Amakusa (天草) is an island group about 60 kilometers southwest of Kumamoto City in western Kyushu. Made up of two big islands and hundreds of smaller islands, the Amakusa area is remote and rural with nice natural scenery. This isolation allowed missionaries to convert a considerable percentage of inhabitants and even the local lord (daimyo) to Christianity before the religion was forbidden in the early Edo Period. Today there are numerous museums and churches spread across the islands which reflect this religious heritage.
The three main islands of Amakusa (Shimoshima, Ueshima and Oyano) are connected to one another and to the mainland of Kumamoto by bridges, while ferries provide connections to the smaller islands. Amakusa is abundant with lush greenery and natural geological formations that earned the islands a designation as national Geopark. In addition, wild dolphins live amongst the islands and can be seen on boat tours.
Oe Catholic Church surrounded by greenery
During the early Edo Period, the Amakusa Islands suffered a period of famine and harsh treatment of its lower classes. Fed up with heavy taxation of the poor and the persecution of Christians, peasants from the Amakusa Islands and nearby Shimabara Peninsula rose up against their lord in 1637-1638. The so called Shimabara Rebellion, named so because it was mainly fought on the neighboring peninsula, was one of the largest peasant uprisings during the Edo Period.
The rebellion was eventually put down by an overwhelming Shogunate force and ended in the death of the entire rebel army, including its young leader, Amakusa Shiro. Afterwards, the Tokugawa Shogunate further enforced its ban of Christianity. All missionaries were expelled from Japan, and a nationwide crackdown on practicing Christians was carried out, especially in the Amakusa and Shimabara regions where the religion was widely established.
Religious items used by the hidden Christians on display
Those who continued to practice in the area, the "hidden Christians", found ingenious ways to continue exercising their faith by disguising it as Buddhism. Images of the Virgin Mary were made to resemble the Buddhist Kannon, while crucifixes, crosses and the Virgin Mary were carved into the back of Buddhist statues or hidden in concealed objects. Christians altered their prayers to resemble Buddhist chants and would congregate in the dead of the night so as not to be discovered.
Yearly checks on the locals were carried out to root out Christians. One of the methods of ascertaining if one was Christian was to have them step on an image of Christ. Christians who refused to step on the image were subjected to torture until they denounced their faith or were sentenced to death.
Christian religious items were hidden in statues of Kannon and Buddha
Below is a list of some churches and museums where religious items and statues, edicts and stories from this period of Christianity in Japan can be seen.