Story of Japan - R. Van Bergen

Persecutions of the Christians

Many Spanish and Portuguese missionaries came to Japan, and the number of converts was constantly increasing. But the different orders of priesthood began to quarrel among themselves, and the regent of Japan was a man who was decided to maintain peace in his domain. In the year 1597 captains of Portuguese vessels were notified that they must not bring any more priests into the country; but none the less priests continued to come from the Spanish possessions in the Philippine Islands, and some monks, with more zeal than discretion, went to Kyoto, preached in the streets of the capital and even began to build a church there, although this was against the law. Japanese books also mention that in 1596 a Portuguese bishop met on the street one of the highest officers of state going to court. Instead of having his chair stopped, as the law of courtesy required, he not only ordered his bearers to go on, but turned his head aside in contempt when he passed the official's chair. This in itself was a direct insult, and no Japanese will forgive a willful breach of the laws of courtesy. This officer ever afterwards felt a deadly hatred against the Portuguese, and continually reminded the regent of their vanity, pride, and insolence.

In these days, too, the native converts had become overzealous; they insulted the Buddhist priests, broke their images, and even destroyed their temples. Iyeyasu thought that he saw danger to the state in this aggressive way of preaching the Christian religion, and decided to pluck it out, root and branch.

Temple of Iyeyasu


The persecution of the Christians had commenced a year before the death of Hideyoshi. In 1597 twenty six Christians were crucified, most of them being native converts, although a few Portuguese were among the number.

In the year 1609 two Dutch ships arrived in Japan. They had come for the purpose of capturing the Portuguese vessel which sailed once a year from Macao, but they were five or six days late. Their captains went up to Yedo; there they were received by the regent, who was favorably disposed toward them through the efforts of Will Adams. A treaty was made by which they agreed to send one or two vessels a year for the purpose of trading. The first vessel arrived in 1611, and her officers and crew were kindly received and entertained.

Before the Dutch had time to establish any influence, the persecution of Christians broke out with great fury, and it increased a few years later, in 1614, when a great many of the Japanese converts, who would not abjure their faith, and trample on the cross, suffered death by crucifixion. Monks and priests of religious orders were scattered and many fled from the country.

All this time the Portuguese merchants were not interfered with, though captains of vessels were repeatedly notified that they must bring in no more missionaries. But as they still continued to smuggle in priests, a law was made by which they could trade only in the small island of Deshima (day-shee-mah), in the harbor of Nagasaki (nang-ah-sah-kee). If you look on your map you will see that this famous old city is on the west coast of Kiushiu. It has a beautiful harbor.

A Portuguese vessel from Japan, bound for Lisbon, was captured by the Dutch near the Cape of Good Hope, and among the papers of this ship was found a letter from a Japanese Christian, known to Europeans by the name of Captain Moro (moh-roh). This letter was addressed to the king of Portugal. It contained a request for soldiers and ships, which had been promised from Portugal, with the aid of which the captain and his friends hoped to overturn the empire and form a new Christian government. The letter contained also the names of several daimio who had agreed to join the conspiracy. The Dutch lost no time in delivering this letter to the Japanese authorities. Moro was arrested, and although he denied his guilt, his signature and private seal were sufficient to convict him. He was burned alive at the stake, and in the course of that year, 1637, a law was passed that the whole race of the Portuguese, with their mothers, nurses, and all their belongings, should be banished forever. And the same law contained the clauses which secluded Japan from the world until Perry appeared in Yedo Bay.

This law says: "No Japanese ship or boat, or any native of Japan, shall henceforth presume to quit the country, under pain of forfeiture and death; any Japanese returning from a foreign country shall be put to death no nobleman or samurai shall be suffered to purchase anything of a foreigner; any person presuming to bring a letter from abroad, or to return to Japan after he has been banished, shall die, with all his family, and whosoever presumes to intercede for such offenders shall be put to death," etc. It also contained provisions against the Christian religion and the converts, and from that year the persecution of the Christians continued relentlessly.

Several Portuguese left at once; a few remained, hoping that the affair would pass over, but the regent, having determined that they should go, declared them enemies of Japan. They were compelled to leave, and their profitable trade passed into the hands of the Dutch.

The native Christians, cruelly persecuted and oppressed, entered into open rebellion, and this, it appears, was what the government desired. They defended themselves bravely at Shimabara (shee-mah-bah-rah), and the government then appealed to the Dutch for aid.

The chief of the factory, as the trading office was called, upon receiving the regent's orders, left for the doomed town, and after having planted a battery, assaulted it from the shore and from his ship. The Christian Japanese made a strong defense, and the town was blockaded for nearly two months before it was taken; then men, women, and children were slaughtered. The Dutch had received permission to withdraw before this final act.

It is stated in Japanese books that over 40,000 men were killed on both sides before famine rendered the town defenseless, and now the work of stamping out Christianity was continued with the greatest cruelty. A small band, secretly continuing the service, escaped the strict search. They were discovered after the revolution of 1867, and scattered to various parts of Japan, but upon the request of the British minister, they were permitted to return home. Shortly after this, the edicts against Christianity were removed, and now a Japanese may believe what he pleases, provided that he does not doubt the divinity of the emperor and his ancestors.