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By Philip Yancey

Japan's Faithful Judas, Part 1

At one point in history, Japan seemed the most fruitful mission field in all of Asia. Francis Xavier, one of the seven original Jesuits, landed there in 1549 and spent two years establishing a church. Within a generation, the number of Christians had swelled to 300,000. Xavier called Japan "the delight of my heart … the country in the Orient most suited to Christianity."

As that century came to an end, however, the shoguns' revulsion over the divisions among Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch Christians led to a change in policy. The shoguns expelled the Jesuits, required that all Christians renounce their faith and register as Buddhists, and began to harass any who disobeyed. The first executions soon followed, and the age of Japanese Christian martyrs began.

Japanese who agreed to step on the fumie--an icon of the Madonna and Child--were pronounced apostate and set free. Those who refused were hunted down and killed in the most successful extermination attempt in church history. Some were force-marched into the sea; others were bound and tossed off rafts; still others were hung upside down over a pit full of dead bodies and excrement.

Christians in the West are raised on inspiring stories of martyrs advancing the cause: "The blood of Christians is the seed of the church," said Tertullian. Not so in Japan, where the blood of the martyrs was nearly the annihilation of the church.

Nearly, but not entirely. In the late nineteenth century, when Japan finally permitted a Catholic church to be built in Nagasaki to serve Western visitors, priests were astonished to see Japanese Christians streaming down from the hills; they were Kakure, or crypto-Christians, who had been meeting in secret for 240 years. Worship without the benefit of a Bible or book of liturgy had taken a toll, however: their faith had survived as a curious amalgam of Catholicism, Buddhism, animism, and Shintoism.

The Kakure had no remnant of belief in the Trinity, and over the years the Latin words of the ...

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