on japan’s treatment of its christians

Meet Amakusa Shiro, the charismatic teenaged leader of the ill-fated Shimabara rebellion in Japan, which began in 1637 and was put down a year later.

What started off as general discontent among the commoners of Shimabara against their heavy-handed masters culminated in the lynching of a local tax official. As the revolt gathered steam the rebels attempted to storm the local lord’s castle, but were repelled. As government troops arrived on the scene the rebels, under Shiro, captured the previously abandoned Hara castle and prepared to make their last stand there.

After a desperate fight Hara castle was stormed by government troops. The rebels were butchered, Shiro among them. His severed head was stuck on a pike and put on display at Nagasaki.

Japanese history has not been kind to Shiro. To this day the Shimabara rebellion is not a well-known event, while Shiro himself has been the subject of several less-than-flattering portrayals. In the last 20 years a number of Japanese novels, films and video games have portrayed him as a wrathful demon, armed with sorcerous powers and risen from the dead to take revenge on his killers. While Shiro’s bold defiance may have earned him a kinder remembrance elsewhere, it seems his legacy in modern day Japan is a controversial one, to say the least.

Amakusa Shiro was a Catholic Christian.

Shiro’s legacy intrigues me because he seems to be just the sort of thing heroes are made of, and yet he is generally vilified in his homeland. And yes he was a rebel, but even rebels are often glorified for their defiance of social order – just look at the glamour that 18th-century pirates attract these days, not to mention the glamour often attached to lawless and/or masterless samurai of Shiro’s homeland.

In other parts of the world history may have been kinder to Shiro – superficially he is not so different from a William Wallace or a Dietrich Bonhoeffer – but not in Japan. It is possible that his mixed legacy has to do with a distrust of western intervention; modern depictions of Shiro often show him wearing a neck ruffle (fashionable in the 17th-century west and introduced with mixed success to Japan by westerners); in other words his defining characteristic is not so much ‘Christian’ as ‘western’. In any case I think it is hard to separate these two. Both were distrusted then, and to some extent, now.

At the same time I think it is no coincidence that in other areas of Japanese pop culture there is a general and pervading mistrust of Christianity. I am no expert in this area but from personal experience I can say that the pseudo-Christian charlatan is by now a stock character in Japanese anime, notable examples including Full Metal Alchemist, Rurouni Kenshin and Samurai Champloo. And I’ve met enough Japanese friends, both Christians and otherwise, to know that the church there is viewed with a deep mistrust.

It’s worrying what these implications are for brother and sister Christians in Japan. How will they cope in a society that often mistrusts them, especially when Japanese culture places such a premium on social acceptability and fidelity to peers? What sort of pressure does the church there face, in a society where a man such as Shiro is not lionised but vilified for being a Christian, and/or being rebellious? – the church fits both these descriptions!

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