Martin Scorsese is finally filming “Silence” a film based on the book by Shusuku Endo about the persecution of Japanese Christians under the Shoguns. (This story recently made the news because someone was killed in an accident on the set.) Scorsese has talked about making this film for decades. (The book has already been adapted to a film in Japan.) Shusuku Endo was a Japanese Catholic Christian.
In this book, Endo chose to tell the story of persecuted Japanese Christians through the perspective of European missionaries. I felt that it would have been better to tell the story through the perspective of the Japanese, as Endo does in "The Samurai" about Hasekura Rokuemon Tsunenaga (or "Francisco Felipe Faxicura", as he was baptized in Spain) who crossed the Atlantic and Pacific oceans in a failed hope to bring the Gospel and global trade to Japan, and in "Final Martyrs."
It would be interesting to see the story of Amakusa Shiro (as told in “The Nobility of Failure” by Ivan Morris). Anakusa Shiro was a teenage Samurai who fought to protect Japanese Christians from persecution. The revolt of Japanese Christians against the oppression is called the Shimabara Rebellion (which took place in the 1630s). Eventually, he was captured and executed. Many Japanese Christians consider him to be a saint. (However, although he died as a martyr, Shiro threatened to return in one hundred years to exact vengeance for his death. Interestingly, Chinese Nestorian Christians also accepted the idea of reincarnation. They preached that Christ freed the believer from the cycle of reincarnation.)
Japan was being won to Christianity through the efforts of Catholic missionaries. The English and the Dutch then convinced the Shogun that the Catholics represented a threat to his rule. (As the result of their Calvinistic beliefs, the British and the Dutch believed that the Japanese were non-Elect and as such, Jesus did not die on the cross for them. The British had strictly financial and trade interests in the East and at the time had no interest in sharing the Gospel with the local peoples, at that time. They viewed the success of Portuguese missionaries as a threat to their economic interests. At this time in history, Catholics engaged in missionary work and Protestants did not. In fact, William Carey was not allowed to Evangelize in British India and the British allowed barbaric customs such as suttee, in which the widow was thrown into her husband’s funeral pyre, to persist for decades under British rule.) As a result, the Shogun brutally suppressed Christianity and closed Japan from any foreign contact (sakoku) until Commodore Perry forced Japan to open up to the rest of the world in 1852-1853. Until that time practice of Christianity was a capital crime.
The long sustained persecution of Japanese Christians devastated the church-however, it did survive. One of the fascinating things about the Japanese is that Japanese Christianity survived underground for centuries.
The Japanese who retained the Christian beliefs and practices, often in garbled forms are called the “Kakure Kirishitan” meaning the “Hidden Christians. (They attempted to write down the Bible stories as best they could. The Kakure Kirishitan scriptures are a very interesting read. It is admirable, how these people maintained their Christian beliefs the best they could, without access to the Bible or missionaries.)
Approximately 30,000 secret Christians, some of whom had adopted these new ways of practicing Christianity, came out of hiding when religious freedom was re-established in the mid-19th century, after Perry’s visit.
(Note: America dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki, one of the centers of Japanese Christianity. In fact, ground zero was very near the Urakami Cathedral, which was destroyed in the explosion, but subsequently rebuilt. Many Americans believe that it was necessary to use the atomic bomb to bring a swift end to a long and terrible war. My personal feeling is that, while it may have been necessary to develop the technology for the bomb, lest the Nazis or Communists gain that knowledge first, it should never have been used, especially on civilian targets as it was. I respect other peoples’ opinions, but in mine Hiroshima and Nagasaki repent crimes against humanity. Of course, the Japanese committed many war crimes, as can be seen in the book and the movie “Unbroken,” but a “Christian” civilization should be held to a higher standard. The Japanese who committed atrocities against Mr. Zamperini and others and at the Rape of Nanking should have been arrested and punished. Unfortunately, the man who tortured Mr. Zamperini was able to get amnesty.)
After Japan was opened again to the West, Nicolai Kasatkin was able to found the Japanese Orthodox Church, which flourished until the Russo-Japanese War, but endured through, and survived the conflict. This was due to the respect that Saint Kasatkin was held in by the Japanese. (The Nichorai-do, or Holy Resurrection Cathedral, founded by Saint Kasatkin still stands in Tokyo.)
Endo often wondered why Christianity has never been able to gain ground in Japan. It seems like the one opportunity to win Japan to Christ was blunted by the British and the Dutch. Today, Japan is less than 1% Christian.
Christianity has had several starts in China as well. It thrived in the Nestorian form under the Chinese and Mongolian emperors. Nestorian churches still stand in China. They look like typical pagodas. But this is an example of how Christianity is able to adapt to different cultures. The Nestorian Church declined and endured as a persecuted minority until the small and dwindling Nestorian Chinese were converted to Roman Catholicism. It is interesting that later a form of Christianity almost took over China.
Hong Xiuquan claimed to be the brother of Jesus Christ and led the Tiaping Revolution (which took place roughly the same time as the American “Civil” War). His new religion could be described as perhaps a Chinese equivalent to American Mormonism. The story is told in “God's Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan” by Jonathon Spencer. Hong Xiuquan tried to pass the state test in order to become part of the Chinese bureaucracy. He failed, as did all but 5% of those who took the test. (At the time, China portrayed itself as a meritocracy in which anyone who passed the state tests could rise in government.) In the height of his power, Hong Xiuquan ruled over 30 million people. However, at least 20 million people in the Tiaping revolt. The Manchu government was able to crush this quasi-Christian revolt, with the help of the British and the French. (So we see that the British were instrumental in crushing Japanese Christianity, and in crushing a large professed Christian movement in China.)
The Chinese government currently holds that the Tiaping revolution did bring needed social reform, such as sexual equality and social justice for peasants.
It is fascinating to see how China and Japan have responded to the Gospel.
Endo’s “Life of Jesus” is a retelling of the story of Jesus from a Japanese perspective. Endo feels that the reason that Japan has been resistant to the Gospel is because of the way it is presented from the patriarchal Western perspective. According to Endo, it is the matriarchal approach that the Japanese would find more appealing. This is surprising seeing that Japan has been a strongly militaristic culture in the past. Endo’s “Life of Jesus” is based on serious historical research. It isn’t as though Endo has created a new Japanese Zen-Buddhist Jesus, in the way that Jesus is seemingly presented as a Taoist sage in some of the “Jesus Sutras” Nestorian Chinese literature.
The movie “Silence” could be effective in telling the story of the terrible persecution that Japanese Christians suffered, a story that many in the West are unfamiliar with, and perhaps encourage people to read Endo’s other works, such as his life of Christ, and look at the Gospel message through a totally different, and non-Western perspective.