The Hidden Christians of Japan: Would You Consider Them Christian Today?

This semester my classes having been circling around Asia and the increasing support of Christian indigenization in non-western countries. It seems as if the west is really trying to make strides in not only respecting local, non-western backgrounds, but also supporting the adaptation of what has traditionally been seen as “Christian” to what fits the new believer and their customs. As an academic, and someone who grew up in a non-western country, I think the changing landscape of a major world religion and the acceptance of other cultures and traditions is exciting.

Nevertheless, one church I cannot stop thinking about are the Hidden Christians of Japan and what the Christian community would do if a religious group popped up now as they did in the mid-19th century?

Let me explain.

The first Christian missionary was the Jesuit Francis Xavier (1506-1552), who began a relationship with an escaped Japanese convict turned Christian convert. Xavier set sail for Japan in 1549, eventually setting off the “Christian Century” of Japan with many conversions and powerful allies supporting the faith. However, eventually Christianity was seen as a threat to the Japanese, not only in their way of life and government, but also their local faiths.

This is not to say that they did not have a point (there are plenty of stories of missionaries acting in horrible ways), but ultimately a leader named Hideyoshi (and his successor, Ieyasu) got progressively less tolerant of the Christian faith and its followers. Eventually all churches were closed, all missionaries were deported, and the practice of Christianity by the Japanese became illegal. Among massive persecution and the threat of death, it is assumed that about 150,000 Christians went underground and into hiding. Additionally, all known scripture, liturgy, and religious memorabilia was found and destroyed.

What is really amazing is that when Japan reopened in the mid-19th century, the ancestors of these believers were still practicing Christianity! The story can be found in multiple places, but a summary is that a priest, Bernard Petitjean, one day heard a knocking at the back door. When he opened the door Father Petitjean was surprised to find a group of 15 middle-aged Japanese men and women. Surprisingly, these people had maintained perfect recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary, the Apostles’ Creed, the Confession, the Salve Regina, and the Act of Contrition. Petitjean was particularly impressed with a man named Domingo Mataichi who gave Petitjean the first known copy of the Tenchi Hajimari no Koto, the group’s scripture.

You might be asking yourself what the problem is by now. Well, since the group had been underground for over 200 years, many Buddhist, Shinto, and folk religious beliefs had made their way into the faith and some fundamental beliefs either got re-written or dropped. For example, the Trinity does not play a large role and although the Tenchi refers to Adam and Eve’s sin by the eating of the fruit, the idea of sin drops from the narrative pretty quickly. This, of course, causes Christ’s crucifixion to be called into question leaving him to seem not altogether innocent. The text claims that he is responsible for the slaughter of the 44,444 innocents who died in his place while he and his mother fled. This appears to be the reason why he is crucified, and he too understands this to be the reason why he must die.

So how does this make you feel? What do you think is flexible in Christian faith and what is non-negotiable as the faith finds new meaning in non-western cultures? If the Hidden Christians popped up today, do you think they should be considered Christian or would they be considered a more local faith?