On a recent writing assignment, I toured Okamoto Castle, “the Shining Crow”, known for its black exterior complemented by a set of gold leafed koi ornaments along the roof, which catch the rays of the setting sun. A display by artist Kimiya Masago depicting the life of the first lord of the castle, Ukita Hideie, caught my attention. A portrait of his wife, Minami no Onkata, nee Maeda Gou was part of the display, in which she sat astride one of the great koi on the roof gaze set on the distant horizon. Around her neck, prominently represented in the image was a gold crucifix.
As I have traveled around Japan, my interest has been piqued by the existence of early Christians in Japan, particularly among the ruling class. While there is solid evidence of many Christian daimyos existing prior to the first edict against Christianity made by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1587, much of history after that time has been erased or hidden, as is often the case when the powers-that-be would rather not admit to something they aren’t particularly proud of.
What was extremely interesting in this case, however, was the fact that Minami no Onkata, whom I will from now address as Gohime (Princess Go) was a beloved adopted daughter of none other than Toyotomi himself. If Gohime was a Christian, did she become one in defiance of her father’s edict, or did her father invoke the edict in spite of the fact that his own daughter was a Christian? It didn’t take much searching to find the answer.
Gohime, as it turns out, converted to Christianity nearly 20 years after her father’s edict, around 1606. At that time, her husband Hideie and their two sons had been exiled to a distant island, punishment for Hideie’s loyalty to Toyotomi against Tokugawa Ieyasu, who defeated Toyotomi to become the first Shogun of Japan. Gohime returned to the home of her adopted family in Kyoto. Her father had already passed in 1598, but her adopted mother Kitanomandokoro, a woman of considerable influence and power still remained at the family home with her multitude of servants. Where the story becomes even more interesting is when we examine the household of Kitanomandokoro, the first wife of Toyotomi.
Many texts record Kitanomanodokoro becoming a dedicated Buddhist nun after she was widowed. However, during her reign as basically the First Lady of the Momoyama Period (1573–1600), she wielded great influence both with her husband and on her own, a rarity for a woman in those days. Toyotomi and Kitanomandokoro adopted several children from prominent families, including Gohime and her older sister Mahime, and records show that they truly cared deeply for each of them.
Kitanomandokoro initially strongly opposed the Jesuits and the spread of Christianity, described in Jesuit letters as “cold and unkind”. However, many of her servants and members of her household had become interested in Christianity and more than a few converted, a situation which despite her original feelings, she at least tolerated. Over time, her regard for Christianity changed until she had completely reversed her opinion on Christians and the Jesuits. It has been strongly suggested that when the Jesuit priests and Christian daimyos were unable to get Toyotomi to relax his edict against Christianity, it was Kitamandokoro who successfully petitioned her husband for leniency toward the Jesuits and their disciples.
Later in life, Kitanomandokoro was recorded as saying “…it seems to me that Christianity has great rationale. And it is superior to any other religion, and it is more plausible than many existing Japanese religions.” She continued: “Every Christian agrees on one truth, and claims that to be true. That makes me believe that [Christianity tells] the truth. Japanese religions never agree, and are never the same.” Although it was never recorded that Kitanomandokoro ever officially converted to Christianity, her words suggest a greater understanding of the gospel message than most Japanese had at the time.
Because of Kitanomandokoro’s support of Christians and tolerance for Christians in her own household, Gohime was able to grow up under the influence of several women who were well educated in the gospel and regular attenders of the thriving Osaka church, which they were allowed by Toyotomi to attend. Her husband Ukita Hideie was not a recorded Christian, but his Okayama domain officially permitted Christians to reside and evangelize. His mother, Fuku, like Kitanomandokoro, was a vocal defender of Christians and received appeals from the Jesuits for help. Thus, after her marriage, Gohime continued to live in an environment supportive of Christianity and probably contained Christian servants.
So perhaps it was only natural that later, faced with the trials of being separated from her husband and sons forever, Gohime finally grasped the full understanding of God’s love and mercy. Her sons had been baptized before their exile; she could now be reunited with the family she was forcefully separated from in this life. After her conversion, she returned to her birth home in Kanazawa where she made a substantial donation for the building the church there. Christianity in nearby Kanazawa had thrived under the protection of the Maeda clan, which Gohime was part of. Gohime remained at the estate of her birth family until her death at the age of 61.
I find it very disappointing that few evangelical Christians in Japan have a working knowledge of the roots of Christianity in Japan. I do not know if it because those roots were seeded by the Catholic church and there is still some deep seated mistrust between Protestants and Catholics that has gone unresolved for nearly 500 years now since the Reformation. Perhaps it is because many Japanese Christians were eventually forced underground, becoming the Kakure Kirisutan (Hidden Christians) who worshipped in secret, often using the veil of Buddhism as cover. I’ve even heard Western Evangelicals refer to these Christians as syncretic, a term that shocked and angered me.
Whatever the case, I believe the time has come for Japanese Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, to honor the memories of those who remained in the faith at great cost to themselves and their loved ones. As recently as 2017, Takayama Ukon, the Christian daimyo exiled to the Philippines was beatified, one step closer to sainthood in the Catholic Church. According to the church, it was Takayama’s unwavering faithfulness to the believers in his charge in the face of the wrath of Nobunaga, Toyotomi and Tokugawa Ieyasu that led to his beatification. Like Job of the Bible, Takayama lost everything, eventually even his life, but remained faithful to God and to the followers of Christ in his care. But his is a story for another day.
I believe it is critical for Japanese people to see the depths of Christian faith, Catholic or Protestant, in their own history and heroes. For too long, the evangelical church in Japan has glossed over Catholic church history, even going so far as berating the Kakure Kirisutan as syncretists. If the Japanese are to ever fully understand that Christianity is not a Western religion but one which has been practiced in their country 200 years before America was even established, we must first give them heroes of the faith from that time that they can look to.
The Conversion of Hideyoshi’s Daughter Gō, by Tomoko Kitagawa, Japanese Journal of Religions Studies 34/1: 9–25 © 2007 Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture
Kitanomandokoro : a lady samurai behind the shadow of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, by Tomoko Kitagawa, UBC Theses and Dissertations
Takayama Ukon — A Candidate for Canonization, by Fr. Johannes Laures, SJ