Kakure Kirishitan

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The Virgin Mary disguised as Kannon, Kirishitan cult, 17th-century Japan. Salle des Martyrs, Paris Foreign Missions Society.

Kakure Kirishitan (Japanese: 隠れキリシタン, lit. '"hidden Christian"') is a modern term for a member of the Catholic Church that went underground at the start of the Edo period in the early 17th century.[1][2]


A Dehua porcelain "Guanyin bringing child" statue, interpreted to be "Maria Kannon" in connection with Christian worship. Nantoyōsō Collection, Japan.
The gion-mamori, crest of the Gion Shrine, was adopted by the kakure kirishitan as their crest under the Tokugawa shogunate[3]

Kakure Kirishitans are called the "hidden" Christians because they continued to practice Christianity in secret. They worshipped in secret rooms in private homes. As time went on, the figures of the saints and the Virgin Mary were transformed into figurines that looked like the traditional statues of the Buddha and bodhisattvas;[citation needed] depictions of Mary modeled on the Buddhist deity Kannon (Avalokiteśvara), goddess of mercy, became common, and were known as "Maria Kannon".[4] The prayers were adapted to sound like Buddhist chant, yet retained many untranslated words from Latin, Portuguese, and Spanish. The Bible and other parts of the liturgy were passed down orally, because printed works could be confiscated by authorities.[1] Because of the official expulsion of the Catholic clergy in the 17th century, the Kakure Christian community relied on lay leaders to lead the services.

In some cases, the communities drifted away from Christian teachings. They lost the meaning of the prayers and their religion became a version of the cult of ancestors, in which the ancestors happened to be their Christian martyrs.

Kakure Kirishitan was recognized by Bernard Petitjean, a Catholic priest, when Ōura Church was built in Nagasaki in 1865. Approximately 30,000 secret Christians, some of whom had adopted these new ways of practicing Christianity, came out of hiding when religious freedom was re-established in 1873 after the Meiji Restoration. The Kakure Kirishitan became known as Mukashi Kirishitan (昔キリシタン), or "ancient" Christians, and emerged not only from traditional Christian areas in Kyushu, but also from other rural areas of Japan.[1]

The majority of Kakure Kirishitan rejoined the Catholic Church after renouncing unorthodox, syncretic practices. Some Kakure Kirishitan did not rejoin the Catholic Church, and became known as the Hanare Kirishitan (離れキリシタン, separated Christians).[1] Hanare Kirishitan are now primarily found in Urakami and on the Gotō Islands.[2]

Modern extinction of Hanare Kirishitan[edit]

Following the legalization of Christianity and secularization of Japan, many Hanare Kirishitan lineages ended abruptly. Traditionally, boys learned the rituals and prayers from their fathers; when boys were uninterested or moved away from their homes, no one was left to continue the lineage.

For a while, Hanare Kirishitans were thought to have died out entirely because of the secretive nature of their practices. A group on Ikitsuki Island in Nagasaki Prefecture, which had been overlooked by the Japanese government, made their beliefs public in the 1980s and now perform their rituals for audiences; however, these practices have acquired some attributes of theatre, such as the telling of folktales and the use of statues and other images which most underground Christians never used.

The anthropologist Christal Whelan uncovered some Hanare Kirishitans on the Gotō Islands where Kakure Kirishitans had once fled. There were only two surviving priests on the islands, both of whom were over 90, and they would not talk to each other. The few surviving laity had also all reached old age, and some of them no longer had any priests from their lineage and prayed alone. Although these Hanare Kirishitans had a strong tradition of secrecy, they agreed to be filmed for Whelan's documentary Otaiya.[5]

In popular culture[edit]

  • Shūsaku Endō's acclaimed novel Silence draws from the oral history of the local Kirishitan communities pertaining to the time of the hiding of the Christians, as do certain of his short stories, including "Mothers" and "Unzen."
  • Noted Japanese composer Yasuhide Ito has written a well-known[6][7][8] work for symphonic band, called Gloriosa, that was inspired by the music of the Kakure Kirishitans.[7]
  • Nagisa Oshima's 1962 film Amakusa Shirō Tokisada (The Rebels), about the Shimabara Rebellion, is named after the leader of the rebellion Amakusa Shirō.
  • The anime series Rurouni Kenshin featured a story arc inspired by the Kakure Kirishitan. The lead antagonist of the story arc is a swordsman named Shougo Mutou, who claims to be the second coming of Shiro Amakusa and gets ready to start an armed Christian rebellion, similar to the Shimabara Rebellion. Shougo and his sister Sayo, nicknamed Magdaria (after Mary Magdalene), are the only survivors of a whole Kakure Kirishitan village destroyed during the Restoration wars, that took place years before the story arc itself took place. After Sayo's death and Shougo's imprisonment, the Restoration government exiled Shougo and the rest of his followers out of Japan, fearing any possible future rebellion from them. The current Dutch Ambassador for Japan financed their travels out of Japan, accepting them as guests back in the Netherlands.
  • In the anime series Samurai Champloo, one of the totems on main character Fuu's short sword is eventually revealed to be a disguised Christian charm. Her missing father is a Christian samurai who took part in the Shimabara Rebellion, for which he and his family are wanted criminals, and he abandoned his wife and daughter to try to spare them from anti-Christian persecution. Fuu's search for him drives the plot of the anime.
  • Secret Christians in feudal Japan are also detailed in several issues of the Usagi Yojimbo comic series.[10][11][12]
  • The 2018 Japanese videogame "The Midnight Sanctuary", which touches on Christian persecution in Edo period Japan, utilizes a Maria Kannon statue as one of its narrative symbols.
  • In A Certain Magical Index, the Amakusa Crossist Church descend from the Kakure Kirishitan.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d "S". Encyclopedia of Japan. Tokyo: Shogakukan. 2012. OCLC 56431036. Archived from the original on 25 August 2007.
  2. ^ a b "隠れキリシタン" [Kakure Kirishitan]. Dijitaru Daijisen (in Japanese). Tokyo: Shogakukan. 2012. OCLC 56431036. Archived from the original on 25 August 2007.
  3. ^ Boxer, C.R. (1951). The Christian Century in Japan: 1549–1650. University of California Press. p. vi.
  4. ^ Schumacher, Mark. "Virgin Mary & Kannon, Two Merciful Mothers". A to Z Photo Dictionary: Japanese Buddhist Statuary. Retrieved 11 May 2016.
  5. ^ "Kakure Kirishitan". Catholiceducation.org. 4 February 2000. Retrieved 21 December 2012.
  6. ^ "Yasuhide Ito". Bravo music. Retrieved 2 December 2007.
  7. ^ a b "Review". Wasbe. Sep 2001. Archived from the original on 13 May 2008.
  8. ^ "Yasuhide Ito". Composers' Corner. Philharmonic winds. Archived from the original on 20 September 2007. Retrieved 2 December 2007.
  9. ^ "平戸観光協会". History. Hirado net. Retrieved 10 July 2014.
  10. ^ Usagi Yojimbo Vol.3 #76: "Contraband"
  11. ^ Usagi Yojimbo: The Hidden miniseries #1-7 (Dark Horse, 2018)
  12. ^ Innovation & Tech Today: "Comic Creator Stan Sakai on the Inspiration for Usagi Yojimbo". June 4, 2018.

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