Wed, Feb 12, 2020 - Page 13 News List

Digging deep into the underground faithful

A four-day journey through ‘hidden Christian’ country in southwestern Japan answers many lingering questions from the movie ‘Silence’

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

The Sakitsu Church was built atop the former grounds where Christians were tortured and forced to renounce their faith.

Photo: Han Cheung, Taipei Times

Most video gamers probably recognize Shiro Amakusa’s name as a villain from the popular 1990s Samurai Shodown series. In the games, Shiro has renounced his Catholic faith and become an evil cult leader resurrected by a dark god. But in his homeland of Japan’s Amakusa Islands in northwestern Kyushu, he’s still the 17-year-old hero who led a doomed rebellion against the government, which banned Catholicism in 1612 and began violently persecuting its followers.

The Amakusa Christian Museum provides a glimpse of how these “hidden Christians” in the area continued to practice in secret — but their suppression is more striking on the vertical plaques that adorn the entrance to the nearby Myotoku Temple, built in 1645 “to spread the righteous way of the Buddha” and “to destroy the evil cult of Jesus.”

The previously little-known story of these hidden Christians was brought to public consciousness through Martin Scorcese’s 2016 movie Silence, which was shot in Taiwan. The film was the only reason I knew about the area during a family Lunar New Year trip to Kyushu and, my parents being practicing Catholics, we decided to make the pilgrimage after visiting the smoldering volcano of Aso.

The film, which I reviewed in the Taipei Times on Feb. 23, 2017, was overwhelmingly sympathetic toward the perspective of the missionaries, and I wanted to witness the local side of the story.

The hidden Christian sites aren’t just limited to Amakusa island. They are found across the bay on the Shimabara Peninsula and further to the west in Nagasaki, where the Oura Cathedral honors the 26 Holy Martyrs of Japan crucified by the shogun in 1597. The entire journey took us four days, which included various non-religious sites as well.

IF YOU GO

China Airlines, Eva Air and Tiger Air all have direct flights to Fukuoka (about 2.5 hours, average price NT$7,000). It is easiest to rent a car and drive to the sites, with typical rental fees being NT$2,500 per 24 hours for a mid-sized vehicle. Public transportation options are available at Hakata Station, a major transportation hub about a 10 minute cab ride from the airport.

For maps and more information on the Hidden Christian sites, visit: kirishitan.jp/en


LAST REFUGE

The first stop is the Amakusa Shiro Memorial Hall on Kamishima island, where Shiro was born to Catholic parents around 1621. With his people suffering from heavy taxation and famine, a teenaged Shiro led a 37,000-strong army of Catholics against the local daimyo in what would be known as the Shimabara Rebellion. The uprising failed, the entire rebel army was beheaded and the government drove all foreigners out of the country and strictly enforced its ban on Christianity.

The museum shows the myriad ways that the hidden Christians were persecuted and forced to renounce their faith, and the creative ways they used to continue worship. On display are paintings of the Buddhist goddess Guanyin, known as Kannon in Japan, holding a child that represents Mary and Jesus, Buddha figurines with crosses attached to the back and secret chambers in wooden pillars to hide their artifacts. There are barely any English descriptions here, including a 16-minute film on Shiro without any subtitles, but the building is funky and there’s a quaint garden with a statue of Shiro pointing to the sky as well as a new-agey “meditation room” where visitors can pay their silent respects to the dead rebels.

Misumi West Port, about a 10-minute drive away, is worth a brief stop. Built in 1884 during Japan’s industrial revolution, the stone port with Dutch-style buildings only flourished for about 10 years and has remained mostly the same since then. A path leads up to the adjacent mountains for sweeping views of the harbor.

There’s not much to see in Amakusa city beside the Christian museum and the anti-Christian temple. The highlights are on the remote southwest corner of the island around the picturesque fishing village of Sakitsu, where Christianity arrived in 1569 and persisted until the ban was lifted in 1873. About 5,000 people in three villages were rounded up in 1805, and only pardoned after they agreed to discard the seashells and medallions they worshipped with.

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