Today, Japan counts 452,000 Catholics out of a population of 128 million.
The First Evangelization of Japan
Saint Francis Xavier, one of the first seven members of the Company of Jesus, arrived in Japan in 1549. He stayed there for just two years, long enough to sow the Word. A few decades later, the Catholic Church had become strong throughout the land, counting 150,000 faithful Christians out of a population of about 20 million, with the support of the mighty Oda Nobunaga, the first "unifying ruler" of the country. But Nobunaga's successor expelled the missionaries and organized persecution. In 1614, Christianity was entirely prohibited. The Japanese were encouraged to keep an eye on and denounce their neighbors... Soon there weren't any priests left to explain the meaning of prayers (still mostly in Latin at the time). In spite of all, a few families were able to transmit the faith, or at least some aspects of the Christian faith, somewhat altering its contents. And then one day, surprisingly enough these hidden Christians met some Catholic priests!
The Christians Came Out of Hiding
In the middle of the 19th century, Japan ended its politic of isolationism, and a few priests from the Foreign Missions of Paris arrived in Nagasaki to serve the foreign community. On April 12, 1865, several Japanese Christians came see these priests who had something familiar about them, despite the strange aspects foreigners hold for Orientals. They asked the priests questions about the Blessed Virgin, priestly celibacy, and the Pope. The answers confirmed what they had already suspected, and they revealed their secret: they were Christians. Little by little, other Japanese bared their faith. This revelation came as a terrible blow to the Nipponese regime. The rulers were in a panic. Persecution resumed in 1870, until the Western powers intervened, by explaining that a country aspiring to be counted among the greatest nations could not afford to persecute Christians. After that, religious freedom was established, in 1889.
However, these hidden Christians, free to worship in public for the first time in two centuries, faced a dilemma. They discovered that their faith and their rites little resembled the faith and rites of the Catholic Church. Some accepted nevertheless to let themselves be guided by her. What an admirable walk of faith and humility!
Excerpt from Dennis Gira, translated from the French: Le long chemin de foi des catholiques du Japon, (The Long Path of Faith of the Japanese Catholics) published in the magazine Panorama, January 2008.