I have recently read two article pertaining the Christian experience in 16-17 c. Japan. Both are from Nanzan University’s Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, 2007, 34/1. The first is Peter Nosco’s “The Experiences of Christians During the Underground Years and Thereafter” [85–97] and Tomoko Kitagawa’s The Conversion of Hideyoshi’s Daughter Gō” [9–25]. Both of these should be accessible as PDFs in the links provided.

Read the full post for analysis.

On Nosco’s Article:

I have to confess that I’m not entirely sure why Nosco chose to play up the privacy/secrecy angle. The distinction between the two did not appear crystal clear at first. We quickly find out that privacy is something accorded to the individual by the community at large, while secrecy involves an individual’s concealment of personal actions/beliefs (ones often considered unsavory by a community) from the larger group. Presumably an individual resorts to secrecy when privacy is not conferred by the community. As to why this was an important point of stress, I am unclear.

The main takeaways of this article appear to be the following:

Due to the bakufu’s mutual responsibility policy, in which households were grouped into 5s and 10s (五人組・十人組) as legal units that shared responsibility for the actions of their neighbors, hidden Christians formed large communities. Since the beliefs of these communities were censured by the state, they became secret communities and their practices resembled those of secret societies. This became more apparent after the lifting of the ban on Christianity. Secrecy itself became a kind of esoteric spirituality, characterized by elevation in importance of ritualistic elements. This dynamic explains the hesitancy of Japanese Christians to join an ‘orthodox’ Church after the lifting of the prohibition.

Moreover, Nosco makes the claim that the existence of these Christian communities in Tokugawa times, relativized the “state’s claim to hegemonic authority” (23). How this necessarily follows from the majority of his exposition is a little nebulous. I am left with one question however. On page 94, Nosco states that Japanese Christians “inhabited a world apart, a parallel bifurcated realm which operated at one level on the surface and another deep beneath.” How exactly is this different from the internal and external workings of individuals in general, and why is it portrayed as a unique characteristic of the Christian world in Japan?

On Kitagawa’s Article

Kitagawa’s article does not lend itself as easily to detailed criticism as it is mostly historically oriented. The main purpose seems to be to display the prevalence of Christianity in the 16th and early 17th centuries, especially the role of women in its proselytization. This was actually a fascinating article for many reasons. First, the image of Christianity as an upper-class fad (including Christian names for nearly all ladies) in Osaka castle, and its flourishing in Kaga and Bizen is enlightening. Second, the influence upper-class women had on the transmission of Christianity is an important point. 16th century Japan was by no means an egalitarian society; in one letter Toyotomi Hideyoshi (豊臣 秀吉) laments Go’s inability to succeed him due to her sex (19). Nevertheless, women of the castle functioned as a link between the priests and Toyotomi, and the shrewd lobbying efforts of the Jesuits directed at these women reveal their importance in the propagation of Christianity, or at least on ensuring an environment friendly to conversion efforts (18).

Interestingly enough, the ladies apparently considered Christianity to be a superior religion (though I’m curious to know what term they used for “religion,” it might have meant something more like “teaching,” in which case it is less surprising that philosophical discussions would take place with women who had more time than anything else). The reasons for thinking thus, aside from the probable attraction to novelty, are two-fold. First, Christianity is seen as being more plausible than other traditions. The second involves Christianity’s dogmatic organization and consistency. “Every Christian agrees on one truth,” proclaims Go’s adopted mother and Toyotomi’s wife Kitanomandokoro (北政所, also known as O-ne (おね) or Toyotomi Yoshiko (豊臣吉子), later the nun Kodai-in (高台院)) (20). Of course, most people familiar with Christianity will instantly realize that this is not true. But it is enough that it appeared this way to the Japanese ladies of the time.

There are two points on which I wish Kitagawa would have elaborated. First, she notes the “enormous amount of understanding of Christianity” exhibited by Go’s husband Hideie’s vassals (18). I wonder, what is it about Christianity that would interest these men? They later used their influence with Hideie to make the Bizen domain a friendly place for Christianity, even after Toyotomi’s ban on the religion in 1587. Were they taking a risk, or did they not perceive any danger in supporting an outlawed religion? Dido for the house of Maeda, from which Go actually came to be adopted by Toyotomi (22). Secondly, Kitagawa mentions briefly that Japanese people were constantly exposed to Christians and “were much influenced by these experiences” (23). I would like to know what this influence entailed, and how its effects were felt.