• Japan In Focus

Rites of ‘Forbidden Religion’ to be Preserved, Passed Down on Video

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Egami Church on Naru Island, Nagasaki Prefecture

NAGASAKI — Descendants of “hidden Christians” are among those moving ahead with a plan to make a video about the life of their ancestors. The recording will feature baptisms, Easter and other rites that were held for many years from the Edo period (1603-1867) until several decades ago by Christians who were hiding their faith on Naru Island of Nagasaki Prefecture.

They hope to preserve this precious culture for future generations and are considering making the video available overseas with English subtitles.

This year marks five years since the “Hidden Christian Sites in the Nagasaki Region” was registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site and the descendants will start full-scale work on the plan.

From the 17th to 19th centuries when Christianity was prohibited in Japan, hidden Christians secretly kept their faith even while becoming worshippers at Buddhist temples or Shinto shrines.

The discovery of the hidden Christians in 1865, when those in Nagasaki confessed their faith to a visiting French priest at Oura Cathedral in what is now Nagasaki City, was said to be a miracle in the history of the religion.

Many hidden Christians went to Naru Island from what is today the Sotome area of Nagasaki City around 1800. It is believed that many of these migrants lived on remote, barren areas and practiced their faith.

Even after the Meiji government lifted the ban on Christianity in 1873, many of the hidden Christians did not become Catholics but continued to practice as Kakure Kirishitans. They held baptisms, Christmas and funerals in the traditional faith they had developed.

Due to a lack of descendants as the population shrinks and the weakening of religious beliefs in the wake of modernization, these Kakure Kirishitan rites have ceased to be held.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Kazutoshi Kakimori

To preserve these rites on video, Kazutoshi Kakimori, a descendant of hidden Christians and a former Nagasaki municipal official, and several Catholic priests plan to reenact them. Their concern is that, besides the discontinuation of these rites, the aging of those who knew about this culture will one day result in the loss of opportunities to learn more about hidden Christians.

The organization of Kakure Kirishitans was centered on a “chokata” who supervised the activities and a “mizukata” who administered baptisms. They recited “orasho” prayers.

The plan is for Kakimori and others to record themselves reenacting the rites while wearing traditional clothes similar to those worn in the past, referring to old videos and documents that remain. They are considering using the video for lectures, symposiums and other events to deepen people’s understanding of the history of hidden Christians.

Kakimori, 76, after his retirement moved in 2008 from Nagasaki City to Naru Island, the population of which has decreased to about 1,900 compared to about 9,000 in 1960. He established a research center for the study of hidden Christians and other topics, interviewing elderly people about events and collecting religious objects.

“Objects won’t be enough to adequately pass down ancestors’ faith to future generations,” Kakimori said. “We want to reenact the events of those days as faithfully as possible while we are still physically able to do so.”

Father Renzo De Luca, provincial of the Japan Province of the Society of Jesus, said: “There are few cases in the world where people had continued their faith for such a long time under oppression. We would like to cooperate as much as possible in the production of the video.”