Christianization of Nagasaki 1569-1643


A review of Sacred Space and Ritual in Early Modern Japan: The Christian Community of Nagasaki (1569-1643), by Carla Tronu Montane.

Within the context of Christian history in Japan, the city of Nagasaki is usually described as a ‘‘Christian city.” This image is often taken for granted to the extent that no study to date has adequately explored the Christianization of Nagasaki. In her thesis, Carla Tronu sets out to answer this question by tracing the history and development of the Christian community and its involvement in “the production, maintenance and transformation of sacred spaces” (p. 10). With Tronu thus preferring the lay Christian communities over the missionary elite as the focal point of her research, her methodology builds on recent research trends in which traditional narratives of Christianity in Japan are being challenged, as advocated earlier by Ikuo Higashibaba (“Historiographical Issues in the Studies of the “Christian Century” in Japan,” Japanese Religions 24/1: 29-50). In absence of written source material by Japanese Christian believers, Tronu traces the actions of the Christian community through reports, letters and historiographical works of the missionaries that guided them.

Tronu’s approach to sacred space is based on the ideas of Henri Lefebvre’s ‘social space,’ where the actions of the religionists, citizens and elite form religious sites and buildings, with the ideologies and policies of these actors shaping and reshaping them in time (p. 15). She also employs the work of Michel de Certeau’s on space and place in narrating the religious dynamics within the church, as well as using it as a framework of reference in the use and interpretation of primary and secondary source material throughout the thesis. With space being the primary theme in the eight-chapter thesis, Tronu accordingly focuses on the development of Nagasaki’s religious spaces as the historical narrative driving her thesis, and how local, domestic and international factors relate to their creation, destruction and recreation in each phase.

Before turning to the story of Nagasaki, Chapter 1 begins with an explanation of how space and ritual functioned in the production of Christian sacred space in Japan more generally. Tronu does this by looking at the design of Japanese churches, their location and their sacralization. Following Lefebvre’s idea that the creation of communities can be traced through their religious buildings, Tronu first sketches what she calls a ‘standard model’ of a Japanese church in the late Sengoku period. This model is based on descriptions of churches, pictorial source material like the nanban folding screens and missionary instructions, such as those on the construction of churches in Japan. Especially Alessandro Valignano’s ideas on church architecture in Japan reflect the Jesuit’s awareness of the need to adapt Christianity to the Japanese rather than the other way around. This becomes evident when following the development of the church in Japan, from an abandoned Buddhist temple to the creation of the Church of the Assumption on Morisaki Cape. Every improvement and alteration made in the layout, orientation, design and construction material of the first Japanese churches reflect how the Jesuits were accommodating the physical religious space to Japanese socio-religious needs and notions, such as etiquette, hierarchy and the importance of purity, while at the same time differentiating it from Buddhism. Though the first Jesuit church was indeed an abandoned Buddhist temple, various examples given by Tronu underscore that the location of a church was decided based on practical socio-political considerations rather than geosophy or the inherent sacredness of a certain site. It was not the location but the ritual performed in the church that turned it into a sacred space (p. 41), several of such rituals that could have been involved in the sacralization of a new church being considered by Tronu.

With the basic features of the production of Christian sacred space covered, the second chapter explores the initial missionary activity and the construction of Nagasaki port town. After the Jesuits got a foothold in Nagasaki village through the good offices of Nagasaki Jinzaemon, first-hand accounts such as those from Gaspar Vileila narrate how within a year the majority of the Nagasaki village population had been baptized. The swelling of their Christian ranks now enabled the Jesuits to rebuild the old Buddhist temple they were housed in and turn it into a proper church. Rather than considering the construction of Todos os Santos as the result of an already-existing Christian community, Tronu argues that the construction process itself was a sign that community was being created. Furthermore, the creation of the church as symbolic center of the Christian community went hand in hand with the dismantling and destruction of shrines and temples in the vicinity. While this behavior is often regarded by other scholars as being a way to rebel against oppressive local powers, Tronu instead argues that it is more likely that the Buddhist religious space was actively replaced with Christian religious space by the locals, as this was “a visible way to affirm their affiliation to the new sacred space and to externalize the sense of belonging to the Christian community” (p. 62). The narratives of the rituals and the active participation of the locals herein that follow underscore this affiliation as well as serve to show how the Jesuits actively used the appeal of their church and rituals in the creation of a Christian community. However, a notable distinction is made between Nagasaki the village, which had been converted, and Nagasaki the port town, which was Christian from the very beginning “with a Jesuit church as its only religious institution” (p. 71) and which welcomed Christians who fled their own domains. The growth of the Christian community here is exemplified by various occasions in which the townsmen defended the Church of the Assumption and its holy objects against attacks in these turbulent times.

The gradual process by which Nagasaki gained economic and administrative autonomy is the focus of Chapter 3. The donation of Nagasaki port town to the Jesuits in 1580 triggered the construction of a bigger Church of the Assumption, the function of which now extended beyond that of religious space for the believers, to a symbol of Nagasaki to non-Christian visitors and merchants. Here, Tronu narrates an incident involving the defilement of the church as a prime example of how the Jesuits used the opportunity to engage the community in ritually cleaning and refurbishing the church. Together with their participation in the reconciliation ritual that followed, Tronu argues that the reproduction of sacred space exemplifies how “the community publicly condemned the profanation of the church […] and confirmed the importance of the church as a sacred space and as the town’s symbolic center” (p. 90). Active involvement by lay Christians eventually culminated in the foundation of the Misericordia brotherhood in 1583, whose charitable deeds for lepers show how Christian values were integrated into the community and actively put in practice. With daily life in the city revolving around one religion,  its fortification to withstand enemy attacks, and with its considerable financial means and autonomy, Nagasaki the port town came to resemble a temple town (jinaimachi) much like those of the True Pure Land sect. In the bigger context of the ongoing pacifications of such sects by Hideyoshi, this image of Nagasaki as a strong religiously organized city resulted in a crackdown on missionary activity and the first expulsion edict of 1587. Despite their best efforts, the Jesuits had to continue their activities in peripheral areas and private places, but with a community that still showed commitment to the Jesuits and their cause.

Chapter 4 focuses on the confiscation of Nagasaki by Hideyoshi, and how this heralded a period of instability for the Jesuit mission. The Jesuits operated from the periphery of Nagasaki, while their negotiations with Hideyoshi resulted in the restoration of their function as intermediaries in trade, but not the ban on the spread of Christianity. Disputes between Spain and Portugal concerning areas of influence in trade and proselytizing, and the subsequent accusations back and forth only hardened Hideyoshi’s stance towards the Jesuits, which resulted in the dismantling of the Church of the Assumption. In the absence of a central sacred space, the Christian community resisted in the periphery by sheltering priests, attending ritual in secret and the construction of other Christian spaces where they could put their faith to practice without the help of priests. A second challenge came in the form of the arrival of Franciscan missionaries, who, unlike the Jesuits, refused to adapt to Japanese etiquette and preached in public against Hideyoshi’s orders. Other candidates like Buddhist priests also attempted to preach in Nagasaki. Both were received with hostility, sabotage, and were initially refused land to build a house of worship, which testifies to the considerable influence the Jesuits had on the Christian community. The martyrdom of several Christians at Nishizaka and the expulsion of the Franciscans provided the community with an opportunity to display and reaffirm their allegiance to Christianity, and more specifically, to the Jesuits, who were once more the only Catholic order in Japan.

With Hideyoshi breathing his last in 1598 and with the Bishop Cerqueira in Japan to manage the Catholic mission, Chapter 5 takes us into the period of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s rise to power, and the subsequent relaxation of pressure on the Jesuits. Being able once again to perform and celebrate Christian ritual in the open, the Jesuits built a colegio on Morisaki Cape which served as a school for children and aspiring members of the order, a missionary base, a printing office and the site of festivities and theatrical plays. With the establishment of the bishop’s see in Nagasaki, the city became the de factocenter of the Catholic Church in Japan, and his presence and the swelling numbers of attendants pushed the Jesuits to build a bigger church. The fact that the vast majority of the necessary funds, timber and labor came from the citizens “suggest that they formed a Christian community with substantial resources and deeply engaged in the reproduction of sacred space” (p. 149). In the religious arena the Jesuits did not go unchallenged for long. Ieyasu’s eagerness for trade with Manila prompted the return of Franciscan friars as intermediaries, who tried to get a foothold in Nagasaki a second time, with little success. Buddhism was a stronger threat in the form of the establishment of the Shokaku-ji, the first non-Christian sacred space in the inner part of the town, though sabotage and outright hostility from the locals show that little progress was made here as well. “The Nagasaki residents invested resources and labor into the production and reproduction of Christian sacred spaces, but actively opposed non-Christian sacred spaces” (p. 155), actions which speak of their commitment as a Christian community. Disputes in matters as taxes and jurisdiction between the inner and outer town zones prompted a petition to Ieyasu asking him to take the whole of Nagasaki under his direct control. This move unified the city as an administrative space, but also resulted in the loss of support from theŌmura daimyo to the Jesuit mission, who were now completely dependent on the Christian community for support.

Chapter 6 is centered on the implementation of a parish system, made possible by the unification of Nagasaki inner and outer town and Nagasaki village. With Nagasaki flourishing, the population increase and the subsequent demand for ritual caused the capacities of the current church to strain to a breaking point, which brought about the construction of more churches and the ordination of native priests to cater to the religious needs of the people. Tronu stresses that the ordination of natives was revolutionary in and of itself, and is an indication of the innovative character of the bishop.

Public holidays in which the community participated can be found in the Christian ritual calendar as it was implemented in Nagasaki, with the number of public holidays increasing according to the degree of Christianization of an area. The Christian calendar and the bell tower of the Church of the Assumption marking the hours changed the citizen’s experience of time and reinforced the image of Nagasaki as a united, committed Christian community. The parish system itself had its foundation in the shape of the smaller churches already functioning as proto-parish churches with the Church of the Assumption functioning as a Cathedral. The pre-existing bonds between the lay population and the Jesuits priests and their investments in religious spaces was a vital precedent for the implementation of the parish system. The bishop’s position as head of the Catholic church in Japan and as arbiter between the various orders was tested with the arrival of Franciscan, Dominican and Augustinian missionaries between 1609 and 1612, who established their own parishes in the city. Tensions over the production of sacred space testify to the rivalries and power games between the groups, which were already plagued by financial struggles. Here, the lay confraternities turned out to be a key factor in the mission’s success, as “their members assumed the costs of the maintenance of their parish priest and churches or chapels” (p. 197). Together, the implementation of the Parish system and the Christian ritual calendar are marked by Tronu as the two key developments that made Nagasaki a Christian town “since it was these that structured the social dynamics of the community, shaping both the space of the city and its experience of time” (p. 201).

Chapter 7 touches on a recurring theme in the thesis, namely, that of the internal competition, rivalry and hostility between the various Christian groups, which surfaced in full when the Bishop Cerqueira passed away in 1614. With the international context of the inter-missionary struggle thoroughly explained, Tronu focuses on how this struggle was played out between the Jesuits and the Mendicants in Nagasaki in such matters as acquiring land, the right to administer sacraments and differences in doctrine and practice, which “fostered a consciousness of doctrinal difference and competition between the lay congregations” (p. 215). This sentiment was further strengthened by the parish system which divided the community and fostered rivalry. This became evident when the native priests, the Jesuits and the Mendicant orders clashed on the matter of the new administrator following the death of the bishop, a struggle which divided the Christian community and pitted the outer town against the inner town. Though the clash was short lived, it left the Christian community of Nagasaki divided and without a leader who could unite them.

The timing of the succession dispute could not have be worse, as the Tokugawa Bakufu permanently banned Christianity in 1614, expelling the missionaries and adopting aggressive policies to de-Christianize the country. Chapter 8 accordingly focuses on the de-Christianization of Nagasaki’s religious spaces. Despite the edicts, the missionaries organized processions in which many lay Christians participated with public displays of faith, while residents also started to practice their faith in the private spheres of their homes. Even though a large number of priests and Japanese Christians were expelled, various missionaries remained hidden in or near the city. Soon the dismantling of the churches began, but the Christian population refused to carry out this task, which Tronu interprets as a sign of their respect for the church as a sacred space. With the hunt for missionaries and their assistants in full swing, the destruction of Christian spaces now extended to graveyards and hospitals as well. While conventional scholarship focuses on actions taken against believers, Tronu instead focuses on the actions taken over sacred spaces to demonstrate how Nagasaki’s former Christian sites were turned into either secular sites (offices) or non-Christian religious sites (Buddhist and Shinto). Furthermore, the enforced participation in Buddhist and Shinto ritual in these new sacred spaces, as well as the ritualized practice of shūmon aratame (affirmation of religious affiliation) are seen by Tronu as means to override the Christian ritual and routine as described previously. Thus Nagasaki was transformed into an anti-Christian space, with Christian space and ritual forced out of the public eye and into the privacy of people’s homes, out of Nagasaki and into remote places, where it would survive the Tokugawa’s scrutiny up to the Meiji era.

Despite the acknowledged lack of source material from native Christian believers, Tronu’s methodology and her extensive employment of rarely-used Spanish, Portuguese and Japanese archival material enable her to convincingly investigate community involvement, inter-religious rivalry, government meddling and anti-Christian politics as they played out in the various religious spaces of Nagasaki. Rather than employing the conventional chronological narrative, Tronu traces Nagasaki’s religious history by using the physical transformation of these spaces as her central narrative. In so doing, she skillfully situates the creation of Nagasaki as a city within the context of religious, political and economic developments on a domestic and international scale. At the same time, her historical narrative allows her to demonstrate how ‘minor’ events in the production of sacred spaces in Nagasaki testify to active community involvement and turbulent internal dynamics between the various orders on the extreme local scale, a level often glossed over by conventional scholarship. Furthermore, in her case study of Nagasaki, Tronu’s emphasis on the distinct missionary methodologies, doctrines, rituals and international backgrounds of the various Catholic orders reveal much detail and depth of Nagasaki as a ‘contested religious space,’ a place where Jesuit supremacy was continuously challenged by religious rivals in the shape of both native clergy and other Catholic orders.

By focusing on Nagasaki’s religious identity as a Christian city, Tronu has successfully addressed a blind spot in the field of Christian history in Japan. Her thesis is a prime example of how the application of concepts of space in historical narrative can lead to a fresh approach and new insight into key historical events. Tronu’s study on the religious history of Nagasaki should be of interest to any scholar of Japanese early modern socio-religious history and the history of Christianity in Japan.

Nadia M. Kreeft
Leiden Institute for Area Studies (LIAS)
Leiden University

Primary Sources

Compagnia de Jesus
Nagasaki Shi Shi
Luis Cerqueira
Francesco Pasio
Marcelo de Ribadeneira

Dissertation Information

School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. 2012. 285 pp.Primary Advisor: Dr. Angus Lockyer.


Image: Nagasaki Museum of History and Culture 長崎歴史文化博物館.

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