The hidden Christians

“The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” - Tertullian, Early Church Father, 2nd century

Mar 10, 2024

Getting Sidetracked- Agnes Ong
Imagine denouncing your faith, the faith of your ancestors, and the faith of your community for over 260 years, spanning seven generations.

Imagine teaching your children to worship the Lord in silence, in the dark, within the depths of your home, as if it were a shameful secret.

Imagine never celebrating Easter or Christmas in public on the pain of death for you, your family and your community.

That was the reality of the Hidden Christians of Japan between the 16th and 18th centuries.

How It Began
The 16th century was the golden age of European trade exploration and the nascent ascend of global Western imperialism. While the Spanish were headed west towards the Americas, the Portuguese sailed east towards Asia via Africa, India, Malacca and Macao, to the cry of God, Gold and Glory.

Close on the heels of these merchant traders were the Christian missionaries. The Spanish and the Portuguese had committed to the Holy See to evangelise and Christianise the “heathens” wherever they went. True to form, Christian missionaries sailed on board these merchant ships, bringing the Gospel to the pagans.

The Japanese lords’, or daimy?s, early reception of these Westerners was cordial as they were eager to trade with the Portuguese, and they welcomed these missionaries with an open mind. In 1549, St Francis Xavier was one of the few Jesuits, including Cosme de Torres and Juan Fernandez, to arrive at Kagoshima, a port in Kyushu, to begin spreading the Word of God.

The first daimy? lord to convert to Christianity was ?mura Sumitada, who took the name Bartolomeu in June 1563. Soon, many daimy?s received the rite of baptism, which invariably resulted in many in the community converting to Christianity, especially in the western islands of Japan.

However, the path of the early Christian missionaries in Japan wasn’t smooth sailing as they encountered a language barrier and had a tough time breaking through the centuriesold hold of Buddhism and Shintoism on the Japanese population. Monks of both religions were antagonistic at what they perceived as a rival religion and a threat to their way of life. At the same time, the early Christians in Japan began to question the idea of absolute authority of man.

Thus, clashes between the authorities and early Christian communities became inevitable. Over the next four decades, Japanese authorities would issue prohibition edicts against the Christians.

The Persecutions
An early tipping point came in 1596 when the Spanish ship San Felipe ran aground off the coast of Shikoku while on its way from Manila to Acapulco. Some say it was the captain of the ship; others allege that it was a drunk crewman who let it slip that the Spanish used religion before sending in the might of the military to take over a country.

By then, Christianity was officially prohibited in Japan. Suspicion grew when the shogun, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, decided to exercise the prohibition by executing a few Christians and a Franciscan friar who was on board the San Felipe.

Thus began the Christian persecution campaigns under the rule of Hideyoshi, the catalyst being the crucifixion of the 26 martyrs in Nishizaka, Nagasaki, in 1597.

The group of 26 martyrs, often known as St Paul Miki and his companions, which includes Sts John of Goto and James Kisai, comprised four Spaniards, one Mexican, one Indo- Portuguese and 20 Japanese, the youngest of which was 12 years old. Mutilated with their ears and noses cut off, the companions sang the Te Deum as they were force-marched through villages from Kyoto to Nishizaka, a journey of 966 kilometres over one month.

On a hill overlooking Nagasaki, the companions hung on crosses with chains and ropes before being lanced to death. In 1862, Pope Pius IX canonised the Martyrs of Nagasaki. Today, the Museum of 26 Martyrs stands where the companions and many more Nagasaki martyrs, including Julian Nakamura, died for their faith.

The Hidden Christians
After the execution of the 26 Martyrs in Nagasaki, Japanese rulers continued to persecute Christians en masse, beginning with the Madre de Deus ship incident in 1610. Other great persecutions include the Great Kyoto Martyrdom, Gen’na Great Martyrdom (Nischizaka), Great Edo (Tokyo Martyrdom), 31 Unzen Martyrdom, and many more.

Because of the prohibitions, persecutions and expulsions, Japanese Christians began to go underground by the early 17th century. These Hidden Christians, or Kakure Kirishitan, modelled depictions of Mary and the saints on the Buddhist’s goddess of mercy, Kannon. There was no written literature; all religious teachings were imparted orally from parent to child. Prayers called orasho (oratio in Latin) were chanted in the manner of Buddhist chant in a mix of Latin, Portuguese and Japanese. There were no priests; lay persons were nominated to conduct the rituals and lead services.

During the persecution, Christians in Japan were forced to renounce their faith publicly. One such method was to have everyone in the community trample on brass plates bearing Christian images (fumie) to filter the Christians. Japanese were also forced to register their religious affiliation to a local temple and to participate in all Buddhist and Shinto rites and rituals.

The ban on Christianity was eventually lifted in 1837. It is estimated that 2,000 Japanese were martyred during the two century-long persecutions. Of those who died during the Japanese persecution of the Christians during this period, the Catholic Church has beatified over 400 martyrs and canonised 42 as saints.

Today, due to the elusive nature of the Hidden Christians, there is no recent number of their population available. Indisputably, the Hidden Christians acknowledge that their numbers are dwindling.

In 2018, UNESCO recognised 12 Hidden Christian sites in the Nagasaki region, comprising 10 villages, Hara Castle and Oura Cathedral, as World Heritage Sites.

If you ever visit the Nagasaki region in Japan, do make the time to visit the Museum and Monument of 26 Martyrs, St Philip Church, and UNESCO’s 12 Hidden Christian sites. Don’t forget to pray for those who had suffered for their faith.

Watch the BBC Reel on “The Hidden Religion Banned in Japan for 200 years” by scanning the QR Code.

Supplementary Reading on the Hidden Christians:

1. “The Japanese Christians Forced to Trample on Christ” - Yvette Tan, 24 November 2019,

2. “Japan’s Ageing ‘Hidden Christians’ Fear They May Be Their Religion’s Last Generation” - Linda Sieg, 15 November 2019,

3. “‘My Ancestors Passed on the Faith as Hidden Christians in Japan’” - Devin Watkins, 24 November 2019,

4. Hidden Christian Sites in the Nagasaki Region, 2018

(Agnes Ong is a self-professed curious traveller and lifelong learner with a lamentable tendency to get into sidetracked experiences. She aspires to explore as many historical UNESCO sites as possible, funds permitting. Agnes has a travel-slash-work-slash-dump everything IG at @agnes_gets_sidetracked.)

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