Japanese Ban Christian Missionaries

Christian missionaries arrived in Japan in the mid-sixteenth century and began to win converts, but in 1614, the Japanese government banned Christianity—executing some Christians and exiling others. Japan remained a closed society until the 1850’.

Summary of Event

Prior to the sixteenth century, the islands of Japan were relatively isolated from world events. The exception to this trend was Japan’s long relationship with China and its sometime vassal state of Korea. Japanese writing was based on that of China, and seventh century Chinese Buddhist missionaries shaped Japanese religious history. Even with these influences, however, Japan’s relative geographical isolation resulted in a unique and largely self-contained Japanese culture. The culture’s native religion was Shintoism, or the “way of the gods,” and Japan’s emperor was claimed to be descended from the sun goddess, Amaterasu. Most Japanese in the sixteenth century practiced a combination of Shintoism and Buddhism. [kw]Japanese Ban Christian Missionaries (Jan. 27, 1614)
[kw]Missionaries, Japanese Ban Christian (Jan. 27, 1614)
[kw]Christian Missionaries, Japanese Ban (Jan. 27, 1614)
Religion and theology;Jan. 27, 1614: Japanese Ban Christian Missionaries[0660]
Cultural and intellectual history;Jan. 27, 1614: Japanese Ban Christian Missionaries[0660]
Government and politics;Jan. 27, 1614: Japanese Ban Christian Missionaries[0660]
Japan;Jan. 27, 1614: Japanese Ban Christian Missionaries[0660]
Japan;banning of Christianity

In 1542, Portuguese sailors landed in Japan, and Christian missionaries soon followed, notably Saint Francis Xavier Xavier, Saint Francis in 1549. Western Christianity was a great contrast to the religion and culture of Japan, not only theologically but also culturally. Christianity;Japan Nevertheless, the Japanese were initially accepting of westerners, probably more because of their technology (especially gunpowder) than because of their religious beliefs and practices. Sixteenth century Japan was a society in violent upheaval. The emperor, though believed to be divine, did not rule. The actual ruler was the shogun, or chief military general, but by the 1500’, the Ashikaga shogunate, established in 1333, was in decline. Into the resulting power vacuum emerged three seminal figures, known to history as the Three Unifiers Three Unifiers , all of whom had an impact upon Christianity in Japan.

The first of the Three Unifiers, Oda Nobunaga Oda Nobunaga abolished the Ashikaga shogunate in 1573. Because he was in a bitter feud with bands of Buddhist warrior monks, Nobunaga allowed the missionaries, most of them initially Catholic Jesuits, to propagate Christianity among the population. At the time of his death in 1582, it is estimated that there were approximately 150,000 Japanese Christians, mostly in southern Japan. These included common people but also members of the samurai, or warrior, caste and some daimyo, or feudal lords. Some Japanese were undoubtedly sincere converts to the theology and morality of Christianity. Others associated the Western religion with superior Western technology and an exotic culture. Still others were attracted to the religion for economic and political reasons.

Nobunaga’s successor as Japan’s unofficial ruler, Toyotomi Hideyoshi Toyotomi Hideyoshi , placed severe restrictions upon Christians, or kirishitan. In 1587, he demanded that all foreign missionaries leave Japan within twenty days. His decree was not rigorously enforced for a number of years, but in 1597, just before his death, he ordered the execution by crucifixion of twenty-six missionaries and Japanese converts. One reason for these executions was an influx of additional Christian missionaries, in spite of the 1587 expulsion edict.

The Jesuits were consummate diplomats, and in China they confined their activities mainly to the imperial court. However, in the 1580’, other Catholic religious orders, including the Franciscans and Augustinians, arrived in Japan, many from the Spanish-ruled Philippines. These new arrivals were allowed to enter Japan but only on the condition that they not preach Christianity. Once in the country, they ignored the prohibition and began preaching in the major cities of Kyōto, Nagasaki, andŌsaka, as well as in the countryside. Not only did monotheistic Christianity contradict the beliefs of Shintoism and imperial divinity, but it also potentially threatened the political and social order of feudal Japan, and the insistence of the missionaries upon proselytizing in direct violation of the law served only to heighten this threat.

The third unifier was Tokugawa Ieyasu Tokugawa Ieyasu . A supporter of Hideyoshi but also a rival, Ieyasu became the de facto ruler of Japan after the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. Although he had promised to remain loyal to Hideyoshi’s son and heir, Toyotomi Hideyori Toyotomi Hideyori , Ieyasu had the powerless emperor appoint Ieyasu himself as shogun in 1603. Ieyasu’s son, Tokugawa Hidetada Tokugawa Hidetada , was proclaimed shogun in 1605, but Ieyasu retained actual power until his death in 1616. In the 1614-1615 Siege ofŌsaka Castle Ōsaka Castle, Siege of (1614-1615)[Osaka Castle, Siege of (1614-1615)] , Ieyasu defeated Hideyori, who committed suicide, removing the last major obstacle to Tokugawa Tokugawa shogunate rule.

In the early years of his reign, Ieyasu encouraged foreign trade, especially with the Portuguese and the Dutch, and was tolerant of Christian worshipers in Japan, whether native or foreign. However, in 1611, the shogunate reversed its policies and prohibited the preaching and practice of Christianity. In 1612, orders were given to punish certain individuals, followed in June, 1613 by an edict warning all religious monasteries and shrines to avoid Evil Sects, including Christians and heterodox Buddhist groups. Finally, on January 27, 1614, a decree was promulgated completely abolishing Christianity in Japan. Christian churches in the capital of Kyōto were destroyed, missionaries were imprisoned, and some Christian daimyo were driven into exile. Ultimately, all Japanese were required to register as worshipers in Buddhist temples.

Ieyasu’s anti-Christian motives were mainly political. He was less concerned with what the peasants and other commoners believed than with the issue of whether Christian samurai and daimyo could be trusted to remain loyal to their feudal lords and overlords. Ieyasu, who was in the process of founding a dynasty, brooked no challenges to his authority, and he and other members of the ruling shogunate came to believe that Christianity was a threat to Japan’s feudal hierarchy and its warrior code of Bushidō. The decision to abolish Christianity, moreover, was linked to the close relationship between the Catholic religious orders and Spain and Portugal. By 1614, Ieyasu no longer had to rely upon Spain and Portugal for trade; he had found viable alternatives in the Protestant Dutch and English merchants who were far less concerned with converting others to their faith than were the Catholics. While Ieyasu ruled, however, no foreign missionaries were put to death.

After Ieyasu’s death, the government of his successors pursued a more relentless policy toward Christians, Japanese and foreign alike. Hidetada, who was shogun until his death in 1623, and his successor, Tokugawa Iemitsu Tokugawa Iemitsu , were lesser figures than Ieyasu and consequently more fearful of possible Christian resistance to Tokugawa rule. In October, 1616, the daimyos were ordered not to allow any of their people to practice Christianity, not even the lowliest peasant farmer. In 1622, the year of the so-called Great Martyrdom Great Martyrdom (1622) , thirty Christians were beheaded and twenty-five others were burned at the stake. An English merchant described the burning of fifty-five Japanese Christians, including children five and six years old, at Miyako. However, in spite of the prohibitions, Catholic missionaries continued to be secretly smuggled into Japan from the Philippines, and in reaction Japanese officials discussed the possibility of launching a military assault to destroy the Catholic base of missionary activity in Luzon, a threat that was not carried out.

By 1625, Christianity in Japan had been either destroyed or driven underground. Those Christians living in urban areas, under greater direct pressure, recanted first, while peasant farmers in rural regions were able publicly to practice their adopted religion longer. In 1637-1638, the Shimabara Revolt Shimabara Revolt (1637-1638) occurred near Nagasaki on the southern island of Kyūshū, mainly caused by economic grievances, but inasmuch as a number of the participants were Christians and some of the rebels waved banners with the names of Christian saints upon them, the government viewed the revolt as inspired by the Christian religion rather than economics. The fumie was introduced, by which anybody suspected of being a Christian was required to stamp on the Christian cross to prove they were not Christians. The following year, in 1639, a decree was issued that stated that any foreign vessel with Christian priests on board that landed in Japan would be destroyed and its passengers and crew executed. In 1640, a Portuguese ship arrived on a diplomatic mission. Fifty-seven members of the crew were subsequently beheaded.


Tied to Japan’s anti-Christian campaign was the policy of excluding all foreign shipping from Japan. The only exceptions to this policy were ships from China and the Netherlands. Trade;Japan with Europe The Spanish were expelled in 1624, the English focused upon India, and the Portuguese were driven out in the aftermath of the Shimabara uprising. Only the Dutch among Europeans were still allowed to trade with Japan, and the Dutch were restricted in the number of ships they could send per year and were confined to the island of Dejima Dejima , in Nagasaki Harbor. Seclusion policy, Japan After 1637, Japanese were prohibited from leaving Japan, and Japanese living abroad were forbidden to return. Through this seclusion policy, Japan intentionally cut itself off from much of the Western world and culture until an American, Commodore Matthew C. Perry, forcibly opened it in 1853.

Further Reading

  • Boxer, C. R. The Christian Century in Japan, 1549-1650. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951. A well-written survey of Japan from the arrival of Christianity to its near-demise.
  • Elison, George. Deus Destroyed: The Image of Christianity in Early Modern Japan. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973. A classical study of Christianity in Japan during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
  • Jansen, Marius B. The Making of Modern Japan. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000. This work, by one of the most eminent American historians of Japan, includes a discussion of the expulsion of western Christians from Japan.
  • McClain, James L. Japan: A Modern History. New York: W. W. Norton, 2002. Another recent history of Japan, beginning with the Tokugawa shogunate and which includes a discussion of the exclusion of Christian missionaries.

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