Japan’s Hidden Christians

I learned something interesting today. Japan’s prime minister Taro Aso is a Christian. That’s fairly remarkable given that the country’s Christians are estimated to be less than one percent of the population. Even more surprising, Aso is the third Christian prime minister in Japan since the end of World War II, although he is the first Roman Catholic.An article from The Japan Times recounts Christianity’s long but often overlooked history in Japan. I’ve been intrigued by Japanese Christianity since doing research for my book, The Divine Commodity. In  chapter one I retell the story of the Kakure-also known as the hidden or crypto-Christians. As The Japan Times article reports:

Christianity was repressed during the 16th century, seen by the government as a threat to national security, with the shogunate fearing foreign traders and missionaries would destabilize the culture. It was banned in 1587. Those who continued to practice Christianity, called “kakure kirishitans” (hidden Christians), were persecuted if outed, even crucified, and are the subject of a Martin Scorsese film based on Shusaku Endo’s 1966 award-winning novel “Silence” due out in 2010.

I highly recommend Endo’s book Silence. It’s very disturbing, but brilliantly written and a story that will undoubtedly leave you asking “What would I have done in those circumstances?” I’m excited that Scorsese is making a film based on Silence. But given the graphic scenes of persecution in the novel and Scorsese’s own penchant for blood, I’m not sure I’ll be seeing the film on opening day. Still, the resilience of Christianity in Japan is something we would be wise to study, along with the inherent dangers of wrapping our faith too comfortably in culturally accepted disguises as the Kakure did in the 16th century. In many ways, the story of Christianity in Japan adds credibility to the idea that the medium is the message, and when we change the way our faith is expressed and communicated we may also be unknowingly changing the message itself. (For more on this idea I recommend my friend Shane Hipps’ excellent book Flickering Pixels.)

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