As the influence of European colonial powers spread across the globe from the 16th century onwards, few places outside of the Middle East were not exposed to Christianity. Christianity expanded greatly into almost every major country, with the sole major exception of Japan. However, it is not as though early missionaries didn’t try. When the Catholic Church tried to expand into Japan, the imperium resisted fiercely, leading to one of the last, major wide-spread persecutions of Christians in history. Most of the persecutions took place in and around Nagasaki, where Christianity had briefly taken root. The suffering of Japan’s Christians is now commemorated by the beautiful and poignant Twenty-Six Martyrs Monument, one of the most memorable Catholic shrines in the Far East.
When Portuguese traders and missionaries arrived in Japan in the mid-16th century, it essentially marked the end of Christianity’s long, slow progression around Asia. Francis Xavier himself was among the first priests to arrive and to help establish the Church in this distant land. At first Christianity was tolerated, particularly by local warlords who sought Portuguese military assistance in the country’s endless feuds. By around 1600, several hundred thousand Japanese citizens had been converted, with the largest Christian communities centered in and around the city of Nagasaki.
However, also by this time, Japan had become somewhat reunified under the Emperor Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who began to grow concerned about the presence of Europeans in Japan and in the Far East. He became convinced, not without reason, that Christian missionary efforts and conversions allowed the Europeans to gain a foothold among the local population. He banned missionary activities, and a general intolerance ensued.
The first major persecutions of Japanese Christians took place in the last years of the 16th century, most famously in 1597. In that year, twenty-six Christians, including six missionaries and twenty Japanese converts, were taken and publicly crucified. This may have been the last time in history that Christians were martyred en masse for their faith by this particular method. This was later followed by other famous pogroms, most notably the Great Martyrdom of Nagasaki in 1622.
Eventually Christianity was banned outright in Japan, making it one of the only countries in the world outside of the Middle East to not develop a substantial Christian population. This situation did not change until the late 19th century, when tentative new missionary efforts arrived along with powerful western navies to back them up. The Twenty-Six martyrs of Japan were canonized in 1862, among the first Christians in the Far East to be so honored. A century later, in the wake of Japan’s disastrous war against the United States and the dropping of the second atomic bomb, the Twenty-Six Martyrs Museum and Monument was erected as part of Nagasaki’s reconciliation with its own past. It is considered by many who have visited to be among the most beautiful and poignant such memorials in the world.
The Twenty-Six Martyrs Museum and Monument stands on the site where some of the earliest Japanese Christians gave their lives for their faith. The monument was constructed in the 1960s as part of the post-war reconstruction of devastated Nagasaki. No previous church had stood on the site. Architecturally it is a strange concrete structure combining modern, Japanese and Christian elements; it is crowned with two of the oddest, most tree-like bell towers in the world. Twenty-six bronze effigies represent the men and boys crucified here.
The museum is home to several exhibits documenting the history of Christianity in Japan. Among the more notable exhibits are letters written by Francis Xavier, and statues of the Virgin Mary disguised as Buddhist deities. There are also the famous Treading images, which depict local citizens walking on statues of Jesus and Mary. Other old Christian artifacts and artwork round out the various collections.
The Twenty-Six Martyrs Museum and Monument is located on Nishizaka Hill, about a mile or so north of central Nagasaki. It is open year-round except for the three days of New Year, from 9:00am-5:00pm. The cost of admission is Y500. Web: www.26martyrs.com (official website).
Because of Japan’s long isolation, and also because of the massive destruction rained down on the country during World War II, there is little in the way of historic Christian sites. However, Nagasaki is home to the Oura Cathedral, one of the oldest churches in the country and also dedicated to the Twenty-Six Martyrs. Also in Nagasaki is the Urakami Cathedral, which was completely destroyed in the 1945 raid and subsequently rebuilt.