Faith, History

Kirishtan: Christianity in Sengoku Japan

With the recent beatification of Justo Takayama, who lived from 1552 to 1615, many Christians, especially Catholics, are left surprised – when did Christianity reach Japan? As Christians, it is our duty to understand, and relate to the experiences of our brethren wherever they may be. The mainstream understanding of the development of Catholicism in Japan is woefully studied compared to other histories, such as the Early Church Fathers, the Crusades, and the history of the Church in Europe. By outlining the basic history of early Catholic efforts in Japan, and in future articles outlining the Meiji restoration and Japanese Christianity after the Sengoku period including the Shimabara Revolt, the reader will obtain a much better understanding of the history of the Church in a land far, far away from the holy sites in Palestine and the Papacy in Rome.

Now, during this unstable period in Japanese history, the Sengoku period, Jesuits arrived and began their first efforts of conversion, constructing their first settlement – what we know today as Nagasaki.

To understand what would lead to the creation of a Christian “City on the Hill” in the land of Shinto and Buddhism, it is necessary to at least partially cover the historical trends affecting the world at this time. With the discovery of the Americas by Blessed Columbus in 1492, the Catholic empires of Spain and Portugal were motivated by previous exploratory efforts along the coast of Africa to bring the faith and their influence to the rest of the world. With the declaration of the Inter Caetera, the treaty of Tordesillas, and the treaty of Zaragoza, the lines had been drawn, giving Spain the lion’s share of North and South America to explore, while Portugal was given free reign in Africa, alongside Asia. It was under these conditions that Francisco Xavier would first travel to Japan in 1549, after having previously stayed in Macau, a Catholic Portuguese settlement located west of Hong Kong in China. What is important to note is the style of colonization that the Portuguese practiced in this time period, lasting roughly from the late 1400’s to the 1600’s. Portugal was an empire at sea, one entirely reliant on its ability to enforce military power with their Carracks, seafaring vessels that the Japanese would term “kurofune” or “black ships” due to the color of the pitch. Portugal relied on its naval superiority to overpower native groups that attempted to root out its colonial influence. These ships would be used to defend strategically positioned trading posts along the coasts. These trading posts would end up developing into large cities that we know of in our modern world, such as Gao, Macau, and our focus, Nagasaki. Through this method, the Portuguese would introduce the native populace to Catholicism through the work of missionaries based in these coastal strongholds.

Through missionary work, not only did the Portuguese establish a trade-focused empire, but also brought the faith to people throughout Africa and Asia. One Jesuit missionary, Alfonso de Lucena, was on a ship that nearly sunk on its way to one of Portugal’s colonial holdings. He wrote this:

“While the ship was hanging in the water like that, five Portuguese took one of the fathers, two holding onto his legs, two hanging onto his arms, and one clinging to his rump; and they said that we were all six going to go down into the sea together and die together. The one, who was holding onto the father’s belt, whispered into his ear that he promised God to enter the Society of Jesus if he were to escape with his life from this storm.”

The Jesuits had just recently been formed as a society and they came to the new worlds of an era of discovery with determination to prosthelytize. This mission brought them to Japan.

We now arrive at Japan during a period of upheaval, of civil strife known as the “Sengoku Jidai.” This translates to the “age of the warring states” and can be compared to the Three Kingdoms period in China, or even the Thirty Wars in Europe. The Sengoku period would begin with the Onin War, a succession dispute over the position of Shogun. The Shogun didn’t have any children, he had no valid heirs, so he went to his brother who was a Buddhist monk and offered him the throne. However, his brother obviously didn’t want to be the Shogun, as he was content with his peaceful life in the monastery. He was forced into the position, though, and hesitantly accepted it, becoming the heir to the throne. Yet suddenly the current Shogun struck his luck with the ladies and managed to finally have a son that was eligible as his heir. Perhaps the monk brother wasn’t so devoted to his peaceful, religious lifestyle, as by now he had embraced the idea of becoming the Shogun. A clear succession dispute followed, resulting in the complete collapse of the Shogunate. Now every daimyo wanted to be the Shogun, and blood would be spilled from end of the island nation to the next. This conflict, however, opened the door to modernization in Japan. Portuguese and Spanish merchants established contact with the Japanese and opened the western markets to them. With the merchants came the arquebus, an early gun, a weapon that’s firepower surpassed anything the Japanese had developed.

Not only did guns pour into Japan, but also Jesuits. The Portuguese trade network, stretching from Hormuz in Arabia to Goa in India to Malacca in Malaysia to Macau in China brought the Jesuits to the warring lands of Japan. The Portuguese network of trade, military, diplomacy, and intelligence was full of Jesuit missionaries who not only made efforts to convert the locals, but also acted as capable administrators. Essentially, the Portuguese colonies had Jesuit missionaries not just as missionaries but as heads of state throughout their territories. They would bring in European goods to trade with natives in the region, establish a local military advantage, and most importantly convert the native lower classes alongside their nobility, in an effort not only to save souls but to secure political allies and stability.

Through these efforts, the first gears of an untamable machine would be forged. The Jesuits in Japan would not submit to the Daimyos, who were largely Shinto or Buddhist. These tensions led to fighting even before the establishment of Nagasaki, when in Omura, the Christian people of Yokoseura would get into skirmishes with the native Shintos and Buddhists. The town and settlement was under the domain of Daimyo Omura Sumitada, who was at first skeptical of the intentions of Catholics in his domain, both missionaries and converts. However, Sumitada would soon grow extremely accepting of the Catholics in Omura, transferring the ownership of Yokoseura and its surrounding lands to the Church. Sumitada also barred, by law, Buddhists and Shintos from living in the town unless they had permission from the Church. Clearly Sumitada was sympathetic to the faith, and this sympathy resulted in conversion, as the daimyo was baptized in 1563. This seemed to a crucial step in securing Christianity’s existence and growth in Japan, but within that same year Yokoseura was burnt down by merchants from Bungo. This was a serious setback for Catholicism in Japan and also shattered, temporarily, Portuguese trade influence in the region. A new settlement had to be established for converting the Japanese people and securing Portugal’s economic interests. That new settlement would be the central hope for both Portuguese trade and the salvation of the Japanese people.

That new settlement would be in Nagasaki, which in 1567, had been visited by Fr. Luis d’Almeda. He converted the local residents who eagerly embraced the faith, but this wasn’t the only reason for choosing Nagasaki. It is important to address the natural advantages of the Nagasaki bay, as there were crucial to establishing the “City on the Hill.” Firstly, it was far away from the civil conflicts so destructive and defining of the period throughout Japan. It was five hundred miles from the warpath of Oda Nobunaga, the future Shogun of Japan, and six hundred and eighty or so miles from Tokyo, then known as Edo. Macau, the nearest Portuguese colony, was twelve hundred miles away, a distance very easily crossed by the ships – the Carracks – of the day. On top of being far away from the wars erupting throughout the island nation, it was also possibly the best southern port in Japan for the purpose of trade. Clearly, with all of these factors considered, it was a good place to establish a city – and with that, the Jesuits founded Nagasaki.

Nagasaki, once founded, quickly gained traction as a local power. The survivors of the disaster in Yokoseura finally had a new home. Once established, several policies would be enacted to ensure the Catholic character of the settlement. Firstly, the land was transferred from the ownership of Daimyo Sumitada to the Jesuits themselves, just as had occurred in Yokoseura. However, this time most people surrounding Japan’s center of Catholicism were recent converts to the faith. These people were supportive of their Jesuit rulers, unlike the locals that had surrounded Yokoseura. Nagasaki was also allowed to maintain its own walls, its own military, and even its own legal code which took elements from both Japanese and European law. Initially weak, the size and scale of the settlement would grow exponentially. From Nagasaki’s founding in 1571 to 1579, just eight years, it had quickly become home to 400 households. By 1600, 15,000 people lived in the Jesuit city.

Of course, with success came enemies. Tensions had already arised as early as 1573, with the neighboring regions of Fukabori and Isahaya banding together in order to seize the location not only for its economic power, but also in an attempt to destroy the newly emerging Christian stronghold. Mustering up their youth, they committed themselves to a very long siege against the city, hoping to eventually seize it, plunder it, and destroy it. The Portuguese and the Japanese converts showed great bravery in defending their new home and were able to repel their earliest enemy. With this triumph came safety and prosperity for another 11 years.

To better understand the Jesuit fort-city of Nagasaki, we must understand the men who played a hand its creation. Even if we limit ourselves to merely the founders of the city, we are presented with men like Omura Sumitada, who took up the Christianized name of Dom Bartolomeu.

This Japanese convert to Christian was the daimyo of the Hizen province, ruling over the modern day Saga and Nagasaki prefectures. Son of a pagan Arima Haruzumi, he was adopted into the Sumitada household for political reasons, a common practice in Japan. Sumitada had the average upbringing of Japanese nobility, learning the traditions of Shinto and Buddhism, as well as the universally honorable art of war. From this upbringing, a Japanese Medici would arise.

Sumitada was approached by the Portuguese through Japan converts in 1561. He was accepting of the use of his town as a harbor and even helped missionaries construct a Church in Yokoseura. Instantly Sumitada was pulled towards the faith, as he was so fascinated by the Church’s construction and liturgy, that he personally gifted the mission’s leader, Father Cosmo de Torres, with “half a dozen casks of sake, a large quantity of fish, a good sized boar, and some silver” (The Dream of Christian Nagasaki, Reinier H Hesselink).

Father Torres was so happy with this gift that he not only invited Sumitada to dinner, but also made the five Portuguese traders wintering with him serve Sumitada the best food the Jesuits could offer. After this, Father Torres personally approached Sumitada, bringing up the Catholic faith, telling him to, “just as a farmer who sows his field and looks for the best seed, to search out the best law to plant in his heart, and those of his vassals, and that this was the seed of peace and eternal life” (The Dream of Christian Nagasaki, Reinier H Hesselink). After this, he showed Sumitada an altar containing a painting of the Virgin Mary, also offering the daimyo a painting of the Crucifixion as they parted ways. Sumitada promised to return to hear Father Torres’ sermons and to learn more about the Catholic faith. He was so eager to begin that the next night he returned with his retainers to hear the priest discuss basic Christian doctrine. The daimyo, his retainers, and Father Torres stayed up until two in the morning speaking about Christianity. Sumitada continued to learn about the faith and its history, and was particularly touched by the story of Saint Constantine. One of the other Jesuits explained the deeds of the great Emperor to the discerning daimyo, who saw Constantine’s life as both admirable and inspiring to the point that he would send word the very next night telling the Jesuits he was ready to convert. Of course, he still had more to learn before he could fully enter the Church, but Torres allowed Sumitada to wear a cross – from that point onwards, Sumitada confidently professed that he was a Christian. Finally entering the Church in 1563, he promised to no longer support the Buddhist temples in his realm, attempting to show just how devout he had become. After another night of sermons, Sumitada received a suitably humble baptism on his request, denying the opportunity to be baptized among all the Portuguese. Only one Portuguese man was present to be his Godfather, and with that, both Sumitada alongside twenty-four other Japanese, including his retainers, were baptized and entered into the Church. The souls of the local lords had been saved and stability had also been obtained for the Jesuit mission.

Sumitada, the first Christian daimyo, aspired to meet the standards set by the Christian Emperor Constantine, Equal to the Apostles. He carried a religious painting from the Portuguese into battle for the rest of his life, and during one campaign, he came upon across a pagoda, a Buddhist temple, dedicated to the Japanese bodhisattva of War. Upon spotting a bird atop the temple, a Japanese sign of good luck, he “with great daring, ordered his men to pull down the pagoda and burn it, and after that the rest of the temple too. He took the bird and slashed it with his sword, saying ‘Oh, how many times have you deceived me!’ When the fire had burned itself out completely, he ordered a beautiful cross to be erected on the same spot. After going on his knees with all his men in front of it, they rode off into battle” (The Dream of Christian Nagasaki, Reinier H Hesselink).

Rejecting the errors of Buddhism and Shinto, Sumitada, as we know, granted the Nagasaki bay for the Jesuits after the tragic loss of Yokoseura. He exempted the city from taxes and helped in any way he could with converting his people, helping bring the faith to Kyushu as well, the southernmost island of Japan. With Daimyo Sumitada, Japan’s own Constantine, a golden age began for the followers of Christ, lasting until his death in 1587. Yet after his death a decline began, a decline of Japanese Christianity that would last for almost 200 years.

In 1597, Shogun Hideyoshi, victor of the Sengoku Jidai, would order the crucifixion of twenty-six Catholics in Nagasaki. Six of these men were Franciscan missionaries, the remainder local Japanese converts and Jesuits. This tragedy would set the trend of Japan during the “Edo period” which would last from 1603 to 1868. Here are the names of those killed, who sit enthroned in Heaven with the Crowns of Martyrs:


St. Martin of the Ascension, St. Pedro Bautista, St. Philip of Jesus, St. Francisco Blanco, St. Francisco of Saint Michael, St. Gundisalvus (Gonsalvo) Garcia, St. Anthony Dainan, St. Bonaventure of Miyako, St. Bosmas Takeya, St. Francisco of Nagasaki, St. Francis Kichi, St. Gabriel de Duisco, St. Joachim Sakakibara, St. John Kisaka, St. Leo Karasumaru, St. Louis Ibarakii, St. Matthias of Miyako, St. Michael Kozaki, St. Paul Ibaraki, St. Paul Suzuki, St. Pedro Sukejiroo, St. Thomas Kozaki, St. Thomas Xico, St. James Kisai, St. John Soan de Goto, St. Paul Miki.

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