Journey to Goto Islands and Beyond: a Matter of Faith or Religion?

When I first watched the movie Silence by Martin Scorsese, the only thing that I could think of—besides the dark but wildly beautiful scenery—was “trample, trample, please just trample.” Why would not they, the Hidden Christians of Japan, just step on the fumi-e, carved stone featuring the image of Jesus Christ or Virgin Mary, to avoid death by torture? Were these symbolic gestures more important than human life?

Why the hesitation and in most cases outright refusal? The moral need to not be suppressed by the authorities and maintain the dignity even at the cost of death or was it really only all about their faith and what stepping on fumi-e – symbolically – meant for their religion, their faithfulness? Or maybe both? 

Reflection of christian church on water in Goto islands in Japan

A recent visit to Goto Islands located off the coast of Nagasaki, home to many sites, some registered as UNECO World Heritage Site, linked to Hidden Christians of Japan (Kakure Kirishitans) and where the story of the Silence took place (although filmed in Taiwan) did not help me to find the answers but made me once again face the almost inevitable and recurring question of what faith means.

Hidden Christians of Japan: dark history

The history of Hidden Christianity in Japan goes back to the late 17th century when Japan had first welcomed Portuguese ships marking the very first encounter between the Western culture and Japan. While the primary goal of expeditions, part of the Age of Exploration, was to establish new trade routes and opportunities, there were also many, mainly Jesuit, priests on board the ships. As a result, the period also marked the introduction of Christianity (more specifically Catholicism) to Japan. 

UNESCO World Heritage church built by Hidden Christians of Japan

This triggered a period where the number of Japanese adopting Christianity had steadily increased on the islands located off the coast of Kyushu including Goto Islands and Amakusa in 40 short years. Many seminaries headed by Western priests opened in the greater Nagasaki region. Even some daimyo, the feudal lords of the Edo Period, converted to Christianity. However, it was not long before the anti-Christian sentiment started to grow in the country. In 1614, the ruling Shogunate banned Christianity and imposed severe sanctions for those who did not obey the ban. The policy was accompanied by a punishment campaign to locate the existing Christians and force them to renounce their religion. 

Fumi-e: the infamous practice from the Edo Period

Fumi-e is one of the techniques used at the time to force people to renounce their religion. Those suspected of Christianity would be required to step on a carved stone depicting the figure of Jesus Christ or Virgin Mary and denounce their religion. Those who did not obey would be persecuted using extremely harsh techniques, vividly depicted in the movie Silence, including death by burning. 

The risk of severe persecution soon led people to practice their faith in secret – forming the groups now known as the Hidden Christians of Japan. The islands off the coast of Western Kyushu, including Goto Islands and Amakusa, were ideal spots to live and hide from authorities as being relatively out of the eye of the persecution authorities. Both regions were also already home to a substantial Christian population, soon to become “Kakure Kirishitans“. The ban on Christianity lasted for more than two centuries until 1873. 

Unique religious culture formed during the centuries of secrecy

During the centuries when the Christianity was practiced under strict secrecy, the faith centered communities, often isolated from each other, each developed their own techniques to practice their religion in the absence of a former priest and designated place of worship.

Nozaki Island and church home to Hidden Christians

Once the ban was lifted, and even shortly prior to the abolishment, Hidden Christians slowly started to come out. Oura Church in Nagasaki City, a beautiful church on top of a gentle hill, is the site where a surprise encounter between the church`s priest and a group of Hidden Christians occurred in 1865, 18 years before the abolishment of the ban on Christianity. The discovery of the small group who made the risky pilgrimage to Oura was so unexpected that the pope of the time declared the event as the “Miracle of the Orient”. 

It was soon discovered that during the two centuries Kakure Kirishitans had to practice their faith under strict secrecy, their religious practices evolved to a unique form eventually largely differing from conventional Catholicism. They had no access to priests, or the objects of worship, and definitely no church. As a result, they developed their own methods even adopting from Shintoism and Buddhism. They also often joined Buddhist or Shinto communities to hide their faith.

In search of Japan’s Hidden Christians

Nozaki Island, located merely a 30-minutes boat ride away from Ojika Island, is one of those places that was once home to a large group of Hidden Christians who joined the community centered around the only Shinto shrine on the island as a means to hide their faith. The island is today home to only one temporary resident who only travels from Ojika when there is a guest at the only accommodation facility on the island. The island feels lonely and also a little eerie despite more than 400 wild deer calling it home. The abandoned village once home to Kakure is listed among the 12 Hidden Christian sites registered by UNESCO.

Two tori gates facing the sea in Ojika Island in Japan

Another site with a similar background story combining Christianity with local religion is Sakitsu in Amakusa Islands, which lies right across Goto Islands close to the mainland Kyushu. The Gothic style Sakitsu Church, rebuilt in 1934 on the site where once the practice of fumi-e was imposed on the islands Christians sits on the opposite end of the same street that hosts  Suwa Shrine. The shrine was in the olden days – secretly – used by Hidden Christians to practice their unique rituals. Also registered among the 12 UNESCO sites, Sakitsu feels very different from Nozaki Island. It resembles European lake villages where the church dominates the picture-perfect scenery, not giving any hint of the days of misery.

Following the abolishment of the ban on Christianity in 1883, many of the Hidden Christians quickly joined the Catholic Church but not all of them. In a rather surprising but somehow understandable move, there were groups who chose to not join the Catholic Church and continue to practice this now unique form of faith developed during the two centuries of secrecy. Based on the anecdotes included in the wonderful book by John Dougill – in Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians – the group believed that abolishing their own religious rituals and formally adopting Christianity would mean betraying their ancestors who suffered for centuries to maintain their faith centered communities. Those rituals were a mean for them to remain spiritually connected to their ancestors.

The dilemma faced by the Christians of the Nagasaki region was one of the main aspects that drew me further into their story. Once removed from the rituals and governance of organized religion, they slowly moved away from the practices associated with their organized religion but somehow delved even further into their faith, albeit in another form shaped by centuries of secrecy. Over the years, their own set of practices and beliefs became so sacred and integrated into their sense of self that joining the Catholic Church, where it all started, felt like betrayal of their own beliefs but more importantly ancestors.

For me, without any deep knowledge of Christianity, it is difficult to understand the difference between the practices of Hidden Christians and the formal Catholic church. When coupled with the strong sense of privacy admirably carried by Japanese people, as John Dougill notes in his book, it is difficult to hear the stories of Hidden Christians who still chose to remain hidden even after the religious ban was lifted. 

Goto Islands: inviting scenery contrasting the dark history

Goto Islands, formed of five separate islands, is the richest region in the greater Nagasaki area in terms of the sites linked to Hidden Christianity. Some of these churches now only serve as a museum but the islands, where Christians account for nearly 10% of the population – 10 times higher than Japan’s average, are also home to many modern churches serving the Catholic community with regular masses. 

The islands, and particularly the largest two islands in the group, Fukue and Nakadori, offer a welcoming backdrop of natural scenery contrasting the dark history of the islands. The peaks are gentle, the ocean is blue, and churches are next to beautiful coves. The church sites, embraced by often blue skies and inviting coves, often feels more like in the Caribbeans than in Japan.

Dozaki Church in Fukue Island is one of the most famous churches with its idyllic location. Converted to museum in 1970, the red brick building is home to more than 200 relics all donated by the surrounding Christian community. There are even fumi-e on display but only the replica. The original ones are in display in Tokyo National Museum located inside Ueno Park.

In terms of the beauty, while the church building itself is not particularly unique, Nakanoura Church located in Nakadori Island is another mesmerizing site especially early in the morning when the cove is calm allowing a perfect reflection of the church on the water. 

A wild deer looking at the camera in Nozaki Island in Japan

Most of the churches can be visited freely (no photos allowed) but some – especially the UNESCO listed ones – require online reservation. You can easily book your visit using this dedicated – and English – website.

So is this all a matter of faith or religion?

I am not a religious person. When you are brought up in a region where religion has always been used as a political tool either to praise or condemn religion and where secularity is rarely granted even when it exists on paper, constitutions, it becomes, at least for me, a little more difficult to develop a healthy sense of spirituality, let alone religion. It sure does not help that religious affiliations, more strongly than even before in the last two decades, are often linked to some sort of political inclination or statement almost in any region in the world.

While some religions, unrightfully, suffer more from it than others, my sense of disconnection is not specific to any one religion. I am generally not a great believer of the concept of organized religion. Despite my almost obsessive level of love for nature, even Japan`s native religion Shinto admirably putting nature above everything else feels distant to me, as does any religion organized enough to have a name. However, I strongly believe in the freedom of faith and the absolute necessity for equal respect for believers and non-believers. It took me 30 long years of my life to finally start separating the sense of faith and spirituality from religion. And only then, during the last decade, I slowly started developing an appreciation for the need of some level of spirituality in ones life. I sure have not found (enough of) it yet but will probably keep looking till the end of my days. 

First trip that made me further think about the concept of belief outside any religion and what it meant for us humans was Gobeklitepe in my own country – one of the oldest archeological discoveries in the world, also dubbed as the oldest temple in the world, assumed to be 12,000 years old. The discovery of Gobeklitepe, in the words of National Geographic, was impactful enough to alter the history of humanity. Today the studies in terms of what the discovery of this site means for humanity still continues but many reports indicate that, despite earlier belief, it was not the agriculture that sparked civilization but it was the urge to believe, a statement that gives me pause whenever I think of it.

Coming back to my original question – is this a story of faith or a religion or both, or possibly even neither? I still do not know the answer but I suspect that the need for a sense of community, in the case of Nagasaki, had a lot to do with it. So again, what does faith mean? Possibly a different thing for each of us and that is the beauty of it.