Sakitsu: a remote Amakusa port where Christians once concealed themselves

On the west coast of Shimoshima, the largest of the Amakusa Islands of Kyushu, is a large bay known as Yokaku Bay. Because of its location on the East China Sea, the bay, and particularly the town of Sakitsu in a small, but deep, harbor on the north shore, has a centuries-long history as a local shipping hub and safe harbor for ships traveling between China and Nagasaki. All that ended after the Meiji Restoration of the second half of the 19th century. Sakitsu, now a remote place because of the dominance of overland travel over sea travel, became a picturesque-yet-sleepy fishing village.

 

But there is more to Sakitsu than meets the eye. Together with its trading history, Sakitsu also has the distinction of being a village where people managed to maintain their Christian faith over the two and half centuries (1614-1873) that Christianity was outlawed in Japan. It’s a peculiar story and one that makes remote Sakitsu worth a visit.

During the Meiji Restoration, when Christian missionaries were allowed back into Japan after more than 250 years, Japanese Christians who had been practicing their faith in secret, handing it down across the generations, confessed their faith to the missionaries and began to again worship openly.  These people, who lived predominately on the west coast of Kyushu, became known as the Hidden Christians.  (For more information relating to Hidden Christians, see this blog post.)  During the period that Christianity was banned, these Christians had hidden their Christianity because to do otherwise would have cost them their lives.

Many Hidden Christians were successful at concealing their Christianity because they lived in remote areas only infrequently visited by government representatives.  But the residents of Sakitsu, a major local port, did not have that luxury.  They had to find ways to hide their faith, rather than themselves.

During the ban on Christianity, about 70% of the people of Sakitsu were Hidden Christians.  Government inspectors would visit from time to time, requiring all villagers to place their foot on a fumie, an engraved image of Jesus.  The theory was that Christians would be unwilling to commit such an offense, so anyone who refused to stamp on the fumie was imprisoned and often put to death.

 

According to one local, the people of Sakitsu developed a way that they could stamp on the fumie without compromising their beliefs (although it’s a bit gross).  After stamping on the fumie, people would return home, wash the offending appendage, and drink the dirty water.  This, they believed, would cleanse them of the sin of stamping on the image of Christ.

IMG_2759The non-Christians of Sakitsu also helped their Christian neighbors with the deception.  In particular, they went along with things, allowing the Hidden Christians to go through the motions of Buddhist rituals when necessary and to participate in festivals and other community activities at the local Shinto shrines in the same way as everyone else.

From time to time, the Hidden Christians of Sakitsu were still found out, but overall the majority of Sakitsu’s Christians managed to hang on to their hidden faith.

The beliefs and practices of the Hidden Christians evolved in their own direction during the prolonged period of seclusion, with the result that the Vatican ultimately decided that the faith practiced by the Hidden Christians was not Catholicism.  Many accepted this determination, took instruction in the standard principles of Catholicism, and subsequently re-entered the Catholic faith.  Others cling to the evolved religion to this day, but that’s a story for another time.

IMG_2761This sudden increase in practicing Catholics led to a boom in church construction in Kyushu.  Many of the resulting churches received UNESCO World Heritage listing in 2018 as “Hidden Christian Sites in the Nagasaki Region”.

The Christians of Sakitsu also built a church.  And their church is also included in the World Heritage designation, even though it is not located in Nagasaki.

The first church built in Sakitsu was located right next door to Suwa Shrine, Sakitsu’s main shrine, and was made of wood. That site was later converted to a use as a convent.

By the 1930s the community had outgrown their little wooden church, so they engaged Tetsukawa Yosuke, a native of Nagasaki’s Goto Islands who was a self-trained architect specializing in church construction.

 

Tetsukawa built a new, larger brick church in Sakitsu in 1934 (it was  being renovated at the time of my visit).  One distinctive feature of this church is that it was designed with tatami mat flooring, rather then pews.  Another interesting fact is that the new church was built on the exact spot where the ritual of stamping on the fumie was held in the past.

The spire of the 1934 church dominates any view of the town.  Some local fishermen offer boat rides around the harbor, for more scenic views (inquire at the visitor center, see below).

 

There are a number of sites across the village commemorating the history of the Hidden Christian period.  A visitor center near the bridge at the top of the harbor can provide information and maps.  There is also an audio guide in five languages, available as a smartphone app.  This handy tool empowers visitors to wander at will and enjoy the sights of the village while learning about various historic activities associated with them. Sakitsu is also a great place to generally soak up the atmosphere of a fishing village.

 

Don’t miss the statue of the Virgin Mary standing at the mouth of the harbor.  It’s a popular spot for sunset photos, but pretty any time of day.

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© 2020 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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