Sunday, May 17, 2015

Christianity In Japan & A Noh Theater Prayer For Peace

Scenes from Holy Mother in Nagasaki
A woman in a white mask emerges on stage and slowly glides down a narrow path. Clad in a vibrant blue veil and robes of blue and shimmering gold, she stops and turns. Beneath the pulse of drums and intermittent shrieks of flutes characteristic of the music of ancient Japan, the fluid hum of Gregorian chant gives the scene an otherworldly feeling—eerie, incongruous, mesmerizing.

Slowly, the woman begins to kneel, then rises, extending her hand. She walks center stage, quickening her pace as she approaches the audience. Finally, she shields her face with her arm and begins to slowly dance about the stage, alternating slow and fast gliding that ends in a dramatic flip of her long sleeve above her head. With a giant cross looming behind her, a revelation is at hand: The Holy Mother has arrived.

So ends Holy Mother in Nagasaki, a noh play of the classical tradition written in 2005. Part of Japan Society’s new and traditional noh presentation commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII, the story unfolds at the famous Urakami Cathedral, as a priest tells a traveler the tale of Nagasaki’s suffering following the dropping of the second atomic bomb in Japan. The majestic cathedral rose as a beacon of hope and religious freedom in the late 19th century after years of Christian persecution in Japan, and then was completely destroyed in the atomic bombing of Nagasaki.

The priest recounts hardships the survivors faced, and the resolve they had to rebuild the cathedral. He also shares the story of a woman who appeared the evening of the bombing to console the victims. No one knew who the woman was, but many believed she might be the Holy Mother returned.

In addition to being true to noh theater traditions that go back over 600 years, the tale is deeply rooted in the history of Christianity in Japan. (Nagasaki was the first port open to foreigners, so it has an unusual history of foreign influx compared to other locations in Japan. For example, at the height of Christianity’s spread to Japan, so many churches were built in Nagasaki that it became known as “Little Rome”.)

The Urakami Cathedral before and after the bombing. Via.

Christianity was introduced to Japan in 1549 by Francis Xavier of Navarre (modern-day Spain)†, who would later become the patron saint of missionaries, baptizing an estimated 30,000 people over his lifetime.

Furthering the spread of Christianity, Sumitada Omura became the first of Japan’s daimyo (feudal lords) to convert. He ceded Nagasaki and Mogi to the Society of Jesus in 1580, which began to worry then-shogun Hideyoshi Toyotomi, who began his crusade against Christianity in 1587 when he demanded that all foreign missionaries leave the country.

Tensions came to a head in 1597, when Toyotomi ordered the execution of 26 Christians on a hill in Nagasaki by crucifixion. From there, sanctions against Christianity only grew stricter, as in 1614, Christianity was banned by Tokugawa Ieyasu, Toyotomi’s successor.

Japanese Christians were forced to practice in secret while pretending to be Buddhist, a practice that would continue for nearly 250 years until the Meiji government officially lifted the ban in 1873.

The most shocking part of the ordeal, however, came eight years earlier, when a group of these so-called “Hidden Christians” visited Oura Cathedral, newly built by a French missionary and reserved only for foreigners, in order to proclaim their faith. Father Bernard Petitjean, the priest at the cathedral, was extremely excited to discover that there in fact existed towns and villages full of Christians in Nagasaki, encouraging the Hidden Christians to practice their faith openly.

But Christianity was still illegal, which meant that 3,400 of these newly found Christians were arrested, some tortured, and 36 put to death. The Hidden Christians would have to remain that way for a few more years.

When it was finally safe to do so, approximately 30,000 Hidden Christians finally emerged, their faith having survived nearly two and a half centuries in secrecy. In a letter to Japan’s bishops written in March, Pope Francis said, “If our missionary efforts are to bear fruit, the example of the 'hidden Christians' has much to teach us.”

But even after their religious freedom had been won, the struggle of the Hidden Christians was not over. Due to years of persecution, many of them had been and were still living in poverty. Despite this, they decided to build churches, reducing the cost as much as possible by using lime they had made by burning shells, and drawing patterns on window glasses instead of using stained glass. Due in large part to their efforts, today there are more than 130 churches in Nagasaki Prefecture, more than anywhere else in Japan.

A Noh Theater Prayer for Healing and Peace

When programming the performing arts portion of Japan Society's Stories from the War series commemorating the end of WWII, Artistic Director Yoko Shioya felt that one of the most important “stories” Japan can share with the world is the aftermath of the atomic bombings.

In the program notes, Shioya writes that Holy Mother in Nagasaki "not only speaks about this sorrowful story, but also conveys the strong belief in the resilient spirit of humanity."

The play was written by the late Dr. Tomio Tada, an internationally renowned scientist (in the 1970s he discovered the suppressor T cells that subdue immune response) and respected author. Of several noh plays, he wrote two about the atomic bombings: Holy Mother in Nagasaki, and Genbaku-ki (Atomic Bomb Mourning) about Hiroshima.

"In the program notes from the Nagasaki premiere Tada explained that while the latter was written as a requiem, the former was written as a paean for revitalization, and he intentionally decided on these two different themes based on his observations of both of the A-bomb-ravaged cities," writes Shioya.

In an interview after performances of Holy Mother in Nagasaki began at Japan Society, Shioya posited that perhaps it was the element of Christianity that gave the play its inherent message of hope. Religious themes of classic noh are typically derived from Buddhism, which sees the soul go through an eternal cycle of rebirth, whereas Christianity sees the spirit set free in an eternal afterlife.

Shioya also feels that the centuries-old stylized noh might be one of the best art forms that addresses eternal challenges for human beings. Shimizu Kanji, lead actor in Holy Mother in Nagasaki and a designated Intangible Cultural Asset by the Japanese government, explains further in his portion of the program notes:
In many stories of noh drama, a ghost appears and recounts the story of his life—what events occurred, how he died, who mourns for him and where he is buried. I think these elements must be important for human beings. This consideration led me to realize that there are countless outrageous ways in which people lose their lives—by the blast of a single bomb or in a massive battle, through an earthquake, a tsunami or a hurricane.
Shimizu recounts the first performance of and how it affected him :
The new noh piece, Holy Mother in Nagasaki, premiered at the Urakami Cathedral in Nagasaki City on November 23, 2005. It was held on the site of the cathedral that was destroyed by the atomic bomb, and on the exact 60th anniversary of the first mass and memorial service held after the bombing. I knew that nothing would be able to reenact that tragic day realistically, yet I wore a noh mask and costume in the role of the spirit of an A-bomb victim and walked slowly down the long aisle toward the altar to read my lines, which narrated "that day." While I was performing, I felt the Gregorian chant sung by the choir run through my body. Since then, we have performed this piece in many cities, and we have now arrived at the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII.
Shimizu says he is humbled to present the noh performance to an American audience, especially during the once-every-five years Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons international assembly at the United Nations, and his hope is that the performance helps those who have lost their lives in such catastrophes to rest peacefully and restores those catastrophically damaged sites back to life. But he notes, "world peace has not yet arrived and the souls of the hibakusha [atomic bomb survivors] remain unhealed."

Telling stories is one of the most powerful forms of communications, and it is well documented that sharing personal stories can have health benefits and help psychological healing. It can also help transmit a message through generations.

In Holy Mother in Nagasaki, the traveler listens to the priest's story and finally says, “I have resolved to mourn the victims and pray for world peace.” Once can only assume audiences will do the same.

--Mark Gallucci, Lara Mones, Shannon Jowett
†The portions of this article detailing the history of Christianity in Japan were informed by "Churches and Christian Sites in Nagasaki", published by the Nagasaki Prefectural Government.


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