“Nail ‘em up I say! Nail some sense into them!”
Over the years I have explored quite a few abandoned *temples* and *shrines*, but deserted churches are hard to find in Japan. Why? Because if you look at the past, the longest tradition regarding Christianity in Japan is nailing known believers to the cross – yes, religious persecution was a thing in the land of the rising sun until the second half of the 19th century!
Real churches older than 150 years are very hard to find in Japan… Nagasaki’s Oura Church, finished in 1864, is actually considered Japan’s oldest church, but even modern ones today are rather a place for non-Christians to experience a White Wedding than a place for prayer. I actually wouldn’t be surprised if there are more fake chapels and churches as part of wedding halls and hotels than real ones… A rather new trend that apparently can be traced back to Prince Charles and Lady Di in 1981. So here’s another chapter from the not yet existing book “Things you probably didn’t know about Japan”…
I’ll try to keep the history lesson as simple as possible.
Christians first arrived in the Japan in the early 1540s. Back then Christianity as a whole was a bit more violent and a bit more aggressive than nowadays – and the Portuguese set their eyes on the island nation, as it was theirs according to the Treaty of Tordesillas, which basically split the world between Portugal and Spain. Both powers quickly realized that they wouldn’t be able to colonize Japan, so the missionary presence in Japan meant trade and conversion one by one. At the time Japan was split into several spheres of power, fighting each other in a civil war. Trade with the outside world was welcome, especially if that meant access to new technologies and rare materials; like firearms and saltpeter. To reach the masses, missionaries would trade with and convert / baptize local rulers, the daimyo – most of them would then be favorable towards Christianity, but not necessarily actively support the new belief. Either because they lacked interest or they didn’t want additional conflicts with the then rather powerless imperial family, which tried to ban Christianity completely several times for good reasons: According to Shinto, the emperor is / was a descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu – Christianity tells a different story and therefore threatened the claim to power of the Japanese imperial family. By 1585 Toyotomi Hideyoshi had reunified Japan and was able to focus on external threats, not just internal ones. Worried about loyalties, slave-trade of other Japanese, and the butchering of horses and oxen for food (!), Toyotomi released a decree know as “Purge Directive Order to the Jesuits” in 1587, which was only partly enforced at first – resulting in the crucifixion of 26 missionaries and converts in 1597. Persecution continued, but wasn’t enforced vigorously until 1638, when the Shimabara Rebellion, an uprising of overtaxed, mostly Christian peasants against the rather newly established Tokugawa shogunate, failed. As a result, Christianity was driven underground, more often than not literally “under ground” with believers hiding in caves and mines (like the now abandoned *Osarizawa Mine*), trying to escape certain death. And Japan almost completely shut off to the rest of the world for more than two centuries, turning into something resembling North Korea very much…
Even after Commodore Matthew Perry “opened” Japan in 1853 the persecution continued. Thanks to the Harris Treaty foreigners were allowed to live in Japan again (outside of Dejima, the shogunate’s version of Kaesong) from 1858 on, but it wasn’t until 1873 that the ban of Christianity was officially lifted – an impressive and rather unbelievably 5 years after the Meiji Restauration began; and only because Western governments kept complaining about the ongoing persecution.
Since then the number of people in Japan identifying as Christians rose to a whopping 1% – no word about how many of those are of Western or Korean descent. Yet more than 50% of all Japanese people marry in a Christian ceremony, there are “German Christmas Markets” all over Japan, stores are decorated from mid-November on (playing ALL the usual songs as background noise), overpriced Christmas cakes for couples sell like crazy… and unmarried women above the age of 25 were called “leftover Christmas cakes” for many decades.
So if you think in your country Christmas is all about commerce and Christianity has become nothing but an empty shell – welcome to Japan! 🙂
As for the Japanese Church, it wasn’t an impressive one… A rather small, white, regular looking building, slightly elevated with a broken cross on top; a small shack with a couch, some chairs and tables right next to it. It was actually more of a prayer room and kind of reminded me of the next town mosque back home in Germany – but I guess the depictions of Jesus everywhere made it very clear what this location was. The main room consisted of a little stage, barely resembling an altar, with a piano to the left; the rest was mostly empty, except for the carpet on the floor and some chairs. Located about 20 minutes away from the next settlement, I doubt that the parish was big one… and most likely bilingual / of Korea descent, if the Korean signs on the walls were any indication.
Given that the Japanese Church wasn’t exactly visually stunning, I waited for this time of the year on purpose to give this article at least some relevance. At least it was a real abandoned church, not a fake one… 🙂
Happy Holidays everyone!
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