Japanese Catacombs

Author: Cristian Martini Grimaldi

Japanese Catacombs

Cristian Martini Grimaldi

Christians hid in the forest to escape persecution in Taketa

Taketa — also known as "little Kyoto" — is located in the Oita prefecture at the centre of Kyushu, surrounded by a mountain range at the source of the River Ono. It is an area of natural beauty, known throughout Japan for its thermal waters. These waters were also there in the days of the early missionaries. In fact, some say — though it is only a rumour — that the missionaries had come to Taketa to enjoy the healing baths. What is certain is that a samurai, baptized by Francis Xavier in Oita, went to Taketa where many local farmers were fascinated by his example and began to follow his faith. Initially, more than 200 people converted to Christianity, and Taketa soon became the area with the greatest presence of Christians in Japan. In a city with a population of 40,000 people more than 30,000 chose this new religion.

The missionaries leaving from Nagasaki, the primordial centre of Christianity in Japan, had to pass through here to reach Kyoto, then capital of the state.

Everything changed when the persecutions began. Many people were forced to choose Buddhism to avoid death, while others — it is believed around half — lived their Christian faith in secret. The forest surrounding the city soon became the hiding place where Christians could practice their faith underground. They carved small caves into the mountains where they could gather and pray.

Today it is possible to visit these man-made chapels dug out of the rock. Until recently, only one of them was known to exist. Then, three years ago, the commissioner of the cultural heritage of Taketa, inspired by a novel that he read — the Code of Xavier, written by a Japanese author from Osaka whose ancestors lived in Taketa — which blended history and fiction, had an intuition: what if more of these caves existed? With a torch and helmet he began to look through the forest and found seven more.

Upon my arrival in Taketa, I was welcomed by the Mayor Katsuji Syuto and invited to the home of an elderly lady. It was no ordinary dwelling. It was in fact in this building that those who had been suspected of secretly practicing the faith were gathered up and were forced to tread on sacred images (fumi-e) depicting the face of Christ or the Virgin Mary. We know this with certainty because it is precisely here that one of the many underground chapels scattered around the territory of Taketa at that time was discovered. The floor, on which sacred symbols were trampled, collapsed under the enormous weight of the people who were gathered here, exposing another room — probably a private wine cellar — which was used by Christians for their ceremonies. On that occasion, the leader of the city was immediately sentenced to death.

The owner led the way to the basement. I noticed that just above the entrance there was an image of a Shinto deity. It is a sign that the law, years later, had the upper hand: what was likely a house belonging to a Christian family is today a dwelling distinguished by the signs of what was then the dominant religion.

But this basement was only one of many hiding places that the Christians were forced to invent to avoid being discovered. Persecuted Christians gathered mostly in the forests of Taketa, in groups of 20 or 30, so as not to arouse suspicion from the authorities. They would celebrate Mass at midnight, often assisted by a few brave missionaries who lived hidden in one of the mountain caves. It is interesting to imagine what one might have seen at one of these meetings: candles and torches in the darkness, moving in unison through the forest, they must have taken the appearances of so many mysterious Fireflies in the night. Thousands risked their lives and everything in order to draw closer to a "light" even more splendid and mysterious.

Taketa's are true open catacombs. To date, eight have been found, but it is believed that there are at least one hundred.
It is because of the conformation of Taketa's volcanic rock, which is very resistant; that after four centuries we can visit in the middle of the forest these man-made caves that Christians used to sustain their faith when everything around them was threatening its survival.

Other caves exist in the vicinity of Nagasaki that were used for similar purposes, but they are natural caves. No one dug them out. Are they not a living and clear mark left behind by faithful in search of that stillness which is a natural leaven for the constant renewal of one's most intimate spirituality.

The man who discovered them was called Goto Atsusi. His ancestors were hidden Christians. The idea of associating these places with Christianity with these places came to him as he noted that the caves were located precisely on ground we know to have belonged to a Christian samurai. "Some of the caves were already known but were thought to be dedicated to a Shinto deity", says Goto, a man who is tall even by Western standards, good-looking and about 40 years of age. "For example", he continued, "the cult of the fox, inari in Japanese. Inari was an inscription often found in these caves. It is thought that it was a transformation of the acronym INRI. Although it is more probable that the opposite occurred. Or that Christians had left the incription INRI and then, after the end of the persecutions, those same inscriptions were transformed into the cult of the fox. It is likely that one of the faithful Shinto changed the writings to reclaim those places for their religion, or perhaps to conceal the existence of areas which were devoted to the religion of the 'enemy'''. Then there is a precise model that can be seen at each site, Goto says, "together with the chapel excavated in the rock there is always a natural cave, larger in size, where the faithful would gather, and next to this was a source of water for the sacraments". Three of the most important roles for the hidden Christians were: the chokata, i.e. the one who organized the meetings of the faithful, the oshiekata who was the catechist, and then the muzukata, who was in charge of baptisms. "We knew about the existence of the kakure kirishitan from the time I was a child. They were the Christians who hid here until professing the Christian faith was no longer prohibited. But something quite extraordinary happened: when the prohibition of Christianity ceased, the hidden Christians disappeared as well. Most likely they all became Buddhists".

In a way they were like animals living in captivity, which once freed die from the inability to adapt to their new environment. The Christians, now with nothing to hide, did not know how to adapt the faith that they had nurtured for two centuries in secret.

Today 25,000 people live in Taketa. and of these only 300 are Christians. Catholics can be counted on one hand. To this day there is not a single Catholic church. The few faithful are forced to travel to Oita by train or bus, a journey of more than an hour in the mountains.

In Taketa, however, the caves are not the only testament to the Christian presence of the past. There are also several Christian cemeteries scattered throughout the area. To visit one of them, we had to travel by car for an hour through charming back roads surrounded by a. thick greenery through which the sun barely manages to shine. We took a dirt road and after a few minutes we got out of the car and ventured over a hillock through the mud and grass wet with the afternoon rain. We found ourselves in the midst of what seemed to be an abandoned cemetery. Some of the gravestones were unusual. They were different from the typical gravestones you see here, which are vertical and decorated with symbols of Buddhist deities: Many of these gravestones were flat. They mark the presence of the departed Christians. We were literally walking on history. Forced to conform to a religion their hearts did not know, these Christians sought in the afterlife redemption from a life lived in bad conscience: death rendered them a justice that, while living, they were never able to obtain.

L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
17 January 2014, page 4

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