April 24, 2024

The Amakusa Church

As with Index Librorum Prohibitorum, the title character of A Certain Magical Index, many of the seemingly farfetched religious references in the series are based on actual historical people and events.

For example, Stiyl Magnus and Kaori Kanzaki are members of Necessarius, the Special Forces sorcery squad of the Anglican Church.

Okay, that part is fiction.

Kaori Kanzaki is a former leader of the Amakusa Catholics, descendants of the "Hidden Christians" that preserved the faith after the disaster of the Shimabara Rebellion in 1637.

That last part is not.

Jesuit missionaries arrived in Japan in the 1540s in the company of Portuguese traders. They were followed by Franciscans and Dominicans under the aegis of Spain. During the latter half of the sixteenth century, they enjoyed the patronage of Oda Nobunaga, the first of the Three Great Unifiers of Japan during the Warring States period.

Nobunaga had no interest in Christianity per se, but he was very interested in the firearms provided by the Spanish and Portuguese. Christianity was also a useful political check on the Buddhist factions in Kyoto that were a constant thorn in his side.

Alas, several years after Nobunaga's assassination, Spanish conquistadores were caught saying the quiet part out loud and Christianity quickly fell out of favor with the powers that be. As Hisaki Amano explains,

A Spanish ship en route from the Philippines to Mexico suffered serious damage in a series of typhoons and drifted ashore in Tosa (modern-day Kochi Prefecture). Under interrogation, the ship's crew responded that Spain was a world power that dispatched missionaries to convert the local population before occupying the countries.

Nobunaga's successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, began persecuting Christians with a vengeance, culminating in the martyrdom of twenty-six priests and believers in Nagasaki in 1597. Under the Tokugawa shoguns, Christianity was outlawed. Especially after the Shimabara Rebellion, simply being a Christian was deemed a capital offense.

That legal status was not amended until the late nineteenth century.

The Shimabara Rebellion erupted in 1638 on the island of Kyushu. Nagasaki was once a major Portuguese trading port and Shimabara had the highest percentage of Christians in the country. The rebellion began as a peasant uprising, and was soon joined by Catholic Christians chafing under the heavy hand of local leaders and the shogunate.

Although the rebellion was not without cause and the governor of Shimabara was later executed for misrule and incompetence, such a direct challenge to the legitimacy of the Edo government could not go unanswered.

At the age of seventeen, Amakusa Shiro became the leader of the Japanese Roman Catholics in Shimabara. After a tortuous siege, Shogunate forces overran Hara Castle in 1639 and killed upwards of 37,000 rebels and sympathizers. But the Hidden Christians persevered until the anti-Christian edicts were removed two and a half centuries later.

This is a case where the winners wrote the history books, so Amakusa Shiro was made the villain. He is one of the bad guys in Makai Tensho, a 1967 fantasy novel by Futaro Yamada that has Amakusa Shiro rising from the grave to exact revenge on the shogunate.

Three movies have been made from the book, the most recent in 2003. The best known remains the 1981 version starring Sonny Chiba as Yagyu Jubei, a role he returned to often in samurai action series such as Shogun's Samurai. Overseas releases appended Samurai Reincarnation to the title.

Tubi has a generous selection of Sonny Chiba films and series, including a dubbed version of Samurai Reincarnation and half a season of Shogun's Samurai.

Over the past century, and certainly since 1945, the image of Christianity in Japan has been thoroughly rehabilitated. Christian style weddings (fake pastor included) have become all the rage. Former prime minister Aso Taro is a Catholic. And Christmas (along with Santa Claus) is now one of Japan's most popular unofficial holidays.

Along the way, as evident in series like A Certain Magical Index, Hellsing, and The Ancient Magus Bride, Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, became a rich source of dramatic material. Unconstrained by the usual cultural preoccupations, Japanese writers often push those religious tropes in quite unexpected directions.

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