Vatican starting extensive study on history of Christians in Japan

March 26, 2014

By HIROSHI ISHIDA/ Correspondent

Roman Catholic priest Mario Marega spent many long years engaged in missionary work in Japan, even during the chaotic period of World War II.

But it wasn’t until decades after his death that people discovered the wealth of information the Italian priest had collected on the history of Christians in Japan.

With words of encouragement from Pope Francis, the Vatican and Japanese organizations this year will start to study the 10,000 documents amassed by Marega to shed light on Japanese Christians, called Kirishitan, who for centuries hid their faith under the threat of persecution.

The Marega Project is expected to take six years to complete.

“Even in Japan, there have been no cases involving such a large number of historical materials related to Japanese Christians,” said Cesare Pasini, prefect of the Vatican Library, where Marega’s documents were found.

In a speech on Jan. 15, Pope Francis praised Japanese Christians, saying: “This is great. ... They were isolated and hidden, but they were always members of the People of God.” He called them model believers.

The next day, the newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, which conveys the Vatican’s official views, urged readers to learn from Japanese Christians.

Pope Francis, who had said he wanted to do missionary work in Japan when he was young, belongs to the Society of Jesus. The society’s members included Francisco de Xavier (1506-1552), a Roman Catholic missionary who brought Christianity to Japan in the 16th century.

Christian missionaries were expelled from Japan in the early 17th century, and their followers were persecuted. Many converts were executed.

Next year marks the 150th anniversary of the Roman Catholic priests’ return to Japan, where they found that Kirishitan were still in the country.

Marega (1902-1978) visited Japan around 1930 and worked in Oita Prefecture. Before leaving the prefecture in 1950, he collected documents that he used to publish “Bungo Kirishitan Shiryo” (Historical materials of Kirishitan in Bungo). Bungo is the old name of the southern part of Oita Prefecture.

In 2011, a huge number of materials written in Japanese were found in packages kept at the Vatican Library. They were the original materials collected by Marega.

According to Pasini, about 10 staff members of the library have been looking into documents, but most of the workers are specialists in materials written in Greek or Latin.

Only one is in charge of documents written in other languages, including Japanese, so the studies have made little progress.

After the inauguration of Pope Francis in March 2013, the Vatican Library and Japanese organizations, including the government-affiliated National Institutes for the Humanities, agreed in November to conduct a joint study on the documents.

“The pope is supporting our library’s activities of promoting cultural exchanges with a distant country,” Pasini said.

The researchers will create indexes and make the information available on the Internet.

Kazuo Otomo, a professor at the National Institute of Japanese Literature who represents the Japanese side, expressed hope for the joint project.

“Of the historical materials, 90 percent have yet to be clarified,” Otomo said. “They will have a big influence on future studies about the suppression suffered by Kirishitan in Japan. The clarification will also enable researchers to compare the situation in Japan with religious suppression in other parts of the world.”


Men in kimono sit on their heels and recite a prayer that sounds similar to a Buddhist chant and ends up resembling a hymn.

The prayer, called “Uta-Orasho,” derives from a centuries-old chant long forgotten in Europe. But it continues to be recited on Ikitsukishima island in Hirado, Nagasaki Prefecture, symbolizing the resilience of a Christian community that suffered more than two centuries of persecution.

“Our ancestors continued to hold rituals even in times when they could be killed if they were found,” Masashi Funabara, 51, said. “We also want to continue to do so.”

Funabara is one of the 400 Christians on the island who call themselves Kirishitan. About 300 people among the island’s population of about 6,000 are conventional Roman Catholic Christians.

Christianity spread on the island in the mid-16th century, when the Society of Jesus began missionary work there.

But the Japanese government in the early 17th century expelled missionaries and banned Christianity. Converts were severely suppressed, and it is said that the sea became red with their blood.

However, they kept their faith, usually in secret, and continued to recite their words of prayer in Latin.

"Uta-Orasho" is said to be the first Western music to enter Japan, and the words have not changed over the centuries.

In 1982, Tatsuo Minagawa, professor emeritus of music at Rikkyo University, found the musical score of a Gregorian chant that was the basis for "Uta-Orasho" in a national library in Madrid.

In November 2013, a choir led by conductor Tomomi Nishimoto sang the Gregorian chant at Mass in Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican to honor "Uta-Orasho."

Around the same time, the prayer was chanted at Shima no Yakata (Island’s house), a museum on Ikitsukishima island.

Japan lifted the ban on Christianity in the mid-19th century and allowed priests to return to the country.

“It is a surprise that all the rituals remained after 250 years,” said Annibale Zambarbieri, a professor of religion at the University of Pavia in Italy.

He said that even today, people follow their religions in secret to escape suppression in some Muslim countries and North Korea. But Japan’s Kirishitan were extremely organized, he said.

In the early Showa Era (1926-1989), 80 percent of the 10,000 people on Ikitsukishima island were Kirishitan. But the population of the island is shrinking and aging, and the number of Kirishitan has decreased.

“Now is the time to review the existence of Kirishitan from a historical context,” said Shigeo Nakazono, a curator of the museum who studies the history of Kirishitan.

The Nagasaki prefectural government plans to seek World Heritage site status for a group of churches and facilities related to Christianity. The Vatican said in a letter to the prefectural government that it supports the registration.

Zambarbieri noted the controversy over whether Kirishitan should be regarded as Christians, considering the influences of Buddhism and Shinto on their faith.

“I think that we should call them, ‘Old Christians.’ Christianity has often mixed with local cultures. Even Pope Francis said that they are model believers. There is no reason not to regard them as Christians,” he said.

By HIROSHI ISHIDA/ Correspondent
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Kirishitan chant a prayer called “Uta-Orasho” on Ikitsukishima island in Hirado, Nagasaki Prefecture, in November. (Hiroshi Ishida)

Kirishitan chant a prayer called “Uta-Orasho” on Ikitsukishima island in Hirado, Nagasaki Prefecture, in November. (Hiroshi Ishida)

  • Kirishitan chant a prayer called “Uta-Orasho” on Ikitsukishima island in Hirado, Nagasaki Prefecture, in November. (Hiroshi Ishida)
  • A picture of Madonna and Child on Ikitsukishima island in Hirado, Nagasaki Prefecture (Hiroshi Ishida)

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