The first encounter between Japan and Christianity happened in 1549, when a group of Portuguese Jesuits led by Francisco Xavier (1506-1542) arrived in Kagoshima, after some time spent among India, China, and South-East Asia. At that time, Portuguese Catholic orders had been travelling throughout Asia for the purpose of spreading the Catholic Church and converting as many people as possible, since in Europe the number of Catholics had drastically decreased due to the Protestant movement. To preach Catholicism in Japan, Xavier was assisted by Yajirōヤジロウ, a man from Kagoshima met during his accommodation in Malacca. Other than being the first Japanese to be baptised, Yajirō was partially familiar with Portuguese, therefore he helped Xavier to translate his teachings. In order to do that, Yajirō had to use many Buddhist terms, thus keywords like “Christ” and “Heaven” became “Dainichi” and “the Pure Land”, causing several communication problems. After two years, Xavier decided to quit his Japanese mission, for he realised that he was preaching Buddhism rather than Christianity.
Thirty years later, the Italian Jesuit Alessandro Valignano (1539-1606) and his missionaries arrived in Japan to continue Xavier’s work. To Valignano, the success of his preaching laid in the cultural adaptation rather than cultural imposition, that is why he required his team to learn Japanese and follow the local lifestyle. In 1581, he also wrote the “Cerimoniale per i missionari del Giappone” (Etiquette for the Missionaries in Japan) a guide book for the Jesuits who intended to spread Catholicism in Japan. Xavier and Valignano’s teachings had a remarkable success especially in the Kyūshū 九州area, where many daimyō 大名decided to pledge faith to the Christian Church, but the reason that led the warlords to convert was by no means religious. The Portuguese who were trading in Kyūshū had, in fact, promised to provide every daimyō who converted with firearms, trade goods and other European technologies. The Christian warlords took the name of kirishitan daimyō キリシタン大名 and in return, they had to shift the Buddhist shrines of their domains into churches and to convert the monks as well. The number of weapons a daimyō could receive mainly depended on how many people he managed to convert and how many churches he managed to build. In the meantime, even some Spanish monastic orders had landed in the country to start their evangelisation, helping to increase the number of the Japanese Kirishitan.
The spreading of Catholicism experienced its first setback in 1587, when the highest daimyō in charge Toyotomi Hideyoshi 豊臣秀吉 (1537-1598) forbade its preaching all over Japan, for he was wary of the influence the foreigners were gaining through religion. That same year, he condemned to death twenty-six Christians, Japanese included, making clear his position toward Christianity in Japan. The penalty chosen by Hideyoshi was crucifixion, as he established that the prisoners had to die “as their Lord died”. The fact is still known as the martyrdom of the twenty-six Japanese Saints. By that moment, Christianity became officially outlaws and the bakufu started to expel the Spanish and Portuguese communities from Japan, as he was now intended to negotiate with England and the Netherlands, which had no interest to spread any religion. To definitively ban every Kirishitan from Japan, the authorities applied dreadful methods of torture for anyone who did not deny its faith. However, it had been noticed that the more the torture was excruciating, the more the Kirishitan were likely to confirm their belief, thus the government established new forms of persecution aimed not only to provoke a mental struggle rather than physical but also to ensure the religious shifting of the accused. Among all the new forms of persecution, the fumie 踏み絵 had been the most effective. It required the supposed Kirishitan to step on an iron-carved religious icon such as Mary or Jesus to prove his apostasy and the practice had to be confirmed about every year. Moreover, the accused also had to sign an official declaration of renunciation and enroll on the closest temple. The death sentence was the only alternative to this procedure.
It is under these circumstances that the Kirishitan who did not want to renounce their faith started to profess their belief in hypogeum locations not to be discovered. The underground practice lasted the whole Edo Era but throughout the centuries it turned into a unique religion that considerably drifted from Catholicism. Right after the ban, in fact, the Kirishitan could not help using Buddhism as a disguise to avoid persecution. However, as years went by, Buddhist percepts eventually became a fundamental pillar of the Kirishitan religion. After all, it must be considered that Japanese Kirishitan could not count on the Catholic priests’ teachings anymore, therefore they had to settle with “handier” practice. As a consequence, the fusion between Buddhist and Catholic doctrines unavoidably generated a complex yet extraordinary religion that had many common points with Buddhism and little to do with canonic Christianity. Even the most worshipped being of the Japanese Kirishitan was not Christ, but rather a female deity whose nature was but the perfect melting of the two religions. Known as “Maria Kannon”, this iconic Kirishitan figure represented the fusion between the Christian Madonna and the Buddhist bodhisattva Kannon 観音. The reason why these two female deities became a single goddess in the course of time is strictly related to their partial similarity.
In Japanese Buddhism, Kannon is the equivalent of the Indian Avalokitesvara, a merciful male bodhisattva who, according to the Lotus and Flower Sutras, can have thirty-three manifestations as well. Because of that, in China and Japan Avalokitesvara turned into a motherly, compassionate female deity. Hence, the Kirishitan possibly thought of the Virgin Mary as the Christian manifestation of Kannon herself. Nonetheless, the name “Maria Kannon” was not being used by the Kirishitan, for it was a name applied afterwards. During the underground period, the Kirishitan communities used to hang a scroll depicting the motherly Maria Kannon with her child in their hidden locations. Equally, a white-ceramic statuette of a sitting Maria Kannon with a joyful child on her lap would be placed on their altars. The latter was, for the most part, imported from China, where the same fusion between the two religious figures had already occurred. However, the Child was usually removed from the scrolls, and his head cut down in the statuettes to conceal its real belonging.
Maria Kannon became the most worshipped being in the Kirishitan religion especially because of the fumie torture. That is, when a Kirishitan was required to deny his faith, he immediately addressed its prayers to the gentle, compassionate Mary rather than Jesus since he was regarded as a more uncompromising figure. That explains why Jesus occupied a side position in the Kirishitan religion.
Whereas Kannon’s iconography embodied Virgin Mary, the Buddhist Mandala became the embodiment of the paintings focused on the rosary practice. The Japanese painting known as “The Fifteen Mysteries of the Rosary” or “The Fifteen Mysteries of the Virgin Mary”原田家本マリア十五玄義図, in particular, had a special role in the Kirishitan practice, although the period and the artist are still unknown. The canvas portrays the main moments of Jesus and Mary’s life with two additional images. The first image depicts Holy Mary and Infant Christ whereas the second one depicts Saint Ignacio de Loyola and Saint Francisco Xavier. Its structure is extremely similar to the one used in Taima Mandala当麻曼荼羅, a mandala depicted in 763 a.d. which represents Amida Buddha’s Pure Land realm.
Like The Fifteen Mysteries of the Rosary, the Mandala is divided into several parts depicting scenes of Amida’s life and other fundamental characters of Jōdo浄土Buddhism. Moreover, according to an episode that happened in 1687, an inspector sent by the bakufu to uncover the Kirishitan communities in Nagasaki 長崎affirmed in his report that he had found a Taima Mandala in a Kirishitan house hiding another painting behind it. Although the inspector did not explain what the hiding painting was, the Kirishitan family may have been using the Taima Mandara to preach their religion, acknowledging its Kirishitan symbolism. Surprisingly, the Kirishitan religion had also incorporated some Shintō elements in its practice, like summoning the kamisama 神様during their rituals and the exorcism of the evil spirits both of people and places. The Kirishitian communities remained hidden for about three centuries, often suffering periodical raids during the whole Edo period. Their liberation occurred in 1858, right after the opening of the country, but they had to wait until 1873 to see the official revocation of the anti-Kirishitan laws. By that moment, priests and religious orders of any Christian belief joined the traders in their missions in Japan to save their persecuted brothers and some Kirishitan decided to follow the new Christian teachings. However, the majority of the Kirishitan community made a different decision. They, in fact, chose to pursue the doctrine taught by their ancestors in the time of the underground practice, claiming that their religion had nothing to do with Christianity anymore. These communities took the name of Kakure Kirishitan 隠れキリシタン, Underground Kirishitan, to honour their tradition. Nowadays, the Kakure Kirishitan religion counts a few thousand believers spread among Nagasaki, the Gotō islands, and some Kyūshū areas, but the number is drastically dwindling. Many communities are disappearing and because of that the few members left have often to choose whether to join the local shrine or the nearest church. It is no wonder that almost all of them opt for the shrine instead of the church.