Hidden Christians’ Illicit Sacred Vase Brought to Light in Japan

A centuries-old relic associated with ancient Christian practice in Japan is causing a stir in the Japanese media. The item is believed to be an artifact preserved by Japan’s “kakure kirishitan” or hidden Christians, practitioners of Catholicism who were forced to keep their activities a secret after Christianity was prohibited on the island by culturally repressive leaders in the early 17th century.

Painting of mass killing of Christians in Nagasaki in 1622, known as the Great Genna Martyrdom. ( Public domain )

Tracing the Kakure Kirishitan Vase’s History
After being hidden for more than four centuries, this artifact—a simple and modestly-designed vase—has been put on display by the family that has owned it for many generations. While the vase isn’t particularly unusual in appearance, it is notable because of a single printed word that has been found on its bottom. This word reads escencia, which in this context has been identified as the Spanish word for “fragrant oil.”

Based on the presence of this one word, experts have concluded that the vase once held fragrant oil used during religious ceremonies. They also believe the vase would have belonged to a prominent person, given how carefully it was preserved by the family that had held it safely for so long.

Along with his family, the individual who presented the vase for study has traced his roots in the Sotome district, near the city of Nagasaki on Japan’s southern seacoast. This is significant, because it was here that the Japanese version of medieval Catholicism was most widely practiced in the 16th century after the religion was brought to Japan by missionaries. Once the religion was banned, the kakure kirishitan continued to worship in secret to protect themselves from terrible punishments.

The ancient vase is about 10 inches (25 cm) tall and was painted in three colors, having been manufactured in China around the year 1600. The vase has been kept in storage by the family that inherited it and carefully preserved through the ages.

According to the owner, only the head of the household would have been allowed to view the vase due to the fact that it was considered a sacred object. The word escencia printed on its underside is entirely consistent with the idea that it held fragrant oil, which would have been sprinkled around during various Catholic ceremonies, including baptisms and confirmations.

17th century notice board displaying an anti-Christian edict. The inscription vividly describes substantial rewards offered for information leading to the capture of Christian priests, believers, and those who sympathize with them. (Zunkir / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

How the Kakure Kirishitan Tradition Evolved in Japan
Christianity arrived in Japan in the mid-16th century, when missionaries brought Christ’s message to the Far East seeking converts. These missionaries found a welcoming home at first, specifically around the ancient lands of the modern city of Nagasaki, which meant that they were able to build small communities of converts that presumably could have grown over time.

But 1603 was a turning point and from then on everything changed. This was the beginning of the Edo Period (1603 to 1868), which marked the rise of a military dictatorship run by the Tokugawa shogunate , or Tokugawa royal family.

The first dictator of the Edo Period—and founder of his family’s dynasty—was Tokugawa Ieyasu , an acclaimed military leader whose smashing victory at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 ended Japan’s civil war and led to the collapse of the Ashikaga shogunate that had ruled the country from the 14th through the 16th centuries. The Tokugawa shogunate ruled the newly unified Japan from Edo Castle in the city of Edo (modern-day Tokyo), setting up a shift of power that ultimately led to the ascension of Tokyo as Japan’s most important urban center.

As the first ruler of the new military dictatorship, Tokugawa Ieyasu sought to implement a rigid class system backed by respect for traditional values. The Tokugawa shogunate chose isolationism as a way to keep foreign influences out, and Ieyasu’s government moved quickly to ban Christianity and expel all Catholic missionaries from the country.

In the Edo Period Catholic worship was considered a crime against the state. Those who practiced the forbidden religion faced imprisonment, torture, and execution if they were ever caught, which forced worshippers to go underground if they wanted to preserve and protect their religious faith—which at least a few thousand of them did.

The kakure kirishitan , or hidden Christians, emerged in 17th century Japan. NPR reported that to keep their faith secret, the kakure kirishitan held services in their homes, and they adopted iconography from Buddhism, Shintoism and ancestor worship to make it seem as if their religious practice was entirely rooted in eastern traditions.

As time passed the hidden Christians began to mix elements from these other faiths with their Christian beliefs and ceremonies, creating a truly syncretic religion that was still Christian but divergent from the beliefs of the missionaries who first brought Catholicism to Japan in more tolerant times.

When the Meiji government replaced the Tokugawa shogunate in the 19th century, it soon lifted the ban on Christianity (in 1873). But while some of the newly liberated Christians chose to begin expressing their beliefs openly, a good portion of them decided to stay in hiding, continuing to practice their religion exclusively in private settings. This has remained the custom among the kakure kirishitan ever since. In the present day, the hidden Christian tradition survives mainly on scattered islands off the Japan’s southwestern coast.

Catholics currently comprise less than one percent of the Japanese population, and their cousins the hidden Christians likely have even fewer worshippers than this. But at least for now the kakure kirishitan tradition is alive and well, just as it was 400 years ago.

A so-called Maria Kannon statue. During the Japanese ban on Christianity, the kakure kirishitan or hidden Christians disguised the Virgin Mary as a Buddhist Kannon. ( Public domain )

Has the Vase’s Hidden Christian Owner Been Revealed?
After examining the ancient vase, officials of the Nagasaki prefecture government have offered the theory that it once belonged to Konishi Yukinaga, a Christian feudal lord who lived in the region in the 16th century. Japan’s Catholic bishop at that time was a Portuguese missionary known as Luis de Cerqueira, and there has long been a legend that claims de Cerqueira held a confirmation ceremony for Yukinaga somewhere in the Amakusa Islands in 1599.

The person who actually possessed the vase in the family that inherited it said the artifact was dubbed Yokahito-sama by ancient worshippers. Yohei Kawaguchi, an archaeologist employed by Nagasaki’s arts and culture division, told an interviewer from the Asahi Shimbun that the name Yokahito means “good person.”

Kawaguchi speculated that this would have referred to Bishop Luis de Cerqueira, who presumably was the original owner of the vase before he passed it on to the newly confirmed Yukinaga, who then later took steps to guarantee its preservation after the ban on Christianity went into effect.

Needless to say, these conclusions about where the vase came from and who owned it are highly speculative in nature. Further investigation may ultimately reveal whether these beliefs about the artifacts origin are correct or not. But even if the mystery remains, this is still a rare and important artifact that verifies the existence of the 17th century kakure kirishitan and shows how determined they were to continue their religious practice no matter the risks.


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