A priceless artifact from the earliest days of Christian evangelical outreach into Japan has just been discovered and it’s a miracle it has survived.
It’s a rare find and “one of the few Christian artifacts from Japan, as most were destroyed after the faith was banned in 1612,” according to the National Catholic Register.
This rare artifact is a scroll measuring 10.5 feet long and a little more than 9 inches wide, and is painted with 15 scenes from the Gospels.
Carbon dating has confirmed the date inscribed on the scroll, “1,592 years since His Birth,” indicating when it was created.
This date is critically important as it is just 4 years after Japanese Emperor Cambacundono gave all foreign Christian missionaries six months to leave Japan or face death if they remained.
Many Christian missionaries went underground and stayed in Japan in secret. Those who were discovered faced torture and death by burning or crucifixion.
That means that the person or people who created this scroll did so at a time when they were witnessing with their own eyes the torture and death of fellow Christians and knew they would face the exact same fate if the scroll was discovered.
What kind of a powerful faith does it take to remain loyal to God in this kind of circumstance? Only a faith empowered by our Lord Jesus Christ.
Not only is the creation of the scroll a testament to the power of our God, but the simple fact that it survived to this day is a miracle.
In 1612, Christianity was formally banned and every Christian artifact like this scroll was ordered to be destroyed. Because of this, we have very few actual remaining Christian artifacts from this period in history, making this discovery that much more amazing.
The scroll itself contains 15 hand drawn scenes from the gospels, including the annunciation (when the Angel Gabriel told Mary she would conceive Jesus), Christ’s passion, death and resurrection, as well as the scene of Pentecost when the Descent of the Holy Spirit took place in the Upper Room.
In addition to the images, Latin prayers are spelled out in Japanese phonetic letters throughout the scroll as well.
Osamu Inoue, who runs the Yokohama History Museum, said, “Ordinary people perhaps drew such pictures on papers because the material was inexpensive, and religious items were in short supply due to a rapid growth of the follower population.”
Interestingly, the figures from these scenes are all drawn wearing traditional Japanese clothes and in traditional Japanese style. This suggests that the scroll was created not by missionaries, but by actual Japanese converts.
Japanese Christian converts were tortured by burning or flaying of their skin until they renounced Christ. If they refused, they were burnt to death, beheaded or even crucified.
Before this extreme persecution, Christianity grew like wildfire throughout Japan.
Starting with the arrival of St. Francis Xavier in 1549, the good news of Jesus Christ led many Japanese people to salvation and baptism.
By 1580, there were an estimated 200,000 Japanese Christian converts on the island.
Christianity then endured almost three centuries of persecution before the Japanese people were granted freedom of religion in 1871.
This scroll is just one part of a long history of Christianity in Japan and adds rich context to the story of Japanese Christians.
The scroll is on display for visitors to see for themselves at the Sawada Miki Kinenkan Museum near Tokyo in Oiso Town, Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan, along with several other extremely rare Christian artifacts.
The Sawada Miki Kinenkan Museum was created to display a private collection of Japanese Christian artifacts amassed by a woman named Miki Sawada.
A Christian herself, and heiress to the Mitsubishi fortune, Sawada had a deep interest in “kakure kirishitan” artifacts.
Kakure kirishitan in Japanese means “hidden Christians” and describes a secret society of Christians during this time of persecution who prayed in silence and carefully hid Christian symbols such as rosaries and crucifixes.
She continued collecting these artifacts until her death in 1980, building what became the world’s largest collection of “kakure kirishitan” artifacts, 846 relics in total.
After her death, the collection was donated to establish the museum which still operates and displays these and other similar artifacts today.