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A Guide to the Latest World Heritage Sites in the Nagasaki and Amakusa Regions

The Hidden Christian Sites in the Nagasaki Region were registered as a World Heritage Site in July 2018. This article will introduce these historic sites and their highlights.

About the World Cultural Heritage Hidden Christian Sites in the Nagasaki Region

In Japan, there was a nationwide ban on Christianity from the 16th century to the 19th century. During that time, there were people who secretly practiced Christianity in Nagasaki Prefecture and the Amakusa region of Kumamoto Prefecture. The World Cultural Heritage, Hidden Christian Sites in the Nagasaki Region, consists of 12 sites that depict the history of these Hidden Christians including how they went into hiding, what they did to practice their religion and maintain a community, and the turning point and eventual end to the ban that was brought about by interactions with missionaries.

About the World Cultural Heritage Hidden Christian Sites in the Nagasaki Region

Japan and Christianity

The Introduction of Christianity

Christianity was brought to Japan, where Shintoism and Buddhism were practiced, in the middle of the 17th century. It was introduced by Roman Catholic Jesuit missionaries. The missionaries were perceived to be closely connected to the Portuguese trading boats they came on, and the expected trade benefits helped to spread Christianity quickly to people of all classes, from domain lords to commoners. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who was then the supreme ruler of Japan, feared the power of Christianity and issued an order to expel all Catholic missionaries from the country. Later, Tokugawa Ieyasu, the Shogun who established the Edo Shogunate, issued a nationwide ban on Christianity.

Intense Persecution

Various measures were taken to oppress the Christians during the ban - for example, using "ebumi(*1)" to expose them and severely punishing missionaries and practicing Christians. This eventually led to a rebellion by the oppressed Christians against the Shogunate, called the Shimabara-Amakusa Rebellion. As a result of this rebellion, the Shogunate prohibited all visits by Portuguese ships that could be used to smuggle missionaries into Japan, and implemented a "kaikin taisei(*2)" to ensure there would be no missionaries in Japan.

(*1) Requiring that suspected Christians step on images of Christ or the Virgin Mary. Anyone who refused to step on the images or were reluctant to do so were punished as Christians.
(*2) A policy of prohibiting foreign trade.

Lifting of the Ban

The ban on Christianity continued after the fall of the Shogunate and the establishment of the Meiji government. However, it was lifted in 1873 in response to pressure from abroad, giving Christians in Japan the freedom to openly practice their religion for the first time in 262 years.

About Nagasaki and Amakusa Regions

The Nagasaki and Amakusa regions were ports for boats that came to Japan with missionaries on board. The missionaries were more active in these areas than anywhere else, and people were guided by them for an extended period of time. As a result, the followers created a strong community that became the foundation for them to continue practicing their religion in secret.

Introduction to 6 of the 12 Sites

Remains of Hara Castle (Minami-Shimabara City)

This is the site of the main battlefield during the Shimabara-Amakusa Rebellion (1637). Tens of thousands of Christians and peasants led by the 16-year-old Masuda Shiro (known as Amakusa Shiro) fought against the Shogunate's army and lost their lives here. This was a turning point after which Christians had to go into hiding and find ways to secretly practice their religion. There are many highlights, such as the statue of Masuda Shiro that stands where the Honmaru (main enclosure) of the castle was.

Remains of Hara Castle (Minami-Shimabara City)

Minamiarima-cho, Minamishimabara-shi, Nagasaki

Kasuga Village and Sacred Places in Hirado (Kasuga Village and Mt. Yasumandake) (Hirado City)

This is of the four villages that demonstrate what the Hidden Christians worshiped to continue their secret faith. The Christians of Kasuga Village, which is known for its beautiful terraced rice fields, venerated Nakaenoshima Island, where Christians were executed shortly after the ban was implemented, as a place of martyrdom, as well as Mt. Yasumandake, which had been worshiped by locals from before the time that Christianity was introduced. This is a valuable area where the scenery remains as it was during the 16th century.

Kasuga Village and Sacred Places in Hirado (Kasuga Village and Mt. Yasumandake) (Hirado City)

Kasuga-cho, Hirado-shi, Nagasaki

Sakitsu Village in Amakusa (Amakusa City, Kumamoto)

This is also one of the four villages that demonstrates what the Hidden Christians worshipped in order to practice their faith. During the ban, Christians in this village substituted objects of devotion with everyday items, often connected to their livelihood of fishing. An example of this is oyster shells with patterns that represented the Virgin Mary. There are many spots to see in the village, such as Sakitsu Church, which was built in 1934 at the site where ebumi was held (the former residence of the village headman, Yoshida) during the ban.

Sakitsu Village in Amakusa (Amakusa City, Kumamoto)

539 Sakitsu, Kawaramachi, amakusa-shi, Kumamoto

Remains of Villages on Nozaki Island (Kita-Matsuura District)

The Remains of Villages on Nozaki Island are one of the four sites that demonstrate the type of locations the Hidden Christians migrated to in order to maintain their religious communities. The Hidden Christians of this village migrated to Nozaki Island, where Shintoism was practiced. It was chosen because the only inhabitants of the island were the priest and parishioners of Okinokojima Shrine. The migrants retained their Christian community while outwardly following the Shinto faith as parishioners of the shrine. One of the highlights of this area is the Former Nokubi Church.

Remains of Villages on Nozaki Island (Kita-Matsuura District)

Nozaki-jima, Ojika-cho, Kitamatsuura-gun, Nagasaki

Egami Village on Naru Island (Egami Church and its surroundings) (Goto City)

This is a village that was created as a result of migration during the ban on Christianity, and is a visual representation of the end of hiding by the Hidden Christians. Hidden Christians migrated to an uninhabited area of this island during the 19th century and continued to practice their religion in secret. When the ban was lifted, they reverted to openly practicing Christianity, and built Egami Church in 1918. The church was built to suit the topography of the village, and the manner in which it blends local architectural styles and Western elements is a visual representation of the transition from practicing Christianity in hiding to the end of the ban on Christianity.

Egami Village on Naru Island (Egami Church and its surroundings) (Goto City)

1131-2 Okushi, Naru-machi, Goto-shi, Nagasaki

Oura Cathedral (Nagasaki City)

This is a site that demonstrates the trigger that lead to the end of the ban on Christianity. Oura Cathedral, which is a national treasure, is known as Japan's oldest existing church, and was built in 1864 for the French, while the ban on Christianity was still in place. Hidden Christians from around the Urakami region mixed in with people visiting the church to see the Western-style architecture which was rare at the time. These Hidden Christians approached the priest praying in the Cathedral and confessed their faith. This was the first time in 200 years that Japanese Christians interacted with missionaries - an important historical development that was called the "Discovery of Hidden Christians", which eventually brought about the end of their hiding.

Entrance fee (includes entrance to Nagasaki Oura Church - Christian Museum): 1,000 JPY/adult, 400 JPY/junior high and high school student, 300 JPY/elementary school student

Oura Cathedral (Nagasaki City)

5-3 Minamiymate-machi, Nagasaki-shi, Nagasaki

How to Get There

To get to any of the sites, go to Nagasaki Airport first, then head to JR Nagasaki Station, Sasebo Station or other stations, and take a bus, train or ferry from there. Following is the expected travel time to Nagasaki Station from major cities in Japan.

Approx. 2.5 hours from Tokyo by plane + bus
Approx. 2 hours from Osaka by plane + bus
Approx. 2 hours from Fukuoka on JR Limited Express Kamome, and other trains

How to Get There

593 Mishima-machi, Omura-shi, Nagasaki

Note that prior reservations are required to enter many of the churches (excluding Oura Cathedral).

*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.

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