Japanese islands where Christians were persecuted and killed over three centuries are being recommended as future World Heritage sites.
A dozen sites related to the persecution of Christians during the Edo period (1603-1867) are being put forward for a list of protected sites to UNESCO.
Christianity was banned in Japan during the Edo period, also known as the Tokugawa Shogunate, as the authorities saw it as a threat to the state from outside influences.
From 1549, when the first Roman Catholic missionaries arrived from Portugal, until 1603, around 300,000 Japanese converted. Numbers continued to rise, despite horrific persecution by the authorities, to an estimated 760,000 people by the 1630’s.
Throughout the Edo period, around 4,000 Catholic Japanese and missionaries were killed, including 26 who were crucified in 1597, 52 who were burned at the stake in 1619, and a further 153 who were executed for their faith between 1598 and 1632. Around 37,000 peasants were slaughtered in the Catholic-led Shimabara Rebellion of 1637-1638.
If the Japanese islands are selected as World Heritage sites, the step will officially recognise how people secretly protected their faith under a protracted period of persecution. When religious freedom was restored in 1871, around 50-60,000 underground believers eventually came forward. During two and a half centuries of intense persecution, many fled abroad and thousands were forced to apostatise under torture by methods including reverse hanging, where they were tied by their feet, or lowered into a pit, as shown in the Martin Scorsese film “Silence.”
The proposed sites are located mainly in Nagasaki Prefecture with one location also in the Amakusa district of Kumamoto Prefecture. A museum honouring persecuted Christians opened in Nagasaki in April 2018.
Today the majority of Japanese are Shinto or Buddhist believers, while only around 1.5% of Japanese are Christians, although Christmas and weddings, that mimic Western Christian ceremonies in dress and style, are widely celebrated.
Also included in the UNESCO nomination is Oura Church in Nagasaki, one of Japan’s oldest Western-style monuments, which was built in the late Edo Period for Westerners living in settlements.
Later, after the persecution had ended, European missionaries serving at the cathedral found out from locals how Japanese believers had been practising their faith in secret for centuries.
The listing of the sites will be officially discussed at a meeting of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Committee from 24 June to 4 July in Bahrain.