Edo Period Christian Martyr Sites in Northern Japan Promoted for Tourism; Okago District in Iwate Pref. Aims to Become Pilgrimage Destination

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Participants in the pilgrimage tour listen to explanations about the Jizo-no-Tsuji execution site in Ichinoseki, Iwate Prefecture, on Feb. 2.

The stories of Christian martyrs in the Edo period (1603-1867) are being shared by residents of the Okago district in Ichinoseki, Iwate Prefecture, in an effort to preserve their history and bring more visitors to the area.

During the Edo period, it is believed that more than 300 Japanese Christians were executed in the district. There are many historical sites related to martyrdom in the area, such as Okago Christian Martyrdom Memorial Park.

In the last year, more than 700 tourists, mainly from South Korea, visited the district.

Residents in the district working for the project want to preserve knowledge of the tragic history. One said they want to “make this a site of pilgrimage in Japan following Nagasaki.”

Kazuya Hatakeyama, head of Okago Kirishitan Shiseki Hozonkai (Okago district Christian historical site preservation association), told visitors in February: “About 180 martyrs were killed here in the Jizo-no-Tsuji site. It’s said that the nearby Futamata River was stained red with blood.” The name of the association uses the word Kirishitan, which is an old Japanese term for Christians.

Hatakeyama, 76, was speaking to 10 Christian students and adults from Pohang, South Korea, through an interpreter.

According to the association, a traditional steelmaking process called tatara seitetsu once thrived in the Okago district. In the Eiroku era (1558-1570), two brothers who were tatara seitetsu smiths were brought in from what is now Okayama Prefecture.

The brothers were Christians and their proselytizing efforts spread the religion among the residents.

But persecution of the faith escalated in the wake of the 1637 Shimabara Rebellion in Kyushu. In the Okago district, 309 Christians are believed to have been executed due to their faith, the largest number in the Tohoku region.

To preserve the history of the local Christian martyrs, the memorial park was built in 1996 by the town government of what was then Fujisawa Town, now part of Ichinoseki. Various related facilities, including an archive museum and a church, were built in the park.

Around the park, several historical sites remain to tell the story of the harsh persecutions in the Edo period. They include the Jizo-no-Tsuji execution site and Daitenba, where people were forced to stomp on Christianity-related picture plates to demonstrate that they were not Christians.

The pilgrimage tour started in 2019 after the Miyagi prefectural government called on a South Korean travel agency to create a tour. The prefecture also has Christianity-related historical sites and more than 20% of South Korea’s population is said to be Christian.

South Korean churches and other entities planned tours in which participants visit the memorial park and other historical sites in Sendai and Tome in Miyagi Prefecture.

In February this year, visitors from South Korea had an opportunity to deepen ties with members of the association in the Okago district by serving them Korean dishes.

Kim Soohong, a 44-year-old pastor in Pohang who led the South Korean travelers, said, “Though this site is small, the locals have given us a warm welcome. I want to revisit this place again and again.”

The pastor said that the district has a different appeal compared to “Hidden Christian Sites in the Nagasaki Region” on the UNESCO World Heritage list, which includes sites in Nagasaki Prefecture and the Amakusa region of Kumamoto Prefecture.

This fiscal year, the association plans to build accommodation facilities for travelers utilizing materials that had been used for temporary housing units in areas devastated by the Great East Japan Earthquake.

Hatakeyama said, “We want to pass on the history of the Okago district, which had been dubbed the Shimabara of the Michinoku [the Tohoku region], and promote the region’s appeal at the same time.”