Historical Tales: 12—Japanese and Chinese - Charles Morris

The Decline and Fall of Christianity in Japan

We have described in the preceding tale the rise of Christianity in Japan, and the remarkable rapidity of its development in that remote land. We have now to describe its equally rapid decline and fall, and the exclusion of Europeans from Japanese soil. It must be said here that this was in no sense due to the precepts of Christianity, but wholly to the hostility between its advocates of different sects, their jealousy and abuse of one another, and to the quarrels between nations in the contest to gain a lion's share of the trade with Japan.

At the time when the Portuguese came to Japan all Europe was torn with wars, civil, political, and religious. These quarrels were transferred to the soil of Japan, and in the end so disgusted the people of that empire that Europeans were forbidden to set foot on its shores and the native Christians were massacred. Traders, pirates, slave-dealers, and others made their way thither, with such a hodge-podge of interests, and such a medley of lies and back-bitings, that the Japanese became incensed against the whole of them, and in the end decided that their room was far better than their company.

The Portuguese were followed to Japan by the Spaniards, and these by the Dutch, each trying to blacken the character of the others. The Catholics abused the Protestants, and were as vigorously abused in return. Each trading nation lied with the most liberal freedom about its rivals. To the seaports of Hirado and Nagasaki came a horde of the outcasts of Europe, inveterately hostile to one another, and indulging in quarrels, riots, and murders to an extent which the native authorities found difficult to control. In addition, the slave-trade was eagerly prosecuted, slaves being so cheap, in consequence of the poverty and misery arising from the civil wars, that even the negro and Malay servants of the Portuguese indulged in this profitable trade, which was continued in spite of decrees threatening all slave-dealers with death.

This state of affairs, and the recriminations of the religious sects, gave very natural disgust to the authorities of Japan, who felt little respect for a civilization that showed itself in such uncivilized shapes, and the disputing and fighting foreigners were rapidly digging their own graves in Japan. During the life of Nobunaga all went on well. In his hatred to the Buddhist bonzes he favored the Jesuits, and Christianity found a clear field. With the advent of Hideyoshi there came a change. His early favor to the missionaries was followed by disgust, and in 1587 he issued a decree banishing them from the land. The churches and chapels were closed, public preaching ceased, but privately the work of conversion went actively on, as many as ten thousand converts being made each year.

The Spanish mendicant friars from the Philippines were bolder in their work. Defying the decree, they preached openly in the dress of their orders, not hesitating to denounce in violent language the obnoxious law. As a result the decree was renewed, and a number of the priests and their converts were crucified. But still the secret work of the Jesuits continued and the number of converts increased, among them being some of the generals in the Corean war.

With the accession of Iyeyasu began a rapid downfall of Christianity in Japan. In the great battle which raised him to the head of affairs some of the Christian leaders were killed. Konishi, a Christian general, who had commanded one division of the army in Corea, was executed. On every side there was evidence of a change in the tide of affairs, and the Christians of Japan began to despair.

The daimios no longer bade their followers to become Christians. On the contrary, they ordered them to renounce the new faith, under threat of punishment. Their harshness resulted in rebellion, so new a thing among the peasantry of Japan that the authorities felt sure that they had been secretly instigated to it by the missionaries. The wrath of the shogun aroused, he sent soldiers against the rebels, putting down each outbreak with bloodshed, and in 1606 issued a decree abolishing the Christian faith. This the Spanish friars defied, as they had that of his predecessor.



In 1611, Iyeyasu was roused to more active measures by the discovery of a plot between the foreigners and the native converts for the overthrow of the government. Sado, whose mines were worked by thousands of Christian exiles, was to be the centre of the outbreak, its governor, Okubo, being chosen as the leader and the proposed new ruler of the land.

Iyeyasu, awakened to the danger, now took active steps to crush out the foreign faith. A large number of friars and Jesuits, with native priests, were forcibly sent from the country, while the siege and capture of the castle of Ozaka in 1615 ended the career of all the native friends of the Jesuits, and brought final ruin upon the Christian cause in Japan.

During the reigns of the succeeding shoguns a violent persecution began. The Dutch traders, who showed no disposition to interfere in religious affairs, succeeded in ousting their Portuguese rivals, all foreigners except Dutch and Chinese being banished from Japan, while foreign trade was confined to the two ports of Hirado and Nagasaki. This was followed by a cruel effort to extirpate what was now looked on as a pestilent foreign faith. Orders were issued that the people should trample on the cross or on a copper plate engraved with the image of Christ. Those who refused were exposed to horrible persecutions, being wrapped in sacks of straw and burnt to death in heaps of fuel, while terrible tortures were employed to make them renounce their faith. Some were flung alive into open graves, many burned with the wood of the crosses before which they had prayed, others flung from the edge of precipices. Yet they bore tortures and endured death with a fortitude not surpassed by that of the martyrs of old, clinging with the highest Christian ardor to their new faith.

In 1637 these excesses of persecution led to an insurrection, the native Christians rising in thousands, seizing an old castle at Shimabara, and openly defying their persecutors. Composed as they were of farmers and peasants, the commanders who marched against them at the head of veteran armies looked for an easy conquest, but with all their efforts the insurgents held out against them for two months. The fortress was at length reduced by the aid of cannon taken from the Dutch traders, and after the slaughter of great numbers of the garrison. The bloody work was consummated by the massacre of thirty-seven thousand Christian prisoners, and the flinging of thousands more from a precipice into the sea below. Many were banished, and numbers escaped to Formosa, whither others had formerly made their way. The "evil sect" was formally prohibited, while edicts were issued declaring that as long as the sun should shine no foreigner should enter Japan and no native should leave it. A slight exception was made in favor of the Dutch, of whom a small number were permitted to reside on the little island of Deshima, in the harbor of Nagasaki, one trading ship being allowed to come there each year.

Thus ended the career of foreign trade and European residence in Japan. It had continued for nearly a century, yet left no mark of its presence except the use of gunpowder and fire-arms, the culture of tobacco and the habit of smoking, the naturalization of a few foreign words and of several strange diseases, and, as an odd addition, the introduction of sponge-cake, still everywhere used as a favorite viand. As for Christianity, the very name of Christ became execrated, and was employed as the most abhorrent word that could be spoken in Japan. The Christian faith was believed to be absolutely extirpated, and yet it seems to have smouldered unseen during the centuries. As late as 1829 seven persons suspected of being Christians were crucified in Ozaka. Yet in 1860, when the French missionaries were admitted to Nagasaki, they found in the surrounding villages no fewer than ten thousand people who still clung in secret to the despised and persecuted faith.

The French and English had little intercourse with Japan, but the career of one Englishman there is worthy of mention. This was a pilot named Will Adams, who arrived there in 1607 and lived in or near Yedo until his death in 1620. He seems to have been a manly and honest fellow, who won the esteem of the people and the favor of the shogun, by whom he was made an officer and given for support the revenue of a village. His skill in ship-building and familiarity with foreign affairs made him highly useful, and he was treated with great respect and kindness, though not allowed to leave Japan. He had left a wife and daughter in England, but married again in Japan, his children there being a son and daughter, whose descendants may still be found in that country. Anjin Cho (Pilot Street) in Yedo was named from him, and the inmates of that street honor his memory with an annual celebration on the 15th of June. His tomb may still be seen on one of the hills overlooking the Bay of Yedo, where two neat stone shafts, set on a pediment of stone, mark the burial-place of the only foreigner who in past times ever attained to honor in Japan.