Tuesday, 26 October 2021

The Rome of Japan

Do you like tempura? The word comes from the Latin for Lent (ad tempora quadragesima) used by the Portuguese missionaries.

From Catholic Stand

By Neil Jopson

Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As soon as you read or hear those names, it’s likely your thoughts turn to one of the most terrible moments of the 20th century when up to 200,000 people died and the world discovered it had entered the nuclear age. These two cities are bracketed together for the most terrible of reasons, yet their destruction by the first atom bombs dropped in war is only part of their story. Each has its own history, covering hundreds of years, and Nagasaki is of particular importance to Catholics.

History of Catholicism in Japan

Nagasaki’s story is important in the history of Catholicism in Japan. From nearly the very beginning of Catholicism’s presence in Japan, through its persecution and eventual freedom, Catholics in Nagasaki were center stage. Some of the most powerful and moving stories in the history of Japanese Catholicism took place in Nagasaki. At one point the number of Catholics living in Nagasaki led to it being referred to as the Rome of Japan. It could even be argued that the midwife to the birth of the city was the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits.

Portuguese Catholics

Portuguese explorers arrived in Japan in 1543 and missionaries soon followed, the most famous being St Francis Xavier who landed in 1549. These pioneers arrived in Japan at a time of social unrest and civil war, the outcome of this strife not only formed Japan for centuries to come, but it would also ultimately have dire consequences for the activities of Europeans and the missionaries in Japan. Initially, the opposite was the case, as competing warlords looked for an advantage for their cause from contact with the new arrivals. Munitions, as always, had an attractive quality to a lord engaged in perpetual warfare.

It is no accident that Nagasaki is situated on the third biggest island of Japan, Kyushu. This was the main point of contact between the Portuguese Catholic and Japanese cultures, and where Catholicism made its greatest inroads into the Japanese population. The aristocratic leaders in Japan were known as daimyos, and there were conversions among this leadership class. It was one of these conversions, that of Omura Sumitada, which led to the creation of the port of Nagasaki. Sumitada recognised that it was difficult for the Portuguese and the Jesuit missionaries (the only missionaries in Japan at this point were Jesuits) with no decent port for their use on Kyushu.

So it was that in 1571 a port was set up at Nagasaki, following a decree in 1569 issued by Sumitada with the express aim of providing an access port for the Portuguese traders. Sumitada eventually decided that this new town should be placed outside of Japanese control, and entrusted it to Jesuit authority. So it was that Nagasaki became a Jesuit colony. It was not the only one in Jesuit history, but it was to be a unique event in Japan.

The era of ‘Portuguese Nagasaki’ was to last only a few brief years, but they were important years. In 1579 it is thought there were 400 or so habitations in Nagasaki, and by 1600 the population had grown to 15,000. Japanese Catholics arrived from elsewhere in Japan to boost the rapid growth of the settlement, fleeing persecution in their home towns and villages. The facilities you would expect grew up in Nagasaki, such as the church and charitable organisations, as well as places of education (including, at one point, a painting school). Nagasaki was noted as having a high number of children, which probably reflects the fact that infanticide was a common practice in Japan at the time, a practice abandoned by those who converted to Christianity.

All around Nagasaki the country was at war with itself, yet there were no defensive fortifications in this city. The city gleamed in the Japanese countryside, the Portuguese tradition of painting houses white adding yet another visual layer of difference to this Japanese city.

Missionaries Were Expelled

Direct Jesuit control ended pretty quickly, with Toyotomi Hideyoshi returning the city to local control in 1587. The missionaries were now theoretically expelled. Yet it was too late to stop the growth of Nagasaki as a place of contact with the West, as it remained the trading port of choice for the Portuguese. The population remained largely Catholic, and initially, there was no need to hide their faith. Persecution, though, was just around the corner. On the 5th February 1597, the twenty-six martyrs of Japan were executed in Nagasaki. By this point, there could have been up to 300,000 Catholics in Japan, and they were now seen as a threat by the Japanese authorities.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi had been central to uniting Japan and bringing an end to its civil wars. Initially, he had an ambiguous relationship with Christianity but soon began to feel he could not accept this new faith in Japan. Unlike religious beliefs such as Shinto and Buddhism, they seemed to threaten the fabric of Japanese society.


After years of war, nothing perceived as a threat to peace could be allowed to survive. Fearing missionaries were being used by the Spanish as a prelude to armed invasion, the twenty-six martyrs were killed as a warning. The twenty-six were a mix of Europeans, Japanese, and even Mexican Catholics. Some were just boys.

Martyrdom now became a very real risk for Japanese Catholics, hundreds were to die across Japan in the following years. In Nagasaki, this culminated in the executions of fifty-five Catholics in 1632. By now Catholicism was officially banned and driven underground. As the weight of persecution and oppression gathered pace, desperation bred desperate actions. Christian nobles led a doomed uprising in 1637, known as the Shimabara Rebellion, which was crushed with the help of Dutch forces and left a huge death toll in its wake.

Japan now began a policy of isolation from the rest of the world. Nagasaki’s story continued, and the currents of history made their marks on the city. The Great Fire of Nagasaki ripped through the town in 1663, destroying much of historical interest from the period of the city’s birth. Meanwhile, the Japanese policy of isolation did not in practice mean the end of all contact with the rest of the world. The Dutch were still around, if somewhat strictly monitored, and there was an unfortunate brush with a Royal Navy warship hunting the Dutch in 1808. There was also a large Chinese community. The Catholic roots of the city, however, seemed lost to history.

In a reversal of fortunes, Nagasaki became a treaty port in 1859. A change of national leadership had occurred with the Meiji Restoration, and the 1853 Perry expedition had led to the Japanese officially reopening their communications with the outside world. A surprise awaited for the Catholic missionaries who once again arrived on Japanese soil.

One of those missionaries was a French priest called Bernard Thaddée Petitjean. Working in and around Nagasaki he assumed he was in virgin mission territory, as there was little trace of Japan’s Christian century. Then, one day in 1865 a group of Japanese villagers approached him. Seeing the cross on the newly built church in Nagasaki, they had decided to reveal something to the French priest that they had kept as a secret within their families for over two hundred years.


When the authorities had expelled the missionaries and begun to massacre the Christian population, the Catholic community had gone underground. Keeping their faith to themselves they had survived without priests, keeping as much of the Catholic faith alive as they could. Catholicism had not been extinguished in Japan, it had survived in the lives of the simplest people of the Japanese population. As the official Church reestablished itself in Japan, Nagasaki once again became a center for Japanese Catholicism.

Whilst Nagasaki was not the only city to be a point of contact for Japan with the outside world, it had developed into the epicenter of Japanese Catholicism. Passing over so much of its history in these few brief words, there is plenty worth returning to. The story of Japanese Catholicism is moving and heartbreaking. A tale of misunderstandings and the clash of cultures, of conversion, apostasy, and betrayal. Yet also of friendship, collaboration, and faith.

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