I read so many excellent books that it’s hard to name a favourite, but seeing as I so often ask people to recommend a book they’ve read recently and to also choose an all-time favourite, it’s only fair I answer these questions myself. My all-time pick is Nostromo, Joseph Conrad’s 1904 masterpiece and the book that more than any other inspired me to become a writer. If I’m exchanging titles with someone not used to reading dense, old-fashioned prose, I will suggest Rudyard Kilping’s Kim; while hardly modern – in fact, it was published three years before Nostromo – it is at least a shorter, easier read. As for a recent recommendation, the book I’ve enjoyed the most in the last few years is John Dougill’s In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians, a brilliant travelogue-history retracing the story of Christianity in Japan, in particular, the mystery of the “Hidden Christians.”

As Europeans began to pry Japan open in the mid-nineteenth century, the city of Nagasaki on Japan’s southern island of Kyushu was among the early treaty ports. It was here that a stunned French priest Father Petitjean was approached by local Japanese claiming to “have the same heart” as him and asking “Where is the Santa Maria?” He soon learnt that there were several thousand “Hidden Christians” in the area, who – without Bibles or priests – had handed down their faith generation to generation from the days of the Portuguese.

Christianity had first arrived in Japan with the Portuguese in the late 1540s. After a slow start, it took off thanks to overlapping motivations of faith and trade, and the societal structure whereby a converting daimyo (powerful regional lords) would bring over the people he ruled.

In 1563 the mission had a major breakthrough with the conversion of a daimyo in western Kyushu. Omura Sumitada (1533–87) was baptised following a promise by the Jesuits to bring Portuguese ships to his harbour, which enabled him to obtain guns and cannon to help secure his domain. Other daimyo were to follow suit, and between 1563 and 1620 a total of eighty-two in all were baptised.

 The popularity of Christianity provoked periodic and increasingly severe repression. In 1597, when the number of Christians had grown to as many as 300,000, the Japanese leader Hideyoshi ordered a crackdown. Twenty-six Catholics – six foreign Franciscan missionaries and twenty Japanese, including three young boys – were executed by crucifixion in Nagasaki.

 The authorities had hoped to cower the populace. However, the bravery shown by the martyrs increased the standing of Christianity. Stamping out the religion would require a change of tactics. Dougill explains:

To win the propaganda battle, prosecutors soon came to realize that apostasy was a far greater weapon than martyrdom. Much publicity was given to korobi Krishitan (fallen Christians), and korobi bateren (fallen priests) were treated as a major victory. To make believers recant, authorities tried threats, enticements and persuasion, followed by the infliction of pain – pain at its most extreme.

 Of the torture, Dougill writes: “There is virtually nothing one can think of that wasn’t tried – water torture, snake pits, branding, slicing open with a bamboo saw, amputation, roasting alive, crushing limbs, suffocation through overcrowding, …” and worse.

 Not surprisingly the number of Christians dropped. “Some fled abroad, and Japanese communities sprang up in Manila, Burma and Cambodia. Those who remained in the country tried to conceal their religion.”

 The bloodiest episode in the crushing of Christianity was the climax to the Shimabara Rebellion (December, 1637–April, 1638), an uprising named after the Shimabara Peninsula in Kyushu. After a long siege at Hara Castle, the defences were breached and the rebels, mostly Christian peasants, put to the sword:

 Three days of butchery followed, for orders had been given that not a single defender should be spared. As fires raged around the castle, thousands chose to throw themselves into the flames rather than be slaughtered. Ditches flowed with blood, and the piles of heads (for men) and noses (for women and children) rose ever higher as the victors tallied up the number of victims. It is thought some 37,000 were killed in all. A staggering 10,000 heads were set up on stakes around the perimeter of the castle as a grim warning to others, while another 3,300 heads were sent to Nagasaki to intimidate the populace there.

 Despite the high body count and the importance of the rebellion, I’d never heard of it. As the author notes, “the number of those killed at Shimabara is almost identical to the 39,000 who died in the Nagasaki atomic bomb,” proof that humans don’t need high-tech weapons to kill on an industrial scale.

 An edict the following year banned Portuguese ships altogether so as to stop the smuggling of missionaries into Japan. And just to be on the safe side, Japanese who had gone abroad were banned from returning to their homeland.

“The last surviving missionary, Brother Konishi Mancio, was put to death in 1644. The Christian community had been broken, its leaders wiped out, and even the most stubborn of adherents cowed into submission. Or so it seemed.” In secret, believers continued to worship, and they continued to be caught and killed.

Martin Scorsese’s newly released historical drama, Silence, tells the story of the priests and their followers during these dark times. The film is an adaptation of Endo Shusaku’s Silence (1965), which draws on the true story of Christovao Ferreira (1580–1650).  Dougill explains the background:

The Portuguese priest had arrived in the country as a twenty-nine-year-old and gone underground after the 1614 ban, living rough and moving around at night. His dedication led eventually to appointment as Vice Provincial, head of the Japanese Jesuits in Japan. Not long afterwards, in 1634, he was arrested. Together with seven others he was suspended upside down over ordure in the most feared of Japanese tortures – the pit. After six hours he gave the signal that he was ready to recant, though none of the others did. One survived for an astonishing nine days.

 When news of Ferreira’s apostasy reached his superiors, they were shaken. How could such a senior missionary have so disgraced the church? Two missions were sent into Japan to persuade Ferreira to recount. The first group was quickly captured, interrogated for seven months, and tortured to death. A second group dispatched the following year were also captured, but all ten apostatized – a surprise given they were volunteers. “Ferreira had assisted at the interrogation of both groups, and it was this that intrigued Endo Shusaku.”

In Silence the young Portuguese Jesuit Father Rodrigues has come to Japan to investigate reports behind rumours that his former teacher, Ferreira, has renounced his faith. Taken prisoner and tortured, he has to make his own choice whether to apostatize.

Whereas you would have expected the missionaries to have shown a zealous self-sacrifice that the Japanese Christians would struggle to match, this was not the case: “the 4,000 or so known to have died for their faith include 71 Europeans, but the overwhelming majority were ordinary Japanese from the lower strata of society. Countless others disappeared, or were banished, or died later of injuries.”

In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians does a great job of explaining why so many Japanese had converted to Christianity, why they clung so fiercely to their faith, and why so many chose painful martyrdom.  

If this all sounds a bit heavy, then don’t worry; that’s not how the book reads. The history is skillfully interwoven with the author’s extensive travels through modern-day Kyushu. It’s done in a very natural, non-forced way, and it feels like we’re with the author as he visits museums, churches, castles and other sites, and talks to experts and Christians, both of the familiar kind and the Hidden Christian variety (obviously, left to their own devices for more than two hundred years, the religion developed its own idiosyncrasies). And we visit such wonderful places; Nagasaki – surely the Japanese city with the most beautiful natural setting; off-the-beaten-path locales like the southern island of Tanegashima, where the first Westerners arrived in Japan and the musket was introduced; Shimabara Peninsula; the beautiful Amakusa Islands: Hirado and Kagoshima. Reading In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians inspired me to visit Kyushu. It exceeded my high expectations and I’m planning a return visit.

For a book to succeed, we need more than interesting locations and events thrown together, of course, and what makes it work so well is the quality of the writing. In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians is a thought-provoking book from an author with a deep understanding of Japan. Originally from Grimsby in England, Dougill has lived in Kyoto since 1988, where he is professor of British Studies at Ryukoku University. Thankfully, the book has none of the dryness you often get from an academic. It’s written with a light touch, though is not overly breezy.

The religious matters are handled with admirable balance and sensitivity. It’s a challenge for a non-believer like Dougill to write about questions of faith, to check one’s skepticism and not mock the farcical, to understand the depth of belief and not condemn the suffering that it brought on, to understand how priests could have encouraged people into martyrdom, and how parents could have condemned themselves and their children to torture and death. The book deserves to be a bestseller and I hope the release of Scorsese’s film adaptation of Silence helps make that happen. 

In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians is published by  Tuttle Publishing. It is available from Amazon and other retailers.

Other Useful Links:

Author Interview with John Dougill.

Eric Mader’s review of Endo Shusaku’s Silence.