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September 24, 2017

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Vatican trove shows persecution in samurai-era Japan

TOKYO--A trove of ancient documents unearthed at the Vatican could shed light on the brutal crackdown on Christianity in isolationist Japan under its samurai rulers, scholars say.

The hoard contains about 10,000 pieces of paper, collected by an Italian priest who lived in Japan in the last century, mostly dating from the "Edo" period (1603-1867), when the country shut itself off from the outside world and declared Western religion illegal.

The wide-ranging collection, including memos from their curator, Father Mario Marega, who died in 1978, offers a rare opportunity to study details of how people lived through the tense religious persecution of the time, said Professor Kazuo Otomo of the National Institute of Japanese Literature.

The records, which contain annual surveys of residents' religious affiliations, could also provide a glimpse into population changes and other sociological dynamics of early modern Japan, scholars said.

"This unusually large volume of official records show policing and crackdowns and the deprivation of religious freedom," said Otomo, who will head the six-year project to analyze and catalogue the materials, due to begin in the next 18 months.

Unlike one-off finds of a few historical documents, the 21 bags of materials discovered in the Vatican Library in 2011 should allow scholars to study the minutiae of persecution and whether it differed over time or in specific communities, he said.

Christianity Outlawed

For roughly two centuries to the mid-1850s, Japan's samurai government, fearful of foreign invasion and colonization, shut itself off almost entirely.

Japanese people were barred — on pain of death — from leaving the country and foreigners were only allowed in very limited areas, such as an artificial island in Nagasaki harbor.

Christianity, the harbinger of empires in other parts of Asia, was outlawed. Foreign missionaries — seen as the advance guard of an invading force — were ejected and converts in Japan were forced to renounce their faith.

Those who refused were frequently tortured and many executed, some by crucifixion.

Despite the stringent and brutally enforced laws, Christianity survived, especially in parts of the southern island of Kyushu, where believers disguised their icons by making them resemble those used by Buddhists.

European missionaries were hidden by the faithful, sometimes for years in remote parts of the country such as far-flung islands, where significant Christian populations remain today.

Most official documents have been lost or were deliberately destroyed after the shogunate government was replaced in the mid-19th century.

The new civilian regime that ended the isolationist policy was eager to modernize, sloughing off what it saw as the backwardness of the past and aping European cultures and technologies.

Local History Tells Global Story

Marega collected the documents while living in Kyushu before and during World War II. He later lived in Tokyo for many years until shortly before his death in Italy.

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