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 (隠れキリシタン?, Japanese for "Hidden Christian") is a modern term for a member of the Japanese Catholic Church during the Edo period that went underground after the Shimabara Rebellion in the 1630s.[1][2] After the start of the Sakoku period in 1639, it was officially prohibited from teaching the European Catholic religion.


Main article: Christianity in Japan
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.[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.

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 the mid-19th century 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 the homes, there would be no one left to continue the lineage.

For a while, Hanare Kirishitans were thought to have died out entirely, due to their secretive nature. A group on Ikitsuki Island in Nagasaki prefecture, which had been overlooked by the Japanese government during all of these times, made their practices public in the 1980s and now perform them 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 had never created.

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 her documentary Otaiya.[5]

In Japanese culture[edit]

  • Shusaku Endo'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) is centered around the Shimabara Rebellion, and named after the leader of the rebellion Amakusa Shirō.

In Japanese Pop culture[edit]

  • Rin Tohsaka, one of the main characters in the visual novel Fate/stay night is a descendant of a Kakure Kirishitan lineage.[citation needed]
  • The anime series Samurai Champloo is largely based on the related Shimabara Rebellion and its aftermath. Lead female Fuu is a descendant of the Kakure Kirishitan; her father is a Christian and he left the family to not have them killed.[citation needed]
  • The josei manga Amakusa 1637 by Michiyo Akaishi is about six friends from the 20th century, who in the middle of a trip to Nagasaki are tossed in the past – and land few weeks before the Shimabara Rebellion. When one of them (a young woman named Natsuki) is mistaken for Shiro Amakusa, they decide to use their knowledge of the past and their own Christian faith to stop the massacre.[citation needed]
  • 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 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 the two siblings' deaths, the Restoration government exiled the rest of their 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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d "S". Encyclopedia of Japan. Tokyo: Shogakukan. 2012. OCLC 56431036. Retrieved 2012-08-09. 
  2. ^ a b "隠れキリシタン" [Kakure Kirishitan]. Dijitaru Daijisen (in Japanese). Tokyo: Shogakukan. 2012. OCLC 56431036. Retrieved 2012-08-09. 
  3. ^ Boxer, C. R. (1951). The Christian Century in Japan: 1549–1650. University of California Press. p. vi. 
  4. ^ マリア観音 [Maria Kannon] (in Japanese). OCN. Retrieved 2012-12-21. 
  5. ^ "Kakure Kirishitan". Catholiceducation.org. 2000-02-04. Retrieved 2012-12-21. 
  6. ^ "Yasuhide Ito". Bravo music. Retrieved 2007-12-02. 
  7. ^ a b "Review". Wasbe. Sep 2001. Retrieved 2007-12-02. 
  8. ^ "Yasuhide Ito". Composers' Corner. Philharmonic winds. Retrieved 2007-12-02. 
  9. ^ "平戸観光協会". History. Hirado net. Retrieved July 10, 2014. 

External links[edit]