Driven Underground Years Ago, Japan's 'Hidden Christians' Maintain Faith : Parallels Spanish and Portuguese missionaries arrived in Japan in the 1500s, but Christianity was later banned and Christians disguised their faith with a Buddhist veneer. Today, some still practice in secret.
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Driven Underground Years Ago, Japan's 'Hidden Christians' Maintain Faith

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Driven Underground Years Ago, Japan's 'Hidden Christians' Maintain Faith

Driven Underground Years Ago, Japan's 'Hidden Christians' Maintain Faith

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During several periods of Japan's history, Westerners and their religions were viewed with suspicion. There were times when Christianity was even banned. To escape persecution, believers had to disguise their faith or practice it in secret. NPR's Anthony Kuhn takes us to southern Japan to introduce us to a small and slowly disappearing community of so-called hidden Christians.

MASAHI FUNABARA: (Singing in foreign language).

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Masahi Funabara struggles a bit to remember the secret songs taught to him by his father and grandfather, especially the ones that are in Latin. The songs have been passed on orally since the mid-1500s, when missionaries, including Spanish Jesuit Francis Xavier, arrived here and baptized hundreds of Japanese. I met the 53-year-old Funabara in the local government office, where he works, on the island of Ikitsuki in the southern prefecture of Nagasaki. I asked Funabara about the role religion plays in his life.

FUNABARA: (Through interpreter) We've kept this religion since the time of our ancestors, and it gives me a sort of mental relief. I feel it brings strength to my life. And so keeping my faith is very important to me.

KUHN: Catholicism only had about forty years to take root in Japan before the country's military ruler banned Christianity and kicked out the missionaries. Local museum curator, Shigeo Nakazono, is an expert on the hidden Christians and he helped Masahi Funabara sing his prayers. At his museum, Nakazono shows me a carved image of Jesus and Mary. He says Japanese authorities used this icon to root out Christians.

SHIGEO NAKAZONO: (Through interpreter) People were ordered to trample on it. Anyone who hesitated or wouldn't do it was arrested and forced to recant his or her faith. If they didn't, they were tortured or killed.

KUHN: The remaining Catholics went underground. They disguised their images of Jesus and Mary to look like Buddhas. They camouflaged their prayers to sound like Buddhist chants.


UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Chanting in foreign language).

KUHN: Recordings of the chants are piped through Nakazono's museum. He says that the covert Christians absorbed into their faith the Buddhism and Shintoism they used as cover for it. And to escape persecution, they got rid of all visible signs of Christianity, including churches and crosses. You could arguably say that it became a separate religion with very Japanese characteristics. Masahi Funabara says it's hard for him to separate the different elements of his faith.

FUNABARA: (Through interpreter) We've been doing it this way for a very long time. If you ask me if I have a single religion, it's hard for me to answer.

KUHN: Japan's Meiji government lifted the ban on Christianity in 1873. Some hidden Christians rejoined the Catholic Church. But even without the threat of persecution, some hidden Christians choose to remain this way. Shigeo Nakazono says they do this partly out of respect for their ancestral traditions and partly because secrecy has become a part of their faith.

NAKAZONO: (Through interpreter) They may be concerned that if they reveal their faith too easily, people may make light of it.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in foreign language).

KUHN: I was curious what Catholics think of their hidden brethren, so I visited St. Mary's Cathedral in nearby Nagasaki, the center of Catholicism in Japan. I spoke to a priest named Father Kawabata.

Do you encourage them to come out of hiding and come to your church?

KAWABATA: (Foreign language spoken).

KUHN: "Of course we do," he replies. "But sometimes they insist on their own ways and traditions and don't fit in with us. Sometimes we can't accept them either." Young people are moving here to the mainland, and it's getting harder to find successors to the hidden Christian traditions on islands like Ikitsuki.

Back there, Masahi Funabara told me his is one of only four hidden Christian groups left in his neighborhood, where not long ago, there were 20. Nobody knows exactly how many hidden Christians are left, but Funabara says he's determined to pass on his religion.

FUNABARA: (Through interpreter) Sure, things are difficult for us now, but it's nothing compared to the time when our ancestors faced severe persecution.

KUHN: He says he draws inspiration to do this, not from any God, but from the suffering of his Christian forefathers. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Ikitsuki Island, Nagasaki prefecture.

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