Kirishitan – Sarah Prindle
Nagasaki, Japan, 1614
I grew up hearing the story of how faith brought my parents together.
Father was born and raised in a distant land, Portugal, far from the familiar oceans and mountains of my Japanese homeland. From an early age, he was told he must become a priest— that it was his destiny.
Yet Father yearned to explore the world, meet new people, learn new things. Fortunately, he was given the chance when the Portuguese began missionary expeditions to other lands. He hadn’t yet become a priest, and hoped traveling would stall that.
“I didn’t know what to expect in Japan,” Father admitted to me later. “To be honest, I expected a savage world.” he glanced apologetically at Mother as he said this.
But Mother smiled off his apology. “You found something different, though, did you not?”
“Very different.” Even though it’s not becoming for married couples to show too much affection, Father got up and put his arms around Mother. As I watched, I wondered about Father’s family—they had disowned him when he wrote to let them know he was marrying a Japanese woman. And Mother’s family was angry she had refused a ‘perfectly fine match’ with a reputable merchant and chose to marry a foreign man.
It shows their devotion to each other that two sets of enraged parents couldn’t tear them apart.
Even our powerful leader—the Shogun—couldn’t stamp out a person’s love. Or their faith.
Mother converted to Catholicism, and I was raised in this faith as my father had been. We were Kirishitans—Japanese Christians. But the way we were treated made it impossible to forget that Christians were distrusted by many Japanese.
I remember crossing myself one time in public—I don’t know why I did, maybe I had just learned the gesture and was practicing. But a couple of men glared at me disapprovingly, with disgust in their eyes. I shrank away from them. Mother clutched my hand tightly and pulled me along after her.
Later I would learn that, three short years before my birth, twenty-nine Christians in nearby Nagasaki had been executed for nothing more than their beliefs. That frightened me a great deal.
“Why do so many people hate us?” I asked my parents after I saw a woman spit on the ground as my family walked by.
Father grimaced. “The Shogun and many others are convinced Christians are trying to pave the way for the Portuguese to take over, as they have in other lands. They can’t see that our faith has nothing to do with imperialism…. I believe in Christ, as does your mother.”
But as I looked back at the woman who’d spat at us, I realized she wasn’t seeing us as a faithful family, but as traitors and invaders.
When I turned fourteen in 1614, I had learned to be more discreet. We prayed at home. Worshipped in small groups with a few other Kirishitan families in the area. Of course, everyone in our village knew who was who—it wasn’t difficult to note which families walked to the Buddhist temples and which ones did not. But aside from the normal prejudice—if prejudice can ever be considered normal—my life went on peacefully. Then, one afternoon, everything changed.
Mother was trying to teach me to cook a special rice dish with duck meat and sauce. I am the worst cook in the world, and Mother was scolding me.
“Akiko! Have you not been listening to me? You must let the rice soak a little while!”
I wanted to argue that it was close enough, but I wouldn’t disrespect an elder, so I just gritted my teeth and shoved the stirring spoon into the mix a little more aggressively than I needed to.
Suddenly the door flew open, and Father came in. His blue-eyes, usually kind and calming, were wide with fear.
Mother completely forgot about the meal. “What is it?”
Father crossed the room and put his hands upon Mother’s shoulders. He swallowed hard. “Takae. I am so sorry. We must leave Japan…”
I dropped our midday meal.
“What happened?” I demanded, forgetting a child must wait to be spoken to.
Father didn’t bother to reprimand me. “The Shogun has declared Christianity illegal. All Christians must convert to Buddhism, and all of the missionaries…like me…must leave.”
In one instant, the world had been turned on its head. I remember staring down at the dropped meal, which we were supposed to eat as we talked about our day. Instead, we were being rejected by the only home I knew.
Mother’s face turned red with fury. “The Shogun has banned us? Hah! He cannot tell us what to believe!”
Father sighed. “No. But he will likely have me killed if I do not leave Japan. As for you…I could never ask you and Akiko to give up your country, your people. If you choose to stay though, you will have to act like you have converted.”
“Never.” Mother snapped.
“If you don’t, they will kill you!” Father exploded, his voice ricocheting off the walls. I flinched. Father never raised his voice, ever . “God, Takae! Don’t you remember what they did in 1597? Don’t you see the way they look at us now? They are not bluffing when they threaten execution! Mark my words, they will burn alive anyone who refuses to renounce their faith!”
For the first time, real fear struck my heart. This wasn’t just about prejudice and being forced to leave. Father was right. They had killed Kirishitans before and would do so again.
The Shogun hates us. Hates me. He won’t care. The realization was a horrible one to accept.
“No,” Mother insisted. “I won’t give up our faith. And I refuse to stay here without you! Akiko and I will follow you. We will leave Japan as well.”
I was being pulled in half; part of me was glad we would all stay together. But part of me wept to leave Japan. My home. My village. My people.
Father said nothing to Mother’s forceful declaration…just pulled her close. Then, after a moment, he reached out a hand to me.
We packed up our things and set off for the port that very evening. As a known missionary, Father felt it would be unwise to risk waiting too long to escape. We would return to my father’s homeland. It would be a long journey of many months. And if Portugal didn’t work out, Father vowed we’d find someplace else.
But at least we would be alive to walk the earth, safe from the Shogun’s killers.
We hurried through the streets of the village I’d grown up in. Many neighbors stared with unfriendly and uncaring eyes. Some pretended not to see us. But some good souls here and there would bow to us in greeting, eyes shining with compassion.
Mother’s best friend, Kasumi, ignored her husband’s urgent whispers and ran towards us. She thrust a gold necklace into Mother’s hand. “To help you pay your way. Wherever your destination will be.”
Mother embraced her tightly. I clutched my bundle of clothes as the port came into view.
Just before we boarded a ship, I looked back at the village.
Father had been reluctant to take Mother and me away from ‘our people’, but right now it seemed that only a few of the people I’d known would qualify as ‘our people’ in any form. The others had hated us…or simply not cared.
The village didn’t look like home. Just a collection of houses and fields that could have been anywhere. It wasn’t home anymore. And yet it was.
Our ship cast off and headed west. I stood on the deck and fingered the crucifix I always wore around my neck—usually hidden under my clothes. But tonight, I kept it out in the open.
They had already taken my home from me. But no matter where we went, no matter what we had to do to survive, no one could take away who I was.
I was Akiko, daughter of a kindly Portuguese missionary and a determined Japanese woman. I was a Christian—a Kirishitan—and there was no decree the Shogun could make that would change that. I didn’t know what our new lives would be like, or what would happen to the Christians who stayed behind.
But I believed in our strength and resilience.
We would be resurrected.
Historical Note: From 1614 (when Christianity was first banned in Japan) to 1640, an estimated6,000 Christian men, women, and children were executed. Some, such as Akiko’s family, fled toother nations. Others stayed and hid their faith. Christianity went dormant in Japan for twocenturies, until restrictions eased. In 1865, a Catholic church was opened in Nagasaki, and20,000 Christians who had been practicing in secret came forward for the first time.Today, Christians make up about 2% of the Japanese population.
Sarah M. Prindle received an Associate Degree in English from Northampton Community College. She loves reading everything from historical fiction and memoirs, to poetry and mysteries. She hopes to someday publish her own novels and poetry collections on these different topics.