IKITSUKI ISLAND, Japan (Reuters) - One by one, the sacred relics -- a medal of the Virgin Mary, a crucifix and other revered objects -- are taken from a cupboard and placed on an altar for a Christmas Eve rite passed down through centuries from Japan's earliest Christians. Then, kneeling in the simple hall built where martyrs are said to have been burned on this tiny, remote island 400 years ago, five elders murmur chants as they bow and make the sign of the cross. The kimono-clad deacons are descendants of "Kakure Kirishitan," or Hidden Christians, who kept their religion alive on Ikitsuki and in other isolated pockets of Japan during 250 years of suppression, adapting their rites to the demands of secrecy and blending them with local beliefs.
First brought to Japan by Portuguese missionaries in 1549, Christianity was banned a few decades later in 1614, initiating a period of bloody persecution that forced the faithful to choose between martyrdom or hiding their beliefs. Medals or hanging scrolls depicting saints and martyrs, often with Japanese features, were hidden in cupboards as "nando-gami" ("gods in the closet") and only taken out on special days. In an apparent echo of the bread and wine of the Eucharist, elders still share sashimi and sake as part of the Christmas Eve and other ceremonies. Huge "mochi" rice cakes adorn the altar. Transmitted orally and in secret, Latin "oratio" chants, "orasho" in Japanese, lost all but symbolic meaning.
"They preserved the style and form of the Christianity that they inherited, but the teachings were no longer from the Bible and changed into respect for local martyrs, so in that sense it can be seen as a Japanese ethnic religion," said Shigeo Nakazono, curator of an island museum who has studied the "Kakure Kirishitan" for years.
When Roman Catholic missionaries returned with the lifting of the ban in 1873, some Japanese Christians accepted their teachings, but others clung to what they saw as the true faith of their fathers. "'Gotanjo' is the day of Christ's birth. That's no different from Christianity," said Yasutaka Toriyama, 68, who holds the hereditary position of "gobanyaku," or head of a household that traditionally held a group's relics, such as scrolls or medals.
"But while ours is a religion that believes in Mary and Christ, we also believe that our ancestors who suffered persecution are gods."
This is a fascinating article. A picture of how a faith community isolated and uninformed can alter and dilute the very faith they tried to preserve.