Book Review: In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians

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Disclaimer: because I only have this book in e-book form, the image of the book cover above is from one.overdrive.com. If the publishers or the website I took the image from object to this usage, please let me know, and I will remove it from this post.

Because I haven’t yet visited any of the places mentioned in the book, I have none of my own images to share.

When we were planning our trip to Aomori prefecture, my husband found a link to a story on the Japan Times website about a legend that says Jesus of Nazareth once lived and died in the Tohoku region. How intriguing, I thought, but how incredibly unlikely.

After I read John Dougill’s walk in Deep Kyoto: Walks, with its reference to Christians being executed for their faith in Kyoto, and discovered that Professor Dougill had written a book about Japan’s Hidden Christians, I wondered whether there had been a Christian enclave near Lake Towada in Aomori prefecture. Perhaps, if Japanese Christians went underground because of persecution and lost contact with the rest of the Christian world because of Japan’s isolationist policy, a story like this one was the result of local folklore mixing with a forbidden religion to explain a local landmark.

Recently, I read Professor Dougill’s book, In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians: A Story of Suppression, Secrecy and Survival, wondering whether his research would reveal a connection between the Hidden Christians of Kyushu and the Tohoku legend that Jesus Christ lived in Shingo Town, but it seems the Jesuits didn’t get further than Kyoto before they were forced out of Japan on pain of death. So that snippet of folklore remains a mystery!

I enjoyed the book. Professor Dougill’s writing style feels like a conversation rather than a lecture. The book was easy to read and a good popular history clearly backed up with academic research and oral testimony from local people. My kind of historian! The author’s personal insights were interesting, particularly on comparisons between religions. The tone was non-judgemental, questioning rather than didactic, and I thought that the travelogue style suited the story well, visiting the locations where the story unfurled, talking to local people, trying to find the remains of sites, seeing modern day memorials to the West’s attempts to convert Japan to a different religion.

The preface made a good comparison between Pauline missionary activity at the start of the Christian church and missionary activity in Japan in 16th cent. I was taken with the parallels the author drew between the two eras, especially his perspective on the offer of equality through spirituality to the dispossessed and downtrodden, and the threat perceived by the ruling classes in both the Roman empire and Shogunate Japan. The idea that the lack of a figure like Constantine in Japan meant eradication of the faith was easier was an interesting one.

Professor Dougill also provides a useful timeline and breakdown of Japanese eras at the beginning, which helped put the story into a historical and political context.

I especially liked the context of what was going on in Japan politically – how the arrival of the Portuguese Jesuits was seized on by the shogun and daimyos as an opportunity to increase trade, and how the Jesuits used the offer of trade to make converts. The subsequent persecution under the Hideyoshi and Tokugawa regimes was also set within the context of political power and the shoguns’ desire to maintain absolute power over a unified Japan, leading ultimately to the policy of isolationism.

There were some interesting thoughts on the feminine qualities of Japanese religion and culture (the sanctification of the mother, the adoption of the Virgin Mary as another version of Kannon), allied with social character of Japan (infantilisation of Japanese men, kawaii culture), with a link made to the nature of the Hidden Christian sub-religion and why the Virgin Mary became the focus of worship, not God or Christ.

My question about the story of Christ dying in Japan might have been left unanswered, but I hadn’t seriously expected it to be answered. I read the book to learn more about a curious aspect of Japan’s history. I learnt a lot about those early years of trade with the Portuguese and why they were the dominant Western influence on Japan at that time (the loan words for bread and trousers, パン and ズボン, have Portuguese origins, and two cakes I’ve had in Japan are Portuguese), plus one reason behind why Tokugawa Ieyasu decided to close Japan off to the rest of the world. As someone with a vague interest in spirituality and why some people feel the need to connect with a higher power or powers, but who lacks in depth knowledge, I found the discussion of the different religions in Japan helpful in understanding how Buddhism and Shinto co-exist without apparently dominating Japanese society in the way Judaism, Christianity and Islam do their cultures/societies. The Japanese ability to assimilate different belief systems is very different to Western Christianity! I even learnt a little about the character of some Japanese through Professor Dougill’s encounters with people on Kyushu and the surrounding islands where Christianity took its own peculiar hold.

Over all, I thought the book was an accessible way to understand Japanese history quickly. To my shame, my copy of Jansen’s modern history of Japan is still unread on my bookshelves. The story of Japan’s Hidden Christians, I expect, won’t be covered in that book anyway. It’s sad to think of the traditions dying out, after 400 years of upholding the way of life of those who were persecuted for their faith. As happens often in our global, capitalist, connected times, tradition is losing its relevance and the current generations are losing interest in the beliefs of their parents and grandparents. They are creating their own way of living that carries them through daily life. John Dougill wrote a good book that documents the history of this faith and the families that carried it across centuries just in time before it could disappear completely.

Even if you’re not that interested in the spiritual side of life, it’s a book worth reading for its insights into Japan’s political history.

2 responses to this post.

  1. […] are a few non-fiction books that I’ve read, as well. I’ve reviewed Deep Kyoto Walks and In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians separately. I’ll probably do separate reviews of the others I’ve read, too. […]

    Reply

  2. […] reviewed Dougill’s book about the Hidden Christian cult in Japan on Japanophile, so why not head over there to find out what I thought of […]

    Reply

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