25 January 2011

Japanese Attitudes toward Urakami Christians, 1868-1871

From: American Missionaries, Christian Oyatoi, and Japan 1859–73, by Hamish Ion (UBC Press, 2009), pp. 100-101, 121-122:
In June 1868, A. Bertram Mitford, then serving as British consul in Osaka, wrote a most interesting letter about Japanese views on the Urakami Christians. Mitford had polled his Japanese friends, very likely the same politically well-connected friends who had provided him with the political intelligence on the imperial side that allowed the British to navigate skilfully through the tortuous months leading up to the Restoration. Mitford observed how little sympathy there was for the Urakami Christians among Japanese of all classes because they had begun to openly preach the Gospel in defiance of the government's prohibition. He stressed that the Japanese thought the Roman Catholic priests were trying to gain secular as well as spiritual power through their proselytizing activities in Urakami, known as a hotbed of anarchy and revolution. He also pointed out that a new Roman Catholic bishop had been appointed with the ill-chosen title of "bishop of Japan," which Japanese regarded as "thoroughly offensive to the pride of the nation." The Japanese saw the crisis in political terms: as a challenge to the political power of the government. According to Mitford, the Japanese already believed that Roman Catholic fathers were exerting an unfortunate influence on the Urakami Christians by forbidding them, to sell flowers as decoration in local temples and shrines and by preaching sedition and treason, which had led to the tearing down of images of the native gods. The spectre of religious warfare was raised.

The Japanese were too diplomatically astute to deny the excellence of Christian teaching but did argue that "the school of Urakami is but a bastard form of Christianity," that the Roman Catholic priests were not famihar enough with the Japanese language to explain the dogmas of their religion, and that the Urakami Christians had little in common with true Christian. This argument was in keeping with a common snub about the missionaries language ability, with the hint that the Japanese knew a little bit more about the true nature of Christianity and of Urakami Christian beliefs than the Roman Catholic missionaries did. Mitford wrote, "The Japanese claim a high degree of merit for their own faith, which for centuries has taught the people the duties of children and parents, husbands and wives, masters and servants, brothers and friends. This is the religion which the people understand; the mystic doctrines of the Fathers only bewilder them." Mirroring the contemporary position, he then added, "The danger of a little knowledge in matters of religion is shown by the Taiping Rebellion, which founded on a few Christian tracts, at one time threatened to lay waste the Chinese Empire." Elements of Christianity could be seen in the ideology of the Taiping rebels, and 1868, the year in which Mitford was writing was only four years after that destructive rebellion's final defeat. Although it is difficult to see the Urakami Christians leading a rebellion with the same impact on Japan as the Taiping had on China, the new government saw them-as a danger because they could spark a resurgence of armed Tokugawa opposition to the government's rule. In any case, despite Western ministers' calls for the Meiji government to take a more moderate stance, Mitford thought the government was still going ahead with its policy to scatter the Urakami Christians throughout the territories of different daimyo. Mitford's intelligence was very good, for this scattering of Christians was, in fact, carried out. It was all about politics and political power.


In late November 1871, the British diplomat Ernest Satow had dinner with Kido Kōin, a senior member of the Meiji government, during which Kido said "he respected highly the Christian religion and was in favour of introducing it into Japan or at least of allowing its practice." Certainly, this would appear to be a volte-face on the part of someone who was instrumental in carrying out the new government's policies against the Urakami Christians in 1868. But by late 1871, Kido was concerned with currying favour with the Western powers in advance of the Iwakura embassy's imminent departure for the West. The persecution of Christians was an issue that was not going to go away quietly. As Helen Hardacre has pointed out, the question of religious freedom was "a tremendous stumbling block in the achieving of the main goal of Japanese diplomacy at that time," that is, the revision of the treaties of 1858. When the Iwakura embassy was confronted with the issue of religious freedom, Japanese Christians had already been largely brought to heel.

The Meiji government was quite prepared to take down the public notice boards of edicts prohibiting Christianity (this was, in itself, an economizing measure, as the notice boards were expensive to maintain), but it had no intention of altering its proscription of Christianity. The timing of the removal of the public notice boards was dictated not by Western diplomatic pressure but by the Japanese government in light of its preparations to mitigate the potential harmful consequence to Japan of this action. The Japanese people understood from the example of the Urakami Christians what could happen if they became Christians. Given their determination during the Urakami crisis, it is quite clear that the Meiji oligarchs were not going to allow Christianity to gain headway in Japan. The removal of the notice boards was interpreted by missionaries as the start of a new era in which Christianity could be openly propagated among the Japanese, but it was, in reality, a hollow gesture by a government that had no intention of stopping its search for counter-Christian measures to contain Christianity. Indeed, the major beneficiaries of the dismantling of the anti-Christian notice boards were not Christians but Buddhists, who were now seen as playing an important part in countering any major Christian advance – with the removal of the notice boards, the Meiji government, which had previously been persecuting Buddhists as part of its attempt to promote Shinto, now looked to Buddhists to help them resist the spread of Christianity outside the treaty settlements (something that the government feared might be a possible and undesirable consequence of removing the proscription edicts from public view). Certainly, Ōhama Tetsuya sees Buddhist attempts to counter Japanese Christian evangelistic activities in the provinces becoming particularly pronounced in 1881 and 1882 at a time when Buddhist intellectuals were also trying to discredit Christian theological ideas. Christianity had failed in Japan before it was actively propagated among the Japanese. Missionaries, of course, did not recognize this. Their energies were directed toward overcoming all obstacles to their religious goal of spreading the Christian message throughout Japan. Optimism was a marked, if not an essential, characteristic of their work.

The uproar of protest against the deportation of the Urakami Christians came from Western diplomats and not from missionaries in Yokohama. In this, there is a residue element of anti-Roman Catholic sentiment that saw the persecution of the Urakami Christians as something involving the Roman Catholics and having little to do with Protestants. "Those horrible papists," Verbeck (who was by no means unusual among Protestant missionaries in his contempt for Roman Catholics) was wont to call Roman Catholic priests. Yet, it is evident that anti-Christian Japanese polemicists saw Protestant missionaries as being as bad, if not worse, than their Roman Catholic counterparts. The Japanese government argued that the Japanese who wanted to learn about things Western found missionaries, in contravention of the treaties, forcing them to read the Bible as an English textbook. From the government's perspective, private religious beliefs would be tolerated so long as the individual believer did not challenge the public policies of the government. Thus, in the opinion of the Meiji government, the Urakami Christians were not being persecuted for their private religious beliefs but because they had defied established authority.

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