Christianity in Japan and Nozaki Island

Shinto and Buddhism are the two major religions in Japan. Among the two, Shinto is the predominant religion practiced by almost 80% of the population. Shinto (神道 Shintō, “way of the gods”) is the ethnic religion of Japan focusing on ritual practices carried out diligently to establish a connection between the ancient past and modern times. Buddhism was introduced to Japan by five Chinese monks from Gandhara (an ancient kingdom extending to the Swat valley and Potohar plateau regions of Pakistan and the Jalalabad district of northeastern Afghanistan) who travelled to Japan during the Kofun period (250 to 538).

Now the Sengoku period, or the “Warring States Period” (15th – 17th century) was a time of social upheaval among Japanese warlords. During these times, the missionary Francis Xavier introduced Christianity to Japan.

Nokubi Church. | Toontown Whitefox

The Tokugawa Shogunate under Hideyoshi was a new era of isolation to Japan that led to widespread persecution of Christians for fear that they might attempt to overthrow the new government. This resulted in the crucifixion of 26 Christians and the outward disappearance of public practice of the Christian faith. Catholic Christianity were repressed and many Japanese Christians were killed.

Off to the southwest coast of Japan is Nozaki Island. The island consists of 2.8 square miles of mountainous terrain and forest. The island provided a safe haven for Japan’s “Hidden Christians” or kakure kirishitan.

Nozaki trail. | Toontown Whitefox

In a time when Christians were forced to practice their faith in secret and if discovered, they faced torture or death, Nozaki Island was where they would hide. The first two hidden Christian families arrived in the early 19th century from Omura. They were believed to have founded  one of the two Christian communities in the island, the Nokubi settlement. The other settlement, the Funamori community, was founded by three hidden Christians who found their way to Nozaki Island by hiding under goods on a commercial boat. Residents from Nokubi and Funamori communities used a mountain trail called Satomichi to get to mass service.

The ban on Christianity ended during the Meiji Restoration in 1868. The hidden Christians started to build their churches in Nokubi and Funamori communities. The 1950’s and 60’s saw the peak of the communities reaching 680 inhabitants. Over the years, residents began to leave for a more modern life on the mainland. The island’s last inhabitant was a Shinto priest, who left in 2001.