to generation throughout the period of religious persecution and concealment.









Those who secretly continued their Christian-derived faith from the 17th to 19th centuries when Christianity was forbidden in Japan are known as Hidden Christians.



Traditions, Transitions and Inheritance of Continued Faith


Tsutomu Ikeda / 池田

The Beginning of Tradition

Catholicism was first introduced to Japan by a Jesuit priest, Francis Xavier, in 1549. It spread nationwide due to the evangelizing activities of the Jesuits who came to Japan after Xavier, and also due to the protection afforded by baptized feudal lords (Kirishitan Daimyo) who sought to profit from overseas trade. However, the ban on Christianity, which had begun with an edict issued by Toyotomi Hideyoshi expelling the missionaries, was tightened under the Tokugawa Shogunate, which ordered the destruction of all the churches in Japan. In 1637, during the nationwide ban on Christianity, the remaining Catholics took up arms against the tyranny of their local lord and were besieged in Hara Castle. The Shogunate was shocked at this Shimabara-Amakusa Rebellion and adopted its national seclusion policy to prohibit the arrival of Portuguese ships that could be used to smuggle missionaries into Japan. After the last missionary within Japan had been martyred in 1644, the remaining Japanese Catholics could only maintain their faith and communities on their own in secret. Many such communities disintegrated in rapid succession in the latter half of the 17th century due to a series of large-scale crackdowns on remaining Catholics, forcing them to either renounce their religious faith or be martyred.


1549年、イエズス会宣教師フランシスコ・ザビエルによって伝えられた日本のキリスト教は、その後来日した宣教師たちの宣教活動や、南蛮貿易の利益を求めて改宗したキリシタン大名の擁護によって全国に広まりました。しかし、豊臣秀吉の伴天連追放令に続く江戸幕府の禁教令により、教会堂は破棄され、宣教師は国外へ追放されました。1637年、禁教 が深まる中、圧政をきっかけにキリシタンが立ち上がり「原城跡」に立てこもった「島原・天草一揆」に衝撃を受けた幕府は、宣教師の潜入の可能性のあるポルトガル船を追放し、海禁体制を確立しました。1644年には最後の宣教師が 殉教。残されたキリシタンは、民衆レベルの共同体を維持しながら潜伏して信仰を続けましたが、17世紀後半に起こった大規模なキリシタン摘発事件によって順次崩壊し、信徒の多くが棄教、殉教しました。

Remains of Hara Castle

The setting for the Shimabara-Amakusa rebellion– a place that led to the establishment of Japan’s policy of national isolation and Hidden Christians who had to continue the faith in their own ways.



Formation of Tradition

Hidden Christian communities disappeared from Japan except in the Nagasaki region, where Catholic missionary activities had taken place more extensively than in any other parts of the country during the initial phase of the introduction of Catholicism. This region provided the bedrock for the maintenance of the secret faith even into the 18th century and afterwards. In order to continue the faith in secret, each village developed its own particular forms of practicing Christian faith. Some Hidden Christians substituted everyday objects as devotional items or combined their faith with common Shinto practice.



Kasuga Village and Sacred Places in Hirado [Kasuga Village and Mt.Yasumandake] and [Nakaenoshima Island] 

This village secretly kept the faith while worshipping the mountain and the island as sacred places and the martyrdom site.

 平戸の聖地と集落 [ 春日集落と安満岳 ] [ 中江ノ島 ]


Shitsu Village in Sotome

This village maintained holy images for worship, continuing the faith by passing down Catholic catechism, the liturgical calendar, etc. The photo shows the Plaquette of the Immaculate Conception, which was handed down in secret (now kept in the Father de Rotz Memorial in Nagasaki City).



Ono Village in Sotome

As an early Japanese Catholic is enshrined in Kado Shrine, Hidden Christians continued their faith under the guise of the Shinto faith by secretly venerating objects of worship at the local shrines.



Inheritance of Tradition

At the end of the 18th century, remote islands were settled by migration, and among these migrants were many Hidden Christians seeking to escape the intense search for Christians. Taking into consideration ways to live alongside Japan’s existing society and religions, the migrants moved to undeveloped land and places sacred to the Shinto faith. Specific sites and devotional tools provided a focus for the Hidden Christian faith, and the migration of Hidden Christians contributed to the continuation of their religious beliefs for over two centuries.



Villages on Kuroshima Island

Hidden Christians maintained their faith in these villages by praying to the Maria Kannon statue in a Buddhist temple after their migration to former clan pasturelands in need of redevelopment. The photo shows Kuroshima Church.



Remains of Villages on Nozaki Island

Here the villages were built on steeply sloping terrain. Hidden Christians continued to practice their faith after migrating to the island, regarded as sacred by Shinto believers. The photo shows Okinokojima Shrine, whose worshippers spread all over the Goto Islands.



Villages on Kashiragashima Island

Hidden Christians moved to the island that was once used for the sick under the leadership of a Buddhist man. Their villages include Shirahama Village in the photo.



Tsutomu Ikeda / 池田

Villages on Hisaka Island

Undeveloped land on the island was settled by migration, following the policies of the ruling Goto clan, and the Christian faith was continued through relationships of mutual assistance with established Buddhist communities. The photo shows Obiraki Village pioneered in conjunction with local Buddhists.



Egami Village on Naru Island (Egami Church and its Surroundings)

This village was established by Hidden Christians who migrated to a valley near the seacoast, isolated from the pre-existing villages, and they later built a church after the ban on Christianity was lifted. The conventional church design was adapted to take the characteristic topography of the village into account.

奈留島(なるしま)の江上集落 (江上天主堂とその周辺)


Oura Cathedral

This was the setting for “Discovery of Hidden Christians,” when the believers encountered Christian missionaries for the first time in two centuries and confessed their faith.




Located in the southwest of Japan, Nagasaki Prefecture is surrounded by sea and mountains on every side and boasts a great deal of spectacular natural scenery. Nagasaki also has a unique culture and history that stems from its long history of interaction with foreign countries and European and Chinese influences, as it was the only point for overseas contact during Japan’s long period of national isolation. The prefecture is also full of diverse attractions such as fantastic night views – recognized as being among the world’s three best modern night views – old-fashioned streetscapes peculiar to Japan, sightseeing destinations including some of Japan’s best theme parks, a wealth of hot springs and dining options, especially its fresh seafood, and much more.

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