Japan Christian museum sheds light on persecution

April 09, 1993|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

IBARAKI, Japan -- Easter is a hectic holiday for Toji Higashi.

As proprietor of a Christian-relics museum in a hamlet in the hills above Ibaraki, he will spend Sunday giving tours to believers who regard the hamlet as their holy place. To Higashi, this chore is more than a job.

Beneath the glass casings are treasures that belong to his family, Christians who came to Ibaraki three centuries ago to escape persecution by Japan's rulers.

"Christians come here now to look for Catholic tombstones hidden in the hills," said Mr. Higashi, 74. "We get 10,000 visitors a year, which is a lot considering there are so few Christians in Japan." Less than 1 percent of Japan's 124 million people are Christian. The vast majority practice Buddhism and Shintoism.

Tourists also come to trace the historical trail of the Tokugawas, a line of hereditary military governors who ruled Japan from 1600 to 1867. Paranoid about foreigners, the Tokugawas banned Christianity in 1613 and put bounties on the heads of believers. Once caught, Christians were burned at the stake or boiled in oil.

Squelching a religious uprising near Nagasaki in 1638, a Tokugawa army massacred 10,000 men, women and children. Christians who survived the slaughter fled to Ibaraki, a tiny town 12 miles north of Osaka.

"Christians had to go underground to live," said Bryon Earhart, a religion professor at Western Michigan University. "They were very clever, using Buddhist facades to hide Christian temples and honoring the dead with two-sided tombstones. The fronts were Buddhist and the backs were Catholic."

Ibaraki's hidden Christians didn't escape the Tokugawa tyranny. The government required families to register at nearby Buddhist temples to trace their whereabouts and offered cash rewards to people who squealed on their Catholic neighbors.

Uta Higashi, Toji Higashi's grandmother, was caught in the 1860s. To prove her belief in Buddhism, she was ordered to walk on a picture of the face of Mary, the mother of Jesus. The Tokugawas believed that a Japanese Christian could never commit such an act and shot those who refused to take the first step.

"My grandmother was a fast thinker," Mr. Higashi said. "She faked a fainting attack and rolled over the side of Mary's picture. They let her go after that."

A decade after her brush with death, Uta Higashi's story remains popular folklore around Ibaraki.

The relics, though, are the museum's high point. A portrait of St. Francis Xavier, the first Christian missionary to visit Japan, dates back to 1623.

Despite their courage, the hamlet's Christians didn't survive. Today, all 150 townspeople are Buddhists.

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