Silence: On the trail of Japan’s Hidden Christians

Earlier this week I was privileged to attend a Tokyo preview screening of Silence, Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel.  I had read the novel more than 30 years ago and am pleased to see it brought to life relatively faithfully.

The story centers on a fictitious 17th century Jesuit priest, Father Rodrigues, who has come to Japan in search of a fellow-priest/missionary, Father Ferreira (an actual historical figure), who is reported to have apostatized in the face of torture, and the “Hidden Christians” Rodrigues finds himself ministering to.  It is a bleak story of people living in a bleak time–a “mudswamp” in Endo’s words.  At the same time, it is a tale of faith externalized, faith internalized and the endurance of faith.  Finally–and this is a recurring theme in Endo’s work–it is the story of culture clash; East meets West, and neither can understand the other.

Speaking to Japanese friends, I have learned that the Hidden Christian phenomenon is relatively well known in Japan, although details remain obscure to most people.  Since these Christians, if discovered, were persecuted and forced to give up their faith, they took great pains to conceal their faith for nearly two and a half centuries.  It stands to reason that information about them during that period is obscure.

John Dougill’s excellent book, In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians: A Story of Suppression, Secrecy and Survival, seeks to uncover the secrets of the Hidden Christians.  Dougill traces the history of Christianity in Japan from the time of Francis Xavier to the beginning of the Meiji period and provides information on a number of spots across Nagasaki and more broadly southwestern Japan where there are remnants of the Hidden Christians even today.

In Kagoshima there is a port-side monument commemorating the 1549 arrival of Francis Xavier, the Portuguese Jesuit credited with first bringing Christianity to Japan, as well as a 20th century cathedral bearing his name.

But the majority of Christian-related sites are in Nagasaki prefecture.  In Dougill’s book, I learned that the oldest sites relate to the persecutions of Christianity that began in the time of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (late 16th century) and continued until early in the Meiji Restoration (mid 19th century).  There are also a number of late 19th century and early 20th century churches related to the “coming out” of the Hidden Christians once Christianity was no longer outlawed.

Hideyoshi’s attitude toward the influx of Christianity was mercurial.  Scholars conclude that he was happy to accept the weapons that the Portuguese made available but eventually concluded that the faith they preached was subversive to his goals.  As a result he launched a campaign to round up known Christians.  On February 5, 1597, 26 Christians (20 Japanese, 4 Spaniards, 1 Mexican and 1 Portuguese) were crucified on his orders on Nishizaka Hill in Nagasaki.  The date is now observed on the Catholic calendar to commemorate the 26 Martyrs of Japan.  The place is commemorated with a cross-shaped monument depicting the 26 (which included 3 children), behind which is the Twenty-six Martyrs Museum.  The museum features exhibits related to the crucifixions as well as the subsequent persecution of Christians and the rise of the Hidden Christian phenomenon.  It is quite possibly the best known site relating to early Christianity in Japan.


The first scene of Scorsese’s movie takes place some 35 years after the crucifixion of the martyrs.  Hideyoshi is long gone, but the Tokugawa shoguns who replaced him are equally hostile to Christianity.  The setting is Unzen, a volcanically active area of Nagasaki prefecture known for its hot springs and hot mud pools.  I found it particularly interesting that the scene resembled many Buddhist depictions of hell, with the hot mud/water used to torture bound Christian captives.  The aim of the torturers was to get the Christians to renounce their faith by stepping on an image of Jesus Christ called fumie.   We see this torture in the movie leading to Father Ferreira’s apostasy.


An application for UNESCO World Heritage listing for sites related to the history of Christianity in Japan was made in 2007, subsequently withdrawn and is expected to be resubmitted in 2018.  Interestingly, the original application did not include the Unzen torture site (although it did include two nearby sites related to a subsequent short-lived Christian rebellion), and there is no indication that it will be included in the new application.  Rather, the World Heritage application appears to focus predominately on the modern period after Christianity was no longer banned in Japan.  Download an excellent pamphlet on relevant Nagasaki sites here.

While I’ve visited a number of lovely Meiji-era churches of Nagasaki, including one that has been preserved by relocation to Meiji-mura, an architectural museum in Aichi Prefecture, personally, I don’t think these buildings adequately tell the tale of the Hidden Christians and the measures they took to conceal and preserve their faith.  For this, the experiences of the villagers and missionaries in the movie Silence, and the locations Dougill visits in his book, especially across the Goto Islands and the Amakusa Islands, are much more enlightening.

Tomogi, a central location in Silence, is a small fishing village based on the real town of Sotome, just north of the city of Nagasaki.  It was a visit to this village that inspired Endo to craft his tale and he visited it frequently to conduct research for his books.  The village has returned the honor by becoming the home of the Endo Shusaku Literary Museum.  In Silence, the Jesuits minister to the villagers of Tomogi and the villagers hide the Jesuits from the authorities at great risk to themselves.  The villagers are so adept at hiding their faith that they can’t even tell the Jesuits whether other Christian villages exist.

Eventually the fictitious Jesuits manage to find other Christian villages on the remote Goto Islands; a fine example of art imitating life, as it seems actual remote island villages had the most success as Hidden Christians.

Dougill observes in his book that the faith preserved for 7 generations by the Hidden Christians is a syncretic one that seems to have evolved over the years to something that is no longer recognizable as the Catholicism that Francis Xavier and the other missionaries of that earlier time brought to Japan.  It has absorbed elements of Buddhism, Shintoism and ancestor worship.  Even the fictitious Rodrigues in Silence noted his suspicions on this point, and yet appears to have adapted to the same practices in due course.  But the evolution in no way diminishes the struggles of the Hidden Christians to preserve a set of beliefs in the face of opposition and adversity.  And that is something to be admired.

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