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Saturday, 30 March 2013

How I found a painting of the Virgin Mary in Kyushu

With university over for the year, at the end of 1982 I had the chance to travel in Japan and also to work there. I spent over a month there mainly in Tokyo but also including a trip by train west and south which took in the central Japan city of Kyoto and the southern island of Kyushu. Here I made my way to Kumamoto, caught a train to Misumi and then got on a ferry to Shimabara. On the ferry I met a group of young men and women who were taking a trip of their own. They were locals and they took me under their wing and showed me around. I eventually left them and travelled to Nagasaki where I met a couple - a man and a woman - from Australia who were also travelling around.

One thing that struck me while I was in Shimabara was a painting of the Virgin Mary that was hung inside some sort of structure. I don't remember if it was a church, or what. But I did take a photo of it.


When was the painting made? There's no way to know now. But in any case the idea of periodicity in Japan is somewhat moot due to the cultural preference for tradition over innovation. Because of this, in the painting you can see a depiction of the Virgin Mary that most probably is identical to how this personage was rendered in Japan's medieval period, but using clothing that had been used in Japan ever since the Chinese cultural infusion that dates from the beginning of Japan's classical period, in around the year 500 AD; so this is Chinese T'ang garb on a figure that began to be depicted in the 16th Century, and which has been reproduced accurately by, say, a 20th Century craftsman for the use of the contemporary community. Japan is an astonishing place in so many ways.

Andrew Goble writes in Japan Emerging ( a book I reviewed here two weeks ago) that the medieval period in Japan spans the years from the late 12th Century to the late 16th Century, and William Bodiford writes later in the book that Christianity was introduced by Portuguese and Spanish missionaries.
Buddhism faced no real challenge to its spiritual hegemony until the second half of the sixteenth century when Christian missionaries came to Japan from Portugal and Spain. After a great deal of confusion - initially the Europeans interpreted Buddhism in Christian terms, while the Japanese interpreted Christianity in Buddhist terms - many warrior leaders in Kyushu converted to Christianity and gave free reign to Christian teachers. In 1576 a large Christian church (Our Lady of the Assumption; also known as the Nanbanji, or "Barbarian Temple") was dedicated in Kyoto. During this same decade, between 1571 and 1581, the warlord Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582) conducted a series of military campaigns against several major Buddhist monasteries and their armed militias. His attack on Mt. Hiei is especially noteworthy since it destroyed the heart of traditional aristocratic Buddhism. Subsequent hegemons, however, saw Christianity as the greater threat to their political power. First, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598) issued orders to expel the missionaries, and then the Tokugawa Shogunate enforced those orders by establishing a nation-wide system of family registration at Buddhist temples. The establishment of temple registration marks the end not just of medieval religion but of the diversity and freedom that engendered it.
Despite the official censure, however, it appears that Christianity survived in Japan in some places; or else the people who came to use the picture shown in this blogpost converted to Christianity later, after the Tokugawa Shogunate was so dramatically deposed by US Admiral Perry and his black ships. Certainly, the period that follows the shogunate, which we call the Meiji era, was characterised by a general opening-up of Japan to the world, so it's likely that many Japanese became interested in religions other than Buddhism in those years.

The reason I decided to put up this blogpost is because it says something about intercultural mixing, which is something that we see happening at a greatly accelerated rate in these days of globalisation and multiculturalism. And I think it's something to applaud. So this post can serve as some sort of reminder that the mingling of cultures is ancient, interesting, and fruitful.

1 comment:

Geoffrey Burrows said...

A good reminder about the span of multiculturalism. It's easy to lose sight of times beyond our own, and fall into the trap of thinking our struggles are original. A lot of yesterdays came before today. Thanks.