16th & 17th Century Japanese Christianity

University essay case study:
16th & 17th Century Japanese Christianity

Stuart Iles
14th October 2011

In this essay I will discuss the 16th and 17th century global network of Christianity brought with the Spanish and Portuguese during the period of expansion throughout the Pacific and specifically analyse Christianity in Japan during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as my case study. Christianity was introduced in Japan in the middle of the sixteenth century by St Francis Xavier. However, by the early seventeenth century Christianity was outlawed which led Japanese Christians underground to practice their faith. I will discuss issues relating to communication and power networks and the struggle between the Jesuit missionaries, the worshippers and the ruling parties of Japan in this time period.

St Francis Xavier travelled to India, Malaya then visited the Portuguese trade port of the Malaccas from 1542 to 1545 spreading the word of the Roman Church throughout the east on behalf of John III of Portugal (Cavendish, 2001). Xavier met a Japanese man named Anjiro in Malacca who spoke to him of Japan, Japanese culture and its people. Anjiro’s conversations with Xavier aroused his interest in Japan and he wrote to John III requesting passage to Japan. Xavier landed in Kagoshima, Kyushu in 1549 with Anjiro and fellow Jesuit Juan Fernandez of Cordova (Cavendish, 2001). The next ninety to one hundred years Christianity flourished in all areas of Japan especially south western Japan which became known as the Christian century (Boxer, 1951).

Xavier however had landed in Japan at a turbulent time. Many regional daimyo (feudal lord) were fighting for political, financial and military power and each were looking to gain the advantage over their enemy. The western Japanese island of Kyushu and the cities of Nagasaki and Kagoshima were the main trade port networks for all Europeans wanting to enter and/or do business in Japan. Initially the Europeans and their religious beliefs were welcomed into Japan as they offered trade, wealth and technology to local daimyo. Takanobu Matsuura, a local daimyo of Hirado in northern Kyushu converted to Christianity in order to trade with the Spanish and Portuguese becoming the first of the samurai class in Japan to do so. Christianity continued to flourish and found its place throughout Kyushu. After the Takanobu conversion and because of his social status, wide social and political network Christianity reached Nagasaki soon after. Regional daimyo (known as the Kansai area now) such as Oda Nobunaga also welcomed the foreigners and benefited, financially and militarily in his position to become the most powerful daimyo in Japan until he was assassinated in 1582. He is famous because he was the first daimyo to use mass numbers of ashigaru (foot soldiers) with firearms supplied by the Portuguese. Despite early success and spread of Christianity there was a problem faced by the early missionaries dealing with the translation of Christian terminology into the Japanese language (Habito, 1997). Tuan suggests “language in relation to power” and “society at large, have come to see that speech and the right to speak – be heard, the right to name and have that name “stick” – is empowerment.”(Tuan, 1999, p. 685) Without any form of communication between the missionaries and the worshippers Christianity in Japan would simply fade away. In the early seventeenth century missionaries brought artwork and Western paintings as visual aids for Christian education (Habito, 1997) into Japan. The missionaries also encouraged local Japanese Christian artists to paint Western style paintings to help spread Christianity and local leaders were encouraged to take up positions within the church.

In 1614 there were an estimated 300,000 (less than 2% of the Japanese population) Christians in Japan and at the time of proscription Nosco believes half continued to practice their faith clandestinely (Nosco, 1998). These people became known as the Senpuku Kirishitan (underground Christians), who went underground, in the sense of having churches and chapels in little rooms at the back of their homes or businesses. The Japanese clergy established two support systems headed by the Dojuku and Kanbo as there was a lack of foreign priests who were all but expelled. The Dojuku equalled the position of a clergyman and the Kanbo equalled the position of keeper of the Church or assistant to the Dojuku. In addition to the Dojuku and Kanbo the early underground church benefited by many other support fraternities set up by the church. These support groups were established to enhance the sense of community among the Christians. These communities supported each other, establishing a network of mutual surveillance, sometimes consisting of whole villages, thereby subverting any attempt by the bakufu to search them out.

Christian missions desperately tried to establish a foothold in Japan but suffered from inconsistencies in Japanese feudal policy reforms. The coming Sengoku Period (Waring States Period) feudal lords were constantly changing there political, military and central governments due to continuous civil warfare. Nosco (1993) explains that in 1564 Emperor Ogimachi expelled the Christians from Kyoto worried about anti Buddhist – Shinto influences on his reign but were later invited back in 1569 by Oda Nobunaga, daimyo of the Kansai region when his reign of power was at its peak as he wanted to trade and obtain weapons from the Portuguese. In 1587, after Nobunaga’s death newly established Shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi once again expelled the Christians after initially having no objections to the spread of Christianity believing it was still relatively isolated to the island of Kyushu and Hideyoshi was still on good terms with the local daimyo of Kyushu and needed their support. The local daimyo of Kyushu were important for the Toyotomi bakufu because they had access to the European trade networks, ports, merchants and modern weapons. However this relationship did not last and the bakufu quickly became suspicious to the purpose of these missionaries and Christians in Japan, fearing their strong foreign religious and political views. The Toyotomi bakufu turned to outlaw Christianity and began to persecute the Christians and in 1597 the bakufu crucified twenty six Christians. The following year Hideyoshi died and then in 1600 Ieyasu Tokugawa became the new Shogun of Japan. During the Edo period or more commonly known as the isolation period, persecutions of the Christians, began by Hideyoshi were carried on with much more ferocity.

In the period prior to the Shimabara rebellion in 1637 the anti Christian Tokugawa government edicts targeted the missionaries, priests and upper samurai social classes as the bakufu believed the samurai class to be the leading influence for the spread of Christianity due to their influence and power in social circles. According to Nosco approximately 26,800 people died during this rebellion (Nocso, 1993). However, after the Shimabara rebellion the bakufu began to crack down on all of the social classes including the peasants (Habito, 1997).

Williams suggests that the majority of anti-Christian action in the early Tokugawa period was not necessarily aimed at Christianity per se (Williams,2009), but the political power the Tokugawa bakufu may have lost by allowing foreigners into the country which was not ideologically satisfactory to the prevailing ruling party. From the early seventeenth century Japan closed its borders to the world and expelled all foreign missionaries and forced Japanese Christians to revoke their faith. In practice, the Tokugawa bakufu were expelling the Spanish and Portuguese, not all nationalities. The Spanish and Portuguese entered Japan with a similar mindset as they did when expanding their territories in the New World and Tuan writes that the “Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors raised the cross over the new territories, they consecrated them in the name of Jesus Christ and believed that, by doing so, they enabled the territories to undergo a new birth” (Tuan, 1999, p. 687). The Tokugawa bakufu denied the invaders the opportunity to make Japan a place for Christians and for Japanese to become reborn. Dutch, Koreans and Chinese continued to trade with Japan. The Tokugawa bakufu were well informed of the Spanish, Portuguese, British and French colonisation and Christianisation throughout the Pacific and South East Asia and did not want Christianity and foreign interference to find its place in Japan. The Dutch however were focused on trade and gaining wealth, not interested in spreading Christianity and continued to trade in Japan.


Boxer, C. R. (1951). The Christian century in Japan: 1549-1650. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Cavendish, R. (2001) St Francis Xavier departs from Japan: November 21st, 1551
History Today; Nov, No. 51, Academic Research Library

Fujita, N. (1999) [Review of the book The Kakure Kirishitan of Japan: A Study of Their Development, Beliefs and Rituals to the Present Day, by Stephen Turnbull]. Journal of Japanese Studies, Vol. 25, No. 2, pp. 404-406

Habito, R. (1997) [Review of the book Japan and Christianity: Impacts and Responses. Edited by J. Breen and M. Williams]. Journal of Japanese Studies, Vol.23, No. 1, pp. 221-224

Nosco, P. (1993) Secrecy and the Transmission of Tradition, Issues in the Study of the “Underground” Christians. Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, 20/1

Nosco, P. (1998) [Review of the book The Kakure Kirishitan of Japan: A Study of Their Development, Beliefs and Rituals to the Present Day, by Stephen Turnbull]. Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 53, No. 4, pp. 575-577

Tuan, Y. (1999) Language and the Making of Place: A Narrative-Descriptive Approach, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 81, No. 4, pp. 684-696

Williams, M. (2009) [Review of the book Ideology and Christianity in Japan, by Kiri Paramore]. Chicago Journals, Vol. 114, No. 5, pp. 1427-1428

One comment

Comments are closed.