Martin Scorsese’s new movie, Silence, to be released in Australia early in 2017, will draw to wider attention to the persecution of Christians, overwhelmingly Catholics, in Japan from the late 16th century to the late 19th century which arguably changed Japan permanently from an outward-looking nation to one where fear and suspicion of foreigners became part of the national character.
The film is based on a novel of the same name by a Japanese author, Shusaku Endo, written in 1966. Endo became a Catholic as a boy, and is regarded as Japan’s Graham Green. He died in 1996.
Like Graham Green, his works are characterised by a deep interest in Catholicism, and the sense of being an outsider.
The brutal persecution of Christians in Japan lasted for almost 300 years, and was almost completely unknown in the West, because Japan was totally cut off from the West during this period.
In fact, the problem with Silence is that it portrays the persecution principally through the eyes of the handful of Catholic missionaries in Japan in the 17th century. What happened to Japanese Catholics in this period is almost beyond belief.
After Christianity was introduced to Japan by St Francis Xavier in 1549, the new faith grew rapidly, until there were estimated to be 300,000 Catholics late in the 16th century. However, the new faith met with increasing hostility from both the Buddhist monks and the emerging power in the country, the Tokugawa Shoguns.
The shoguns were a xenophobic military regime who ran Japan as a totalitarian state for almost 300 years.
Late in the 16th century, Christianity was declared illegal, and this policy was ruthlessly enforced in the following centuries, leading to a mass revolt in the southern island of Kyushu in the 1620s which was brutally suppressed.
According to documents in the Martyrs’ Museum in Nagasaki, it has been estimated that over 200,000 Catholics were killed over the following centuries.
Catholics were hunted down and arrested. The shoguns offered large rewards to those who informed on Christians, and all Japanese people were required to be registered in the local Buddhist temple.
Those who were alleged to be Christians had to disown Christianity, or face death. The forms of execution of convicted Christians included crucifixion (as in the 26 Martyrs of Nagasaki) and being thrown into pools of boiling water, as at Unzen, Kyushu, where a memorial to the martyrs has been built.
Accompanying this, the shoguns enforced a rigid policy of excluding foreign influences from the country.
Sakoku (a word meaning “closed country”) was the foreign policy of Japan under which severe restrictions were placed on the entry of foreign nationals to Japan and Japanese nationals were forbidden to leave the country on penalty of death if they returned without special permission.
The policy was enacted by the Tokugawa shogunate through a number of edicts and policies from 1633–39 until 1866, after Japan was forcibly opened to the West, following the arrival of an American flotilla under Commodore Perry in 1854.
Among these were laws which decreed that any foreigner captured in Japan would be executed.
In 1854, the Americans forced the Japanese government to open its doors by sending a naval flotilla to Tokyo Harbour, and demanding that Japan open up to the West. Not surprisingly, there was a great deal of resentment in Japan to the West’s gunboat diplomacy, and even after the country was opened, the Japanese government restricted the presence of foreign nationals in the country.
For nearly 300 years, some Japanese Catholics continued to regard themselves as Christians despite the persecution. They are known as “Hidden Christians”. They only revealed their faith after the 1860s, when Christian missionaries were permitted to return to Japan.
Despite the opening of Japan in the 19th century, the long-term effect of the policy of Sakoku is still seen in Japan. It is almost impossible for foreigners, even long-term residents, to take out Japanese citizenship unless married to a Japanese national, and the number of refugees taken by Japan is almost zero.
Despite the large number of Christian schools, hospitals and universities in Japan, the number of converts to Christianity is low compared to other Asian countries.
Nevertheless, Japanese Christians have played a significant role in the country, particularly since World War II.
For example, although Christians comprise just two percent of the country’s population, seven of Japan’s post-war Prime Ministers have been either Catholic or Protestant.