Hidden Christians’ Illicit Sacred Vase Brought to Light in Japan

A centuries-old relic associated with ancient Christian practice in Japan is causing a stir in the Japanese media. The item is believed to be an artifact preserved by Japan’s “kakure kirishitan” or hidden Christians, practitioners of Catholicism who were forced to keep their activities a secret after Christianity was prohibited on the island by culturally repressive leaders in the early 17th century.

Tracing the Kakure Kirishitan Vase’s History

After being hidden for more than four centuries, this artifact—a simple and modestly-designed vase—has been put on display by the family that has owned it for many generations. While the vase isn’t particularly unusual in appearance, it is notable because of a single printed word that has been found on its bottom. This word reads  escencia, which in this context has been identified as the Spanish word for “fragrant oil.”

Based on the presence of this one word, experts have concluded that the vase once held fragrant oil used during religious ceremonies. They also believe the vase would have belonged to a prominent person, given how carefully it was preserved by the family that had held it safely for so long.

Along with his family, the individual who presented the vase for study has traced his roots in the Sotome district, near the city of Nagasaki on Japan’s southern seacoast. This is significant, because it was here that the Japanese version of medieval  Catholicism was most widely practiced in the 16th century after the religion was brought to Japan by missionaries. Once the religion was banned, the kakure kirishitan continued to worship in secret to protect themselves from terrible punishments.

The ancient vase is about 10 inches (25 cm) tall and was painted in three colors, having been manufactured in China around the year 1600. The vase has been kept in storage by the family that inherited it and carefully preserved through the ages.

According to the owner, only the head of the household would have been allowed to view the vase due to the fact that it was considered a sacred object. The word  escencia printed on its underside is entirely consistent with the idea that it held fragrant oil, which would have been sprinkled around during various Catholic ceremonies, including baptisms and confirmations.

17th century notice board displaying an anti-Christian edict. The inscription vividly describes substantial rewards offered for information leading to the capture of Christian priests, believers, and those who sympathize with them. (Zunkir /  CC BY-SA 4.0 )

How the Kakure Kirishitan Tradition Evolved in Japan

Christianity arrived in Japan in the mid-16th century, when missionaries brought Christ’s message to the Far East seeking converts. These missionaries found a welcoming home at first, specifically around the ancient lands of the modern city of Nagasaki, which meant that they were able to build small communities of converts that presumably could have grown over time.

But 1603 was a turning point and from then on everything changed. This was the beginning of the Edo Period (1603 to 1868), which marked the rise of a military dictatorship run by the  Tokugawa shogunate , or Tokugawa royal family.

The first dictator of the Edo Period—and founder of his family’s dynasty—was  Tokugawa Ieyasu , an acclaimed military leader whose smashing victory at the  Battle of Sekigahara  in 1600 ended Japan’s civil war and led to the collapse of the  Ashikaga shogunate  that had ruled the country from the 14th through the 16th centuries. The Tokugawa shogunate ruled the newly unified Japan from Edo Castle in the city of Edo (modern-day Tokyo), setting up a shift of power that ultimately led to the ascension of Tokyo as Japan’s most important urban center.

As the first ruler of the new military dictatorship, Tokugawa Ieyasu sought to implement a rigid class system backed by respect for traditional values. The Tokugawa shogunate chose isolationism as a way to keep foreign influences out, and Ieyasu’s government moved quickly to ban  Christianity and expel all Catholic missionaries from the country.

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