Shimabara Revolt Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In response to economic exploitation and religious persecution, Christians rose in revolt against the Japanese feudal power structure. Gathering troops from all over Japan and calling on their Dutch allies for aid, the Tokugawa shogunate successfully quashed the rebellion. Virtually all of the more than thirty-seven thousand people who participated in the revolt were killed in the fighting or put to death in its aftermath.

Summary of Event

From the mid-sixteenth century, the regions around Nagasaki, in the northern part of the Japanese island of Kyūshū, were bastions of Christian belief. The faith was brought to the region by Portuguese and Spanish missionaries beginning in the 1540’. When prominent local lords converted to Christianity Christianity;Japan , most of the population of the area followed suit. In the late sixteenth century, however, Toyotomi Hideyoshi Toyotomi Hideyoshi , a military strongman who was attempting to restore a measure of central authority after nearly a century and a half of civil war, began to see Christianity as a threat to his efforts to consolidate power. He introduced edicts banning the faith, and while enforcement was not consistent, there were periodic persecutions of Christian believers. [kw]Shimabara Revolt (Oct., 1637-Apr. 15, 1638) [kw]Revolt, Shimabara (Oct., 1637-Apr. 15, 1638) Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Oct., 1637-Apr. 15, 1638: Shimabara Revolt[1250] Government and politics;Oct., 1637-Apr. 15, 1638: Shimabara Revolt[1250] Japan;Oct., 1637-Apr. 15, 1638: Shimabara Revolt[1250] Shimabara Revolt (1637-1638)

After Hideyoshi’s death, another general, Tokugawa Ieyasu Tokugawa Ieyasu , completed the process of consolidating central power. The Tokugawa shogunate Tokugawa shogunate was formed in 1603, and while Ieyasu and his advisers were initially friendly to foreign traders and preachers, this attitude began to change in the 1610’. Tokugawa Iemitsu Tokugawa Iemitsu , the third of the Tokugawa shoguns, began to persecute Christians in earnest. Spanish traders were expelled from Japan in 1624, and from 1633, a system of searches for foreign priests living in hiding in Japan was instituted. The persecutions were particularly harsh in the area around Nagasaki. In October, 1637, a revolt broke out in the largely Christian Shimabara region. Persecution, religious;Christians in Japan

The immediate cause of the Shimabara Revolt is considered by many to have been taxation Taxation;Japan . The daimyo, or feudal lord, of the region, Matsukura Shigeharu Matsukura Shigeharu , was notorious for overtaxing the local peasants. During the seventeenth century, while central power lay in the hands of the Tokugawa family, the daimyos were allowed to maintain fiefs where they exercised a great deal of autonomous control. There was no system of national taxation, and individual lords decided the tax rates of their domains. As a result, some areas of Japan, such as the Shimabara and Asakusa regions of Kyūshū, were subject to far more oppressive taxes than other areas of the country. Thus, although Christian persecution was a major factor behind the beginning of the rebellion, some scholars believe that heavy taxes were the most important immediate catalyst triggering the outburst of violence and that many of the rebels began to consider their revolt in Christian terms only after it had already begun.

In all likelihood, however, the revolt was brought about by a number of disparate factors. Aside from oppressive tax rates and religious persecution, the Shimabara peasants had been caught up in a type of millennial movement centered around a local youth, Amakusa Shiro Amakusa Shiro (also known as Masuda Shiro Tokisada). The locals entertained a mixture of Christian belief and superstition. They believed that the emergence of paradise on earth had been foretold, and this belief lent a millennial character to the Shimabara Rebellion. Scholars also see Amakusa Shiro as the equivalent of the leaders of peasant revolts in Europe—a charismatic youth who was believed by his followers to possess a divine power and the potential to deliver them from hardship. While reports differ, Amakusa was considered to be either an angel or a divine presence by his followers. This is a testament to the fact that the beliefs of the rebels were quite far from those preached by orthodox Christians.

Many historians describe the Tokugawa period (1603-1867) as a time of peace, and it is true that the Shimabara Revolt was a rare occurrence of violence. It represents the largest mobilization of armed force between theŌsaka campaigns of the 1610’s and the events of the Meiji Restoration in the 1860’. The Tokugawa raised an army of more than 200,000, mainly from the domains of northern Kyūshū but eventually encompassing troops from all over Japan. When even this force could not defeat the rebels, a ship of the shogunate’s Dutch allies was also requested to join in the fighting. The scale of the mobilization is an indication of how serious the revolt was considered to be by Shogun Iemitsu and his advisers.

The fighting was difficult for the shogunate. While the majority of the rebels were peasants, their ranks also contained rōnin, masterless samurai Rōnin[Ronin] who had lost their social rank as a result of the Tokugawa execution of their master, the daimyo Konishi Yukinaga, following the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. The shogun’s forces experienced setbacks on a number of occasions, including a bad defeat in February of 1638, when more than two thousand warriors from the domain of Hizen were killed by rebel fighters. As the fighting stretched on, however, the rebels began to run low on provisions and were besieged by the Tokugawa forces at Hara Castle. The Dutch ship bombarded the fortress with artillery fire, and the castle fell in mid-April of 1638. Amakusa Shiro is said to have been killed and his head taken to Nagasaki. All thirty-seven thousand participants in the revolt, including women and children, are said to have been massacred by the forces of the shogun.


The Shimabara Revolt effectively put an end to the open practice of the Christian faith in northern Kyūshū, the area of Japan that had once been a bastion of Catholic belief. Christianity continued to endure in the region, but it was forced underground. Because of their isolation, these “Hidden Christians” began to practice a version of the faith far different from that originally carried to Japan by missionaries in the sixteenth century. When Japan once again began to engage in open relations with Western nations in the 1850’, many Japanese Christians came out of hiding only to experience another period of persecution. The advent of the new Meiji government in the late 1860’s represented a new consolidation of power like the one that took place in the early period of Tokugawa rule. As in the seventeenth century, Christians were seen as a dangerous element and a threat to the consolidation of central power. It was only in the 1870’, partially as a result of the complaints of the Christian nations of the West, that Japanese believers were allowed to practice their faith freely.

Apart from the Christian situation, the Shimabara Revolt had an impact on Japanese foreign relations. Partially as a result of the rebellion, the shogun continued to enact regulations restricting foreign travel and trade, provisions that eventually came to constitute a policy of national seclusion Seclusion policy, Japan . The Dutch participation on the side of the authorities, however, helped to cement a trading agreement between Japan and the Netherlands that lasted through the period of seclusion. Having shown their willingness to put aside matters of religion and even actively to attack Japanese Christians, Dutch traders Trade;Dutch in Japan were allowed to maintain special privileges, and until the 1850’, the Dutch were the only Westerners allowed to trade with Japan, albeit under strict regulation. In effect, the massacre of Japanese Christians at Shimabara helped to keep open the only window on Western affairs, language, and scientific advances enjoyed by the Japanese elite during the Edo period.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Totman, Conrad. Early Modern Japan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. The most comprehensive single-volume treatment of the Edo period of Japanese history in English. Discusses the factors that led up to the Shimabara Revolt and its impact.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Turnbull, Stephen. The Samurai Sourcebook. London: Arms and Armour Press, 1998. Offers encyclopedic coverage of the important figures in the history of the samurai, as well as aspects of their military culture, including coverage of the Shimabara Revolt.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Turnbull, Stephen. Samurai Warfare. London: Arms and Armour Press, 1996. The best English-language history of the fighting techniques of the samurai.
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