Sword Guards Confirm Samurai Warriors Secretly followed Christianity
At least 48 sword guards used by samurai warriors during the feudal era belonged to hidden Christians. The artifacts are related to the early history of 16th and 17th century Japan, which saw the persecution of Christians and the Shimabara Rebellion, an uprising of Catholic Christian peasants.
According to The Asahi Shimbun, the Sawada Miki Kinenkan museum in Kanagawa Prefecture, owns 367 sword guards, which were examined by Yuhiko Nakanishi, chairman of nonprofit group Nihon Token Hozon Kai (Japan Sword Preservation Association), and other researchers, and 48 were identified as belonging to Christians. The research took six months, and the results were recently presented.
The Sawada Miki Kinenkan Museum claimed that the items, which went back on display at the museum on May 10, were suspected as belonging to Christians, but the discovery by the team of Nakanishi provided important evidence confirming the legends about Christian samurais.
Samurai warriors with various types of armor and weapons, 1880s (public domain)
The discovery is extremely rare due to the anti-Christian policies in Japan at the time, which caused Christians to hide their religion for many centuries. According to the analysis, more than 10 sword guards were made during the Sengoku (Warring States) period (1467-1568). Other swords are believed to have been created after the domination of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598). They were also in use after the anti-Christian measures.
The symbols discovered by Nakanashi, which proved the existence of the Christian samurais, included carefully hidden Christian crosses in their designs. During Japan’s anti-Christian policies, Christians were also known to have drawn crosses on objects, such as Buddhist statues and other artifacts. Their aim was to manifest the existence of their secret religion, which the ruling elite tried to stamp out.
A sword guard identified as belonging to a hidden Christian has a statue of Jesus Christ inside it, while a foreign vessel is engraved on its outer side. (Nobuyuki Watanabe)
In the recently published book, Christ's Samurai: The True Story of the Shimabara Rebellion, by Jonathan Clements, a Visiting Professor at Xi'an Jiaotong University in China, the author described the difficult fate of the Christians in the 17th century. Christianity in Japan has a very old tradition, but for centuries it was not allowed to follow the Christian path, which was made officially illegal in 1614 by Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. Christians were branded with hot irons, crucified and dipped repeatedly in boiling water to punish them for being a part of an uprising. One of the famous places of torture was Shimabara castle.
Shimabara castle, where Christians were tortured (public domain)
Clements wrote in the introduction to his book:
"In 1638, the ruler of Japan ordered a crusade against his own subjects, a holocaust upon the men, women and children of a doomsday cult. … Introduced a century earlier by foreign missionaries, the sect was said to harbour dark designs to overthrow the government. Its teachers used a dead language that was impenetrable to all but the innermost circle of believers. Its priests preached love and kindness, but helped local warlords acquire firearms. They encouraged believers to cast aside their earthly allegiances and swear loyalty to a foreign god-emperor, before seeking paradise in terrible martyrdoms…"
Clements described in his book a story of a pregnant woman, who was kept in a submerged cage leading to the death of both mother and the baby. This incident perhaps triggered the Shimabara Rebellion, which lasted from December 17, 1637, to April 15, 1638, during the rule of Edo bakufu, the last feudal Japanese military government. The shogun forces slaughtered thousands of Christians. The leader of the rebels was Jerome Amakusa, who has remained an icon of Japanese Christianity until now.
The Christian martyrs of Nagasaki. 17th-century Japanese painting. (public domain)
On January 2016, Pope Francis approved the beatification of Takayama Ukon, a Japanese samurai. He was born in 1552, and was baptized at the age of 12. He was a daimyo, a member of the class of ruling feudal lord, who ranked second to the shogun in medieval and early modern Japan. In 1587, when Hideyoshi started a persecution of Christians, Takayama and his father chose instead to forsake their estates and honors to maintain the faith. He was exiled to Manila in 1614, with a group of 300 Catholics. He died there of disease on February 5, 1615.
In 2007 Pope Benedict XVI confirmed that 188 Japanese Christians who died from persecution by the Tokugawa government were selected for beatifications. The ceremonies were held a year later in Nagasaki.
Top image: Sword guards believed to have been created after the adoption of anti-Christian policies in Japan contain hidden crosses in their designs. (Nobuyuki Watanabe)