The second half of the sixteenth century is the most interesting period in Japanese history for three reasons.
Secondly, this period is all-important because it saw the first complete integration of the ancient social system, the definitive union of all the clan-lordships under a central military government.
And lastly, the period is of special interest because the incident of the first attempt to Christianize Japan.
The story of the rise and fall of the Jesuit power belongs to it.
The sociological significance of this episode is instructive.
Except for perhaps the division of the Imperial House against itself in the twelfth century, the greatest danger that ever threatened Japanese national integrity was the introduction of Christianity by the Portuguese Jesuits.
The nation saved itself only by ruthless measures, at the cost of incalculable suffering and of myriads of lives.
Xavier landed at Kagoshima in 1549, and by 1581 the Jesuits had upwards of two hundred churches in Japan.
In 1585 a Japanese religious embassy was received at Rome, and by that date no less than eleven daimyo, or “kings,” as the Jesuits not inaptly termed them had become converted.
Among these were several very powerful lords.
When Nobunaga rose to power, he favoured the Jesuits in many ways, not because of any sympathy with their creed, for he never dreamed of becoming a Christian.
He thought that their influence would be of service to him in his campaign against Buddhism.
Like the Jesuits themselves, Nobunaga had no scruple about means in his pursuit of ends.
Nobunaga now began to regret his previous policy in permitting the introduction of Christianity.
He accordingly assembled his retainers, and said to them:
‘The conduct of these missionaries in persuading people to join them by giving money, does not please me.”
“How would it be, think you, if we were to demolish Nambanji?
Nambanji: The “Temple of the Southern Savages” so the Portuguese church was called.
To this Mayeda Tokuzenin replied:
“It is now too late to demolish the Temple of the Nambanji.”
“To endeavour to arrest the power of this religion now is like trying to arrest the current of the ocean.”
“Nobles, both great and small, have become adherents of it.”
“If you would exterminate this religion now, there is fear that disturbance should be created among your own retainers.”
“I am therefore of opinion that you should abandon your intention of destroying Nambanji.”
Nobunaga in consequence regretted exceedingly his previous action in regard to the Christian religion, and set about thinking how he could root it out.
The assassination of Nobunaga in 1586 may have prolonged the period of toleration.
His successor Hideyoshi, who judged the influence of the foreign priests dangerous, was for the moment occupied with the great problem of centralizing the military power, so as to give peace to the country.
But the furious intolerance of the Jesuits in the southern provinces had already made them many enemies, eager to avenge the cruelties of the new creed.
We read in the history of Iyeyasu about converted daimyo burning thousands of Buddhist temples, destroying countless works of art, and slaughtering Buddhist priests.
Here we find the Jesuit writers praising these crusades as evidence of holy zeal.
At first the foreign faith had been only persuasive, afterwards, gathering power under Nobunaga’s encouragement, it became coercive and ferocious.
A reaction against it set in about a year after Nobunaga’s death.
In the following year he ordered them to assemble at the port of Hirado, and prepare to leave the country.
They felt themselves strong enough to disobey.
Instead of leaving Japan, they scattered through the country, placing themselves under the protection of various Christian daimyo.
The priests kept quiet, and ceased to preach publicly, and their self-effacement served them well until 1591.
In that year, the advent of certain Spanish Franciscans changed the state of affairs.
These Franciscans arrived from the Philippines, and obtained leave to stay in the country on condition that they were not to preach Christianity.
They broke their pledge, abandoned all prudence, and aroused the wrath of Hideyoshi.
He resolved to make an example.
In 1597 he had six Franciscans, three Jesuits, and several other Christians taken to Nagasaki and there crucified.
However, due to Hideyoshi’s death in 1598 the Jesuits were enabled to hope for better fortune.
Iyeyasu was preparing for the great contest which was to be decided by the battle of Sekigahara.
Iyeyasu knew the Christian element was divided.
Some of its leaders being on his own side, and some on the side of his enemies.
But in 1606, after having solidly established his power, Iyeyasu for the first time showed himself decidedly opposed to Christianity by issuing an edict forbidding further mission work, and proclaiming that those who had adopted the foreign religion must abandon it.
The number of Christians then in the empire is said, with gross exaggeration, to have been nearly two millions.
But Iyeyasu neither took, nor caused to be taken, any severe measures of repression until 1614, from which date the great persecution began.
The local persecutions in Kyushu would seem to have been the natural consequences of the intolerance of the Jesuits in the days of their power, when converted daimyo burned Buddhist temples and massacred Buddhist priests.
From 1614, at which date there remained only eight, out of the total sixty-four provinces of Japan, into which Christianity had not been introduced, the suppression of the foreign creed became a government matter.
The persecution was conducted systematically and uninterruptedly until every outward trace of Christianity had disappeared.
Of the three great captains, all had, sooner or later, become suspicious of the foreign propaganda.
However, only Iyeyasu could find both the time and ability to deal with the social problem which it had aroused.
Iyeyasu decided that Roman Christianity constituted a grave political danger and that its extirpation would be an unavoidable necessity.
Iyeyasu decided the Jesuit intrigues had a political objective of the most ambitious kind.
By 1603 he had every district of Japan under his yoke, but he did not issue his final edict until eleven years later.
It plainly declared that the foreign priests were plotting to get control of the government, and to obtain possession of the country.
“The Kirishitan have come to Japan, not only sending their merchant-vessels to exchange commodities, but also longing to disseminate an evil law, to overthrow right doctrine, so that they may change the government of the country, and obtain possession of the land.”
“This is the germ of great disaster and must be crushed.”
“Japan is the country of the Gods and of the Buddha.”
“It honours the Gods, and reveres the Buddha.”
“The faction of the Bateren* disbelieve in the Way of the Gods, and blaspheme the True Law, violate right-doing, and injure the good.”
“They are the true enemies of the Gods and of the Buddha.”
“If this be not speedily prohibited, the safety of the state will assuredly hereafter be imperilled.”
“If those who are charged with ordering its affairs do not put a stop to the evil, they will expose themselves to Heaven’s rebuke.”
[*Bateren, a corruption of the Portuguese padre, is still the term used for Roman Catholic priests, of any denomination.]
“These missionaries must be instantly swept out, so that not an inch of soil remains to them in Japan on which to plant their feet.”
“If they refuse to obey this command, they shall suffer the penalty.”
“Let Heaven and the Four Seas hear this: Obey!”
There are two distinct charges made against the Bateren.
First that of political conspiracy under the guise of religion, with a view to getting possession of the government.
Second that of intolerance, towards both the Shinto and the Buddhist forms of native worship.
The edict was issued in 1614, and Iyeyasu had found opportunity to inform himself about some of these matters as early as 1600.
The malevolent anxiety of the Jesuits about the matter had not escaped Iyeyasu’s penetrating observation.
Iyeyasu termed it a “false and corrupt religion” both in his legacy and elsewhere.
It was essentially opposed to all the beliefs and traditions upon which Japanese society had been founded.
The Japanese State was an aggregate of religious communities, with a God-king at its head.
The customs of all these communities had the force of religious laws, and ethics were identified with obedience to custom.
But this Western creed, which taught that a husband should leave his parents and cleave to his wife, held filial piety to be at best an inferior virtue.
It proclaimed that duty to parents, lords, and rulers remained duty only when obedience involved no action opposed to Roman teaching.
That the supreme duty of obedience was not to the Heavenly Sovereign at Kyoto, but to the Pope at Rome.
Had not the Gods and the Buddhas been called devils by these missionaries from Portugal and Spain?
This creed in Europe had been a ceaseless cause of disorders, wars, persecutions, and atrocious cruelties.
This creed, in Japan, had fomented great disturbances, had instigated political intrigues, had wrought almost immeasurable mischief.
In the event of future political trouble, it would justify the disobedience of children to parents, wives to husbands, subjects to lords, and lords to Shogun.
The paramount duty of government was now to compel social order, and to maintain those conditions of peace and security without which the nation could never recover from the exhaustion of a thousand years of strife.
But so long as this foreign religion was suffered to attack and to sap the foundations of order, there never could be peace.
Japan of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the religion of the ancestors was very much alive.
However, the needless Jesuit attacks upon the ancestor-cult are necessarily attacks upon the constitution of society, and Japanese society instinctively resists these assaults upon its ethical basis.
It was recognized that the triumph of the foreign religion would involve the total disintegration of society, and the subjection of the empire to foreign domination.
Neither the artist nor the sociologist, at least, can regret the failure of the missions.
The extirpation of Christianity enabled Japanese society to evolve and preserved the marvellous world of Japanese art, and the yet more marvellous world of its traditions, beliefs, and customs.
Roman Catholicism, triumphant, would have swept all this out of existence.
Patrick Lafcadio Hearn