Tuesday, January 22, 2013


John Dougill, In Search of Japan's Hidden Christians
A Story of Suppression, Secrecy and Survival

Hardcover, 272 pages with color photos. Published by Tuttle, March 10, 2012

As he has done so skillfully in the past with "Kyoto: A Cultural History," John weaves a richly textured fabric of past and present as he takes us through the history of Christianity in Japan from its inception in the sixteenth century, to its suppression in the seventeenth, and the revelation of its survival into the nineteenth century. Like all good narrative histories, it does two things: it educates us about a particular people at a particular point in time, and it brings those people and places to life by walking us over the same ground and letting us discover history not only through the voice of the narrator, but also through the voices of local people and their anecdotes. It is a rewarding and entertaining approach to the telling of history that requires extensive fieldwork as well as exhaustive research. The many guides he enlists along the way help to bring the story into a modern context, showing us clearly what was as well as what has become of the Hidden Christians—known in Japan as Kakure—and their communities, concentrated in the island of Kyushu.

In following the trail of Hidden Christians to the isolated town of Sotome, for example, he invokes the image of their  leader of twenty-three years, Baschian, who illegally kept a calendar of Christian holy days and administered to the hidden flock in lieu of a priest (all of who had been killed or expelled). When finally discovered and arrested, he was severely tortured over a period of more than two years before being beheaded. In evoking the town of Sotome, John introduces us to a center of modern Hidden Christians, Karematsu Jinja, and the Hiden Christian ceremony performed at a modern-day orashio (prayer ceremony) by Murakami Shigenori in the traditional corrupted latin (Benedictus fructus transformed into Benekentsu onha) that sustained the religion through centuries of separation from its mother tongue. In the same chapter we are introduced to another man who came here in search of history; Endo Shusaku, author of the 1965 novel Silence (Chinmoku). Endo was baptized to please his mother at the age of twelve and struggled with the religion and its cultural implications all his life. Endo found in the story of the Portuguese apostate, Christovao Ferreira (1580-1650) a model of the anguish and conflict that he felt himself, and modeled into an antagonist for his fictional priest Sebastian Rodriques. His award-winning novel is due to be relaesed as a film by director Martin Scorsese in 2013. John masterfully mixes the actual history of Ferreira, Endo's telling of it in the context of a novel, and the actual settings and present-day events through which he guides us, to enrich our understanding of a complex issue.

The story of Hidden Christians is not always a pleasant tale to tell, especially for someone who has lived in Japan a long time and can empathize with both sides as John has. While the gruesome scenes of torture inflicted on those who remained true to their faith caused me to momentarily look away from the written page several times, John presents a contextualized view of history by reminding us of the equally horrific events taking place simultaneously in Europe in the name of Christianity. The overall picture of cruelty and compassion—often in the service of politics and financial gain—that emerges from the pages of Hidden Christians, retains both the passion of the subject and the cool eye of the dispassionate observer. The result is a compelling story of repression and resilience and the enduring faith of a now rapidly aging and disappearing community.
For further information see: http://www.greenshinto.com/wp/2012/03/10/hidden-christians-part-one/

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