In 1569, a port was established in Nagasaki to harbor Portuguese merchant ships, which brought not only trade but Christianity to Japan. Catholic influence grew so strong that Nagasaki was referred to as “Little Rome.” However, once Christianity was banned in 1614, the threat of persecution led Japanese followers to practice their faith in secret and form Kakure Kirishitan, the hidden Christians of Japan.
In 2018, twelve sites linked to the Kakure Kirishitan culture were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List, bringing this dark, enthralling part of Japan’s history into the light.
It’s taken me multiple visits to Nagasaki to appreciate its historical and cultural significance. Recently, inspired by the movie Silence and the excellent John Dougill book, In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians, I set out to re-explore Nagasaki and Western Kyushu Islands and the Goto Islands.
Oura Cathedral: Japan’s oldest church
My first stop was Oura Cathedral (Est. 1864) in Nagasaki City, Japan’s oldest surviving wooden church. The towering basilica, perched on a hill among skinny palm trees, features traditional European neo-gothic architecture. It was founded to honor the 26 Martyrs of Japan, Japanese and foreign Catholics executed by crucifixion in 1597.
In 1865, shortly after the church’s construction, Japanese Christians, who had been practicing their religion in secret for more than 200 years, met with the church priest, Father Petitjean. This was the first time that the Catholic church became aware of the hidden Christians of Japan. Pope Pius IX declared it “the Miracle of the Orient.”
Although not as atmospheric as the church itself, the nearby Christian Museum is an excellent place to learn more about the history of hidden Christianity in Nagasaki, thanks to the explanatory boards provided in English.
Dozaki: community revival
My next stop was Fukue Island—the largest of the Goto Islands—located only a few hours off the coast of Nagasaki City by jetfoil. Among dozens of the churches that Fukue Island is home to, the red-brick Dozaki Church, near the edge of the Okuura Bay, occupies the most picturesque locale. It took me one glance at the church, with its sandy, turquoise water backdrop, to immediately step off my bus and soak up the incredible scenery.
Initially established in 1879 and rebuilt in its current form in 1908, Dozaki Church played a crucial role in the revival of the battered Christian community following the abolishment of the ban in 1873. The church was converted to a museum in 1970.
Many islanders contributed their heirlooms handed down through generations since the 16th century, including rosaries, medallions and candle holders, hoping to preserve the history of their families.
Kashiragashima: a labor of love
On the north side of Fukue lies the beautiful Nakadori Island, another one of five Goto Islands with Christian history. Kashiragashima, located at the northern end of Nakadori, feels as secluded as when it was the adopted home of the hidden Christians who emigrated in groups looking for a place to maintain their faith-centered communities away from the persecution authorities. The island had been largely uninhabited—only home to sick people exiled by their villages.
I was the only one visiting the Shirahama area on the island on an early Sunday morning. Despite the sunshine and warm blue ocean, there was an unshakeable air of heaviness. The Christian cemetery overlooking a beautiful bay felt like a very isolated place. I sat on the beach and thought of how such an idyllic island had been a shelter for people brutally persecuted. The island’s history contrasted with the scenery and serenity around the church made you feel uneasy about the surrounding nature almost making the sense of loneliness feel heavier, even for the brief time that I spent on the island.
Then, I visited the famous Kashiragashima Church, the only stone church in the region. Constructed in 1919, the church was a true labor of love. Not discouraged by the shortage of funds, the local Christians carried the stones themselves and fished at night to raise funds for the construction. The church can today be visited by pre-booking online.
Nakanoura: church on the water
Nakanoura Church, near the southern part of Nakadori Island, makes up for what it is lacking in terms of the historical background with the astonishing scenery. If it was not for the small fishing boats with their usual kanji (Japanese alphabet), l could easily pretend I was at a lakeside village in Switzerland, a rare feeling for Japan where villages are full of character but often short of picture-perfect scenery.
The church, also known as the Church of Mizumi-Kagami (water mirror), is a wooden structure dating from 1925.
On an overcast day, the modest building of Nakanoura is easy to miss. But come a sunny day, it turns into a sight worthy of a trip on its own. The perfect reflection of the church on the motionless waters of the surrounding bay is a captivating sight. I changed all my plans and stayed on the island to experience the sunny day scenery without regrets.
Nozaki: alone on the hill
My final stop on the trip was Nozaki Island, tucked between Nakadori and Ojika Islands. Still feeling worlds away from the other parts of Japan, Nozaki was another secluded corner that the hidden Christians resettled to in groups to avoid persecution.
When the Hidden Christians arrived in Nozaki, the only other inhabitants were the Shinto priests belonging to the island’s Okinokojima Shrine and their followers. The Christian group disguised their religion by affiliating themselves with the shrine, attending their rituals while secretly keeping and practicing their faith.
Today, you can visit the village ruins and the former residence of the head Shinto priest (visitors need to inform the Ojika Tourism Office in advance). Although the island was abandoned in 1966, Nokubi Church, built in 1908, remains fully intact. The lonely church sitting on the top of a hill overlooks the island’s scenery and is a strong reminder of the island’s past and the Kakure Krishta’s faith.
Have you been to Nagasaki or any of the Kakure Krishta sites in Japan? Tell us in the comments.