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Videos to feature traditions of Japan’s ‘hidden Christians’

The rites and rituals of Japan's persecuted Christians are largely forgotten due to population decline and modernization

Christians pray for victims during a mass to mark the anniversary of the atomic bombing at the Urakami Cathedral in Nagasaki, western Japan, on Aug. 9, 2017

Christians pray for victims during a mass to mark the anniversary of the atomic bombing at the Urakami Cathedral in Nagasaki, western Japan, on Aug. 9, 2017. (Photo: Jiji Press/ AFP)

Published: January 31, 2023 11:15 AM GMT

Descendants of Japanese Christians who endured persecution in the 17th to 19th centuries have launched an initiative to produce videos to showcase traditional Christian rites and rituals, which they say are forgotten due to declining followers and modernization.

The recordings will feature baptisms, Easter, and other rites in a traditional format that were followed by persecuted “hidden Christians” or Kakure Kirishitans during the Edo period (1603-1867) and until the last few decades, TheYomiuri Shimbun reported on Jan. 28.

Kazutoshi Kakimori, 76, a descendant of Kakure Kirishitans who is involved with the project said that they aim to use videos to show future generations how the rites and rituals were practiced by their ancestors.

“Objects won’t be enough to adequately pass down ancestors’ faith to future generations. We want to re-enact the events of those days as faithfully as possible while we are still physically able to do so,” Kakimori said.

The move from Kakimori and his team of Catholic priests comes amid a population decline in Japan and the weakening of religious beliefs in the wake of modernization.

The Kakure Kirishitan rites have ceased to be held among its followers, Kakimori said, adding that the traditional rites and rituals face a threat of extinction as the elders who still know about them are dying.

Today, descendants of Kakure Kirishitans are concentrated mostly on Naru Island of Nagasaki. The population has reportedly dropped from 9,000 in 1960 to only 1,900 at present.

Following his retirement in 2008, Kakimori moved to Naru Island and set up a research center to study the history of the Kakure Kirishitans by interviewing elderly people about events and collecting religious objects.

Father Renzo De Luca, provincial of the Japan Province of the Jesuits, pointed out that the Kakure Kirishitans carrying forward their faith despite the extended persecution and lack of clergy is something very rare.

“There are few cases in the world where people had continued their faith for such a long time under oppression. We would like to cooperate as much as possible in the production of the video,” Father Renzo said.

The team will use traditional attire worn during the period based on photos, videos, and other documents that are available to them.

The group plans to re-enact the rite, rituals, and prayers and then record them in videos with subtitles and explanations that can be used as instructional material.

They are considering using the video for lectures, symposiums, and other events to deepen people’s understanding of the history of “hidden Christians.”

Church records say, a French priest visiting the Oura Cathedral in Nagasaki city discovered the Kakure Kirishitans when they confided their faith to him.

It is believed that the Christians moved to Naru Island from what is today the Sotome area of Nagasaki City around 1800. Many of these migrants lived in remote, barren areas and practiced their faith despite the absence of priests.

They organized themselves locally with a supervisor or “chokata” who guided them on their religious activities. Another person known as “mizukata” administered baptism among the people.

In 1873, the Meiji government finally lifted the ban on proselytization due largely to pressure from Western nations.

Reportedly, Kakure Kirishitans did not publicly display their faith even after the Meiji regime lifted the ban on Christianity in the nation in 1873.

The “Hidden Christian Sites in the Nagasaki Region” was registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2018.

In 2019, Japan had more than 540,400 Catholics in 16 dioceses.


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