11 July 2017

Early Christian Gravestones: Relics of Heartbreak and Persecution


Officially opened for trade with the Portuguese in 1570, the sleepy fishing village of Nagasaki turned into a boomtown, with aspiring merchants and laborers streaming in from other parts of Japan. In 1580, the trade was so lucrative that local daimyo Ōmura Sumitada transferred jurisdiction of the port and environs to the Society of Jesus. By the middle of the 1580s, the village had grown into a bustling international port studded with Catholic churches, frequented by European traders and missionaries, visited without hindrance by Chinese and Korean opportunists, and populated almost exclusively by native Christians who ate meat and bread, drank wine from glass goblets, played chess and backgammon, and otherwise carried on in a manner unimaginable in other parts of Japan. Aside from churches, the Portuguese sponsored the construction of stone embankments and canals and the laying of flagstones on streets and lanes, using sandstone from local quarries and giving Nagasaki all the look of a Lisbon suburb.

An atmosphere of cooperation and freedom predominated in Nagasaki, but Japanese leaders began to view the religion professed by the Europeans as a threat to national unity and stability. In 1614, the Tokugawa regime issued a complete national ban on Christianity. The shock could not have been felt any greater than in the almost exclusively Christian city of Nagasaki. By the end of 1619, the authorities had destroyed all churches and—except for a few dauntless priests remaining in hiding—deported all the European missionaries, Japanese priests and nuns, and leading Japanese Christians. The Jesuit Provincial Matheus de Couros, who concealed himself in Nagasaki, reported in a letter dated March 20, 1620 that local authorities had ordered the exhumation of corpses from all of the Christian cemeteries in Nagasaki. It is likely that almost every gravestone with a recognizable Christian epitaph in the port town of Nagasaki had been destroyed by 1639, just as commercial interaction with the Catholic countries had been terminated and all Portuguese residents and their families driven from Japan.

In outlying areas, however, a number of Christian gravestones escaped the purge, often lost under growing vegetation, reused as building materials or simply overlooked. Research conducted in recent years by Ōishi Kazuhisa and colleagues revealed 192 Christian gravestones remaining from the period leading up to the ban on the foreign religion. A total of 146 or some 76% of the gravestones are located in Nagasaki Prefecture, a figure that reflects the predominance of Christian communities in Nagasaki and neighboring regions. The other gravestones are located in the following areas: four in Oita Prefecture, fourteen in Kumamoto Prefecture, eight in Osaka Prefecture and twenty in Kyoto Prefecture. Many of the gravestones are embellished with crosses and inscriptions in the Roman alphabet. Ōishi classified the gravestones into six different types, including standing gravestones, slabs lying flat, and stones carved in a semicircular shape.

Ink rubbing from the side of a semicircular Christian gravestone found at Shōkakuji Temple in Amakusa, Kumamoto Prefecture. The letters IHS are embellished with a cross and flanked by inscriptions in Japanese.

Christianity completely disappeared from the port town of Nagasaki, but some of the faithful fled to the hinterland and formed underground communities. The Hirado-Ikitsuki area where Christianity had first flourished in Japan is particularly well known. Christian enclaves also endured in the Urakami district and coastal areas such as Kaminoshima and Sotome. Moreover, the latter part of the Edo Period saw a migration of underground Christians from Sotome to the Goto Islands, while others settled in the Tachiarai and Amakusa areas of modern-day Fukuoka and Kumamoto prefectures, respectively.

The secret communities worshipped images of Mary disguised as the Buddhist deity of compassion (“Maria Kannon”) and gathered in secret to recite prayers called orasho (from the Latin oratio). While following the order to register as parishioners of a Buddhist temple and even acquiescing to the ritual of efumi (trampling on a Christian image to demonstrate renunciation of the religion), they steadfastly maintained the faith of their ancestors despite complete isolation from the Catholic Church.

As a matter of course, all gravestones erected in the country had to adhere strictly to the Buddhist style, with an inscription showing a kaimyō (posthumous Buddhist name). Funerals conducted by a Buddhist priest were also mandatory and universal, and the remains of the dead had to be placed in a fetal sitting position in a ceramic cask. In some cases, the underground Christians living in remote locations managed to resist the decree and bury the dead lying face up and place rectangular gravestones without inscriptions called nagabaka (lit. “long grave”), a style originating in Rome and introduced to Japan by European missionaries the previous century.

From time to time, however, the underground Christian communities were exposed and ruthlessly persecuted. In 1790, as a result of a crackdown on the underground Christian community of Urakami, a large number of nagabaka were discovered and destroyed. For fear of their lives, the underground Christians had to refrain from the placement of overtly European-style gravestones thereafter, but just as they secretly sidestepped the efumi ritual, they managed to camouflage gravestones by marking burial sites with natural stones or by placing the side of the stone with the inscription face down.


In 2011, the Sotome Christian Research Group reported the discovery of 64 nagabaka in Kakiuchi, a remote part of the Taira district northwest of Nagasaki. The event was hailed as the first time that such a large cluster of underground Christian gravestones had been discovered intact. Located at the edge of a burial site of some 120 square meters in area thought to date back to the middle of the 17th century, the rectangular gravestones lie in an orderly formation some 40 to 50 centimeters apart, all flat stones with no inscriptions. A representative of the Sotome Christian Research group surmised that the gravestones had been overlooked during the Edo Period because of the location of Kakiuchi, a detached territory of the relatively lenient Saga Domain.

Underground Christian graves, all marked with flat natural stones, were found recently at Kakiuchi near Nagasaki.    

Historians agree unanimously that Christianity disappeared in the old city surrounding Nagasaki Harbor after the expulsion of the Portuguese in 1639 and that all Christian gravestones were destroyed. Family graves established in subsequent decades were indeed wholly Buddhist in style. To this day, however, the graves in the neighborhoods of central Nagasaki exhibit a feature found nowhere else in Japan, namely a small stone tablet, installed side by side with the main gravestone, showing the two characters土神 meaning “earth deity.” The custom is attributed to the influence of Chinese culture—and no scholar in the past seems to have questioned that assumption—but surely the 17th-century Japanese residents of Nagasaki had a much more pressing motivation than playful imitation. Moreover, it is generally the custom in China to place an invocation to the earth deity at the front entrance to a house, not in a graveyard.

Your writer would like to propose that, while dutifully obeying orders to apostatize and embrace Buddhism, the former Japanese Christians of Nagasaki used the Chinese character for earth () to hide a cross and that they placed the tablet on the family grave as a form of penance for abandoning the religion of their ancestors. Since the custom was couched in extreme secrecy, it is no wonder that its true nature has been forgotten even among the people of Nagasaki who continue to place the tablets beside their family gravestones. A similar example can be found in the Catacombs of St. Callixtus, Rome where inscriptions featuring boat anchors and other symbols were used to disguise the Christian cross.

A typical family grave on the grounds of a Buddhist temple in Nagasaki. The round tablet to the right of the main gravestone is inscribed in red with the letters meaning "earth deity." Does the character for earth () conceal a cross?    

Further research is needed to shed light on the burial customs of the early Christian communities in Nagasaki and other parts of Japan and to clarify and preserve the legacy evident in gravestones and burial sites.

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