I knew before I traveled to Japan that unlike its neighbors China and South Korea, the country has only a tiny Christian minority (only one percent of its population). So I was surprised during my stay at Myoshin-ji Temple to learn that it is home to a Christian treasure dating back more than 400 years.
I saw this treasure while participating in the temple’s Introduction to Zen program. Our guide, a priest at Shunko-in, a sub-temple within the larger complex, led our group into a room that held a bell that seemed little different from all the other bells I had seen in Japan. Looking closer, however, I could see that it had a Christian insignia imprinted on one side.
The priest, whose name is Takafumi Kawakami, explained that the bell was made in Portugal in 1577 for the Jesuits, an order in the Roman Catholic Church. It was brought to Nanban-ji Church in Kyoto, one of the first Christian churches in Japan. The bell didn’t toll long there, however, for the church was abandoned in 1587 when the first anti-Christian laws were passed in Japan, part of a wave of anti-Western sentiment. At the time there were perhaps 300,000 Christians in the country, Japanese who had been converted by foreign missionaries. During the next decades the laws became increasingly harsh and many Christians were imprisoned, tortured, or killed. By 1630, the Christian Church had been driven completely underground, existing only in the form of what the Zen priest referred to as “Hidden Christianity.” People would outwardly practice Buddhism, but kept their belief in the doctrines of the church.
Christianity would remain outlawed in Japan until 1873. During that time, the Jesuit bell was kept secure in Shunko-in, because some of the temple’s patrons had been hidden Christians. As the centuries passed, succeeding generations of monks there felt a sense of obligation to protect the bell.
“During World War II, the government took many temple bells and melted them down for the war effort,” said Kawakami. “My grandfather, who served as abbot here, buried this bell in his garden to keep it safe.” He added that it is now recognized by the Japanese government as a National Cultural Treasure and that representatives from the Vatican have visited the temple to thank its priests and monks for their role in saving it.
It is curious, isn’t it, how the history of religions intertwine? Myoshin-ji Temple was the last place I would have expected to find a connection to Christianity. But it is there, a reminder both of repression and of quiet courage and loyalty. The Buddhist priests protected this vintage bell, even during the years when it was dangerous for them to do so.
And for that I say, with a deep bow, domo arigato.