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Review: Holy Ghosts: The Christian Century in Modern Japanese Fiction
October 7, 2015

Holy Ghosts: The Christian Century in Modern Japanese Fiction by Rebecca Suter

Christians in Japan are a tiny minority of the population, less than one percent. However, the history of Christianity in Japan is a dramatic story, and hence it has appeared in many works of Japanese fiction. In Holy Ghosts, Rebecca Suter describes the roots of this story and examines how some writers have incorporated it in their fiction. Or in her words, "I wish to investigate the creative appropriation of Kirishitan [Christian] history in Japanese fiction as a metaphor for cultural negotiation from a nonreligious perspective." If that sounds a bit academic, well, Suter is a professor writing for a university press.

The "Christian century" occurred during the years 1549 to 1638. In 1549, Jesuit priests arrived on Portuguese trading ships. These first missionaries had to overcome language barriers as well as try to understand Japanese religious beliefs, which were a mix of Buddhism and animistic Shinto. During the first twenty years of the Christian century, the Japanese feudal states were at war, and priests were often used by the heads of the states to procure European firearms. The priests used their influence and their Jesuit military ethic admired by the Japanese to establish missions in the country and begin to convert the local population.

As the feudal wars came to an end with a consolidation of power, the Japanese rulers banned Christianity and expelled the missionaries. The reasoning behind this is unclear, the main theories being based on economics, political power, or religious beliefs. Whatever the reason, the edict against Christianity was not vigorously enforced. When the shoguns began their rule around 1600, traders from England and Holland who did not bring missionaries with them received preferential treatment over the Portuguese and Spanish. The ban on Christianity then became rigorous, with arrests, torture, and executions. The remaining Christians had to practice their beliefs in secret.

During 1637-1638, there was a rebellion in the Nagasaki area where Christianity had its most adherents. While there is debate on whether the driving force for the rebellion was the crackdown on Christians or due to increased taxes and other repressive measures, it drove Christians farther underground. To further cut off contact with the West, the shogun closed Japan except for a small Dutch trading port near Nagasaki. Suter details how this underground Christianity became "Kirishitan", or the Japanese version of that religion, which came to light more than two hundred years later when Japan was reopened to the West.

Japanese writers became more self-aware as they were exposed to Western culture and literature. The drama of the early Christians was a rich source to explore the comparison of Japan and the West. Suter discusses briefly the works of religious authors in the twentieth century before analyzing the short stories of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, namesake of Japan?s Akutagawa Prize for short stories, and most famous for "In a Grove", which Akira Kurosawa used as the story for his film Rashomon.

Writing in the early twentieth century, Akutagawa's Kirishitan stories were mostly set during the Christian century, including "Maid Ito's Memorandum" which is based on the historical suicide of provincial ruler's wife who had converted to Christianity. Using the perspective of a fictional lady-in-waiting allowed Akutagawa, according to Suter, "to present the Christian religion from an estranged perspective, with humorous and thought-provoking effects. The most common devices describe the foreign religion through Buddhist equivalents, implicitly presenting it as a distorted copy of the older religion to portray it as a form of magic and draw analogies with similar practices in Japanese and Chinese folklore."

Similarly in another story, a priest is compared to a tengu, a Shinto supernatural being especially with demon-like qualities. Akutagawa's metaphors thus turn the stereotype image of Japan as master imitators on its head, while at the same time making "both systems of thought appear equally ungrounded and irrational."

Martyrs and apostates (those who renounced their Christianity) play significant roles in much of Kirishitan fiction. The situation was complicated as the Japanese prosecutors demanded that Christians denounce and give up their faith, while the Jesuit priests encouraged martyrdom. Many Christians chose a third path: recanting and going underground to worship in secret. To further complicate the issue, those recanting were often forced to swear their recantation under the names of God, Jesus, and any number of saints. For example, in Akutagawa's "Ogin", the parents of a daughter recant their beliefs, which means they will be subjugated to hell. The daughter also recants so she can be with her parents in hell rather than be a martyr and go to heaven. Ironically, her reason for recanting is actually a demonstration of her strong faith.

The power of faith is demonstrated in fiction that uses the Christian idea of resurrection, perhaps conflating it with Buddhist reincarnation and Japanese belief in ghosts, to create warriors who return from martyrdom. The historical Japanese samurai Shiro who was an underground Christian, creating a double identity and a tragic hero. In one fictionalized account Shiro comes back as a vampire to feed on humans and add them to the ranks of Kirishitan vampires. Other Christian elements also receive similar treatment in Kirishitan stories, for example, the Holy ghost, Mary?s virgin birth of Jesus, and Satan.

In the 1960s and 1970s, many of the Japanese comic books (manga), which are aimed at a young male audience, see "the romanticization of the Tokugawa past [circa 1600-1868] as an alternative to the American-inspired capitalist regime of postwar Japan." In essence, pure samurai were "in", and Kirishitan martyrs "out", while characters such as Shiro became pure evil.

However, the more morally ambiguous nature of characters such as Shiro began to appear in a genre of romantic and feminist manga aimed a young female audience, as well as a genre called Boys Love centering on "male same-sex desire". As Suter explains about one of these manga,"Presenting their cases side by side allows the comic to show the reversibility of the good/evil dichotomy ... [and] uses the Kirishitan as a tool to undermine the conventional distinctions in the realm of culture, morals, and now, also gender."

For a country with few Christians, and so little of the actual beliefs seen in practice, Christianity, in its incarnation as Kirishitan, Japanese fiction has been influenced in many ways. Suter makes her points well with in-depth research and insight for a fascinating look at a little understood history. Or as Suter says, "time and time again, the ghosts of the Christian century return to haunt Japan and continue to offer us an invaluable opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the complexities of global modernity."


Number of comments: 1
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Diogo Kaupatez
Hi there. I'm translating The Fourth Treasure to Portuguese and then I'll try to convince a publishing house to print it. Here's how it starts: Kiichi Shimano, fundador e mestre da Escola Zenzen de Caligrafia, mergulhou o pincel na pequena poça preta de tinta sumi. Com gentileza, pressionou-o contra a parede do tinteiro até que a única gota em excesso escoasse de volta à poça. Então, com um movimento fluido, traçou no papel uma simples linha horizontal. “Veja”, disse a Gozen, seu principal discípulo, “um ângulo raso carece de vida. Tente novamente”. Gozen aquiesceu e imergiu seu pincel na tinta. I'd be very grateful if we can talk. My e-mail address is [deleted] Best, D.


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