日本基督教団 The United Church of Christ in Japan

【February 2016 No.386】Sharing our Faith with our Family through Christian Funerals:


A Special Feature of the Editorial Section of Shinto no Tomo (Believers’ Friend)


The Impact of Kirishitan* Funerals

During the Warring States Period

At the National Meeting of the All Japan Young Buddhist Association in 2003, held in Kyoto, keynote speaker Hiro Sachiya expressed the view that with the exception of the nobility or samurai class, it was very uncommon for Buddhists priests to officiate at the funerals of the common people before the Edo period. The reason why they began to carry out funerals for the common people was to suppress the Kirishitan movement in Japan. The Edo military government established a system whereby everyone had to be affiliated with a Buddhist temple as a danka (adherent), and by doing so, everyone was required to have a Buddhist funeral.


In Japan, traditionally, death was something to be loathed, and dead bodies were considered unclean. People feared being cursed by the dead, so they burned anything that had been used by the person while alive, crushed the bones, and stabbed the corpse so that it would not come back to haunt them. Finally they buried the dead person and placed a huge tombstone over the grave to prevent any remaining bitterness from breaking free.


Christianity was introduced to Japan during what is known as the Warring States Period, when such an understanding of death and the customs related to it were the norm. This period in Japanese history coincided with a time of climate change called the “Little Ice Age,” which had a devastating effect on Japanese agriculture. Crop failures occurred regularly; famine and epidemic disease became commonplace; and it is said that during this time, death was always close at hand. In addition, attempts to overthrow those with power and authority led to frequent conflict that wore away at people’s hearts, so that those who died in poverty, with no remaining family members, were simply thrown into holes or left lying in fields and mountains, as if simply thrown away.


Shortly after Christian mission work began in Japan, funerals of Kirishitan were taking place, and there is a record that indicates that more than 3,000 people attended one of these funerals. What most amazed those who were present was the singing of songs at a funeral. For the people of that time, who thought of death as something unclean, it was impossible to imagine singing songs of praise at a funeral.


There is also a famous episode concerning funerals involving the Kirishitan feudal lord Takayama Ukon. Once, a poor person died within his domain, and when Takayama heard this, he had a casket made, which he carried himself, and actually held a funeral for this person. His retainers were so moved by this that they dug the grave, and from that time on, it became the custom that the samurai retainers assisted at the funeral of anyone from their domain who died.

At the time, it was people of the lowest classes who carried the casket and who dug the grave. The class system was strictly adhered to, and it was unthinkable that a feudal lord would conduct the funeral of someone of his domain. The Jesuit missionary Luis Frois refers to this in his book The History of Japan as “an act rarely seen among the Japanese samurai, who were so proud of their status.”


At a time when the corpses of poor people without family to care for them were casually disposed of, as if they were garbage, this act of mourning the death of a commoner of the same domain must have moved people deeply.


Forty years after Francis Xavier introduced Christianity to Japan, the Christian population had reached 300,000. At the time, that was 2.45% of Japan’s total population. That is very impressive, considering that after more than150 years of Christian mission work in Japan, the Christian population now is less than 1%. Why did Christianity in this period touch the hearts of the people so deeply? I believe one reason is the Kirishitan funeral.


Whether rich or poor, the church funeral showed the same respect to all, and for those who experienced this for the first time, it was an enlightening experience that touched their hearts. There were some who chose to become Christians after experiencing a funeral. Missionaries were aware of this and gave funerals an important place in their mission. For that reason, they included traditional Japanese customs, allowed laypeople to take responsibility for planning funerals, and asked for contributions to help cover the funeral costs for those who had died in poverty.


Death was not seen as something unclean, and anyone of whatever rank would be mourned, with the soul being sent on its journey to heaven with hymns of praise. Many people must have found hope in that event. And even in today’s world, can we not say that that hope has not faded?


Funerals are to mourn those who have died. They are not evangelistic meetings. But the hope discovered in funerals when we put our whole heart into them results in the leading of some to Christianity. Is that not the same now as it was those many years ago? (Tr. RW)


Shinto no Tomo (Believers’ Friend)

November 2015 issue


*Roman Catholic Christians during Japan’s feudal period were referred to as Kirishitan.


特集 家族に信仰を伝えるキリスト教葬儀を通して


 2003年に京都で開かれた全日本仏教青年会全国大会で基調講演をしたひろさちや氏の論によると、貴 族・武士などの特権階級を除いて、江戸時代以前に僧侶が庶民の葬式を執り行うことはほとんどなかったといいます。ではなぜ行うように なったかというと、それはキリシタン弾圧のためでした。江戸幕府はキリスト教徒を排除するためにか檀家制度を創設し、すべての人に寺の檀家となって仏式葬儀を行うことを義務付けたのです。

 また、古来日本人にとって死とはうべきものであり、死体はけが穢れそのものでした。人々は死者のたたりを恐れて生前使っていたものを焼き捨て、骨 を折り、遺体を刀で刺して死人が起き上がってこないようにしました。そして大きな墓石を置いて死者の怨念を閉じ込めたのだそうです。

 このような思想的背景と慣習があった戦国時代にキリスト教が伝えられました。当時は世界的に小氷河期と も呼ばれる気候変動が起こっており、日本においても農業生産が著しく減少したころでした。不作が続き、飢饉や疫病の流行が日常的であり、人々にとっては死が極めて身近な時代だったといわれます。また、下克上とひんぱつ頻発する戦乱によって人心は荒廃し、貧しく身寄りのない者の死体は穴に投げ込まれ、野山に放置・遺棄され ることも少なくなかったといいます。


 また、キリシタン大名だった高山右近のエピソードにも葬儀に関するものがあります。あるとき、領内で貧 しい領民が亡くなりました。それを聞いた右近は彼のためにひつぎ棺を作って自ら担ぎ、葬儀を執り行ったのです。それを見た家臣たちが感激して墓穴を掘り、以後、領民の葬 儀は武士が援助するのが習慣になったといいます。

 当時、棺を担ぐのも穴を掘るのも最底辺の身分の者の仕事でした。戦国時代とはいえ身分の 違いは厳然とあり、まして領主が領民の葬儀を行うなど前代未聞のことです。宣教師ルイス・フロイスはその著『日本史』の中でこのことに触れ、「自負心の強いごうまん傲慢な日本人武士にしてはまれに見る行為である」と評しています。

 貧しく身寄りのない者の死体が平気で放置・遺棄されていた時代に、このように盛大に一介の領民を弔った ことは人々に大きな感動を呼び起こしたに違いありません。

 フランシスコ・ザビエルによって日本にキリスト教が伝えられてから40年後、キリシタン人口は30万人にのぼりました。当時の総 人口の2・45%です。宣教150年を越えていまだ1%未満の現在と比べると、極めて印象的な数字です。なぜキリスト教がこのよう に当時の人の心をとらえたのでしょうか。その一つの理由に、こうした葬儀があったと考えられています。

 貧富の別なく、いかなる人も尊敬をもって弔う教会の葬儀は、それを初めて目にした日本人の目には驚きで あり、心打たれる光景でした。葬儀を契機にキリスト教に改宗する者もいました。宣教師の側もそのことをよく理解していて、葬儀を日本宣教の中で重要なものと位置付けていたといいます。そのために部分的に日本の風習を取り入れさえしました。また葬儀のための信徒組織が整えられ、葬儀費用を賄うことができない人のための献金箱も用意されていました。


 葬儀は人を弔うために行われます。伝道のためではありません。しかし心を込めて執り行われる葬儀に現れる希望が、結果として人々をキリスト教へと導 く、それは現代においても同じなのではないでしょうか。 (編集部)

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