Chapter 18

History of Catholic Aggressiveness in Japan

In the history of Japan we have an even more striking instance of Vatican aggressiveness with profound repercussions in the world. As in China and Siam, the basic policy was to see that Catholic merchants and Catholic priests worked together so that both, by extending their own interests, should ultimately extend those of the Catholic Church.

Contrary to popular belief, when Japan first came into contact with the West she was eager for the interchange of ideas and commercial commodities. From the first chance landing of the Portuguese in Japan, foreign merchants were encouraged to call at Japanese ports. Local potentates vied with one another in opening their provinces to Western merchants. Catholic missionaries were as welcome as the traders, and set about spreading the Catholic faith in the new land.

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Daimyo Nobunaga, sixteenth century military dictator of Japan, welcomed the Jesuit missionaries who came with the Western traders. Contrary to popular belief, when Japan first came into contact with the West she was eager for the interchange of ideas and commercial commodities. Nobunaga granted the Roman Catholics freedom to propagate their religion, donated them land in Kyoto and promised them a yearly allowance of money. Soon mission were established throughout the country and converts were mad by the thousands. Once this religious base was established, the Japanese rulers soon began to discover that the Vatican was also interested in political and military objectives. This led to confrontations and eventually open warfare. When the Jesuits were eventually driven from the land, Japan was closed to all Christian missionary work for centuries.

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The Jesuits in Japan
Japanese representation from the 16th century

These missionaries found a powerful protector in Nobunaga, the military dictator of Japan (1573-82). He was anxious to check the political power of a certain movement of Buddhist soldier-priests, but also held a genuine sympathy for the work of the "Christians" who were newcomers. He encouraged them by granting them the right to propagate their religion throughout the Empire. He donated them land in Kyoto itself and even promised them a yearly allowance. Thanks to this, in no time the Catholic missions had spread throughout the country, converts were made by the thousands, establishing sizable Catholic centers in various parts of Japan.

Had the Catholic missionaries confined themselves exclusively to preaching religious principles, it is likely that Japan would have yielded them tremendous spiritual rewards. But once a Catholic community was established the juridical-diplomatic-political domination of the Vatican came to the fore. As is explicit in her doctrines, the Japanese converts could not remain the subjects only of the Japanese civil authorities. The mere fact that they had entered the Catholic Church made them also the subjects of the Pope. Once their loyalty was transferred outside Japan, automatically they became potentially disloyal to the Japanese civil rulers.

This brought serious dangers to both the internal and the external security of the Japanese Empire. Internally, religious intolerance led to violence against other religions because of the fundamental Catholic tenet that only Catholicism is the true religion. This, of course meant civil strife.

In the external field, Japanese communities, by following the directives of foreign missionaries, had to favor not only the commercial interests of Catholic foreign merchants but also the political plans of Catholic powers intent on political and military penetration of the Orient.

Not many years after the first Catholic missionaries appeared, Japanese civil rulers began to realize that the Catholic Church was not only a religion, but a political power intimately connected with the imperialistic expansion of Catholic countries like Portugal, Spain, and other Western nations.

The nefarious tenet of Catholicism that only Catholic truth is right and that error must not be tolerated began to produce its fruits in newly discovered Japan. Whenever Catholic converts were made and Catholic communities expanded, Catholic intolerance raised its head. Whenever Japanese Catholics formed a majority, the Buddhists and members of other local faiths suffered. Not only were they boycotted, but their temples were closed and, when not destroyed, were seized and converted into churches. In numerous cases Buddhists were forcibly compelled to become "Christians," their refusal resulting in loss of property and even of life. Faced with such behavior, the tolerant attitude of the Japanese rulers began to change.

In addition to this internal strife, the political ambition of the imperialistic Catholic nations began to present itself in ways that the tolerant Japanese rulers could no longer ignore. The Vatican, on hearing of the phenomenal success of Catholicism in the distant empire, set in motion its plan for political domination. As its custom was, it would use the ecclesiastical administration of the Church, together with the military power of allied Catholic countries. These were eager to bring the cross, the Pope's sovereignty, profitable commercial treaties and military conquest all in the same galleons.

The Vatican had followed this type of political penetration ever since the discovery of the Americas. Numerous Popes, including Leo X, had blessed, encouraged, and indeed legalized all the conquests and territorial occupation by Catholic Spain and Portugal in the Far East. Chief among them was Alexander V1, with his grant to Spain of all "firm land and islands found or to be found towards India, or towards any other part whatsoever." [1] Japan was included in this Papal benediction of Portuguese and Spanish imperialism.

When, therefore, Japanese Catholic communities became strong enough to support secular Catholic power, the Vatican took the first important tactical step toward its long-range political stranglehold: the coordination of the new Catholic communities in Japan as political instruments.

To carry out this policy, in 1579 the Vatican sent one of the ablest Jesuits of his time, Valignani, to organize the Japanese Church along those lines. Of course for a time Valignani's design remained screened behind purely religious activities and received enthusiastic support from numerous powerful Japanese princes, such as Omura, Arima, Bungo, and others. In their provinces he erected, with their help, colleges, hospitals, and seminaries where Japanese youth trained in theology, political literature, and science.

Once this penetration was deep enough into the religious, educational, and social structures of the provinces of these princes, Valignani took his next step and persuaded them to send an official diplomatic mission to the Pope. When the mission returned to Japan in 1590 the situation there had altered drastically. Hideyoshi, the new master of Japan, had become keenly conscious of the political implications of Catholicism and its allegiance to a distant Western religio-political potentate like the Pope. He decided to unite with Buddhism, which owed no political allegiance to any prince outside Japan.

In 1587 Hideyoshi visited Kyushu and to his astonishment found that the Catholic community had carried out the most appalling religious persecution. Everywhere he saw the ruins of Buddhist temples and broken Buddhist idols. The Catholics, in fact, had forcibly attempted to make the whole island of Kyushu totally Catholic. In indignation Hideyoshi condemned the attacks on the Buddhists, the Catholic religious intolerance, their political allegiance to a foreign power, and other real misdemeanors and gave all foreign Catholics an ultimatum.

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Daimyo Hideyoshi ruled Japan during the time when the Jesuit Valignani was organizing the long-range political stranglehold of the Vatican. In 1587 he visited the island of Kyushu and found appalling persecution of the Buddhists by the Catholic community. He found that the Catholics had forcibly attempted to make the whole island of Kyushu totally Catholic. Condemning the Catholics for their religious intolerance and political allegiance to a foreign power, he gave them twenty days to leave the country. Although it took several years to fully expel the foreign Catholics and stop expansion of Roman Catholicism in the country, the country was ultimately sealed off to any Christian influence for several hundred years.

They had just twenty days to leave Japan. Churches and monasteries were pulled down in Kyoto and Osaka in retaliation for the attacks upon the Buddhists, and troops were sent to Kyushu.

Such measures were only partially successful since the society had been so deeply penetrated. In 1614 all Catholic foreign priests were ordered to be deported once more. The injunction was precipitated by an even more serious issue. The Catholic missionaries, besides fostering religious intolerance among the Japanese, had begun to fight a most bitter war against each other.

Vicious quarrels between the Jesuits and the Franciscans had split the "Christian" communities themselves. These feuds became so dangerous that the Japanese ruler feared they would lead to civil war. They also saw that civil war could mean the military intervention of the Portuguese and Spaniards to protect either the Jesuits or the Franciscans. This involvement of foreign armies could mean the loss of Japan's independence.

Was this fear exaggerated? The tremendous expansion of Catholic Portugal and Catholic Spain was there to prove that the danger was a real one. The coming of the Franciscans as special envoys from the already subjugated Philippines in 1593 caused Hideyoshi no end of alarm. The Franciscans ignored the ban on "Christian" propaganda, constructed churches and convents in Kyoto and Osaka, defying the authority of the State. To complicate matters, they began violent quarrels with the Portuguese Jesuits. What at last made Hideyoshi take energetic measures was a small but significant incident.

In 1596 a Spanish galleon, the San Felipe, was shipwrecked off the coast of Tosa. Hideyoshi ordered the ship and its goods confiscated. The angry Spanish captain, wishing to impress or intimidate the Japanese officials, indulged in some boasting how Spain had acquired a great world empire. For proof the captain showed the Japanese officials a map of all the great Spanish dominions.

His astonished hearers asked how it had been possible for a nation to subjugate so many lands. The Spanish captain boasted that the Japanese would never be able to imitate Spain, simply because they had no Catholic missionaries. He confirmed that all Spanish dominions had been acquired by first sending in missionaries to convert their people, then the Spanish troops to coordinate the final conquest.

When this conversation was reported Hideyoshi's anger knew no bounds. His suspicions about the use of missionaries as a first stepping-stone for conquest was confirmed. He recognized this pattern of cunning conquest at work within his own empire. In 1597 both Franciscans and Dominicans came under the imperial ban. Twenty-six priests were rounded up in Nagaski and executed and an order expelling all foreign preachers of "Christianity" was issued. In 1598 Hideyoshi died, and Catholic exertions were resumed with renewed vigor until Leyasu became ruler of Japan in 1616 and enforced even more sternly his predecessor's expulsion edict.

Foreign priests were again ordered to leave Japan, and the death penalty was inflicted on Japanese "Christians" who did not renounce "Christianity." This persecution took a more violent turn in 1624 under Jemitsu (1623-51) when all Spanish merchants and missionaries were ordered to be deported immediately. Japanese "Christians" were warned not to follow the missionaries abroad and Japanese merchants not to trade any longer with Catholic powers. To make certain that these decrees were respected, all seaworthy ships which could carry more than 2,500 bushels of rice were to be destroyed. The government decided to stamp out Catholicism in Japan. Further edicts in 1633-4 and in 1637 completely prohibited all foreign religion in the Japanese islands.

At this point Japanese Catholics began to organize themselves for violent resistance. This broke out in the winter of 1637 in Shimbara and on the nearby island of Amakusa. These regions had become wholly Catholic, mostly voluntarily, but some by use of forcible conversion. Led by their Western priests, these Catholic communities began to arm and organize themselves in military fashion to fight against the government.

The Japanese government, fearing that these Catholic groups might be used by Western Catholic governments for the territorial conquest of Japan, taxed them to the point of destitution. The Jesuits, who meanwhile had been preparing for physical resistance, set on foot a Catholic army of 30,000 Japanese with standards bearing the names of Jesus, Maria, and St. Ignatius fluttering before them.

They marched against the civil and military representatives of the Japanese government, fighting bloody battles along the promontory of Shimbara near the Gulf of Nagasaki. Having murdered the loyal governor of Shimbara, the Catholic army shut itself in his well constructed fortress and held out successfully against the guns and ships of the Japanese forces. Thereupon the government asked the Protestant Dutch to lend them ships large enough to carry the heavy guns needed for bombarding the Catholic fortress. The Dutch consented and the Japanese were able to bombard the citadel until it was finally destroyed and practically all the Catholics in it massacred. The immediate result of the Catholic rebellion was the Exclusion Edict of 1639 which read as follows:

For the future, let none, so long as the Sun illuminates the World, presume to sail to Japan, not even in the quality of ambassadors, and this declaration is never to be revoked, on pain of death.

The Edict included all Westerners with one exception, the Dutch, who had earned their privilege of remaining by aiding the defeat of the Catholic rebellion. Nevertheless, even they were put under extreme restrictions simply because they were also called Christians. To the Japanese, anything connected with "Christianity" had become suspect of deceit, intolerance, and conquest.

The Dutch themselves had to move their headquarters to the tiny island of Deshima, in Nagasaki Bay. They lived almost as prisoners, permitted to set foot in Japan proper only once a year. The most forcible restrictions, however, concerned Christianity's religious ceremonies. The Dutch were not permitted to use Christian prayers in the presence of a single Japanese subject. The Japanese had become so incensed with anything which even reminded them of "Christianity" that the Dutch were forbidden to use the Western calendar in their business documents because it referred to Christ.

By now Christianity represented in their eyes nothing but the torturous Western device for political and military domination. When finally the Dutch signed a trade agreement, among its seven points were four connected with "Christianity:"

  1. Commerce between Japan and Holland was to be perpetual.
  2. No Dutch ship should carry a Christian of any nationality or convey letters written by Christians..
  3. The Dutch should convey to the Japanese governor any information about the spreading of Christianity in foreign lands that might be of interest.
  4. If the Spaniards or Portuguese seized countries by means of religious machination, such information should be given to the Governor of Nagasaki.[2]

In addition to this, all books belonging to Dutch ships, especially those dealing with religious subjects, had to be sealed in trunks and turned over to the Japanese while the ship was in port. The Dutch, who at first were permitted to sail seven ships a year, were later restricted to one. Suspicion of the perversity and cunning of "Christians" became so profound that they even strengthened the first edicts by new ones. It became a criminal offense for any Christian ship to seek refuge in a Japanese port or for any Christian sailor to be shipwrecked off the coast of Japan.

To all intents and purposes Japan became a sealed land, "hermetically" closed to the outside world. It remained sealed about two hundred and fifty years until Commodore Perry, in the middle of the last century, opened the gates of the Land of the Rising Sun in unmistakable Western fashion—by pointing against the recluse nation the yawning mouths of heavy naval guns.[3]


1. The Pope's Bull, made to Castille, touching the New World. [Back]

2. See The Far East Since 1500 by Paul E. Eckel; Harrap, 1948.[Back]

3. It is strange that America, as late as the beginning of the second half of the last century, was tempted into behaving like the Catholic Church in her dealing with Japan. Suffice to quote the New York Weekly Tribune referring to the Perry mission. "In this state of things, going thus into pagan realms, it behooves us not to lose opportunity of laboring for the spiritual benefit of the benighted Japanese. Let not these misguided men, fighting for their own, perish without the benefit of the clergy."[Back]

Editor's Note

The conquest of Ireland was accomplished in the same threefold manner as the impending invasion of Japan by Spain or Portugal:

  1. A beachhead was established by the Catholics,

  2. civil war and fighting ensued,

  3. a foreign army was invited in.

In 1169 A.D. the deposed king of Leinster Dermot MacMurrough invited a Norman/Papal army from England to help recover his throne. They never left!! The Japanese rulers saw through this subtle scheme of conquest and they closed their doors to outsiders for centuries.

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