Seeking to stem the spread of Christianity throughout Japan, Tokugawa Ieyasu issued a decree that barred the practice and propagation of Christianity. Authorities expelled missionaries and limited foreign presence to a small area in the south of Japan. This expulsion was the first step in a policy of isolation that would shape the country for centuries to come.
Tokugawa Ieyasu was one of three leaders, along with Toyotomo Hideyoshi and Oda Nobunaga, who helped unify Japan and ruled the country as shogun. Jesuit missionaries arrived in Japan from Portugal shortly before the unification in 1549. The unification in the late 16th century made it relatively easy for Christianity to spread quickly throughout the country. Hideyoshi initially welcomed the missionaries, and the trade they brought with them, but as the religion spread, he worried that the religion would destabilize his rule. In 1587 he outlawed Christianity, but the edict was ineffective. Ten years later he tortured and killed 26 Christians as a warning, but this only served to engender sympathy amongst Japanese Christians, and it wasn't until his successor took power that the Christian expulsion began.
Shortly after the Christian executions Hideyoshi died, and Tokugawa Ieyasu took his place at the beginning of the 17th century. Ieyasu moved the capital to Edo -- which would become Tokyo -- and instituted a number of laws designed to cement his power. Fearing the rise of Christianity and partially bolstered by the actions of his predecessor, Ieyasu took a much stronger hand. In 1610, Ieyasu banned all missionaries from Japan and four years later prohibited all Christian activities. To enforce these edicts, Ieyasu limited all foreign trade to Hirado and the southern port of Nagasaki.
Power was the primary motivation for the actions of Hideyoshi and Ieyasu. Shoguns imposed a hegemonic rule in which local leaders called daimyo pledged allegiance to the shogun. Christianity presented an external authority that challenged this power. Furthermore, if a daimyo believed in Christianity, there was the possibility that he would spread the belief to his people. Indeed, some of Hideyoshi's first limitations on Christianity prohibited daimyo's from propagating their beliefs amongst commoners. The decision to expel Christian missionaries was an attempt by both Hideyoshi and Ieyasu to bolster their own central authority.
Ieyasu's expulsion of missionaries resulted in a crackdown on all Japanese Christians. Authorities forced followers to renounce their beliefs, and a few years after Ieyasu's death, a mass execution in Nagasaki targeted Christian believers. A few Christians continued to practice their beliefs in secret, but Ieyasu had succeeded in removing any significant Christian presence from Japan. This also effectively closed off the country, and a policy of national isolation from the world remained in place for over two hundred years.
- Japan's Hidden Christians: 1549-1999; Stephen R. Turnbull
- PBS Japan Timeline: 1500-1599
- PBS Japan Timeline: 1600-1699
- Columbia University: The Edicts of Toyotomi Hideyoshi
- Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images News/Getty Images