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Exploring Anti-Christian Policies in the History of Japan – Part I: Introduction

By Yutaka Morishima – Aoyama Gakuin University, Japan. 

Dr. Yutaka Morishima is a professor and university chaplain at Aoyama Gakuin University in Japan and a visiting scholar at OMSC in Princeton Theological Seminary (2023-2024). The subject of his Ph.D. dissertation was the Atonement Theology of P.T. Forsyth. He has served as a Protestant church pastor in Nagasaki, where the atomic bomb was dropped. His recent research is on the ideological history of human rights, especially the formation process of a unique human rights concept in Asia. In particular, the use of terms such as “human rights” and “peace state” in political documents is demonstrated to support the concept of Japan’s national polity, shedding new light on the formation of modern imperial ideology.

Editorial Introduction: For the next several weeks we will be publishing a series of essays by Dr. Yutaka Morishima, who is an OMSC global partner this academic year. We wanted to feature this essay in four parts for its insight into the history of Japan and its relationship to Christianity. In these essays, Dr. Morishima explores the onset of Christianity in Japan, the impact it had on Japanese society, and the way certain policies shaped the contours of the faith. We hope that you enjoy this exploration of how Christianity unfolded in this nation’s history and its consequences to the present.Stephen Di Trolio, Managing Editor of The Occasional.



Oura Cathedral (大浦天主堂 O-ura Tenshu-do) in Nagasaki, Japan, is one of the oldest church buildings in Japan and is listed as a World Heritage Site. Historically, Nagasaki was known for having a high number of hidden Christians, and it still has one of the largest Christian populations in Japan. When you visit Nagasaki, you will find another well-known sightseeing spot as important as the Oura Cathedral—Meganebashi Bridge. It arches over the Nakashima River, and with its reflection on the water’s surface, it resembles a pair of spectacles. Thus, it is called Meganebashi, or, in English, “Spectacles Bridge.”

There are, in fact, many other bridges in the same area, such as the Meganebashi Bridge. There used to be eighteen bridges within this short stretch of distance. As you stand on one of these bridges and look toward the mountains, you will see something: temples. These bridges all lead to the temples. That is why there are as many bridges as there are temples. The area is called Teramachi (Temple town). The high number of temples is because there was a governmental effort to suppress Christianity in the city. The lord of Nagasaki during this time (1580-1587) tried to unify the whole of the Nagasaki territory with Christianity and destroyed all the shrines and temples in the area. Reacting to this, the Edo Shogunate, decided to eradicate Christianity for political reasons and gathered all the Buddhist denominations into this area at the beginning of the Edo period. There are many famous festivals in Nagasaki, and most of them were designed as some method for counteract the influence of Christianity. Put another way, Nagasaki became an experimental city for implementing political and religious policies against Christianity, which ended up being successful. Incidentally, Nagasaki is said to have the highest Christian population in Japan, yet still most funerals are performed according to Buddhist and Shinto traditions, Christianity (Catholic) following behind.

Why was Christianity suppressed in Japan? One of the main reasons for this was to stop the establishment of the “right of resistance.” The right of resistance has as its basis the belief in the existence of someone beyond the rulers, namely God as having the supreme authority. This notion was central to the development of western protestant history, from the Reformation, Puritan Revolution, and American Revolution. The philosophy of the right of resistance emerged through the influence of Protestantism. Administrators of Japan knew, with political intuition rather than rationale, that Christian influence was behind this particular philosophical position towards the right to resist.


Photo by Su San Lee on Unsplash

There is an anecdote to illustrate this point. When the Taikō, Hideyoshi Toyotomi visited Hakata to subjugate Kyushu area (southern part of Japan one of his attendants went to the Arima region (Shimabara) to find a girl to accompany Hideyoshi for the night. However, the girls declined the invitation by the ruler. Surprised, the attendant asked them, “Why?” to which they answered, “We are Christians.”

This response was shocking for Hideyoshi. He officially announced the famous edict expelling Jesuit missionaries (bateren tsuihō rei) on hearing this report that night. At that time, no one dared to refuse an order by the Shogun general. They turned to the right when ordered to “face right” and committed harakiri when commanded to “die,” regardless of whether it was right or wrong. This was the way society was structured at this time. However, here, girls in their teens refused the ruler’s order. When Hideyoshi encountered these young girls, who were at the time only seen as possessions refused because of their Christian faith were inspired to rebel against the ruler. Hideyoshi began to fear this “new” religion. He concluded it would be dangerous if feudal lords gained this same spirit.

Sure enough, his fear was confirmed through one of his loyal retainers, Ukon Takayama. Ukon was a Christian feudal lord whom Hideyoshi deeply trusted. When confronted by Hideyoshi to abandon his faith, he replied the following:

I have served you daily, Taikō sama, with all of my heart and soul. Even now, if it was for Taikō sama, I would gladly break my brain and have it become dust. There is nothing except one thing that would have me rebel against your orders. For this one thing, if you commanded me to abandon my faith to betray Deos (God), I could not obey even upon all of my possessions or my own life. All that have entered the way of Christianity know this well.

Hideyoshi’s fears of this new faith that would encourage its followers to reject complete submission to the ruler was only further confirmed through this incident. Hideyoshi then decided to take measures to stop this faith and to persecute Christianity in the territories he ruled over.

Even with the change of the ruler, the policy remained unchanged. For example, The first shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa experienced similar situations, which made him fearful. When Ieyasu banned Christianity and forced his three beloved maids to abandon their faith, they refused. Below is a report of the incident:

Regarding these three, the king (Ieyasu) ordered them to abandon their faith. First, they were placed in a prison-like room to instill fear. However, when the three officials and several other women went to where they were, they bravely told them that they were willing to face any torture instead of abandoning the teachings of Christ and continuing to resist the king’s anger towards Christians and the severe judgment of their refusal to obey.

Upon learning of their unwavering decision, Ieyasu became furious and said he, “would not allow disobedience to his command.” From then on, the persecution of Christianity intensified. The administrators of Japan regarded themselves even as “deities” requiring total submission by those they ruled. They feared this independent spirit that originated in the belief in the existence of someone divinity greater than themselves, ever-present at the theological center of Christianity.

However, the administrators were forced to change their approach to Christianity during the Meiji period. During the Edo period, the country was closed, enabling them to stop Christianity’s influence through oppression. However, when the country opened up during the Meiji period, Christianity entered Japan from the outside. This was a success, and it is still effective now. This policy of accepting Christianity without its backbone, in effect, means that even in the Christian faith, the emperor is respected and accepted as a deity through cultural life. Most people do not recognize it. In other words, the reason why Christianity has failed to spread in Japan lies in the religious policy that accepted Christianity without its backbone: the philosophy of the right of resistance. To put it another way, there was an intentional cultural policy to remove the backbone that “makes God, God.”

In this essay, I would like to talk about the systems that removed the theo-political backbone of Christianity, which I will cover in three parts. The first is the religious policy of the Meiji government. The second is establishing the unique human rights philosophy called Imperial Human Rights (tennō gata jinken). Third, I will talk about the present-day effect.

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