At the beginning of the 17th century, Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu issued edicts that closed Japan off from the world. Foreigners were forbidden to enter, and Japanese people were forbidden to leave. Despite the country’s new isolation, however, a fear of foreign influence and possible foreign conquest remained. To combat some of this fear, the Shogunate outlawed Christianity, which had found great success in converting people, particularly around Nagasaki. In the following decades, thousands of Christian converts were killed or tortured in an attempt to force them to renounce their beliefs. Some Christians managed to evade discovery, and for the next 250 years, they practiced their faith in secret.
Then, in 1868, the Shogunate government fell. The Meiji Restoration, Japan’s period of modernization, began. A number of hidden Christians came out of hiding, believing themselves to be safe. However, they were wrong. During the first five years of the Meiji Restoration, 3,394 men, women, and children who had revealed themselves as Christians were captured and sent to prison camps around Japan. Here, they were tortured continuously in a final attempt to force them to renounce their faith.
One such camp where these atrocities occurred was in Tsuwano, a small mountain town in Shimane Prefecture. 154 Catholics were sent to this town, and 37 died during the first five years of the Meiji Restoration.
Today, the town of Tsuwano has not forgotten those who died. If you walk from the center of town to the outskirts that meet the mountains, following the signs for Otome Touge Chapel, you’ll come across a wooded grove with a small waterfall and a paved trail. Follow this short trail up the hill, and you’ll come across the Chapel of Saint Maria, built on the site where the 154 hidden Christians were held in Tsuwano.
The Chapel of Saint Maria (or Otome Touge in Japanese) was built in 1948. It was built for the specific purpose of remembering and memorializing all of those who were brought to Tsuwano, and particularly those who died. A sign posted on the chapel door reads in Japanese that anyone is free to enter the chapel at any time. However, there are many insects and animals in the woods, so make sure the door is shut tightly when you enter and when you leave.
The inside of the chapel is small with only a few pews. On the altar is a mural of Jesus and the Virgin Mary watching over the captives during their torture.
Six stained-glass windows adorn the walls of the chapel, each depicting the story of a martyr, or a significant historical scene. One window in particular tells the story of six-year-old Katarina Mori. When she was dying of starvation, one of her captors brought her sweets, saying he would let her have the sweets if she gave up her faith. Katarina replied to her captor, “Heaven tastes better”.
The area around the chapel memorializes the martyrs of Tsuwano as well, and keeps painful memories of the martyrs’ experiences alive. Next to the chapel is an old well where captives prepared their food. Amounts of food given to the Christians held in Tsuwano were small to begin with, but with time they were gradually reduced more and more. To the left of the well is a small pond. In the winter, this pond would freeze over, and the Christians were stripped naked and thrown into the icy water.
To the right of the old well is a statue depicting one of the martyrs, Yasutaro, locked in a small square prison known as a sanjakuro. Standing above him is the Virgin Mary.
Yasutaro was often locked in the sanjakuro. Before his death in this small prison, many of the captives worried about him because he was weak from sharing what food he had with others. One night, two of Yasutaro’s friends, Senemon Takagi and Jinzaburo Moriyama, went to visit him, hoping to give him comfort. Yasutaro told them, “I am not lonely at all in this sanjakuro. For just after midnight, a lady appears, clothed in a blue gown and wearing a blue veil just like the image of Santa Maria. She tells me stories so I am not lonely at all. But please do not tell anyone about this while I am still alive.” Yasutaro said that the Virgin Mary came to visit him every night from the 7th to the 19th of January, 1869, just before his death inside the sanjakuro.
Senemon Takagi and Jinzaburo Moriyama survived the five years in Tsuwano. They kept notes about their experiences and the experiences of others. Today, these notes are preserved as accounts of the Martyrs of Tsuwano and what they endured during the first five years of the Meiji Restoration.
In the sixth year of the Meiji Restoration (1873) the prohibition of Christianity was officially lifted. The Christians in Tsuwano and the other prison camps around Japan were set free, and many returned to Nagasaki. Every year on May 3rd, a procession ending with a solemn mass at the Chapel of Saint Maria is held in Tsuwano to remember and honor the Martyrs of Tsuwano. Catholics and Christians from other denominations of the church from all over Japan make a pilgrimage to this procession each year.
The Martyrs of Tsuwano are also remembered and honored at the Tsuwano Catholic Church, which sits on Tonomachi Street, Tsuwano’s main street. Inside this church, visitors can find information in English about the Martyrs of Tsuwano and other hidden Christians. Visitors can also find cards with prayers in English written on the back, asking for the Martyrs of Tsuwano to be canonized into the Catholic church.