Last Chance to See the Small, yet Haunting Exhibition: Artifacts related to Christianity: Jesuit Missionaries and Belief under Prohibition- at the National Museum in Ueno (Ends May 6th)
By Avi Landau
I had a rare full day to myself, and as I am apt to do when I have the chance, I headed for the National Museum in Ueno to see the current special exhibition. This season`s extravaganza is called The Grand Exhibition of Treasures from Shinto Shrines, and since I had plenty of time I planned to take it in slowly (and eventually write an article about it ).
As it turned out, my going on that day was a big mistake. It was a national holiday, and the exhibition was so crowded that it was impossible to move along about at your own pace. All you could do was let go of all vestiges of WILL and INDIVIDUALITY and just let yourself be carried along- like a piece of driftwood – by the mass of visitors.
Of course, being extremely interested in the subject, I found the pieces on display very exciting (though the explanations given left a lot to be desired), I was absolutely exhausted when I was through- in a daze. ” What an ordeal that was ” , I thought to myself.
My head filled with ideas about what I had seen and my legs so hobbly I must have looked like a drunk, I teetered through the passageway which connects the Heisei Kan Hall (where large scale special exhibitions are held) and the museum`s main hall. I was in no state, however, to enjoy any of the permanent displays that I always enjoy (no matter how many times I go back- the prehistoric clay figurines and pottery, the lacquerware, the metalwork, the armor, the netsuke, the textiles, the woodblocks prints………..
I was just too tired and my nerves too frayed.
But since I did have plenty of time left before I had to head back to Tsukuba, I figured that it would be a waste if I didnt at least stop by and see what Ainu items they had on display in room 16 ( the museum has a couple of display cases which they periodicaly change devoted to the arts and crafts of Japan`s indigenous people).
But just before I reached the two traditional Ainu robes that I saw standing on frames about 20 yards up ahead, I looked down at a long display case and saw some objects that seemed familiar, despite the fact that I had never actually seen one before.
There was a whole row of them. What seemed like bronze moldings in darkly hued thick wooden frames.
Upon closer examination I instantly recognized the iconography as Christian, though almost all of the faces, in fact , had NO FACES ! Just smooth metal ! A jarring, eerie effect. It sent a chill down my spine when I guessed why the features had been worn down flat – years- centuries of being trampled upon!
I looked at the label, and found that my original premonition was correct.
These were FUMI-E (which anyone who has read Shusaku Endo`s novel Silence is well familiar with), the images which were used to flush out secret Christians, as well as for regular New Year`s avowals performed by each Japanese attesting to the fact that they were not Christians (in many parts of Japan residents were asked to trample on Christian images to prove that they were not adherents of the forbidden faith- Christianity was banned from 1612 all the way to 1873 ).
Those who refused to trample the images, were coerced to do so. If they continued to refuse, they would be put to torture ( such as being hung upside-down over a pit filled with human waste), and then if they still proved stubborn- to death: often by boiling in hot springs or being tossed into a volcano (at Mt Unzen in Nagasaki Prefecture).
And I thought that spending two hours in a crowded museum was an ordeal!
Besides the Fumi-E, there are other items on display from the museums collection which had been confiscated by Japanese authorites during the Edo Period and had been kept at the Nagasaki Magistrates (Nagasaki Bugyo) Office, which obviously specialized in dealing with secret Christians.Some of the items were apparently confiscated as late as 1865 when groups of KAKURE KIRISHITAN (Hidden Christians) were discovered and rooted out .
There are rosaries, and paintings, and most interesting for me- the statues of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy holding a child, which secret Christians kept as a replacement for an image of Mary and the baby Jesus ( there are some statues very much like those at the museum right here in Tsukuba- which makes me think that during the Edo Period there might have been a community of secret Christians in this area- though they did not necessarily know that the were descendants of Christians since their customs and practices had changed so greatly over the centuries).
Scholars are not sure of whether the custom of E-Bumi ( having people step on Christian images) began in 1626 or 1629 (there are two schools of thought on the matter), though it IS certain that it began in Nagasaki and that before 1661, simple crucifixes or pictures were used. It was only after that year that brass images were cast and distributed to local governments specifically for the purpose, since by then the custom of E-Bumi had spread to other parts of Japan. Fumie were used to screen for Christians until 1858- when the practiced was abolished ( though Christianitiy still remained banned).
Ironically,just as the Inquisition had been set up in lands ruled under the Spanish crown to root out secret Jews, Muslims, and any other non-Catholics, and then confiscate their property, in the Japan, the office of the SHUMON ARATAME was set up with the similarly resolute purpose of completely ridding the Japanese Islands of Christianity and making the country theologically homogenous. Informers were richly rewarded for reporting the existance of Christians (and especially foreign priests) and all Japanese were forced to become affiliated with an officially sanctioned Buddhist temple even long after most Japanese Christians (at one point hundreds of thousands strong) had apostatized ( which was the most common case), left the country, or had been martyred ( more than 3,000 people).
Just as it did in Europe, Japan`s Inquisition helped keep the entire population in fear and constantly with the feeling that they were under surveillance.
The obsession with keeping Christianity out of Japan went to such extremes that the Tokugawa Government, always intersted in the benefits of foreign trade- almost completely closed off the country for 250 years!
Now why, you may ask, did the Tokugawa Shogunate become so obssessed with stamping out Christianity in Japan? Well it is certainly not a unique case. As I have already mentioned, Spain and Portugal had started doing the same sort of thing within all the vast territorites under their control one hundred years earlier. Interestingly, the Spanish Inquisition and the Japanese office of the SHUMON ARATAME (which had the same function) were both established after long struggles to unify their respective countries. Encouraging obsessive fear and hatred of secret enemies and creating a thorough system to sniff out those who are different helped these dictatorial (and paranoid) rulers to maintain a firm grip on their newly created unions.
Many Japanese, especially those who like to glorify the Edo Period (in which Japan almost completely isolated from the outside world), point out that the ban on Christianity was necessary to protect Japanese sovereignty. They point out how the Aztec, Mayan, and Incan Empires had been vanquished by Catholic nations. They mention the Philippines.
I find such an argument offensive- and I guess these people have not really thought about what they are saying. I mean, do they really believe that in order to protect Japan from colonization it was necessary to root out every Christian- man, woman and child, and to capture and torture every foreign missionary until they apostatized?
To be continued……………