Features Nagasaki’s Light and Shadow
Saint Francis Xavier and the Roots of Christianity in Japan
[2015.08.27] Read in: 日本語 | ESPAÑOL | العربية | Русский |

Arriving in Japan in 1549, Jesuit priest Francis Xavier played a key role in the early spread of Christianity in the country. His missionary work included preaching in Hirado in the northwest of present-day Nagasaki Prefecture, where Christianity took root most firmly and “hidden Christians” preserved the faith during centuries of prohibition. Today Hirado is home to numerous historic churches, testifying to the enduring influence of Spanish and Portuguese missionaries.

Francis Xavier in Japan

The arrival of the Jesuit priest Francis Xavier (1506–52) on Hirado in the summer of 1550 marked a major historical turning point for the remote Kyūshū island as it developed into a center for Christianity in Japan. The Spanish missionary first landed in Kagoshima in 1549 before moving to Hirado in the northwest of what is now Nagasaki Prefecture, spending a total of two years and three months in Japan preaching Christianity.

It is said that Xavier was able to convert around 100 Japanese to Christianity in Kagoshima by discovering points of similarity between Christian teachings and Buddhism. However, after hearing that a Portuguese ship had arrived in Hirado in June 1550, he traveled to the island in July of the same year, accompanied by Father Cosme de Torres and another missionary, Juan Fernandez.

The mission in Kagoshima was left to Japan’s first Christian convert, Anjirō (also known as Yajirō and later as Paulo de Santa Fé), who had helped provide the impetus for Xavier’s voyage to Japan. The two men met in Malacca (now in Malaysia), a fortified city that was a hub for international trade at the time. Although there is little reliable evidence about the life of Anjirō, he is thought to have fled overseas on a Portuguese ship after committing a murder in Kagoshima. He returned with Xavier in 1549.

A statue of Francis Xavier at St. Francis Xavier Memorial Church in Hirado.

Fruitful Ground

Xavier is said to have won more converts in just 20 days of proselytizing in Hirado than he did in a whole year in Kagoshima. In January 1551, Japan’s first church was built on the island, the remains of which are in Sakigata Park near the restored Dutch Trading Post.

Meanwhile, Xavier had set off for Kyoto in October 1550, seeking an audience with the emperor where he would request permission to preach Christianity throughout Japan—further evidence of his success in Hirado. He traveled to Kyoto via Yamaguchi along with the missionaries Fernandez and Bernardo, but the tumult of the Warring States period (1467–1568) had left the ancient capital in ruins. On discovering the emperor was a powerless figurehead, a disillusioned Xavier returned to Yamaguchi. During this time Torres took responsibility for missionary work in Hirado.

Xavier was allowed to use an abandoned Buddhist temple in Yamaguchi, where he preached for several months. Historical documents state that he converted more than 500 Japanese in the six months leading up to March 1551. A return visit to Hirado in April was probably connected with the construction of the church there.

To India and China

In September 1551, a Portuguese ship arrived in the province of Bungo (now Oita Prefecture) in Kyūshū. Xavier traveled there to hear news of the Jesuit missions in India. Concluding that he was needed more in India than he was in Japan, he immediately took passage on the Portuguese ship.

That was the end of Xavier’s stay in Japan, but the country remained on his mind. Seeing the influence Chinese culture had on Japan, he decided to move on to China and look for converts there. He arrived on the island Shangchuan in September 1552, but was ultimately unable to reach the mainland, dying on December 3 of illness exacerbated by physical and mental exhaustion. He was 46 years old.

Some of the missionaries who traveled to Japan with Xavier continued their evangelical activities, but just a few years after his death, the persecution and execution of Portuguese, Spanish, and Japanese Christians began.

Japanese Jesuit Sebastian Kimura

As Christianity spread, its influence came to threaten the dominance of Buddhism and the very power of the central government, resulting in it being treated with hostility and persecution. The first Christian martyr in Japan is said to be Maria Osen, a Hirado woman who was executed in 1559 after disobeying her husband’s order not to worship the cross.

The most famous of the Hirado martyrs, however, was Sebastian Kimura (1565–1622), who became the first Japanese Catholic priest. The Kimura family had been instructed by Matsura Takanobu, the daimyō of Hirado, to provide hospitality for Xavier when he arrived on the island in 1550. A translation of selected Bible scriptures, completed while Xavier was in Kagoshima, made a strong impression on the head of the Kimura household, who was among the first 100 Hirado inhabitants to be baptized, receiving the Christian name of Antonio.

The descendants of Antonio Kimura were closely connected with the subsequent history of Christianity in the area. Antonio’s grandson Sebastian was born in 1565 and baptized at an early age. When he was 12, he became an assistant to a Catholic priest, performing a similar role to Buddhist novices of the day.

Despite the initial reluctance of the Jesuits to appoint Japanese priests, by around 1580 they had come to see the importance of engaging locals in furthering their evangelizing mission. In 1585, at the age of 19, Sebastian Kimura joined the Society of Jesus.

Just two years later, on July 24, 1587, shortly before completing the reunification of Japan, warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi issued the Edict of Expulsion, forcing the Jesuits out of Kyoto and other locations. While some went to India, others retreated to Hirado or Nagasaki, which were overwhelmingly Christian. Here regional leaders and even daimyōs had been baptized, and it would be many years before the expulsion edict was successfully enacted in these areas.

Monument to the Hirado martyrs.

Under these circumstances, Sebastian Kimura continued his learning in such refuges as Shimabara and Amakusa. In 1595, he achieved another precedent by becoming the first Japanese to attend the Jesuit college in Macau.

Arrest and Execution

In 1600, the same year that Tokugawa Ieyasu established control of Japan at the Battle of Sekigahara, Sebastian Kimura returned to his homeland from Macau. In September 1601, at the age of 36, he was ordained as a priest.

He was first assigned to Kawachinoura in Hirado. But in 1614, persecution of Christians intensified and many priests were driven out of the country, although a considerable number of faithful continued to worship in secret. On June 29, 1621, Sebastian Kimura was betrayed to the authorities by a female servant who had been brought to Japan as a slave from Korea and who believed that by doing so she would win her freedom. Kimura and other believers were apprehended and ultimately beheaded or burned alive at the hill of Nishizaka in September 1622.

Despite persecution, many Christians remained hidden, secretly worshiping for centuries until they were discovered in March 1865 by the French priest Bernard Petitjean.

  • [2015.08.27]
Related articles
Also in this series

Video highlights

New series

  • From the editor in chief
  • From our columnists
  • In the news