Most religious studies scholarship focuses on historical or doctrinal studies, and art history has monopolized the market in terms of Christian imagery. In order to address the role and place of the Bible in the history of Japanese art, however, it is necessary to bridge these two disciplines by arguing that the visual idiom was the primary mechanism for delivering doctrine, even and especially in its earliest and most idiosyncratic understandings. This article will therefore focus primarily on premodern Catholic art of the so-called Christian century but in the epilogue will draw some connections to modern and contemporary artists who also engage with biblical themes.

The Christian Century (1549–1638)

The Christian Century in Japan begins in 1549, toward the end of the Warring States Period (1336–1575), when the Portuguese Jesuit St. Francis Xavier and his fellow missionaries Cosme de Torres and Juan Fernandez arrived at Kagoshima on the main island of Kyīshī. They were accompanied by the Japanese convert and translator Yajirō, who had escaped a criminal sentence for manslaughter in Japan by fleeing to Goa, India, where he had mastered Portuguese under the Jesuits. Xavier himself would only remain in Japan until 1552, but the first 40 years of his Jesuit mission there were extremely successful. Xavier was warmly welcomed by the local feudal lord (daimyō) of Satsuma Province, Shimazu Takahisa (1514–1571), who may have wanted to expand his limited trade relations with the southward Ryīkyī islands by joining in Portugal’s larger pan-Asian maritime trade network. (At the time, only the Europeans’ high-sided and well-armed carracks and galleons could thwart the Japanese pirates [wakō], who threatened the safe import-export of luxury goods like Indian and Malaccan spices, Chinese silks, and Japanese silver.) However, it was the daimyō Ōmura Sumitada, baptized Bartolomeu (1533–1587), who was the first feudal lord in Japan to convert to Christianity in 1563 and even temporarily made the port of Nagasaki a Jesuit colony in 1580. Like Shimazu, the daimyō of Ōmura (present-day Nagasaki) and later of Bungo (eastern Kyīshī) and Arima (present-day Kobe) were undoubtedly attracted to both the technological and commercial benefits of dealing with the Portuguese and understood that Catholicism was part and parcel of the European trade package. This would change in the seventeenth century, when the Dutch divorced religion from trade with Europe, much to their commercial benefit.

Early Christian art in Japan.

When Xavier arrived on Japanese shores in 1549, he reportedly carried a Bible and a Japanese version of the Gospel of Matthew that had been memorized and translated by Yajirō in Goa. The early efforts of the Jesuit Mission Press (Kirishitan ban) in Japan did produce several dictionaries and Japanese educational materials such as the Doctrina Christana (ca. 1592) and the Fidesno Qvio (Hidesu no kyō), which was discovered in Harvard’s Houghton Library in 2009 and published by Orii et al. in 2011. However, the Bible per se was never translated in Japan until the nineteenth century, when American and British Protestant missionaries produced several versions, sold as either full Bibles, New Testaments, or Portions (interestingly, the demand for English and Chinese Bibles far outstripped the demand for those in Japanese). As a result, the first wave of Christian activity in Japan was premised primarily on verbal and visual explication, not scripture. “The Bible” as a construct and as a source of scriptural authority, therefore, was only really emphasized with Protestant missionaries in the nineteenth century, and the very lack of biblical texts, translations, or commentaries helps to explain the primarily iconic or ritual nature of premodern Japanese Catholic art.

Toward this end, when Xavier arrived at Kagoshima in 1549, he carried with him portable images of the Annunciation and of the Virgin and Child, and in his later letters he mentions the power of colored paintings to capture the Japanese imagination. In this regard, Xavier’s visual methods were not dissimilar from other religious proselytizing techniques in Japan in the mid- to late sixteenth century, and the early mission Church had to compete for the attention of both literate and illiterate audiences. This resulted in both elite and vernacular Christian art in Japan, though the distinctions between the two were often blurred.

At the elite level, the Jesuits first adopted a trickle-down approach and recruited among the Japanese aristocracy first. In 1561, Queen Catherine of Portugal offered an image of the Virgin and Child to a certain Yukinaga of Uta Province, while another went to Hirado in Kyīshī that same year. At the same time, the demand for European painting became so great that the Jesuit seminaries in Arima, Azuchi, and Amakusa began engaging lay acolytes in their artistic projects. The Jesuits called these assistants dogicos in Portuguese, ironically after the Japanese term for Buddhist novices (J. dōshuku; lit. “fellow lodger”). The first record of Japanese working in the European manner appears in 1565, when Luís Fróis (1532–1597) reports that Japanese goldsmiths decorated his new chapel in Sakai (near present-day Osaka) with a scene of the Nativity and of the Resurrection.

Monoyama period (1573–1600).

This short 27-year period transitioned Japan from 200 years of civil war into 250 years of stability under the Tokugawa shogunate. The initial open-door policy of the first great unifier, Oda Nobunaga (1534–1582), soon gave way to increasing xenophobia with the second great unifier, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536–1598). The third great unifier, Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543–1616), extended his anti-Christian campaigns into his eponymous and long-lived reign from the new capital at Edo (present-day Tokyo).

In his overarching vision to unify the country, Oda Nobunaga made effective use of newly imported European firearms at the decisive battle of Nagashino in 1575. He also actively encouraged Christianity as a means to weaken the militant power of the Tendai Buddhist establishment and the extremist elements within the True Pure Land (Shinshī) Buddhist sect. He was assassinated in 1582, however, and the volatile Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Oda’s former retainer turned regent (kampaku), ambivalently and impulsively favored or oppressed the fledgling Christian church. Meanwhile in Europe, Philip of Spain had unified the Iberian Peninsula and had subsumed Portuguese foreign policy under his rule in 1580. Soon thereafter, Spanish Franciscan and Dominican friars began arriving in Japan, and the internal divisions and competition among the Portuguese and Spanish Jesuit and mendicant orders eventually caused frictions with the shogunate.

In 1587 Toyotomi issued the first of several expulsion decrees, but he did not enforce it for a decade, as he tolerated Christianity in the interests of European trade, technology, cartography, and medicine. Historians even note that he favored wearing a rosary along with his Portuguese dress at court and that he had several Christian retainers, such as Gamo Ujisato (baptized Leo, 1556–1595), who is believed to have commissioned the famous folding screens of Kings on Horseback (ca. 1592). However, as the century ended, Toyotomi became increasingly wary of the internal tensions among the various Spanish and Portugese orders. He also questioned loyalty of Christian daimyō in Bungo, Arima, and Ōmura and became increasingly alarmed by Catholic Spain’s sustained colonial conquests of the nearby Philippines (1521–1599). Toyotomi’s fears were confirmed when an unsuspecting shipwrecked Spanish captain boasted of his empire’s greatness precisely because its Catholic missionaries always prepared the way for Philip’s imperial conquistadors. This was the last straw. In February of 1597, the irascible regent ordered the crucifixion of the so-called Twenty-Six Martyrs of Nagasaki, which included 17 lay converts (including 3 young boys), 3 Japanese Jesuits, and 6 Franciscan missionaries (one of whom was from Mexico). This event was recorded in numerous paintings, engravings, and, in the modern period, a famous bas-relief frieze at the site.

Japanese Art

The Martyrs of Japan (ca. 1627–1628). Engraving by Jacques Callot (1592–1635).

© Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana–Milano/Bridgeman Images

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Contact: Nanban byōbu.

Much extant Momoyama period Christian art was portable, such as the important traveling shrine or boxed niche (seigan) sold at Christie’s in 1985, whose pediment features the Society of Jesus’s distinctive insignia and whose sumptuous mother-of-pearl inlay doors open up to reveal a sensitively rendered image of Ecce Homo, the weeping Christ crowned with thorns. Other images were equally portable but were used primarily to decorate daimyō homes. Eager to display their worldliness as much as their genuine piety, these local lords commissioned Japanese artists to paint large-scale folding screens (byōbu) featuring so-called nanban traders and Christians. In Japanese, nan means “south,” referring to the southern island of Kyīshī where Christian Europeans first settled, and ban is a disdainful Sino-Japanese term for “barbarian” or foreigner who is outside of the cultural sphere of civilization (the written character for ban includes the radical for insect). Combined, the term nanban thus refers to the “southern barbarians” who came up from Kyīshī to the capital of Kyoto on the main island of Honshī. They penetrated even as far northeast as Sendai, where the local daimyō Date Masamune (1567–1636) patronized Christianity and bankrolled Hasekura’s so-called Keichō diplomatic mission to Rome from 1613 to 1620, by which time, unfortunately, Japan had outlawed Christianity and foreign trade. However, during the initial period of contact, Japan’s foreign fetish for the exotic was readily illustrated in the byōbu folding screens.

The Europeans’ exotic dress and distinctive facial features were the object of much fascination, especially their large noses, blue eyes, and red hair (kōmō), a term especially used for later Dutch traders. Detailed scenes in these artworks feature the Portuguese and Spanish missionaries and maritime merchants, along with their distinctive high-sided ships, African slaves, foreign goods, technological instruments, and animals. A nanban folding screen by Kano Mitsunobu (ca. 1608), for example, shows the visiting general overseer of Portugal’s overseas commerce on his annual inspection tour meeting his compatriot Jesuits in Japan. The Captain-Major (Capitão-Mór) wears his colorful bombacha balloon-shaped pantaloons and, by contrast, is greeted by tall, almost columnar black-robed Jesuits, undoubtedly inspired by the infamously tall stature of the Italian Jesuit Visitor of Missions, Alessandro Valignano (1539–1606). Another nanban screen in the Kobe City Museum depicts the interior of the so-called Southern Barbarian Temple (Nanbanji) church in Nagasaki. Here, an icon of Christ Pantocrator peers out from behind drawn altar curtains and is visible between the ubiquitous gold-leaf clouds that obscure full landscapes and complicate neat linear perspectives. These nanban byōbu thus refer to folding screens about European subjects painted in both the flat linear Japanese manner as well as in the Jesuit-trained European manner, which began to be produced in the early 1580s.

Mimesis: Jesuit art instruction in Japan.

As suggested above, Japanese dogicos first produced Christian art even before formal European art instruction began in 1585. For example, the 1583 painting on copper plate of The Sacred Face of Jesus, currently held in the Imperial Household Collection in Tokyo, is a direct copy of the well-known original by Quentin Matsys of Antwerp. However, according to a 1592 report, in the summer of 1583 the Jesuit Curia sent the Neapolitan-trained painting instructor Giovanni Niccolò (1560–1626) to the Jesuit Collegio in Nagasaki. After two years of illness, he established there in 1585 the Academy of St. Luke, and two years later he painted his iconic Christ as Salvator Mundi, which was sent to China and may have been the image that the famous Matteo Ricci (1552–1610) presented to the Chinese emperor in 1601. In addition to European painting, a Gutenberg printing press arrived in Japan in 1590 at the express instructions of Valignano, who had sent the so-called Tenchō delegation of four young Japanese converts to Portugal, Spain, and Italy from 1582 to 1590. Within four years of their return with the press, several reports dated ca. 1593–1594 indicate that Japanese dogicos artists were producing images in tempera, oils, and engraving that rivaled those brought back from Rome. Other reports delight in the fact that they were finally able to fulfill the demand for Christian imagery in the homes of the faithful. Such reports speak to the large demand for Christian art by and for Christians in Japan, who numbered approximately 150,000 in 200 churches by 1582, and 300,000 by the early 1600s.

Niccolò trained several known artists in European artistic techniques before the expulsion decree of 1614 forced him to flee to Macao. His Japanese Christian students included the painter Nobutaka (known as Justus of Nagasaki), who studied with Niccolò before 1591 and whose vaguely allegorical Good Shepherd screen for the wedding dowry of Gamo Ujisato’s sister has been discussed at length by the art historian John McCall (1954). Nobutaka’s fellow student Yamada Emonsaku (1575–1657) is credited with creating a banner of Two Angels Adoring the Eucharist, inscribed with the words “Praised Be the Most Holy Sacrament” (Louvado Seja o Santíssimo Sacramento). This banner, which is classified as an Important National Property, waved over Shimabara castle during the Christians’ last stand in 1638, though Emonsaku himself betrayed the Christians and lived on to paint secular scenes under house arrest in Edo. In addition, Niccolò’s students included the painter, engraver, and Latinist Fr. Leonardo Kimura (1574–1619), whose Crucifixion was sent to Rome in 1595. The painter, organist, and choirmaster Fr. Shiozuka (1577–1616) also created a Virgin and Child, which gained the notice of the visiting Bishop Pedro Martinez in 1596. Two other students of Niccolò, namely Fr. Mañoel Pereira (1572–1630) and Fr. Jacobo Niwa (1579–ca. 1635), were sent to Macau in 1601. Niwa painted two retables there, The Ascent of the Blessed Virgin Mary and an altar-frontal of Eleven Thousand Virgins, before he returned to Japan to teach at the school of the arts in Shiki Amakusa.

Synthesis: Christian-Buddhist art.

At the vernacular level, the later Franciscans and Dominicans introduced Catholic art and doctrine to the general population beginning in the 1580s. Combined with the controversial yet effective accommodationist approach of the Jesuits, the Catholic message readily cross-fertilized with Buddhism at all levels of society. This produced a unique hybrid tradition that would persist underground despite the purges of the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries.

The hybrid Christian-Buddhist tradition began with Xavier’s first interpreter. Yajirō’s functional illiteracy in written Japanese, and his rudimentary understanding of his own esoteric Shingon Buddhism, led to the common understanding that the Light of God or “Deus” was essentially “Dainichi,” the Great Sun Buddha who personifies the cosmic world-body of enlightenment. As a result, Christian haloes indicating holiness were associated with Buddhist aureoles indicating illumination. Benedictions with the sign of the cross were likewise equated with esoteric Buddhist hand gestures called mudras, and rosaries for daily prayers resembled Buddhist juzu beads for mantra recitation.

Such conflations were understandable, as the Manichean tradition across Eurasia had already syncretized Buddhist, Christian, and Zoroastrian light imagery centuries earlier, and several Manichean images had made their way into Japan by the mid-sixteenth century. For example, one Yuan dynasty (1279–1368) silk painting of the Manichean prophet Jesus (who is second only to Mani in importance) was created for a local Manichean community in Fujian, southern China, but was reputedly acquired by the Japanese Christian daimyō Arima Harunobu (1567–1612) in the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century. Upon Arima’s death in 1612, the image then ostensibly moved to the Rinzai Zen temple Seiunji in Yamanashi prefecture (near Mt. Fuji), where it was revered for centuries as the esoteric figure Kokīzō bosatsu (Skt Ākāśāgarbha). Reattributed in 2009 by the art historian Zsuzsanna Gulásc, this Manichean Portrait of the Buddha Jesus at Seiunji presents a characteristically Chinese seated figure in full lotus position, who holds a golden cross on a lotus base at the level of his heart. The combination of identifiably East Asian Buddhist painting conventions and overt Christian iconography in an icon coming from southern China (whence the Jesuits from Macau also arrived) could have only contributed to the common perception that this Jesus was but another typically East Asian Buddhist figure of enlightenment and illumination. The fact that Xavier and his fully robed and pate-shaven Jesuit priests had arrived from India, the land of Buddha’s birth, only reinforced the general impression that their teaching was but a new form of Buddhism.

Conflations with other Buddhist sects were also common. The Eucharist could be perceived as a variation of the ritualized food and drink of the Zen tea ceremony, which was then enjoying the height of its development under Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s advisor Sen no Rikyī (1522–1591). Consequently, the interface of these two concurrent cultural trends yielded some surprising results, such as tea bowls decorated with the sign of the cross in contrasting glazes or numerous oil paintings of the Zen patriarch Bodhidharma expertly rendered in the European manner (which the National Museum of Art in Osaka exhibited as a group in 1986).

Other syncretic Buddhist groups such as the bikuni nuns of Mt. Kumano were particularly adept at exploiting the persuasive power of visual pedagogy (e-toki), and as the art historian Ikumi Kaminishi (2006) argues, may have incorporated newly imported Renaissance images of the Stages of Life into their own Kumano Ten-Worlds Mandala.

Finally, Catholic Marian narrative art struck a resonant chord with gendered Pure Land Buddhist mandalas. One particularly accomplished image of the 15 Mysteries of the Rosary was painted in oil for the Christian daimyō of Ibaragi, Takayama Ukon (baptized Justo, 1552–1615). Surrounding a central devotional image of the Virgin and Child holding a Japanese camellia and the world-orb (an iconographic arrangement with fairly obvious local and global ecclesiastical import), there are 15 peripheral predelle, or cartoon-like narrative frames typical of Renaissance altarpieces, running around the top and side borders. These sequentially illustrate the 15 joyful, sorrowful, and glorious mysteries of the rosary, from Mary’s immaculate conception on the bottom left, to the agonizing Passion of the Christ running above, to Mary’s coronation in heaven at the bottom right. This composite pictorial layout strikes a certain family resemblance to Buddhist Pure Land mandalas such as the eighth-century Taima Mandala, which also features an iconic central scene framed by narrative cartoon-strip borders about the female protagonist Queen Vaidehi. Her sorrowful life story unfolds in 11 narrative frames along the left border, while her contemplations of the blissful Pure Land paradise are illustrated in 22 frames along the right-hand and bottom borders of the central Buddha assembly. Both of these devotional images help the devotee ritually visualize and verbally invoke through repetitive chanting of “Hail Mary” or “Nembutsu” prayers his, or quite often her, own salvation. Considering Kawamura’s (2011) insight that Shinshī (True Pure Land) Buddhist theology and social networks primed the Japanese soil for the Catholic seed, and considering that Oda Nobunaga explicitly supported Christianity as a cognate alternative (namely, a welcome threat) to the Shinshī establishment, it is likely that this narrative art of gendered suffering and deliverance through ritual visualization and invocation translated easily into the Japanese cultural consciousness. At the very least, such considerations could help to explain why and how such Catholic Renaissance imagery resonated so readily with sixteenth-century Buddhists in Japan.

Edo/Tokugawa period (1600–1868).

After Toyotomi Hideyoshi died peacefully in 1598, the third and final unifier of Japan, Tokugawa Ieyasu, jockeyed for position and won the definitive battle of Sekigahara in 1600. He ushered in the so-called Tokugawa or Edo period. Like Toyotomi, Tokugawa initially tolerated Christianity in the interests of trade, especially with the Dutch and British, who began arriving at the beginning of the seventeenth century. (The British diarist Richard Cocks, for example, mentions importing copper and brass paintings of Our Lady, Christ, and several Saints from Macau and from Dutch traders [ca. 1616–1617] in addition to offering his Japanese wife a rare Old Testament image of Solomon in 1617.) However, soon Tokugawa, too, began persecuting the approximately 300,000 Christians within the Japanese population of approximately 20 million, and his heirs stopped all foreign trade for centuries, save for the Chinese and secular Dutch maritime merchants, who operated through Deshima island in Nagasaki Bay.

In 1614 the retired shogun issued the edict of expulsion through his son Tokugawa Hidetada (1579–1632), who set the brutal standard for stamping out Christianity until he died. The third Tokugawa shogun Iemitsu (1622–1651) issued a series of decrees from 1633 to 1639 officially limiting Japan’s contact with Europe. Both Japanese and European sources record the gruesome methods used for torture and martyrdom during this time, such as suspending the criminal Christians over a pit of excrement (ana tsurushi) until they apostatized, as famously described in Shusaku Endō’s 1966 prize-winning novel Silence. They also crucified Christians upside down at Nagasaki Bay until the tide came in to drown them, or they boiled them alive or bound them in dried rice stalks to serve as kindling for their own fires. The cache of approximately 10,000 Edo-period documents from Kyīshī discovered in the Vatican Archives in 2011 will undoubtedly reveal more details about the government crackdown on both the local and country-wide levels, once they are digitized and analyzed by Otomo Kazuo of the National Institute of Japanese Literature. In the meantime, scholars such as Mark Mullins (1998) estimate that some 5,000 to 6,000 Christians were martyred in Japan between 1627 and 1636, with another 20,000 massacred when the Christians supported a peasant revolt on the Shimabara peninsula in southern Hizen Province in 1638–1639. This last stand by the Christians was finally and brutally put down by Matsudaira Nobutsuna’s (1596–1662) 100,000 troops at Hara castle, and after this massacre, any remaining Christians were forced underground to practice their faith in secret.

Art of government persecution: Fumi-e and the Kirishitan monogatari.

In the context of such overt hostility and outright persecution, numerous converts chose apostasy over martyrdom. In 1620, the former Japanese Jesuit-turned-Zen-monk Fabian Fucan (1565–1621) wrote a scathing polemical tract called Deus Destroyed (Ha Daiusu) in which he attacks Christianity in seven steps, countering Catholic claims with Buddhist, Daoist, and neo-Confucian epithets and arguments. In addition, in 1632 Cristóvão Ferriera (ca. 1580–1650), the Portuguese provincial-turned-government-informant, renamed Sawano Chīan, apostatized after hanging over the pit for six hours. Ferriera sive Sawano’s 1636 tract, titled Deceit Disclosed (Kengiroku), tackles the irrationalities of the Bible’s accounts of God’s creation, the afterlife, and the Ten Commandments, and especially questions Japanese Christians’ loyalty to the state if they worship only the one Deus. This polemical discourse problematizing the Christian’s professed allegiance to both God and state would extend well into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries after Christianity was re-introduced into Japan by Protestant missionaries.

In this regard, late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century anti-Christian imagery served the interests of both the shogun’s government administration (bakufu) as well as the apostates. Every year, the bakufu government required every household to receive a temple certificate (tera-uke) from their local Buddhist temple (danka), where they were required to register for census and tax purposes. If there were any reason to question one’s fidelity to the state, individuals were required to step on a bronze or wooden bas-relief image of the Crucifixion or the Virgin Mary. Those who did not trample such so-called fumi-e plaques were branded as criminal adherents of the proscribed religion and suffered the grievous consequences. Not surprisingly, the fumi-e plaques that have come down to the present day are often worn smooth by the countless numbers of stockinged feet that trampled them from the seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries.

The apostates had their own renunciate tradition of anti-Christian imagery. For example, the anonymous Christian Tales (Kirishitan monogatari) chapbook with woodblock illustrations (ca. 1639) recounts the history of anti-Christian events in Japan leading up to the Shimabara rebellion, and it depicts the instruments of anti-Christian torture and mass murder in vivid and paradoxically vivacious line drawings. Its commentary and captions, furthermore, ridicule the Christians’ beliefs and practices, such as their fascination with self-flagellation in front of hanging scrolls of the Virgin and Child. In addition to the written text’s historical, polemical, and rhetorical merits, from a purely material culture perspective, this visual text documents and substantiates the use of the penitencia flagellation whip in early modern Japan. This kind of documentation allows scholars to directly link early seventeenth-century Christian practices with the continued present-day practices of the so-called Hidden Christians (kakure kirishitan) on Gotō, Sotome, and Ikitsukishima islands off of southern Kyīshī.

Art of the Hidden Christians (kakure kirishitan).

Today, the visual and material culture of the kakure kirishitan communities attests to the sustained transmission of Christian ritual practice and symbolism even in the midst of 200 years of brutal persecution. Collectively referred to as gozensama, or “most august personified presences,” these holy relics (rosaries, medallions), objects (statues, scourges, omaburi paper crosses), and images (kakejiku hanging scrolls depicting Catholic saints, scenes, and martyrs) have been preserved or reproduced over the generations to constitute an extraordinary body of visual and material culture that continue to be venerated as divine hierophanies to this day. For example, kirishitans on the remote Ikitsukishima island still refer to the penitencia scourge by the approximated and honorific term otenpesha (the prefix “o” indicates respect in Japanese), and several handwritten versions of The Power of Contrition (Konchirisan no riyaku) record their sixteenth-century prayers of penance. These prayers may have been understood primarily in terms of Shintō purification rites, as Turnbull (2013) observes that the flagellation whip in some ways resembles the Shintō gohei “wand” of hanging origami streamers, which purifies anything over which it is waved. However, these otenpesha bamboo switches and konchirisan prayers begging for the forgiveness of sins allowed the kirishitan communities to continue the sacrament of penance for centuries even in the absence of any ordained priests (usually referred to as bateren or iruman, from the Portuguese for father [padre] or brother [irmão]).

In addition, kakure kirishitan art deployed visual strategies for the covert veneration of Christian saints. Statues of the East Asian feminized bodhisattva of compassion Kannon bosatsu were worshipped as Maria, often with prayers called orasho (from the Latin oratio), or with hymns that were sung in a kind of hybrid Japanese-Latin-Portuguese creole, whose meanings the scholar Tagita Kōya (1895–1994) only began to unravel in the late 1920s. Buddhist home altars for ancestral veneration (butsudan) or domestic Shintō shrines for health and happiness in the home (kamidana) would surreptitiously enshrine Buddhist statuary with concealed crosses or crucifixes engraved into their backs or feet. Kirishitan households would also secrete away forbidden Christian relics such as bronze medallions or hand-copied versions of iconic images of the Virgin and Child, for example, and only display them on holidays such as Christmas, which was variably called Otaiya (“Honorable Great Night”) on Narushima island or Gotanjō (“Most August Birth”) on Ikitsukishima. Interestingly, in many of these folk images by untrained hands, Mary stands on a red crescent moon similar to her Iberian prototype from S. María de Guadalupe. Other versions depict her standing on both the sun and moon, but the standard East Asian placement of these heavenly bodies to the spectator’s right and left, respectively, has been switched to follow western European reading conventions, which start from left to right.

Most significantly, kirishitan households and confraternities especially on the islands south of Nagasaki venerated painted “portraits” of local martyrs. Many of these roughly rendered figures were only identifiable as such by crosses above their heads, but oral traditions about them still persist and have thankfully been recorded by scholars. There is the story of Caspar Nishi, who was martyred on Ikitsukishima island in 1609 while still in the service of the powerful Christian Koteda family (Koteda Yasumasa had converted to Christianity in 1551 as one of the first samurai converts in the service of Hirado’s daimyō Matsuura Takanobu [1529–1599]). There is also the story of the 16 Christians who were executed on Nakaenoshima island in 1622, as well as the story of the Matsuura massacre of 1645 and the so-called Danjikusama family (“honored ones of the bamboo grove”) on Ikitsukishima. There is also the story of the miraculous pure spring water of St. John that is used as holy water in secret baptisms and Christian offerings, especially at cemeteries where the gravestones feature indistinct standing figures tacitly understood to be the resurrected Christ.

These local oral histories, along with select biblical narratives, parables, miracles, and idiosyncratic understandings of Christian cosmogony and eschatology, combined to create another truly creative artform of the kakure kirishitans: a literary synthesis called The Beginning of Heaven and Earth (Tenchi majimari no koto). It is likely that the 10 extant manuscripts of this text, which were translated into English by Crystal Whelan in 1996, set down a popular oral tradition in the Sotome or Gotō islands to the south of Nagasaki in the mid-seventeenth century. In light of such popular texts, the specter of Catholic cosmology would continue to haunt Japanese scholars throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The cartographer and astronomer Kobayashi Kentei (1601–ca. 1683), for example, was a follower of the apostate Ferreira but was arrested in 1646 on suspicion of being Catholic. He was pardoned in 1667, however, and wrote A Brief Explanation of Heaven and Earth (Nigi Ryakusetsu) before establishing a school in Nagasaki for astronomy and mathematics. Later, after Tokugawa Yoshimune (1684–1751) relaxed the ban on foreign books in 1720 and triggered the scientific, medical, and artistic boom for Dutch studies (rangaku), even Nativist scholars such as Hirata Atsutane (1776–1843) may have consciously or unconsciously integrated Christian ideas into their beliefs about an ostensibly Shintō god of creativity and an unprecedented yet vaguely defined Shintō afterlife.

Despite such considerations, Christianity and Christian art in Japan remained outlawed until the nineteenth century. Even as late as 1851, Nakahama Manjirō (1827–1898) was still required to trample upon a fumi-e image of the Madonna and Child when he illegally returned to Japan after being shipwrecked as a teen, circumnavigating the globe for a decade aboard an American whaling ship and making a small fortune in the California gold rush. Manjirō’s illustration of the large brass Christian plate, and his account of being interrogated by Lord Maki of Shima before being imprisoned, pardoned, and put under house arrest, constitutes one of the last documented and illustrated trials by fumi-e, just two years before Commodore Perry forcefully opened Japan to Western trade in 1853.

Epilogue: Connections to Modern and Contemporary Japanese Christian Art.

Perry arrived in his black steamships to actualize America’s presumptive Manifest Destiny to open Japan again to Euro-American trade and influence. Through the political, economic, and sociocultural convulsions of Japan’s rapid modernization in the nineteenth century, symbols such as the Christian cross were invoked to either vilify or validate the Euro-American project to modernize Japan. Christianity was alternately repulsed or embraced as either part of Aizawa Seishisai’s (1781–1863) proto-Nationalist “revere the Emperor, expel the Barbarian” (sonnō jōi) movement, or Nakamura Masanao’s (1832–1891) pro-Western “civilization and enlightenment” (bunmei kaika) movement. In the midst of such polemics and still legally subject to the 1639 ban against all foreigners, the earliest Protestant missionaries began arriving in 1859. One of the first was the Presbyterian medical missionary to Yokohama James Hepburn (1815–1911), who, in addition to authoring a new Japanese–English dictionary and an eponymous romanization system, worked on one of the first full Japanese translations of the New Testament after the ban proscribing Christianity was lifted in 1873 (the New Testament was completed in 1880; the Old Testament was translated in 1887). Other early Protestant evangelists overcame the obvious problems with recruiting Japanese colporteur Bible salesmen with extraordinary entrepreneurial spirit. According to Henry Loomis’s 1901 account in the Chinese Record and Missionary Journal, the Free Baptist Jonathan Goble sold 10,203 Portions in the fall of 1879 after he assembled a horse-drawn cart with a “magic lantern with Scripture scenes,” attesting once again to the power of pictures to deliver doctrine.

In the historically Catholic south, the early French missionary to Nagasaki Bernard Petitjean (1829–1884) discovered the local kakure kirishitan communities in 1865, only one month after he opened his church in Oura. Unfortunately, in the modern period, as before, the question of the Christians’ divided loyalties was perennially at issue, and even after the Tokugawa shogunate fell and the Meiji emperor was restored to the throne in 1868, thousands of kirishitans were once again severely persecuted in the environs of Nagasaki.

Despite the chaos of the early Meiji state, by the turn of the century numerous elite Christian universities had been established for both men and women: Protestant founders established Meiji Gakuin (1863, by Hepburn), Rikkyō (1874), Dōshisha (1875), Tsuda (1900), and Tokyo Women’s Christian Univerities (1918), while the Catholic orders established Sophia (1913) and Sacred Heart University (1916, whence Empress Michiko graduated in 1957). Many of these campuses designed and decorated their halls with Christian imagery, though much was destroyed during World War II.

Before the war, Japanese Christian artists such as Luke Hasegawa (published but also critiqued in Daniel Fleming’s 1938 Each with His Own Brush) were painting highly syncretic images. In Hasegawa’s Christ Meditating, for example, Hasegawa depicts a bearded and haloed Jesus, clothed in rippling robes and perched in a grotto in full lotus position with eyelids closed. In both form and content this work represents the direct inverse of the Momoyamaperiod oil portraits of the Zen patriarch Bodhidharma, who also meditated in a grotto. Specifically, in the Momoyama portraits, the artistic technique (form) was Euro-Christian, but the subject matter (content) was Zen; but in Hasegawa’s Christ, the form is thoroughly Zen, though the content is ostensibly Christian. Another modern artist, Dōmoto Inshō (1891–1975), undertook commissions from Christian churches in Japan throughout his career, and Watanabe Sadao (1913–1996), perhaps the most overtly “biblical” artist in Japanese art history, combined his deep Christian faith with Okinawan printmaking techniques reminiscent of the mingei folk art movement of the 1920s and 1930s.

In the contemporary period, individual artists have deployed biblical imagery to give expression to social concerns and economic anxieties. Araki Takako’s (1921–2004) ruined clay and silkscreen Bibles express her anxieties about nuclear devastation in the 1970s. The Japanese American Teraoka Masami (b. 1936) radically reinterprets biblical figures like Adam and Eve while combining them with Meiji period woodblock print conventions to express his complex concerns surrounding the fall of humanity, technology, the AIDS crisis, and the Catholic pedophilia scandal. Popular animé films such as Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995) deploy Christian imagery to express Japanese anxieties about trade protectionism against America in the late 1980s as well as anxieties about the economic bubble of the early 1990s. (The antihero Shinji fights off Adam’s “angels” to protect Tokyo III’s corporate giant NERV, but he eventually causes an apocalypse wherein all the souls resurrect as crosses into space.) More recently, the animé film Tokyo Godfathers (2003) completely rewrites the Nativity narrative as a beautifully dysfunctional triad of homeless men (including one transgendered “Mary” figure) who discover an orphaned infant one Christmas eve in Tokyo.

Japanese Art

The Gospel According to John (1987) by Araki Takako (1921–2004).

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas /Garth Clark and Mark Del Vecchio Collection, gift of Garth Clark and Mark Del Vecchio/Bridgeman Images

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Japanese and English versions of The Manga Bible further illustrate biblical episodes in narrative frames not unlike those of the Rosary or the Taima Mandala discussed previously. The Anderson and Iida English version (2012), for example, condenses the Old Testament into 363 pages illustrating the Creation of Heaven and Earth, Cain and Abel, Noah’s ark, Babel, Abraham, Sodom and Gomorrah, The Sacrifice of Isaac, Esau and Jacob, Joseph of Egypt, Exodus, Joshua, Judges, Kings, and a narrative Epilogue. The New Testament unfolds in 166 illustrated pages recounting the Annunciation, John the Baptist, The Ministry Begins, The Teachings of Christ, The Miracles of Christ, The Passion of Christ, Resurrection and Ascension, and The New Testament (Acts). Interestingly, the narrative frames of the English version are read from right to left and top to bottom in the Japanese manner, yet when it comes to the crucifixion of Christ, his outstretched arms break through this pictorial convention, communicating spatial and chronological sequence. His arms exceed the confines of the boxed-in frames, and they cross over the book spine to hover over the assembled onlookers below. The universality and eternity of the Christian message is thereby signaled through the creative rupture of pictorial space.

By contrast, Fujimura Makoto (b. 1960) eschews all social commentary, representation, and narrative illustration in favor of using the oversized folio of The Four Holy Gospels itself as the canvas for his own abstract, spiritual expression. Commissioned in 2011 by Crossway Publishers to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible (1611), this edition brings our discussion of biblical art in Japan full circle. In this monumental work, Fujimura’s expressive use of color allows him to tap into John’s metaphysical process of creation, Mark’s red sanctifying and purifying judgment fire, Luke’s more complicated and nuanced message, and Matthew’s simpler, more monochromatic meanings. In addition, his abstract use of gold pigment mirrors the nonlinear bands of gold on the nanban byōbu folding screens discussed above and references his training in both traditional nihonga techniques and the Western illuminated manuscript tradition. The combination of all these factors and his abiding faith even in the face of blatant hostility (not from the bakufu now, but rather from the secularized contemporary art world) speaks to the inexorable process of continuity and change in Japanese biblical art from the time of the Jesuits to the present day.


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Pamela D. Winfield