Make your own free website on

Restriction of Freedom of Expression, History of Christianity in Japan


         Japanese authority has been trying to unite the country throughout the history. Especially from Azuchi Momoyama period (1568-1600) to Edo period (1600-1868) and from Edo period to the end of World War II, Japanese authority suppressed anti imperial ideas and activities, and Christian thoughts. The censorship particularly during the Edo period was fundamentally focused on 4 categories: Christianity including related writing, critical writing related to the ruler Ieyasu Tokugawa and his family, criticism of the ideology of Japanese authority which was Neo Confucianism and explicit sexual materials.

In this paper, I will discuss the censorship of expression and publication related to Christianity including the history of the publication censorship before Meiji period. Since missionaries also brought the new printing technology as they introduced Christianity in Japan, I will also discuss the history of publishing in Japan and how an induction of new printing technology helped the development of Japanese publishing technology.

Francis Xavier introduced Christianity into Japan in 1549. He was a founding member of the Society for Jesus which was  known as Jesuits in Spain. To spread Christianity, he left Europe for India and Malacca in 1541.  In 1547 in Malacca, Francis Xavier met a Japanese man named Anjiro who was 36 years at that time. Anjiro fled his country after killing a man and boarded a Portuguese ship en route to India where he encountered Francis Xavier who changed his whole life (Francis and Nakajima, 8). Anjiro gave Francis Xavier an interest to go to Japan and on August 15 in 1549, Francis Xavier and Anjiro, newly baptized interpreter, and other two companions of Jesuit arrived at Kagoshima, Japan (Francis and Nakajima, 9). Historically, they are the fist missionaries that arrived Japan.

As the missionary movement started to be active, Buddhist priests started to be afraid that people were going to change their beliefs and though that it could cause to ruin their monasteries. Therefore, Buddhist priests announced to people not to listen to the foreigners and circulated various rumors about the foreigners such as that they ate human bodies. In addition, to increase suspicions, Buddhist priests threw blood stained rags around the missionaries’ residents. As the rumor spread widely, people started to believe what Buddhist priests said. With Buddhist priests’ effort, Japanese authority issued the edict stating that anyone who future become a Christian is under penalty of death (Cary,37).  However, some Daimyo, the local feudal lords initially welcomed the missionaries as the representative of Portugal (Cary,39). Their main purposes were not so much to contribute the Christianity missionaries , but to establish the good relationship with Portugal  regarding trade  and military aid.

Despite Francis Xavier’s hard work, ultimately, Francis Xavier could not have permission from the Emperor officially to spread Christianity in Japan. Therefore, the first attempt of the missionary in Japan was unsuccessful.  However, after they left, the population of Christian people slowly increased. According to an annual report to the church in Portugal reported that, in 1581, approximately 30 years after Francis Xavier’s departure, there were 150000 Christians and 200 churches in Japan. At that time, the total population of Japan was about 16 millions (Francis and Nakajima, 8). Although there was the edict to prohibit becoming a Christian, apparently it did not stop people from becoming a Christian and its number was increased over the time.

In 1571, the first Portuguese merchant ship arrived to trade at Nagasaki in Japan and soon, Japanese authority started to trade with Portugal, Spain and Holland. At that time, Nobunaga Oda was the ruler of Japan and he thought that having a good relationship with foreign countries could be a beneficial for him as the ruler.  While Nobunaga encouraged expanding trades with European countries, he also welcomed the missionary

and supported its activities (Cary, 77). Examining the history of ruler of Japan, it was very unusual to have a ruler like Nobunaga who was not religious or had no strong boned with Buddhist priests. He also had no respect for neither Buddhism nor priests and did not hesitate to tear down a monastery demolishing idols(Cary, 78). Nobunaga favored missionaries and as a result, during his life, Christianity developed rapidly in Japan until 1587(Cary, 79). After Francis Xavier arrival approximately 40 years, the missionary activity was tolerated, and by 1587, there were more than 200,000 Japanese Catholics all over the Japan (Francis and Nakajima, 9). From this number, we can see how successfully Christianity was spread among Japanese people.

            In 1587, the ruler changed from Nobunaga to Hideyoshi Toyotomi. Unlike other passed rules of Japan, Hideyoshi was not from the emperor family, but a peasant family who was a gifted military and a political leader.  At first, Hideyoshi supported missionaries; however, as he suddenly came to suspect that the missionary efforts might prepare the way for Spanish and Portuguese conquest of Japan, he changed his mind and issued an edict expelling all Christian missionaries. Some Japanese historians state that Hideyoshi was opposed to Christianity and had been waiting for a good opportunity to declare his enmity (Cary, 103). Another explanation from Roman Catholic historian is that there were several causes that united to arouse the enmity of Hideyosh:

“The fist was the evil conduct of the European

merchants, most of whom gave themselves

up to such debauchery as made the Japanese

despise a religion that had to little good effect on

the lives of its adherents. Thus, Hideyoshi

                        was led to think that the missionaries could not

believe  that the religion thy taught was a help

to virtue.  He one day dropped the remark that

he greatly  feared that upright conduct of the

missionaries  themselves was nothing more than

a mask of  hypocrisy used to conceal the plans of the

Europeans to gain possessions of Japan”(Cary, 104).


On July 25 in 1587, Hideyoshi issued the first edict relating Christianity and it stated that:

“Having learned form our faithful counselors that

 foreign  religious teachers have come into our estates,

 where they preach a low contrary to that of Japan,

 and that they have even had the audacity to destroy

 temples dedicated to our Kami and Hotoke; although

 this outrage merits that most extreme punishment,

 wishing nevertheless to show them  mercy, we order

 that under pain of death they quit  Japan with in

 twenty days. During that space of time no harm

 nor hurt will be done them, but  that the expiration

 they shall be seized and punished as the greatest

 criminals As there to  continue their accustomed

 trade, and to remain in  our bring any foreign

 religious  teachers into the  country, under the

 penalty of the confiscation of their  ships and goods”

(Cary, 106).


This edict was not strictly enforced until the end of December 1596, when the first group of

 martyrs was arrested in Osaka and Kyoto, Japan. They were sent to the prison and forced to

 walk from Kyoto to Nagasaki that was known as the four weeks death march. In 1598, 137

 churches, the colleges owned by missionaries, the seminary and Jesuits’ residences were

 destroyed by Japanese authority. In addition, in some places, Christians were persecuted and

 some missionaries were deported to their own countries (Asoya, 67). Japanese authority tried

 hard to abolish Christianity using cruel ways and many people suffered from it because of their


Regardless of this edict, Christian missionaries were carried out and increased the believers and those people  who maintained their beliefs during this  time of the persecution were known as  Kakure Kirishitan, the Hidden Christians. The majority of Hidden Christians resided in Nagasaki prefecture that lies at the northwest of the main southern island of Kyushu and practiced in underground church (Asoya, 116). The reason of this was that Nagasaki was the trading port dealing with foreign countries and it was also  where the first missionary, Francis Xavier  arrived. Therefore, the majority of Christian people was living in Nagasaki. Their life styles was described as follow:

 “They are looking for us everywhere. Each house,

 each storage room,  even under the floor, they are

 looking for us. We hide our bred, sake and a

 book in deep ground so that  they cannot

 find who we really are. ” (Sukeno, 140).


There are many notes illustrating how hard those Hidden Christians tried to  

maintain their beliefs  without doubting their beliefs.  

In 1598, Hideyoshi passed away. By then, it is estimated that more than 400,000 Christians were persecuted.  The hostile persecution continued and it is estimated that by 1651, approximately 4,000 Catholics had been executed, many of them after prolonged and hideous torture.  Among 221 of them have been beatified or canonized (Cary,43). Having said that, I found that it is hard to articulate those numbers because depending on what kind of source I used, there were different numbers regarding this statistics.

After the Hideyoshi death, Ieyasu Tokugawa became the new ruler of Japan. Until the restoration of the Emperor in 1868, Tokugawa family maintained a role as a ruler. Throughout the history of Tokugawa family,  they successfully established and maintained the political and the social stability. When the Ieyasu was the ruler, he created the hierarchy of four  social classes: samurai (warrior), peasant, artisan and merchant. All aspects of life such as what she/he could eat and wear was regulated depending on which social classes he/she belonged to (Thelle, 4). In addition, religious life was also regulated.

“Confucianism, primarily the Neo Confucian Chi

 His  Philosophy, with its static view of social life

 and its  emphasis on loyalty and filial piety, provided

 the  official philosophy and contributed to the stability

 of  intellectual  life. Buddhism, although protected

 as a quasi national religion, was also strictly

 controlled  in order to serve the  political aims of the

 regime (Thelle,5).


According to Mitchell, the purpose of those restrictions were ultimately, to  

prevent the circulations of subversive ideas or criticism of the Tokugawa  

political system(Mitchell, 3). Under the Tokugawa family’s ruler, throughout  

the history, there were many edicts regarding the restriction of  actions  

depending on own social status.  

Edicts that were issued by Hideyoshi was still used and it was still crime to criticize or desecrate the Tukugawa family and Japanese authority. In addition, anyone who imports, writes or publishes the criticism of the official ideology, Neo-Confucianism was arrested or sentenced to death. Ieyasu was very interested in the stability and security of Japan and fashioned an isolated society (Kodansha, 251). Due to the restriction of information flow and freedom, only few people were actually educated or had a chance to received the education. 

On January 27 in 1613, Ieyasu issued the edict, which against Christianity and Christianity was officially banned. It stated that:

 “But Christians have come to Japan, not only

  sending   their merchant vessels to exchange

             commodities,  but also longing to disseminate an

              evil law and  to overthrow right doctrine so  that

              they may  change the government of the  country

             and obtain  possession of the land. This is the germ

             of great disaster and must  be crushed” (Cary,177).


After speaking of the crimes condemned by Buddhism, the edict continuously states that: 


“The faction of the missionaries rebel against this

 dispensation; they disbelieve in the way of the  gods,

 blaspheme the true law, violate right doing, and

 injure the good. If they se a condemned fellow, they

 run to him with joy, bow down to him, and do him

 reverence. This, they say, is the essence of their

 enemies of the  gods and of Buddha. If this be

 not speedily prohibited, the safety of the sate will

 assuredly be hereafter imperiled;  and if those who

 are charged with ordering its affairs do not put

 a stop to the evil, they will expose themselves

  to Heaven’s rebuke.  These must be instantly swept

 out, so that not  an inch of soil remains to them in

 Japan on which to plant their feet, and if they refuse to

 obey this  command, they shall pay the penalty”

 (Cary, 177).


The persecution and the martyrdom by crucifixion, decapitation, and burning at the stake increased throughout Japan after Ieyasu’s death, under his son, Hidetada and his grandson, Iemitu (Francis and Nakajima, 10).  Because of their strong determination of social and political stability, and an official ideology,  nothing could prevent the cruel persecutions.

In 1623, Hidetada, Ieyasu’s son, became the ruler of Japan and republished the edict against Christianity. The persecution of Christians

continuously carried out and on  December 4 in 1623, 50 people including 2 priests were executed and Hidetada ordered that all Christians who could be found should be put to death and 27 people were executed. Among 13 of them were not Christians, but because they had received believers into their houses or they were neighbors of Hidden Christians, they were held responsible. It has been told that around this time, more than 300 people had been captured and 400 to 500 people died in martyrdom including women and children (Cary, 208).

In 1624, new edicts were issued and they prohibited entry to all Spaniards, and commanded Spanish priests to leave. It also stated that no Japanese Christian was allowed to go abroad. All foreign ships were ordered to register everyone on board. If anyone who brought missionaries and Christianity related documents such as the bible to Japan, were burned at the stake (Francis and Nakajima, 12). By this time, many Christian books were published in Latin and Japanese language. A great number of European books and Christianity related books were translated and published in Japan (Cary,148).

The censorship of printing material started with the 1630 of the prohibition of books on

 Christianity. In 1630, the importation and the distribution of 34 Christian books published in

 Chinese were prohibited. Any books, which contained the word such as “God” “Jesus”, or “

 the West” was banned. A book sensor was taken place at the Nagasaki Kaisho that was the

monopolistic association of Nagasaki merchants controlled all foreign trade at that time.  Anyone

 who imported Christian books printed in China was persecuted as well as the one who helped

 to import or smuggle into Japan by Chinese merchants. Even almanacs that only mentioned

 Christianity were strictly prohibited (Francis and Nakajima, 13). As we can see, there was the

 strict Christianity  related publication censorship at this time of period.

 Soon after that, Japanese authority started to censor not only Christian related books but also

 other books (Mitchell, 3).  For example, during sometime in 1661 to 1673, Edo’s North City

 Commissioner banned amorous books with erotic contents. At the same time of period, all

 publishers were ordered to have a permission from the Japanese authority before publishing

 anything about Tokugawa family or unusual subject which could disturb other people (Mitchell

, 4). In November 1722, the Japanese authority issued the five articles publication edicts

 refereed to by book dealers as the articles:

“ 1, new books which contained depraved or divergent

 opinions  on the subjects of Confucianism, Buddhism,

 Shintonism, medicine or poetry were prohibited; 2,

 amorous books were  not to be printed; 3 it was

 prohibited to publish matter about  anyone’s family

 background or ancestors;4, all books were to list the

 author’s and publisher’s names in the colophon; 5,

 no one was to publish about Tokugawa Ieyasu or his

 family” (Mitchell, 5).


Publishers were strictly forced to follow this regulation. With these edicts,  

books were produced in certain ways depending on if it was a hard book or a  

soft book.  Hard books were books on Shintonism, Buddhism, Confucianism,  

medicine astronomy, poetry and stories. In the case of a regular hard book,  

“the book dealer presented the manuscript and an

 application  to publish to an association representative

 who checked for any  violations of publishing

 regulations  or piracy. After approval the applications

 went to the  proper city headman, where publication permission was given.

 Next the publisher entered

is deal mark  in the association’s “ New Publication Application seal Record

 Book” which kept truck of

 publication rights. If the headman was uncertain

 about a manuscript he tool it to the proper city elder

 who might forwarded  it to the city commissioner.

 Form there, it might be sent to the Confucius shrine”

 (Mitchell, 5).


Soft books were  books for comedy and picture book and  they were considered  

as an inferior trivial writing. Therefore,  although its process was similar to  

the one for a hard book, the process of a soft book  process was handled  

differently. It was the city commissioner who made the decision if it could be  

a publishable (Mitchell, 6). Their single judgment regarding the content  

of  a book decided if it was appropriate to publish. If they did not give an  

author a permission, this book was never published.  

In 1723, the first official prohibition of publication other than Christianity related materials was established by Ooka Tadasuke, the Edo, Tokyo, town magistrate. He issued two edicts; the Yomiri Kinrei (Prohibition of Broadsides) and the Shuppan Rei(Prohibition of Decree). Until the Meiji period (1868-1912).  the latter became the model for the prohibition of the publication of all new interpretations of Confucianism, Buddhism, medicine, poetry, erotic books and books about Tokugawa family. Authors and publishers were also required to identify themselves in all publications (Koudansha, 252). During 1787-1793, the restrictions on political writing and obscenity were tightened. In 1790, a new edict regarding the publishing was issued. It became necessary to obtain the prepublication permission for books and novels.  Other edicts are addressed as:

“There have been books since times long past and

 no more are necessary, so there ought to be no more

new books. If the necessity does arise, inquiries must

 be made at the City Commissioner’s office and his

 instructions followed. Booksellers are henceforward

 to take part in the investigations and to inform

 the City Commissioner’s office at once should any

 books be put on sale in contravention of the law.

 It is to be regarded as the fault both of the person

 responsible and of the guild if anything is overlooked

 or not investigated” (Rubin, 18).

Authors and publishers who against these regulations were punished. In the case of one of

 examples of the punishment, the book was banned, the writer was placed in manacles for fifty

 days, his publisher was heavily fined, the writer’s father was reprimanded an the guild

 representative who had given their approval were banished from Edo. Tokyo (Rubin, 19). As I

 demonstrated above, there was the strict restriction for authors and publishers regarding the

 publishing books. We can see how much they had to be carefully of the content of book when

 they were going to publish a book. 

Authors were also held responsible for the actions of their readers. In 1686, a professional storyteller in theaters, Shikano Buzaemon published a collection of stories and 7 years later, the rumor spread telling that a talking horse had predicted a terrible epidemic in Edo, and this illness could be prevented by eating pickled plums. Surprisingly, Japanese authority investigated the reason people were rushing on the plum market and the increase of its price. They found a source of this rumor and the person who got the idea from one of Shikano’s stories. To take a responsibility of this reader’s action, Shikano was banished from Edo (Mitchell, 10). Another professional storyteller, Baba Bunko was executed on December 25 in 1758 because Baba discussed Tokugawa family criticizing their officials in one of his books (Mitchell, 11). Therefore, authors had to be careful with what they publish with consideration of readers of actions and influences. Although there were many edicts suppressing the freedom of expression and publication, many books were imported and published in Japan. With the introduction of new printing technology that came with the introduction of Christianity, books became increasingly accessible.

Throughout Japanese history, there was strong relationship between publishing and Japanese authority.  The books were used as a recorder of Japanese authority, officials, religious teaching material, poem, story and so on. The history of publishing in Japan, Hyaku-man tou darani, Million Tower Dharani is considered as the oldest printed document that is printed in Nara period (710-794). Dharani was a Sanskrit expression that was chanted in esoteric Buddhism without being translated.  In Heian period (794-1192), Woodblock printing was commonly used, but it was mainly for the Buddhist scriptures. Then, from Kamakura period (1192-1333) to Muromachi period (1336-1573), other than Buddhist scriptures such as literatures and novels started to be printed (Elison,19).  Printed materials were however, mostly available and affordable for a certain social status people, such as officials, doctors and Buddhist persists.

With Avalignono, Jesuit priest’s  arrival, the movable printing technology was introduced to

 Japan and commonly used in Azuchi-Momoyama period (1568-1600). The movable printing

 using metal movable type helped the distribution of religious and linguistic books.  From

 Valigano’s writing, we can see the reason he brought back movable printing technology and the

 origin of the Jesuit mission press in Japan:

“As regards your Lordship’s opinion that heretical books

 should not be introduced into Japan, nor  those which

 contain heathen mythology, this is so  fit and proper

 that it would be a great mistake to  do otherwise, this

 why not only have we forbidden  such things, but

 further ordained that the youths  in all the seminaries

 should only study from very  holy and Catholic works,

 wherece they will learn  Latin in such a way as

 to imbibe simultaneously  Christian precepts and

 virtue and to abhor vices. Even as regards the  

philosophy and theology which we are to teach them,

we must omit all mention of  differences of opinion,

erroneous viewpoints, and  controversial topics, for

a long time at least,  and we must confine ourselves

to teaching them only  tried and tested true Catholic

doctrine. Not even our holy books should be

 introduced indiscriminately into  Japan, especially

those which confute heresies and  other abuses

which are sometimes prevalent in  European

Christendom. For this reason I have ordered a

 printing press which I am taking with  me to Japan,

 so that we can print there such books   as are fit

 for circulation in Japan after having been  previously

censored and purified”(Boxer,190).


To react this principle, one press, a font of movable Latin type was used, and soon, the press was expanded including works in Kana characters(Boxer,191). From the late 16th century to the 17th century, using same method, Kirishitan-ban, Christian books were printed. Those books were written in both  Roman script and Japanese script. However, these Christian publications disappeared because of the Christianity publication censorship. (Elison,20).  There are museums in Japan where we can go to see the Kirishitan-ban and learn how it was produced.

            In 1868, the restoration of the Emperor occurred and that was the end of Edo period as well as the end of ruler of Tokugwa family, which lasted about 268 years. With this change, new Japanese government opened Japan to other countries and abolished old rules. In 1873 on February 19 was the turning point in Japan regarding the history of Christianity. Japanese government changed the attitude towards Christianity suddenly and issued for the removal of the edicts against Christianity. People saw it as the sign of beginning of freedom. Soon after that, few newspaper started to be published. For one of newspaper’s article, a pastor, Paul Sawayama wrote an article criticizing Shintonism, Buddhism, and Confucianism urged the introduction of Christianity. After this publication of this article, a pastor, Paul was sent to the prison and died. Although in 1873, Japanese government made a law to allow people to posses the Bible, and publish Christianity related documents, people were still arrested. In this sense, it took a long time to be recognized this new law ( Murai,132). These similar incidents happen in various places and   illustrated that changes takes time to be taken place and accepted in society.

By censoring what people can believe and read suppressing the concept of freedom of expiations, Japanese authorities tried to maintain their social and political order, and eliminated criticisms. The publication censorship lasted until Tokugawa political system collapsed in 1868. Although Edo period was ended then, the publication censorship continuously existed as a form of the modern censorship system in Meiji period. 



Asoya, Masahiko. Nihon no dentou to syuukyou. Tokyo: Perikan sha, 1999. 

Boxer R.C. The Christian Century in Japan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967.  

Cary, Otis. A History of Christianity in Japan: Roman Catholic. New York: Greek Orthodox Missions, 1970.

Donohue, John W. Martyrdom of Japanese Catholics in 1596, America. 176 (Feb. 1 1997) p. 302-305.

 Francis, Bowen. Carolyn; Nakajima, Masaaki. John. Christians in Japan. New York: Friendship Press,1991. 

Kodansha encyclopedia of Japan. Tokyo: Kodansha, 1983. 

Mitchell, Richard H. Censorship in imperial Japan. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983.

Rubin, Jay. Injurious to public morals: writers and the Meiji state.
Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1984.

Sukeno, Kentaro. Shimabara no ran. Tokyo: Tousyutupan, 1967. 

Thelle R. Notto. Buddhism and Christianity in Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1987. 

Turnbull, Stephen. The Kakure Kirishitan of Japan: A study of their development, beliefs and rituals to the present day. Richmond: Japan Library,1998.