The Discovery of the ‘Hidden Christians’ of Japan

(By Fr. Renzo de Luca, SJ) — After the arrival of St. Francis Xavier in Japan (1549), the Catholic Church grew rapidly, and the faith was accepted by people of all states of life. Those who ruled were displeased and responded with persecution, leading to tens of thousands of martyrs giving up their lives. Many Christian communities chose to go underground to preserve their faith. It was not easy to become underground Christians; it was another form of the way of the cross for the sake of the faith, as they had to live in fear and adopt a Buddhist-like style of life to avoid raising the suspicion of officials.

The missionaries who then arrived in Japan strived to foster the local Church. The Christians strengthened their unity through associations such as the Misericordia Confraternity. The confraternities had strict rules and the members were very much committed. For instance, parents who did not respect their children’s freedom concerning marriage and people who had bad drinking habits could not become members.

When the persecution began, the Christians constantly prepared for martyrdom through instructions such as “Maruchirio no Kokoro-e (How to face Martyrdom).” Some of these instructions have been preserved, so we can confirm that not only they made use of them, but also that they kept them safe from the officials who were always checking for any Christian materials.

The reaction of the persecutors

On seeing the attitude of the martyrs and the response of the faithful when the persecution began (1587), its perpetrators understood that it would be difficult to wipe out the Christians completely. An example of their awareness is contained in a passage from Shumon Sensaku Kokoro-mochi no koto (Guide for Interrogation of Religious Beliefs), written in approx.1640  at the request of Lord Inoue of Chikugo, who was in charge of the crackdown on Christians: “If the husband is Christian, so is the wife; if the child is Christian, so are the parents; if the parents are Christian, so too the child; generally, 80 percent of them would also be Christian. Korean Christians especially, men or women, are deeply committed to their faith, and women in particular have deeply rooted faith.” We can see that not only the Japanese Christians, but also the Koreans in Japan preserved their faith.

A public edict from the government, made known everywhere in the country, declared in one article: “Those who hand over Christians who have returned to their faith shall be rewarded with 300 silver coins.” Christians who returned to their faith are those who, after rejecting their faith at one point, later returned to it. These people intended to keep their faith to the end. This clause  was added to the others and it shows that the capture of these returnees was worth a lot of money. We can see that it was a known fact among the authorities that there were those who kept their Christian faith, even during their interrogation which involved the ceremony of stepping on holy images (fumie). This fact tells us of the presence of many underground Christians at the time this clause was added to the edict issued in the 1650s.

The faith of the Christians was so strong that it forced the Tokugawa shogunate to realize that the tactics of public flogging used under Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s regime (1587) had reverse effects and so they had to change the method of persecution.

Plans to send missionaries to Japan

In 1644 the last remaining priest in Japan underwent martyrdom. He was Fr. Konishi Mansho, a religious missionary. Thereafter, priests could not set foot in Japan for more than 200 years. It is worth mentioning that the Church continued to plan the sending of missionaries to Japan. Fr. Antonius Thomas, SJ, (1644-1709) who worked in India and Macau wrote in a letter dated September 18, 1679: “Notwithstanding a lack of understanding in Rome (on the part of the Superior General), one confrere has been looking for several years for a way to enter Japan.”

In the same year, Fr. Thomas sent a report addressed to the Superior General entitled “The main reasons for sending expeditions to Japan.” In the report, he provides detailed studies and proposes some strategies. Fr. Thomas also wanted to set up a study center in the Mariana Islands to form missionaries to send to Japan, as well as proposing to reach Hokkaido by entering Japan from Russia.

These plans were never realized, but in 1708, a diocesan priest, Fr. Sidotti, arrived in Japan and was arrested shortly after arrival, becoming a martyr on December 15, 1715. Sidotti’s heroic action must have encouraged the hidden Christians and given them hope for the future. Pope Benedict XIV promulgated a decree on February 24, 1748, announcing Francis Xavier as the Patron of Japan and turned the Universal Church’s attention to the country.

The Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples asked the bishop of Nanking in a letter of February 11, 1781, to “explore possibilities of re-entering Japan,” and in a letter of May 28, 1803, the Congregation sent to the Jesuits in Russia a “Letter of mandate for entry into Japan.” In neither of these cases did the missionaries ever arrive, but the facts show that the Universal Church never forgot the Christians in Japan.

As we have seen, the link between the Japanese Church and the Universal Church was never broken. When eventually the missionaries arrived, the wider Church was thrilled and overjoyed by the “discovery of the faithful” in Nagasaki (March 17, 1865). We can see that this event was not unilateral or the result of mere chance, but an encounter that had been prepared by longing expectation on both sides.

The faith that the French missionaries discovered

The underground Christians of Urakami village (Nagasaki City) risked their lives to visit Oura Church and tell the first priest they had ever met, a foreigner, Fr. Petitjean, that “Our hearts are the same as yours.” Moreover, upon seeing for the first time a statue of Mary, they exclaimed: “Look, it’s Holy Mary, she is holding Infant Jesus,” revealing that the hearts of the hidden Christians were already well prepared.

For their part the missionaries welcomed and accepted the underground Christians. Subsequently, the missionaries interviewed them for a lengthy period of time to examine their faith life. They did a thorough investigation to see whether the faith of these Christians was still intact and at one with the teaching of the Catholic Church introduced by the missionaries in the 17th century, if the baptisms were valid, and so on. For instance, they spelled out in an alphabet more than 20 examples of words used for baptism among the Christians, confirming their meaning with the locals, in order to investigate the connection between Catholic teaching and the hidden Christians (Compiled Letters of Msgr. Petitjean).

After consulting with the Church leaders in Rome, they reached a conclusion that, in spite of some outward differences, the faith of the hidden Christians (with a few exceptions)  followed the orthodox teachings of the Catholic Church. Since in some cases they asked for certain conditions to be met for a valid baptism, it is without doubt that the missionaries did their investigation very carefully.

The legacy of the different religious congregations

The French missionaries who arrived in Japan in the Meiji era (1868-1912) found that the characteristics of the different religious congregations who brought Christianity in the 17th century had influenced the way the Christians lived their faith. Fr. Petitjean wrote in his letter of January 29, 1866, “We do not exaggerate when we say that the old rivalry had created sects among the Christians. Even after more than 200 years, the differences have survived.

In some villages, each group consists of around a hundred people, and the groups seem as though they are different religions. One group would fast on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, but another group would fast only on the weekends. Due to using different calendars, they celebrate Easter on different dates and one group does not recognize the other. There are the Reucitans, the Patarans and the Doisikos, each representing the spiritual children of the Franciscans, the Jesuits and the Dominicans. Their differences are not crucial, thank God. Actually, they recognize us as the successors of the missionaries of the olden times. These differences which are the legacy of past conflicts should disappear in time, and everyone will be united in the same direction.”

We can see the rivalry among the religious congregations was also handed down, but at the same time we can confirm that as regards the dogma the conflict was not definitive, and they shared the orthodox teaching of the Church. Not only the proper faith of the Catholic Church but much of the spirituality of different religious congregations had also been handed down. The holy images and other religious objects kept by the Christians show the tradition and emphases of the different congregations.

A book that sustained the hidden Christians

After his first encounter with the hidden Christians and before starting the interviews investigating them, Fr. Petitjean wrote about a book that the Christians treasured: “A book on contrition published in 1603 is one of the best among other books we have found. It almost seems as though the authors had predicted there would be a long period without priests in the Japanese Church. This book is an example of a comprehensive and clear instruction and presentation of the dogma. Understanding and practice of its contents should have been a powerful support for souls who sinned against God after baptism” (Letter of June 30, 1865).

It is significant that Fr. Petitjean and the other missionaries highly appreciated the “Manual for Contrition” and asserted that the book sustained the spiritual life of the hidden Christians. So, in spite of some superficial conflicts that remained over the years, faith itself and the way to nurture faith had been handed down.

“Spiritual Ascetic Training” (a loose translation of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius and other devotional works, in which the “Manual for Contrition” was also included) was also widely read among the faithful since the early 17th century. It is known that it was the favorite book of the feudal Lord Takayama Ukon and of Lady Hosokawa Gracia, an aristocrat who converted to Christianity, and the martyrs held it in their hands in their final moments.

I will quote a passage from “Spiritual Ascetic Training” to give an example of its appeal: “With a short orasho (prayer), letting your heart rise, letting out a breath, make it a habit to offer your undivided heart to Deus (God) frequently. This is similar to adding  wood fuel from time to time in order not to let the fire go out. You should take to heart that this is ascetic training in order not to dampen down the fire of devotion that burns in the orasho.” As we can see in this quoted passage, it is based on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola and is fleshed out and made easy to understand.

The discovery of the Japanese Christians was a history-making event, but shortly afterward (1867), persecution began again, and the Christians who confessed their faith openly were exiled to different locations. More than 600 of these Christians died in exile. Pope Pius Ⅸ received information on the situation from the missionaries in Japan and sent a letter in 1868 to encourage the Christians. In this it is obvious that the pope does not dwell on the outward expressions of faith of the discovered Christians, but highly appreciates and justifies their perseverance. Finally, in 1873 the Meiji Government removed the prohibition and little by little the exiled Christians who survived were able to go back to their homes.


When we look back on its history, the Japanese Church with its martyrs and hidden Christians spared no sacrifice for the sake of the faith. If we consider that our Church today experiences the invisible persecution of materialism, we can be inspired by our predecessors’ love and adherence to the Church that nurtured them. These Christians who handed down their faith for seven generations without a priest are appealing to us who are having difficulty today to hand down our faith even to the next generation.

I feel that we are urged not to be afraid of conflicts or arguments in order to adhere to the faith we have received. Far from the featureless, obscure ways in which we tend to build up our society today, these Japanese Christians must have known that in deepening the faith and its features, they received through this faith a spirituality by means of which one can be in union with God.#

Fr. Renzo de Luca, SJ
Father Provincial, Jesuit Province of Japan



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