Tokyobling's Blog

The Hidden Christian of Kamakura

Posted in Japanese Traditions, Places by tokyobling on June 23, 2015

At the tiny Gosho Shrine in the ancient city of Kamakura to the southwest of of Tokyo there is a touching tiny cemetery (very rare for a shrine) with something as rare as a wooden cross seemingly carelessly leaning on the old stone wall. The cross marks a tiny statue that is said to represent the grave of one of the very few Hidden Christians of Kamakura, or at least so the legend tells.

It is said that someone living near the shrine placed the statue where it is now, but nobody knows who or when. Since then the statue has been affectionally referred to as the Granny of Spring Time and used to hold flowers. The tiny statue fits snugly into two hands (but you can’t touch it, it is far too brittle and old!) and has a lovely but very sad and pained expression on its weathered face. The statue’s hands are clasped behind its back, with a square hole between what might once have been fingers. The woman is kneeling forward, and it looks almost like her arms have been bound. From the front the faint outline of her kimono is showing, and since the left side of the collar is to the front, we can assume that she is wearing a burial kimono in a style reserved for the dying or soon to be dead. The thinness of the sash could be the mark of a prisoner, and someone, maybe herself, has carefully folded her kimono under her bended knees in a very elegant and careful manner. The elegance of the kimono, the painful expression and the hands tied behind her back gives her a dignified expression despite the situation.

A few years ago a few characters were identified carved into the base of the statue, which would date it to January or February 1684, 61 years after the famous Magni Martyres Nagasaciences, the Grand Martyrdom of Nagasaki, when 52 Christians, lay people and priests, were burnt at the stake or decapitated. 26 of them were canonized in 1867 by the Pope Pius IX. At this time, in the 17th century, the Japanese government were already well informed about world events and were well aware of the role Christianity played in helping European nations conquering and colonizing most of the planet. The Japanese were extremely determined to stop what they believed would be the eventual colonization of Japan, to the extent that they fought a bitter civil war and later purged anyone they could find with Christian sympathies, which culminated in 1637 with the Shimabara Rebellion, where a peasant army of Japanese Catholic Christians ransacked and looted buddhist temples all over modern day Kyushu island. To put a stop to foreign backed revolts once and for all the Tokugawa government in Edo closed the border of Japan and sealed the islands off from the rest of the world until it was forced to open up in 1853 thanks to US gun boat diplomacy.

We will never find out who the statue actually represents, or who carved it. Could it be someone who witnessed her execution? Or is it a statue used in secret Christian rituals by a family who relocated from Nagasaki? Perhaps the statue was lost or stolen, or the people who ended up owning it forgot what it was meant to represent? Just to possess this statue up until 1853 would have been quite dangerous, so maybe some distant relative talked the owner’s family into disposing of it at the shrine, hoping that it would be taken care of? It is interesting to speculate, but we will never know for sure.

Until a few years ago the statue had been used as a flower holder, but thanks to a local man with an interest in history and woodworking, it now also has a cross to accompany it. As I was looking at the statue, the sun moved through the branches of the trees opposite the statue, and for a few brief moments it was bathed in sunlight.

Note also, the Shinto and the Buddhist grave markers next to the statue. This is truly a cemetery for many faiths.

goshojinja_christian_grave_6335

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7 Responses

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  1. Jonelle Patrick said, on June 23, 2015 at 11:06 pm

    For some reason this morning, I was really moved by this post. I would have walked right past that little worn statue, eager to snap photos of more scenic spots, but once again I am grateful that you stopped and took a lovely photo and discovered something well worth knowing about. As an obvious foreigner here in Japan, I often find myself thinking about why Japanese culture draws such a solid line between “us” and “them.” You have reminded me of some very good historical reasons for this attitude, and I know I’ll be remembering this tale going forward, as I continue to think about my relationship with Japan and Japan’s relationship with me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • tokyobling said, on June 24, 2015 at 9:12 am

      Thank you for the kind words Jonelle. I am glad you picked up on that undercurrent in this post. I try not to be openly political but with astute readers like you I do not really need to. (^-^)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Cathryn said, on June 24, 2015 at 9:06 pm

    I was also really moved by this post. I had no idea of the brutal history of Christians in Japan, nor of the isolationist policies of previous governments. Thank you for sharing.

    Like

    • tokyobling said, on June 26, 2015 at 12:04 am

      Well that is what happens when one human tribe tries to conquer another! Best to leave one another in peace I think. (^-^)

      Like

  3. vitriolicmasochist said, on June 26, 2015 at 1:55 am

    You wrote so lovingly.
    I adore this post.
    This history is something all Japanese scholars should know about.

    Like

    • tokyobling said, on June 26, 2015 at 8:33 am

      Thank you for your kind comment! I am sure they know all the important bits – and the story around the statues is only a legend, the truth has been lost in time. But it does not make it any less important for me though.

      Like

    • closupp said, on December 18, 2015 at 6:33 am

      The persecution of Kirishitan (which comes from Christian, but actually refers to Catholics mostly) in Japan is common knowledge as it is taught in history textbooks. This theme has also been depicted in many TV period dramas and animes, so it’s pretty well known. But I don’t think it’s often communicated in the context of the government’s wariness against western colonization, so thanks to tokyobling for that perspective.

      Like


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