Museum on persecuted Christians opens in Japan’s oldest church
A museum about persecuted Christians in Japan was opened on 1 April 2018 in a large Catholic church in Nagasaki, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is Japan’s oldest church. On an opening day, some tourists visiting the museum were surprised to hear that there were some believers who, despite the almost complete extinction of Christianity in Japan, continued to practice their faith secretly.
The Catholic Archdiocese of Nagasaki has converted the former Latin seminary and a former bishop’s residence on the grounds of the church into a museum because the Oura church itself is considered a national treasure. In addition, UNESCO plans this summer to include 12 sites relating to the history of persecuted Christians in Nagasaki and neighbouring Kumamoto.
The new facility shows Japan’s religious history with panels explaining the different time periods. Among other things, those interested can find out about the introduction of Catholicism and also how Christians hid to practice their faith in the midst of persecution by the authorities. Various items such as “Maria Kannon” are exhibited in the Oura church museum. These special statues are reminiscent of Buddhist statues depicting the Deity of Compassion, but which helped believing Christians to pray to the Virgin Mary.
The Christian faith was first introduced to Japan in 1549 by the missionary Francis Xavier. However, Christianity was later banned and the followers of the Tokugawa shogunate persecuted the Christians brutally. Japanese Christians were persecuted from the 17th to the 19th century after the Tokugawa shogunate banned their faith during the Edo Period (1603-68).
It was not until 1854 that Catholic missionaries returned to Nagasaki after Japan ended its self-imposed isolation. Ten years later, the missionaries completed the construction of Oura Church. A year after, a group of hidden Christians from Nagasaki visited the church and told a French priest that they secretly practised Christianity. The discovery of these Christians was considered a miracle overseas.
In 1873, the ban on Christianity was lifted by the Meiji government, which previously withdrew power from the Tokugawa shogunate. The lifting of the ban took place after Western countries raised heavy protests.