On remote Japanese island, a church forgets how to baptise
When journalists write about churches in decline, we usually cite facts such as falling attendance and dwindling vocations to illustrate the trend. On a recent trip to the remote southern island of Ikitsuki to visit descendants of Japan’s Kakure Kirishitan (Hidden Christians), a Reuters team discovered a surprising new indicator with a fascinating story behind it. Apart from suffering from dwindling numbers, some congregations in this unique branch of Christianity no longer know how to baptise new members.
The secrecy and suspicion of outsiders that helped the Kakure Kirishitan preserve their rituals and traditions through centuries of suppression have also contributed to the loss of those rites. Their story is explained in my feature and the video below.
Yasutaka Toriyama, 68, the gobanyaku or head of a household that traditionally holds a group’s relics such as scrolls or medals, told us the rite of baptism had been lost to his own small group because the elder who conducted it died without passing on his knowledge.
Chatting over sake after completing the Christmas Eve prayers, Toriyama said years ago he had gone to the sazukeyaku — the elder who performs baptisms — of another group on the island and asked to be allowed to observe a baptism.
But he was turned away as an outsider.
“The words have been written down, but I don’t know the actions to go with them,” said Toriyama, whose own baptismal name is “Domingos”.
Younger islanders apparently have little interest in undergoing what scholars say was long a central rite of the religion, in part because baptism could be conducted without a priest. Another reason could be that the concept of purification resonated with the tenets of Japan’s indigenous Shinto religion.
Shigeo Nakazono, an enthologist who runs the island’s small museum on the island and has studied the Hidden Christians, says the last baptism was conducted on the island 12 years ago. The boy who received the rite is now about 21.
The fading away of baptism doesn’t seem to worry the Kakure Kirishitan very much. Knowing the traditional orasho chants and belonging to a group that possesses sacred relics are also important indicators of belonging to the faith. They take the idea of belonging very seriously, as the Reuters team — myself, television producer Olivier Fabre and photographer Kiyoshi Ota — discovered when we visited the Christmas Eve service. Entering the room, Toriyama performed some chants and rituals before speaking to us. “Sorry,” he explained — he had to placate the gods first for bringing “heretics” into the church.
Confused about a Christmas Eve service in mid-December? The Kakure Kirishitan celebrate Christmas before the winter solstice, not after.