They Saw the Comet: A Personal Exploration of Japan’s Hidden Christians

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They Saw the Comet: A Personal Exploration of Japan’s Hidden Christians
Author: Hiromi Hoshino
Specifications: ISBN  978-4163903460
447 pages
13.5 x 19.6 cm / 5.4 x 7.8 in (WxH)
Category: Nonfiction
Publisher: Bungeishunju Ltd.
Tokyo, 2015
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In 1549 Francis Xavier, a Navarrese Basque Roman Catholic missionary and cofounder of the Society of Jesus, arrived in a Japan fragmented among many competing feudal lords and began spreading the Christian gospel. Over the next half-century many Japanese, especially in the southern domains, converted to Christianity under the influence of Roman Catholic missionaries who overcame the language barrier to bring Western culture and ways of thought to Japan. But once Tokugawa Ieyasu unified Japan’s warring states and established his shogunate at Edo (today’s Tokyo), a 1614 edict outlawed Christianity throughout the country. The European missionaries were either expelled or executed, and large numbers of the Japanese faithful were persecuted and sent to their deaths.

Author Hiromi Hoshino’s interest in these early Japanese Christians, known as Kirishitan (as distinct from today’s Kurisuchan), was triggered by a major beatification ceremony held in Nagasaki in November 2008, when 188 Japanese were beatified, among them Julian Nakaura. Nakaura was one of four young men sent as “youth ambassadors” to visit the Vatican and other European cities from 1582 to 1590 at the instigation of Jesuit missionaries in Japan. He was about 15 years old at the time of his departure. The group had an audience with Pope Gregory XIII in 1585, and after their return home, Nakaura evangelized for the church as a priest. Even after Christianity was outlawed, he served the community of “hidden Christians” who secretly kept their faith alive—until he was captured by the Tokugawa authorities and executed for his religious beliefs in 1633.

Writing almost exactly 400 years after the edict that outlawed Christianity, Hoshino focuses much of her attention on what the missionaries and Japanese believers of the time must have thought and felt. Neither a Christian nor a religious historian herself, she adopts an unusual approach to her topic: she decides to take up the lute, which the youth ambassadors learned to play during their brief sojourn in Rome and performed for their countrymen after their return to Japan. Thus the “personal exploration” of the subtitle. As she delves into the historical record, she strives to understand the events of more than four centuries ago by putting herself in the place of the missionaries and believers of the time—so many of whom remain eternally nameless.

In September 2014, Hoshino traveled to the Basque region of Spain to visit the birthplaces of some of the Dominican missionaries who gave their lives for their faith in Japan. There she witnessed firsthand just how deeply the missionaries continue to be revered in their homelands.

This is a superbly crafted work of nonfiction that allows readers to take an imaginary journey back to the Japan of 400 years ago by following in the footsteps of the author.