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Nagasaki's Hidden Christians Survive Persecution and the Atomic Bomb

Photos by Ari Beser. An attic recreated at the 26 martyrs museum in Nagasaki shows how people kept their faith hidden under a ban on Christianity in Japan.

Nagasaki, Japan –A prophecy is alive in the hills of Nagasaki. For centuries Christians stayed hidden under a historical ban on their religion by the Tokugawa Shogunate, a government system that lauded itself for the most peaceful era in Japanese History.

Bastian was a priest in Nagasaki whose life is shrouded in mystery. He prophesied just before his execution in 1659 that:

“All of you shall be my sons and daughters down to the seventh generation. After that, a reverend father will come on a large ship and expiate your sins, by hearing your confession. Then you will be able to chant Christian hymns in a loud voice, anywhere in the public. Heathens shall give you the right-of-way, wherever you may be walking.”

Long before the atomic bomb was dropped, Nagasaki was famous for being Japan’s beacon to the west. Chinese, Portuguese, and Dutch traders have all passed through Nagasaki’s harbor and imparted a part of their culture along the way. Portuguese sponge cake called castera is still sold today as a Nagasaki staple. Dejima warf is a downtown tourist hot spot constructed to look like a 16th Century Dutch market, and Nagasaki’s China Town is Japan’s oldest and most vibrant.

A Dutch depiction on the treatment of Japanese Christians. While not exactly reflecting a real situation, people found guilty of practicing their faith were taken to geothermal hot springs and scalded with boiling water, or tortured in other ways until they recanted their faith.

Along with Western influence came its religion. Christianity came to Nagasaki in 1543 with a Jesuit missionary by the name of Francis Xavier. He arrived first in the nearby town of Kagoshima after meeting a Japanese exile in Malaysia. Accompanied by a few Japanese converts who taught him about their culture, he found it difficult to teach as Japanese was unlike any language he had encountered before.

To further complicate the spread of Christianity, the majority of the country practiced Buddhism and Shintoism. Learning from the lessons of Western colonization in surrounding countries like the Philippines who were invaded by the Spanish after most of the country had converted to Catholicism, the Shogunate banned Christianity from Japan in the early 1600s.

Japanese Catholics were hunted out, and to determine if they had kept their faith, were forced to step on the image of Mary. Those who didn't were punished and tortured until they recanted. Those who still believed in their faith and stepped on it anyway would wash their feet afterward, and drink the water they used as penance for their sin. The most famous case of persecution would be the 26 martyrs who were prosecuted in Kyoto and forced to walk for months to Nagasaki where they were crucified.

Minamishimabara City, Nagasaki Prefecture, the site of the historical Shimabara Rebellion, has been nominated as a world heritage site.

Christianity didn't go down without a fight, and in 1637 poor Catholic laborers rebelled against their feudal lord in what was called the Shimabara rebellion. In order to construct the Shimabara Castle taxes had been raised to exorbitant levels; coupled with religious persecution, it was a recipe for unrest.

However, the revolt was unsuccessful. The Catholic rebel leader Amakusa Shiro was beheaded, and the ban on Christianity went into strict enforcement. The rebellion was the main reason behind Japan’s self-imposed isolation. Only Dutch merchants were allowed to continue selling their goods in Nagasaki. They agreed to the terms of the Japanese, including no proselytizing and living on a confined island called Dejima. The Portuguese would not agree to the terms, so they left.

The Bombed Mary as it rests today in the Urakami Cathedral. Some regard its survival as a miracle. The wooden statue's glass eyes melted due to the intense heat of the nearby atomic blast, but the wood didn't burn.

For seven generations Christians practiced their religion in secret. Their rediscovery at the end of the 19th century is noted as one of the miracles of Christianity. Finally after the Meiji Restoration and subsequent opening of Japan, religious freedom was granted to Japanese citizens. Bastian’s prophecy had come true: Christians could practice their faith freely, and were allowed to build their own cathedral in Urakami.

The Urakami neighborhood was at the center of the atomic bomb’s explosion, the cathedral resting on a hilltop meters away from the bomb’s hypocenter. While the church was destroyed by the blast, the head of wooden statue of the Virgin Mary inside the building remained intact, except for the eyes that were melted out of their sockets. That wooden head still rests inside the cathedral today.

Shigemi Fukahori stands in front of the Bombed Mary at the Urakami Cathedral. He often gives testimony here, and comes to pray every day for the souls who perished in Nagasaki when the atomic bomb was detonated.

I met a survivor, Shigemi Fukahori, who was 14 when he was exposed to the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. He maintains a deep Catholic faith and even holds his own belief of how the war started and ended, saying, “In Japan World War II started on December 8th, the same day as the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. It also ended on August 15th, the day of the Assumption of Mary. The bomb exploded over Urakami Valley; the highest amount of Christians in Nagasaki live there. I believe the war ended because of our sacrifice.”

Ari M. Beser is the grandson of Lt. Jacob Beser, the only U.S. serviceman aboard both bomb-carrying B-29s. He is traveling through Japan with the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship to report on the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the fifth anniversary of the Great East Japan earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima. Using photo essays, videos, and articles, Beser will give voice to people directly affected by nuclear technology today, as well as work with Japanese and Americans to encourage a message of reconciliation and nuclear disarmament. His new book, “The Nuclear Family,” focuses on the American and Japanese perspectives of the atomic bombings. Follow him on Twitter @Aribeser, and Instagram @AriBeser and @HibakushaTNF.

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