The first Noel, the Jesuits in Yamaguchi did say, was a 16th-century celebration in a converted Buddhist temple with midnight hymns
In a letter home to Portuguese brethren, Jesuit missionary Pedro de Alcacova writes of singing a Mass to Japanese believers in 1552: “Our voices weren’t good,” he recalls, “still the Christian believers rejoiced.”
It was Christmas Eve in Yamaguchi, and the patience, if not faith, of the new Japanese converts may have been tested after dubious singing by nanban (“southern barbarian”) missionaries turned into a scripture reading that ran deep into the night and resumed for another day with the “crow of the cock.”
This was Japan’s first Christmas on record, and in subtropical Yamaguchi, at the southern edge of Honshu, the celebration of the virgin birth was in a sense also a virgin encounter: It featured much surprised delight (the Jesuit account says) along with the first Western vocal music heard in Japan. Saint Francis Xavier — the Jesuit who brought Christianity to Asia — had landed in Japan’s Satsuma domain only three years earlier, winning favor with daimyō lords and with it permission to seek converts. Japan was still decades away from the Christian persecutions ushered in by the seclusion policy of the Tokugawa shogunate — the backdrop of the great Shusaku Endo novel “Silence” recently adapted into a film by Martin Scorsese.
Mutual fascination — along with commercial and strategic interests — still featured highly. Regional daimyō invited missionaries home in order to learn about the West, and to lobby for advantageous trade, while Xavier sought friends in high places to help him win converts in lower ones. It was a period of remarkable and often cordial exchange for both sides, although even then street-side Jesuit preachers would be prone to spitting, jeers and pelting from passers-by.
The Christmas of 1552 could hardly have been more different from the Christmases we know today. Familiar Yuletide iconography — Christmas trees, reindeers, mistletoe and the like — was not yet established anywhere in the world (and, naturally, there was not a whiff of the commercialism that marks modern-day Christmas festivities.) The setting for this Christmas was the abandoned Daido-ji Buddhist temple, converted into the Jesuits’ house of worship and living quarters. It would be among the first of Japan’s nanban-dera, or southern barbarian temples, the name given to the makeshift Christian churches housed in Buddhist buildings, with shoji and engawa (a type of terrace) and, often the sole exterior visual difference, a cross erected upon the kawara roof tiles.
On Christmas Eve, Japanese believers were invited to spend the night in the Jesuit living quarters, cramming the venue as they embarked upon an all-nighter of hymns, sermons, scripture readings and Masses. For today’s readers, at least, de Alcacova’s account comes across as a rather gruelling experience, although there’s no reason to doubt the missionary’s numerous references to the “great joy” of the Japanese converts. From dusk until dawn, the new converts were treated to sermons and readings about “Deus” — the Portuguese word for God. The entire celebration contained no fewer than six Masses.
Father Juan Fernandez, an important Jesuit who wrote the West’s first lexicon of Japanese, opened the midnight scripture sessions. When his voice grew weary, he was relieved by “a Japanese youth with knowledge of our language,” de Alcacova writes. At the crack of dawn, Cosme de Torres — leader of the Jesuit mission after Xavier’s departure for India — led a new Mass, while another priest read passages from the gospels and the Epistles. After this night of Christian immersion, the faithful were allowed to go home, likely exchanging greetings of “Natala” — the Portuguese word for Christmas, meaning “birth.”
A folding screen depicts Portuguese sailors arriving in Japan. | MUSEU NACIONAL DE ARTE ANTIGA
That was not the end, however. For soon the Japanese converts were back for more, attending yet another Mass, and listening to sermons about the Creation and the life of Christ.
“In a land where we were often called devils and other such things,” de Alcacova writes, “we gave thanks to the Lord for meeting so many good Christians.”
Then it was mealtime — and by de Alcacova’s account it was a popular affair. There were so many people eager to partake, the letter says, that “it was difficult to fit everybody into the living quarters.”
The Japanese faithful and the Jesuit brothers — along with a sprinkling of non-Christians — sat down together for the meal prepared by Japanese leaders of the flock. The congregation then handed out food to the poor, an effective method of winning new souls.
This Christmas of 1552 is often called “Japan’s first Christmas.” That’s probably misleading. Xavier would almost certainly not have passed up the opportunity to celebrate a Christmas on Japanese soil between his arrival in Satsuma, today’s Kagoshima Prefecture, in 1549 and departure for India in 1552, according to historians Klaus Kracht and Katsumi Tateno-Kracht. There is just no record of such an event. De Alcacova’s letter, written to brethren back home in Portugal, is simply the first extant account of a Christmas celebrated in Japan.
The Jesuit’s report unfortunately makes no mention of what was eaten on Christmas Day. However, a tantalizing glimpse into the gastronomy of Japan’s early Christian feast days comes in a letter penned by missionary Gaspar Vilela in 1557. It describes an Easter for which a cow was imported, and beef and rice were dished out to the faithful (perhaps an early forerunner of the gyūdon). This would have been exotic to the converts because eating beef at the time was not part of Japanese life. Nevertheless, the letter says, “they all ate with great contentment.”
Jesuit accounts of Japanese Christmases in subsequent years follow roughly the same pattern.
“High-class men and women assembled in great numbers in the priestly residence,” missionary Duarte da Silva writes in a letter about the Japanese Christmas of 1553, also in Yamaguchi City. “From one in the morning, they listened to stories from the Bible — hearing of the creation of heaven and Earth and of man’s sin, then of Noah’s flood, the separation of languages, the beginning of idol worship, the destruction of Sodom, the story of Nineveh, the story of Joseph’s son of Jacob, the Babylonian captivity, the 10 commandments of Moses and the flight from Egypt, then of the prophet Elisha, Judith, Nebuchadnezzar’s statue — according to the ages — and finally the story of Daniel brought us into the dead of night.” Such protracted instruction in Old Testament storytelling was meant to bring home the necessity of Christ’s advent — which the Japanese converts learned about during the second half of the night.
There were, however, a couple of new features that developed in these first Japanese Christmases as the years went on. First, Japanese believers introduced a custom of gift exchanges on Christmas Day — and this was seen by the Jesuit missionaries as somewhat exotic, a part of Japanese tradition rather than their own.
Next, the Jesuits began to hold Christmas plays to bring life to stories from the gospels. Torres and his brethren reasoned they would be easier to digest than lengthy sessions of Bible reading, a promising tool to spread the faith. They were right. The plays were such a big hit that some accounts recall the Christmas theater attracting up to 2,000 people. Among them were non-Christians who came for a bit of entertainment, and perhaps handouts of food. The Jesuits encouraged this as a way to expand the mission. At times, however, there was such a crush for places in the traditional sajiki viewing boxes that the Jesuits had to limit entry “to people who had introductions from the Christian faithful.”
The first of these Christmas plays took place in Bungo — today’s Oita Prefecture — in 1560. People traveled from distant towns and villages to witness the event. Enacted by Japanese believers, the play told the story of Adam and Eve, and a tree decorated with golden apples was placed in the middle of the stage, according to a letter by Juan Fernandez. The set also included a stable and crib to symbolize the birth of Christ. Such was the performance’s hypnotic spell that when Lucifer proceeded to tempt Eve beneath the apple tree, the spectators — men, women and children alike — are said to have burst into tears. The distress escalated to fever pitch as an angel appeared and led Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden. For the playgoers, relief came only when the angel reappeared before the first man and woman — wearing the clothing given to them by God — and consoled them with news of a distant day of salvation.
This was the age of Christianity’s heyday in Japan. It was a period lasting roughly a century in which the Jesuit missionaries are estimated to have won several hundred thousand converts, and were granted authority over Nagasaki by Omura Sumitada — the first of the daimyō converts to Christianity. The religion gained a foothold during Japan’s Sengoku period of warring domains, in which the Jesuits found powerful daimyō protectors in the lack of a centralized authority. Some feudal lords, such as the formidable Otomo Sorin, lord of Bungo in Kyushu, became Roman Catholics at least in part as a calculation that it would enhance their wealth and power.
“He had always found much advantage from the ship of the Portuguese,” writes Alessandro Valignano, a prominent Italian Jesuit. Even the atheist Oda Nobunaga — the first of Japan’s great unifiers — gave audiences to Jesuits and granted them a license to preach in Kyoto.
It was Ouchi Yoshitaka, the powerful and cultivated daimyō of the Suo domain, who granted the Daido-ji temple complex to Xavier in the year before Japan’s first recorded Christmas. The gift was all the more remarkable because the first meeting between Xavier and Ouchi had not gone well, according to historian John Dougill, author of “In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians.”
Arriving in shabby dress to the audience at Ouchi’s castle, Xavier denounced sodomy as one of the three great sins afflicting Japan, along with abortion and infanticide. Ouchi stormed off in a huff. He was not immune, scholars assume, to a fondness widespread among feudal lords for samurai boys.
Xavier made amends the following year, dressed resplendently in a silk cossack and bearing Western gifts such as “cut glass, a table service, Portuguese wine, a pair of spectacles and a telescope,” according to Dougill’s account. Soon afterward the Jesuits were granted permission to set up their first mission in Japan.
History turned against the Christians in Japan, as Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu completed Japan’s unification. They viewed Christianity as a threat to their secular power — partly a legacy of earlier Buddhist religious uprisings — and persecutions began. Christians were tortured and forced to apostatize by stepping on a fumie likeness of Christ; those who refused were crucified. Japan’s Christian era came to a definitive end in 1639 when Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu issued the final sakoku — or closed country — edict banning all interaction with Catholic lands.
There is a key passage in Endo’s “Silence” that poignantly captures the dilemma of the early modern Christian adventure in Japan. The hero Sebastian Rodrigues, a passionate Jesuit missionary, confronts Cristovao Ferreira, a Jesuit leader who apostatized under torture and went on to live in almost equally tortured comfort under the careful watch of the Tokugawa authorities.
“When you first came to this country, churches were built everywhere,” Rodrigues says, “faith was fragrant like the fresh flowers of the morning, and many Japanese vied with one another to receive baptism like the Jews who gathered at the Jordan.”
Ferreira replies: “And supposing the God whom those Japanese believed in was not the God of Christian teaching? … What the Japanese of that time believed in was not our God. It was their own gods.”
Ferreira is speaking about an anomaly that was to color the fate of Christianity in Japan. The concept of God, under the guidance of Xavier’s illiterate Japanese guide, Anjiro, was introduced to the Japanese as “Dainichi” — or “Great Sun” — a manifestation of Buddha in Japan.
According to historian George Elison, Anjiro mistakenly told Xavier that “the Japanese believed in one personal God who punished the bad and rewarded the good, the creator of all things.” However, Xavier had only Anjiro to rely upon as a source of knowledge of Japanese culture, and he began his missionary career in the new land preaching the doctrine of Dainichi. It was only after discussions with Buddhist scholars revealed his error that Xavier switched to teaching the word of “Daiusu” — Deus — but the damage had already been done.
“The danger,” writes Elison in his seminal work “Deus Destroyed,” “was that old beliefs would remain tied to the adopted terminology, being submerged under the surface of the new terminology rather than erased.”
As Christianity was driven underground — and believers were forced into isolated mountain villages, feigning adhesion to Buddhism — the religion took on even more departures from the adopted faith. The kakure-kirishitan, or “hidden Christians,” adopted elements of ancestor worship and concealed the figure of the forbidden god within Buddhist altars, wrapped in cloth.
And yet Endo’s “Silence” — a moving novel for people of any faith or nonfaith — points to a redemptive quality in the Christian experience in Japan. It is a work of courage and beauty that conveys a universal vision of human existence, in which cultures collide amid the most extreme circumstances, and emerge to find a measure of hope out of despair.
“True religion,” Endo writes in another novel, “Scandal,” “should be able to respond to the dark melodies, the faulty and hideous sounds that echo from the heart of man.”