For Theirs Is the Kingdom of Heaven

“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”                                                                                                        Matthew 5:10

2 Minute Read

By Mike McGinty

Protestant Christianity came to Japan in 1859, but Catholic missionaries arrived approximately three hundred years earlier, making a significant impact.* Francis Xavier was a Jesuit priest who is historically credited with introducing Christianity to Japan, and he was followed by many other Catholic priests and monks.

Persecution Against Christians

These early missionaries encountered an initial measure of success as they baptized over 100,000 converts, including a number of local feudal lords. This new religious movement was initially unopposed by the ruling Shogunate, but the Japanese leaders eventually became suspicious of the outsiders who represented countries intent on expanding their colonial empires. Fearing a loss of power, the Japanese rulers proceeded to launch persecution against Christianity and its followers.

Recanting by Fumie

To aid them in this endeavor, they developed an effective method called “fumie” (踏み絵), to help identify adherents to the new religion. Fumie literally means “to stamp or trample on an image,” referring to a religious icon usually bearing a likeness of Jesus or Mary.

Suspected Christians (Kirishitan) were rounded up in each village and forced one by one to trample on the venerated image placed before them. If they refused to do so, the Kirishitans were turned over to the professional torturers who forced them either to recant–or die an excruciating death for their faith.

Government authorities were so zealous in their persecution efforts that they continued the practice of fumie for many years, even to the fourth generation, in their attempt to completely stamp out any remnants of Christianity in Japan.

Hidden Christians Continued to Worship

Many believers understandably went underground with their faith and religious practices and were soon referred to as “Kakure Kirishitan” (隠れキリシタン) meaning, “hidden Christians.” In subsequent decades and even centuries to come, the Kakure Kirishitan continued to gather for worship secretly, using prayers modified to sound like Buddhist chants; in this way, they were able to retain portions of the Bible through oral transmission.

Was God Silent in the Suffering?

The famous Japanese author, Shūsaku Endo, creatively captured the events of this period in Japanese history through his novel Silence, published in 1966 and recently brought to life (2016) as a major motion picture by the same name. It was directed by Martin Scorsese and features actors Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, and Liam Neeson. The book and movie explore what seems to be the silence of God in the midst of human suffering.

Church of the 26 Martyrs

On a hill in Nagasaki now stands Saint Phillip’s Church (Nishizaka Church), which was erected in 1962 to commemorate the lives of 26 Christians who were executed on that exact site on February 5, 1597. The church and the corresponding museum stand as solemn reminders that those who identify with Christ and take up their own cross to follow Him are not exempt from persecution.

God is Not Silent

Like the early Japanese martyrs who forfeited their own lives by living for the kingdom of God, we are called to pursue righteousness and godliness, while living among the kingdoms of this earth. We must resist all evil influences that would cause us to trample on the things of God. As we do, like Endo demonstrates in Silence, we discover that God is not silent in our sufferings, he suffers with us.

*There is some evidence that Christianity was actually introduced to Japan almost 1,800 years ago through early Nestorian missionaries, but they failed to achieve a significant foothold in the country.

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Nathan Rinne
Nathan Rinne
2 years ago

Thanks for this concise overview, Mike!