Christmas in Sengoku Japan

“Merī kurisumasu”!

It is undisputed that Christmas is the number one most celebrated holiday worldwide. While it is a staple for many Christians, the holiday is also celebrated in areas where Christianity is not as prominent. Japan is one of these examples. While there is a Christian population in the country, Christmas actually looks more like how Valentine’s Day would look here in the United States. Add in sponge cake with strawberries, Santa Claus and Kentucky Fried Chicken and you have a modern Japanese Christmas. Yet, how did Christmas get to Japan? In this article, we are going to look at the introduction of Christianity in Japan, look at two recorded Christmases that took place during the Sengoku Jidai, and the fates of the men who brought Christianity to Japan.

Enter St. Francis Xavier

Painting of St. Francis Xavier preaching (in white)

Of course, Christmas was not introduced to Japan until Christianity was. Interestingly, Christmas was introduced to Japan during the Sengoku Jidai when the Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier arrived on Japan’s shores in 1549. Xavier is an interesting figure that will definitely be talked about more in a separate article, but here is the gist of his time in Japan. While he was there, Xavier would preach on the streets of Kagoshima, where they landed, by reading from the catechism.(1) Xavier tried his best to preach the Word of God to the people of Japan, fighting not only language barriers, but also ideological barriers, for Christianity is extremely different from Buddhism. He even made his way to Kyōto to seek an audience with the emperor, Emperor Go-Nara, but was denied. Realizing how difficult it was to preach the Word, Xavier would leave Japan in December 1551, with most historians believing that he avoided Kagoshima after the daimyō there became extremely hostile towards Christians.(2) While Xavier did have a hard time converting the people of Japan, he believed that they could be, however, he would never return to Japan. The following December, Francis Xavier died of a fever while waiting for a boat to take him to mainland China.(3)

Torres in Yamaguchi, 1552

Painting of Portuguese ships arriving on Japanese shores

One of the men that travelled with Xavier was Cosme de Torres, who became a Jesuit priest after meeting him in Goa, India. He began to accompany Xavier on his trek to the capital, however, they stopped off at Yamaguchi for a time. While Xavier went on to Kyōto, Torres stayed behind in Yamaguchi. He noted that the people there were eager to learn about Christianity and even wrote that only the “most learned” priests and laymen should come to Yamaguchi, for the citizens of the city asked extremely deep and thoughtful questions about their faith.(4) During his stay in Yamaguchi, it has been reported that Torres baptized over two thousand people, built a church and helped the townspeople who were affected from the ongoing wars. He even went as far as using up his entire savings to buy food for them, regardless of their religious beliefs.(5) Out of all of this, Torres is remembered most for celebrating the first recorded Christmas in Japan.

It is possible that Christmas was celebrated before 1552 in Japan as Xavier made his way through Japan, however, they have not been recorded. The Christmas in Yamaguchi in December 1552 is considered the first in the country.(6) The converts were invited to the celebration, which involved singing hymns and readings from the Bible.(7) Any donations that were received during the service went to struggling farmers in the community.(8)

Fróis in Sakai, 1567

Luís Fróis as he appears in Nobunaga’s Ambition: Iron Triangle

We could not talk about Christianity in Japan without mentioning the most famous missionary besides Xavier: Luís Fróis. Known to the world of history for his records of his time in Japan, Fróis was a Portuguese Jesuit missionary who arrived in Japan in 1563.(9) He had an easier time in Japan than Xavier did, mainly because at this point in time, Christians had been in Japan for over a decade. By 1564, Fróis was in Kyōto and had even managed to gain an audience with the shōgun at the time, Ashikaga Yoshiteru. The missionaries were given permission to preach in the capital by Yoshiteru, but this would not last long. Yoshiteru was assassinated in 1565 and the Christian missionaries were banned from the capital soon after.(10) Fróis relocated to Sakai for the time being, a city that would eventually become another Christian hub. While he was in Sakai, he would lead a Christmas service, and the story sounds similar to the famous Christmas in the Trenches from the First World War.

In 1567, Oda Nobunaga sent Shibata Katsuie to take on the Matsunaga and Miyoshi clans to punish them for their role in assassinating the shōgun. The battle was about to take place close to Sakai and it just so happened that it fell on Christmas Eve. Fróis went to both Shibata Katsuie and Matsunaga Hisahide and asked them to lay down their arms for the evening and invited them to partake in the celebration. Surprisingly, they both agreed and Fróis led the Christmas Mass, allowing for any Christians in their armies to celebrate one of the most special days in Christianity. While we do not know much of the details of what happened at this Mass, we do know that the peace only lasted for the night, for on Christmas Day the battle was fought and Shibata Katsuie managed to drive Matsunaga Hisahide from the area.(11)

The Fates of Torres and Fróis

Shirakawa-go winter village in Japan

Both of these men would remain in Japan for the rest of their lives. Torres stayed in Yamaguchi until it was taken over by the Mōri, a clan that was anti-Christian. He fled to Bungo Province, the domain of the Christian daimyō, Ōtomo Sōrin. In 1562, he settled in the port city of Yokoseura, a port recently opened to Portuguese traders. The local daimyō donated some land to Torres, which he used to establish a mission, cemetery and hospital. Torres’ main priority was teaching Christianity to the Japanese, and he was extremely devoted to his work. He went out off his way to teach the Word of God to the people, having classes for the young and old in both Latin and with the help of a Japanese lay brother, was able to teach in their native language. He would not live to see what would become of the Japanese Christians nor the missionaries, for he passed away on October 2, 1570 at the age of sixty.(12)

Fróis gained Oda Nobunaga’s favor after meeting with him in 1569 and he was able to continue his work without much opposition. He would serve as translator for Alessandro Valignano when he came to Japan in 1580 and Fróis happened to be in Kyōto on the day Nobunaga was assassinated. His record of the event is as follows:

As our church in Miyako is situated only a street away from the place where Nobunaga was staying, some Christians came just as I was vesting to say an early Mass, and told me to wait because there was a commotion in front of the palace and that it seemed to be something serious as fighting had broken out there. We at once began to hear musket shots and see flames. After this another report came, and we learned that it had not been a brawl but that Akechi had turned traitor and enemy of Nobunaga and had him surrounded. When Akechi’s men reached the palace gates, they at once entered as nobody was there to resist them because there had been no suspicion of their treachery. Nobunaga had just washed his hands and face and was drying himself with a towel when they found him and forthwith shot him in the side with an arrow. Pulling the arrow out, he came out carrying a naginata, a weapon with a long blade made after the fashion of a scythe. He fought for some time, but after receiving a shot in the arm he retreated into his chamber and shut the doors.

Some say that he cut his belly, while others believe that he set fire to the palace and perished in the flames. What we do know, however, is that of this man, who made everyone tremble not only at the sound of his voice but even at the mention of his name, there did not remain even a small hair which was not reduced to dust and ashes.”(13)

The following year, Fróis was removed from missionary life by his superior and was placed in charge of keeping record of the Jesuits’ activities in Japan. He continued this work through the most difficult times in Japan for Christians. While Toyotomi Hideyoshi originally welcomed the Christian missionaries, he began to fear them after he believed that the missionaries were a first wave of a possible future invasion and expelled them in 1587, making Fróis flee to Nagasaki.(14) He would record the deaths of the men that would be later known as the Twenty-Six Martyrs of Japan just before passing away in July 1597 at the age of sixty-five.(15) His literary works are extremely important not only to the world of Japanese history, but also to history of the Catholic Church.

Christmas Now

Colonel Sanders statue outside a Japanese KFC

After Sekigahara, the Tokugawa came to power and would finally ban Christianity outright in 1614. Of course, this would mean that Christmas fell out of practice, but it is possible that celebrations were held in secret.(16) When Japan finally opened its doors again in the Meiji era, Christmas began to make a comeback. This only lasted until World War II when the “American” holiday fell out of favor in Japan, but when the war was over and America took over for a time, Christmas came back. As for when Kentucky Fried Chicken became a thing, the “Kentucky for Christmas” campaign began in 1974 and has been a staple of Japanese Christmases ever since.(17)

Christmas has had a wild ride in Japan since its introduction to the country. It is also easily passed over when researching the Sengoku Jidai. Yes, this era of Japanese history is full of war and misery, but this was also the era in which Christianity was introduced to Japan. Christmas may have changed in Japan since the very first one, but it is because of the missionaries who sailed thousands of miles away from home to preach the Word of God that Japan has this joyous celebration today.

Sources

  1. “Cosme de Torres”, Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cosme_de_Torres, last visited 12/8/2021
  2. “Francis Xavier”, Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Xavier, last visited 12/8/2021
  3. “Francis Xavier”, Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Xavier, last visited 12/8/2021
  4. “Cosme de Torres”, Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cosme_de_Torres, last visited 12/8/2021
  5. “Cosme de Torres”, Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cosme_de_Torres, last visited 12/8/2021
  6. “Observance of Christmas by country”, Wikipedia.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Observance_of_Christmas_by_country#Japan, last visited 12/8/2021
  7. Dougill, John. In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians: A Story of Secrecy and Survival (2012), p. 36. And “History of Christmas in Japan”, Wattention.com. https://wattention.com/history-of-christmas-in-japan/, last visited 12/8/2021
  8. “The Story of Christmas in Japan”, KCPInternational.com. https://www.kcpinternational.com/2013/12/the-story-of-christmas-in-japan/, last visited 12/8/2021
  9. “Luís Fróis”, Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lu%C3%ADs_Fróis, last visited 12/8/2021
  10. Chaplin, Danny. Sengoku Jidai: Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu: Three Unifiers of Japan (2018), p. 154
  11. Chaplin, Danny. Sengoku Jidai: Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu: Three Unifiers of Japan (2018), p. 154
  12. “Cosme de Torres”, Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cosme_de_Torres, last visited 12/8/2021
  13. Cooper, Michael (edit.). They Came to Japan: An Anthology of European Reports on Japan, 1543-1640 (1995),p. 103
  14. “Luis Frois”, Japanese Wiki Corpus. https://www.japanese-wiki-corpus.org/person/Luis%20Frois.html, last visited 12/8/2021
  15. “Luis Frois”, Japanese Wiki Corpus. https://www.japanese-wiki-corpus.org/person/Luis%20Frois.html, last visited 12/8/2021
  16. “ ‘Tis the Season: A Timeline of Christmas in Japan”, TokyoCheapo.com. https://tokyocheapo.com/travel/holidays/christmas-japan-timeline/, last visited 12/8/2021
  17. “ ‘Tis the Season: A Timeline of Christmas in Japan”, TokyoCheapo.com. https://tokyocheapo.com/travel/holidays/christmas-japan-timeline/, last visited 12/8/2021