After graduating from college, I landed a job teaching English in Japan. Traveling to “the land of the rising sun” marked the fulfillment of a lifelong goal, mainly owing to my Japanese ancestry and fascination with the culture and language. During my four years in a rural village in Kumamoto Prefecture, on the southernmost of the main islands, there were countless things about the people and customs that fascinated (and sometimes frustrated) me. But perhaps the most intriguing “group within a group” was the Christian community I encountered.
The Japanese are known for being a society marked by conformity. The proverb, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down,” reflects a desirability and expectation to fall in line with established societal norms. For this reason, perhaps more than any other, I had to marvel at a community that makes up less than one half of one percent of the entire population. In interviews and presentations, I’ve often commented on the reverence of the celebration of the Mass that I experienced during my time there. Men were neatly dressed, women were veiled, communion was received on the tongue, and the sign of peace consisted of a simple and silent bow to one’s neighbor. By the end of my first Mass, I was left thinking, “Wow, these are folks who take the faith seriously.”
And I suppose it’s true that, when one is part of such a small minority, there must be some compelling factors. I would sometimes ask people, once I got to know them well enough, “Why do you choose the faith in such a non-Christian society, and does it present any difficulties?” The answers were (in typical Japanese fashion) often indirect and seemingly evasive. Some offered that the faith had been in their family for many generations. Others cited conversion based on convincing apologetics accompanied by some type of encounter with the Holy Spirit. (Reasons that anyone in any given part of the world might offer.)
Lest I sing only praises for the church in Japan, I will say that, reverent worship aside, it was not always easy to identify Christians in society on days apart from Sunday. For example, at least from what I could observe, the number of children in Christian families did not appear larger than the national average of roughly 1.2 (thereby indicating a likely lack of adherence to church teaching regarding fruitfulness in marriage). Likewise, I did not witness many overt signs of evangelization. Over time I came to the conclusion that, while Christians in Japan recognize the truth of the faith, there is yet an arguably natural desire to conform to societal standards at large. In other words, no one really wants to be the nail that needs to be hammered down. I’ve often pondered this, and have wondered if perhaps American Christians are maybe not so different in this respect. But I’ll return to that…
The area where I resided in Japan was very close to the site of what is today known as The Shimabara Rebellion, an uprising of persecuted Christian peasants, as well as those belonging to the warrior class, in the 17th century. (This event and its leader, a 16-year-old samurai named Shiro Amakusa, became the subject of my historical fiction novel, Masaru.) The more I researched and learned about this relatively little known chapter in history, the more fascinated I became with the martyrs of Japan.
When Christianity first arrived in Japan with Francis Xavier and companions in 1549, evangelization was permitted by the imperial authorities mainly for political and commercial reasons. In exchange for allowing the building of churches, for example, feudal lords enjoyed the import of goods by means of Spanish and Portuguese ships from mainland Asia. However, within a relatively short span of time, the new religion spread like wildfire, making the shogun and others in power more than a little nervous. And, so, just as quickly as the red carpet had been rolled out for the missionaries, it was pulled out from under the feet of tens of thousands of converts.
When Christianity was officially banned in 1614, those known or suspected to be converts were forced to renounce the faith. This was to be publicly demonstrated by implementation of the “fumie” (foo-mee-ay), a bronze image of Jesus (or Mary) that one was forced to step upon. Refusal to do so would result in torture or death (and often one followed by the other). Amazingly, many of the faithful chose to die rather than tread upon even an image of Our Blessed Lord. When seeing such scenes as depicted in books and films (such as Shusako Endo’s Silence), one question always arises in my mind. Would I have risked pain and death, or would I have simply stepped upon the image? I confess that I cannot know with certainty the answer to that question.
While we know that there are many places in the world today where Christians face the threat of physical violence, we here in America are fortunate that this is generally not the case. At least not yet. Still, although the freedom to attend Mass is something many take for granted (and, sadly, many do not exercise), we certainly see many ways in which fidelity to the authentic faith draws fire from all facets of the culture. And this raises the question as to whether we are perhaps called to a kind of martyrdom that does not necessarily entail immediate death of the body.
One example may be ostracism from one’s own friends and family. Some years ago, I had been asked by a friend to help him move into an apartment with his then girlfriend. I told him I would not. When he asked the reason, I had to explain that I could not, out of authentic love, help to facilitate him in the sin of cohabitation. Well, he and pretty much everyone else thought I was nuts to hold such an antiquated and “intolerant” belief. (Of course, my friend and others failed to recognize their own intolerance of my belief.) While I did not face torture or death for the sake of the faith, still I had to sacrifice friendship (which did entail a measure of pain) in order to uphold virtue. And there are many like examples of how living in accord with the deposit of faith will bring us some degree of discomfort in a primarily pagan society.
And this perhaps begs the question: Are we as individuals, and as a body of believers, willing to become martyrs even on some smaller scale? It’s arguably the case that many Catholics today see little or no conflict between the teachings of the faith and the dogmas of the regime. But this is a distorted perception (just like that described by Plato in his allegory of the cave). We are called to see and live by the light of authentic faith and, in so doing, be willing to become martyrs on whatever scale our particular circumstances might dictate.