Japan: How it solved its Christian problem

This article is sourced from @Rjrasva and @dasyavevrka who have researched on Japanese response to early Christian missionaries in 16th century in the paper called “Japan – Her first dalliance with West”. The below article provides summary of their work.

The history of the world since fourth century CE has seen the expansionist monotheistic religions from Middle East stamping out the pagan traditions in one land after another. We, Hindus, have keenly felt the result of this monotheistic Abrahamic onslaught losing more than half of our lands. A thorough reversion of Abrahamic expansion has occurred only in one land – the land of our pagan cousins, the Land of Rising Sun. Japan is a land of Gods (kami) for the Shintoists just as Bharata is a punyabhoomi and karmabhoomi for us. Japanese have digested many Hindu devis and devatas (Sarasvati as Benzaiten, Lakshmi as Kichijo, Ganesha as Kangiten, Garuda as Karura etc.) in their pantheon through the intermediary Buddhists from China. While Japan was spared from any Islamic invasions, she had to face the onslaught of the second Abrahamism from the sixteenth century. Some missionaries even planned to use a Christian Japan to invade and subdue China as we shall see later.

Christian inroads into Japan led to severe troubles not unlike what we faced in Goa and Santhome. Shinto and Buddhist shrines were razed to the ground in the name of the Saviour. In this essay, we shall see how the Japanese handled the Christian attempts, their study/understanding of the monotheistic traditions, their view of the West and its religions and also, the reason why Japanese do not fall to Christian proselytism so easily.

Japanese response

Over a period of time beginning early 16th century, Japanese rulers realized the threat potential of Christianity. Since, the missionaries also brought with them good trading opportunities, it made Japan dependent on trade and in turn depend on Christian. This is not any different from today when Indian courts US for FDI and other outsourcing jobs and in return turns a blind eye to evangelist groups. The Japanese tried to reduce their dependence on this trade so that they can hit back on Christians who were serving as pawns for foreign powers like Spain and Portugal. Thus over a period of time Japanese came up with different laws to contain the march of Christianity.

In their campaign to suppress Christianity, the Japanese authorities had realized an important point regarding the Christian psyche, this being the Christian fetish for martyrdom. The initial public executions of captured Christians resulted in the veneration of the executed people as martyrs. The astute men in charge of the eradication of Christianity realized this and decided that henceforth the official policy should be geared towards securing apostasy with execution being a final resort. We can glean this from the order given by Hasegawa Sahioye Fujihiro, the chief Governor of Nagasaki (the Christian center in Japan):

The Christians desire death in order that they may be honored as martyrs. Hence it is not desirable to slay them, but rather to prolong their lives, subjecting them to such severe punishments as will finally overcome their resistance. The most effective trial will be to enslave their woman, sending the most beautiful of them to the houses of prostitution in Kyoto. If the people will renounce the religion of Christ, they shall be exempted from imposts and other obligations; moreover, Chinese ships will be induced to come to their ports for trade, and this will be for the great enrichment of the country. (Cary 1996: 184)

In order to secure apostasy, persuasion was tried first and if this was unsuccessful torture followed. The most ingenious of the torture techniques was the tsurushi which the Japanese refined with practice on Christians. The contemporary Christians sources testify that it was by far the most effective of the torture techniques as the following shows:

At last they found a more hellish and exquisite way of torturing than before; they hung these sufferers by the heels, their heads in pits, which to give the blood some vent, they slasht lightly cross-waies, (but they do that now no more), and in this posture they live several daies, ten or twelve, and speak sensibly to the very last: The greatness of this torment surpasseth all other, being beyond all humaine strength to suffer and be undergone; but by such who are extraordinarilie strengthened from above. This extremitie hath indeed (by reason of its continuance) forced many to renounce their religion; and some of them who had hung two or three daies, assured me that the pains they endured were wholly unsufferable, no fire nor no torture equalling their langour and violence. (Turnbull 2000: 15)

No pagan civilization to our knowledge ever went to the lengths that the Japanese did in crushing Christianity. Others such as Qing China may have indulged in sporadic persecutions but the Japanese went to much greater lengths and devised many policies specifically designed to crush Christianity. The idea that force does not work or is counterproductive when dealing with Abrahamic religions seems laughable after studying the Japanese experience. In the following paragraph, we have summarized some of the methods the Japanese employed and urge the readers to read the more detailed article cited in the next paragraph to get an idea of Japanese thoroughness in dealing with Christianity.

In addition to their policy of no martyrs, the Japanese authorities employed a variety of techniques to catch hidden Christians and to prevent relapse of apostates. Financial rewards were announced for providing information on priests and other missionaries in hiding. The Shogunate instituted an annual test in Christian centers like Nagasaki whereby the entire population was required to trample on Christian relics such as a picture of Mary holding Jesus. Servants and even prostitutes were required to sign an oath saying that they were not Christians before they could be hired. Public announcement boards were erected throughout the country announcing the prohibition of Christianity which was declared as jashumon (“the evil doctrine”). The entire Japanese population was required to register at their local Buddhist temple and were put into groups of five households (called the gonin gumi system) which functioned as mutual assistance groups but also involved spying on the other households in the group to make sure there were no hidden Christians or law breakers of any other sort. If a member of the group knew of hidden Christians but failed to inform the authorities, the entire household group was usually punished. These were just some of the measures that the Shogunate formulated to stamp out Christianity and many of them were upheld throughout the 250 years of Shogunate rule, long after Christianity ceased to be a viable threat. For more information on these and other measures, one may consult the online article “How Japan dealt with the Christian Threat”.


The result of such sanctions can be gleaned from the devil’s own mouth. So thorough were the Japanese in their eradication of Christianity that a Christian apologist was forced to declare:

Although we often recall Muslim/Christian conflicts, it was the Shinto/Buddhist nation of Japan that perpetrated one of the most thorough extirpations ever recorded of a church. The Japanese exceeded any Muslim successes in how totally they destroyed once-booming Christian communities. This movement had significant long-term effects for the direction of the Christian movement, as the annihilation of the Japanese missions decisively prevented Christianity resuming its movement towards global status, striking a dreadful blow against its progress in Asia. By eliminating potential rivals, both these campaigns contributed to maintaining the near-total European monopoly of Christianity.

For good measure, the Christian apologist is also forced to admit that:

Although we naturally pay most attention to the spectacular acts of mass martyrdom, such violence in its own right need not be absolutely destructive. We remember the saying that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church.” Much more effective in the long term is systematic repression associated with intense surveillance and police work, which really does ensure that a crushed church cannot rise again. The Japanese were brilliantly successful at such policies. Much like modern-day totalitarian regimes, they ran a superbly effective mechanism of repression and thought control. They offer a terrifying model of the means by which a faith – any faith – truly can be destroyed.

Indeed after receiving that crushing blow, Christianity has never again managed to make significant headway in the Land of the Rising Sun though there were periods of optimism and growth such as the early Meiji period or in the immediate aftermath of WW2.

You can read the full paper below or download here: