►To ferret out “Hidden Christians” and their sympathizers, the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1868) instituted the annual ‘fumi-e’ test in 1629.
As part of its aggressive campaign to find these hidden Kirishitans – and stamp out the Christian religion, the Tokugawa government required:
◘ All citizens to be registered as members of their local Buddhist temple.
◘ They instituted the ‘fumi-e’ system — public rituals on a regular basis where everyone was ordered to trample on ‘fumi-e’ which were Christian images usually made of bronze depicting Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary. This system, introduced in Nagasaki in 1629, continued until February 12, 1858.
Death for Refusal to Stomp on Christian Image
Anyone who refused to step on the ‘fumi-e’ (踏み絵 fumi “stepping-on” + e “picture”) was put to death. Catholics who refused to change their religion were tortured. As many of them still refused to abandon the religion, they were killed by the government. Many executions took place at Nagasaki’s Mount Unzen, where some were boiled in the hot springs. Many Kirishitans went bravely to their deaths this way – as, with no missionaries to forgive them of their sin – they preferred martyrdom over the sin of abandoning their faith.
Not all who trampled on the holy or venerated images were apostates. Some philosophized as they grappled with the test of faith. For instance, one ran home to wash the offending foot, boil the water, and drink it – to expiate the offense.
However, some Kirishitans complied and trampled the images while secretly holding onto the faith they had publicly renounced. The rite of contrition took on a new prominence among secret Kirishitans as a way of dealing with the guilt.
Ruthless Campaign Forces Christianity to be Practiced Underground – Even Without Priests
The persecution of Kirishitans was ruthless. Informers were rewarded, and whenever Kirishitans were discovered, even their neighbors were put to death. This forced the Kirishitan believers to go underground.
The use of the ‘fumi-e’ test was officially abandoned when ports opened to foreigners on April 13, 1856, but some remained in use until Christian teaching was placed under formal protection during the Meiji Period.
In modern Japanese literature, treading on the ‘fumi-e’ is a pivotal plot element of the novel ‘Silence‘ by Shusaku Endo.
Many theologians have tried to contemplate the role of the ‘fumi-e’ to Japanese Christians, some seeing the treading of the ‘fumi-e’ as a sign of the love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ.
Grim Toll for Japan’s Martyr Church
How many martyrs lost their lives because of the ‘fumi-e’ test? Nobody really knows. But the estimates reach as many as 30,000 martyrs.
‘Fumi-e’ were usually carved out of stone, but others were painted and some were wooden block prints. Many, if not all, of these works were made with care, and they reflected the high artistic standards of the Edo period.
There are very few existing ‘fumi-e,’ as most were simply thrown away or recycled into other uses. Some surviving examples were displayed by the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington DC, in their 2007 exhibition “Encompassing the Globe: Portugal and the World in the 16th and 17th Centuries.”
A Genuine ‘Fumi-e’ Is In Manila — At U.S.T.
A copy of the ‘fumi-e’ was presented to Dr. Ernesto A. de Pedro, Takayama Trustee, by the renowned Kyoto Catholic layman, Ryohei Fujimoto. This, in turn, has been presented to Rev. Fr. Rolando dela Rosa, OP, then Rector Magnificus of the University of Santo Tomas (UST). Father dela Rosa has kept the framed ‘fumi-e’ at his office at the UST Ecclesiastical Faculty.#
Dr. Ernesto A. de Pedro