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Nagasaki's Devotion to Siebo (Holy Mother)

Nagasaki's Devotion to Siebo (Holy Mother)

Asia Oceania Mariological Conference (AOMC), Lipa City, Philippines (September 12-16, 2009)

The Motherly Presence of the Virgin Mary in the Local Church of Nagasaki

– Sister Luca Maria, Ritsuko Oka (Nagasaki, Japan)

I come from Japan and belong to the Franciscan Sisters of Militia Immaculatae, under the jurisdiction of the diocese of Nagasaki, situated in Kyushu, the southern isle of Japan. Today, I'd like to tell you, how the motherly presence of the Virgin Mary – called by Japanese as Seibo, meaning the "Holy Mother" – has constantly accompanied the pilgrimage of the Catholic community of Nagasaki.

In the history of Japanese Christianity, the church of Nagasaki has a peculiar role: not only for being the original place of Christianity in Japan, but also for being a witness of its faith, hope and peace, especially in its difficult and painful moments. One of the characteristics of the Christian community of Nagasaki, we can say, is the sincere and filial veneration towards the Mother of God.

For this brave presentation, I'll focus on two episodes, concerning the church of Nagasaki in two different moments and situations, "two episodes have some strong Marian dimensions, symbolized by two statues of the Virgin Mary. The first statue was involved in the event of the discovery of the hidden Christian community of Nagasaki, dated in 1865, in the last period of the 250 years" persecution: the statue is called the "Holy Mother of the discovery of the hidden Christians"; the second statue is called Hibaku no Maria, which means "Bombed Mary," namely, the statue that was scarred by the atomic bomb in 1945. These episodes, I hope, will give you some idea of Mary's constant presence in this local church. To begin with, we'll trace briefly the background of these episodes.

A statue of Mary and the rediscovery of the "hidden Christians."

The beginning of Christianity (1549) and 250 years' persecution (1614-1873)

Nagasaki is the place where, in 1549, Japanese Christianity was born through the work of the tireless Jesuit missionary in Asia, Francis Xavier (†l552). After about a half century's flowering, especially in the isle of Kyushu, the Japanese Church had to endure a long persecution which lasted about 250 years (16141 -1873). The Christian community of Nagasaki, left without any priests for seven generations,2 had kept the faith in Christ, passing it on to the next generations. They kept the liturgical calendar and practiced the Sacrament of Baptism, the catechesis, the liturgical prayers and the popular piety, especially to the Mother of God. Regarding the latter, the "hidden Christians," not being able to have the statue of Mary in public, prayed in front of the Buddhist statue of Kannon Bosatsu, (Goddess of Mercy) as though it were the statue of Mother of Christ. It's interesting that those hidden Christians saw in the Kannon, that symbolizes the sapience and the mercy of the Buddha, the figure of Mary, who accompanied them in the difficulties, with her motherly compassion and solidarity. The Japanese historian of Christianity, Kataoka Yakichi (†l980) considered that the so-called Maria Kannon expresses well the faithful and devoted heart of the hidden Christians who had never forgotten the Mother of God.

The "Mother of God that rediscovered the hidden Christians of Nagasaki" (1865)

On the March 17, 1865, there happened a very memorial event, the so-called "rediscovery of the hidden Christians" of Urakami (Nagasaki) by Father Petitjean (†1884),3 a missionary of Paris. Fr. Petitjean arrived in Japan in 1863 in order to take care of the foreign Christian inhabitants, whom the Japanese government allowed to practice their faith after a series of commercial accords established in 1858 with various foreign countries, although the government did not yet allow the Japanese people to practice the Christian faith. In 1865 the church of Ōura (Nagasaki) was inaugurated for the foreign inhabitants, being dedicated to the twenty-six Japanese martyrs.4 Inside the church, above the side altar, there was placed a statue brought from France of Mary with the child Jesus in her arms. The Japanese inhabitants called the church, the "French Temple." When the word that "a statue of Mary was in the French Temple," spread to the hidden Christian community of Urakami, the certainty was raised in their hearts: "If there is the statue of Holy Mary, the foreigner of the French Temple must be a pater, a priest!" In fact, they had awaited a priest for seven generations. On the March 17, 1865, a group of about ten members of the hidden Christian community, pretending to be tourists, entered into the church. One of them, a woman named Yuri, being anxious to know if the foreigner would be a pater, approached Fr. Petitjean, and said "We have the same hearts as yours," and more, "Santa Maria no go-zō wa doco?", which means "Where is the statue of Holy Mary?" This astonishing question revealed to the French missionary the miraculous survival of a Christian community in Nagasaki. Then, Fr. Petitjean, full of joy and emotion, led them to the side altar, where was placed the statue of the Virgin. Kneeling down, they couldn't bear any more and exclaimed with emotion: "She's really Holy Mary! Look! She brings in her arms her Son, Jesus!" In reality, it was the Christians themselves that, led by the Mother of God, had "rediscovered" a priest, a pastor of their souls after two hundred and fifty years of absence!5

This famous episode shows the strong Marian dimension of the Christian community of Nagasaki, the "community of the martyrs." Those hidden Christians had remained firm in the faith in Christ, keeping, on the one hand, their deep and filial love for the Mother of God, and on the other hand, their faithfulness to the Universal Church, presided over by the Pope. In fact, Japanese Christianity, since its beginning, was always conscious of the inseparable relation between the Virgin Mary and the community of the disciples of Jesus: both are mothers who stay close to all God's people and to every one of them.6

Today, the Catholic Church of Nagasaki celebrates on March 17, the feast of Shinto hakken no Seibo, that means literally "the Mother of God that rediscovered the hidden Christians," remembering that, as Vatican Council II tells us, Mary, "by her maternal charity, ... cares for the brethren of her Son, who still journey on earth surrounded by dangers and cultics, until they are led into the happiness of their true home." (LG 62)

The persecution lasted, even after rediscovering the hidden Christians of Urakami. They had to suffer a deportation from their homes, without, yet, abandoning their faith. Meanwhile the news of their testimony spread to the European Christian communities, and from the end of the nineteenth century, the Western Christian countries began to refuse any negotiation with the Japanese government of Meiji (1868-1912), until the latter repealed the policy of persecution against the Christians. In 1873, the Japanese government withdrew the decree of the prohibition of Christianity. The "Constitution of the Japanese Empire," promulgated in 1889, proclaimed religious freedom for the first time. In 1919, Pope Benedict XV established the official relationship between the Vatican and Japan, and in 1927 the first Japanese Bishop, Ianuario Hayasaka, was consecrated in Rome, and he resided in the Diocese of Nagasaki.

The Japanese church during the war period (19317-1945)

If the Japanese government finished the persecution against the Christians, it wasn't for humanitarian motives; neither was it out of respect for other religions, but only for the motive of political, economic, and commercial opportunism. The government of Meiji, promoting Shintoism as the official religion of the State, amplified the absolute power of the emperor, often with an exasperate nationalist and xenophobic tone, in order to establish the obsessive process of the unification of thinking, of living and of believing in only one religion, that is, Shintoism. The same Constitution, though proclaiming the religious freedom, recognized the divinity of the Tennō (emperor), enacting in the first place, the inviolability of the absolute sovereignty of emperor,8 with inevitable consequence for Christianity, which could not tolerate this ideology and the routine of the "deification of the emperor." The situation became worse by the expansionistic aim in Asia of imperialistic-military structure, or the tennō sei fashizumu (the fascism of the imperialistic system) of the Japanese State. The other religions, particularly Christianity (as the "religion of the foreigners"), were considered hostile to the policy of the imperialistic state.

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese army made a sudden attack upon the American base of Pearl Harbor (Hawaii), entering, as a consequence, into the Second World War (1941-1945). Meanwhile, the Japanese force continued to invade asia.9 The Japanese expansionism provoked a strong opposition from the part of the international community and it caused a progressive isolation of Japan. As a reaction, the Japanese imperialistic-military government, considering Christianity as a "religion of the enemy," subjected it under the strict control of the secret police. In fact, the police controlled every word, every expression and every action of the Christians, especially of those foreign missionaries. Also the activities of the "mission schools," run by the Catholic missionaries, ware submitted to the strict censors and limitations.

During the last year of the conflict, in the war by then lost, the Japanese State did its utmost in a vain attempt to overturn the situation. In 1945, after the atomic bombs exploded on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (August 6 and 9) and the entrance of the Soviet Union into the war (August 8), the Japanese imperial government accepted the Potsdam Declaration (August 14) and then, signed the unconditional surrender to the Allied Forces. On August 15, the emperor Hirohito announced the loss of the war through a radiobroadcast.

The task of the Japanese church for peace in Asia and Oceania, in post-war period (1945-)

Section 10 of the Potsdam Declaration forced the Japanese government to accept the principle of the respect for the fundamental human rights, consisting in the civil rights, the freedom of speech, of religion, and of thought. Then, in the immediately post-war period, under the administration of Supreme Commander of Allied Powers (SCAP), there took place a gradual democratization of the Japan State. That meant also the liberation of Christianity from a long period of more or less sanguinary persecution. On January 1, 1946, under the supervision of the SCAP, the Japanese emperor renounced his divine prerogative (the "proclamation of the emperor of his being humankind"), which meant the end of the "deification of the emperor" and the fall of the Japanese shintoistic system.

On the November 3, 1946, the government of Shōwa (1090-1901) issued the new Constitution of Japan, with the principles of parliamentary democracy, recognizing the role of the emperor as a "symbol of the State and of the unity of the Japanese people" and not as a "descendant of the uninterrupted divine line" as the former Constitution (of Meiji, in 1889) considered. At the same time, article 20 of the Constitution guaranteed the separation of religion and politics, and so the complete freedom to express one's faith.

The "renunciation of war" in Article 9 of the Constitution and the "Resolution for Peace" of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Japan.

Finally, the new Constitution of Japan, born from the ashes of the militaristic absolute monarchy system, is known also as the "Peace Constitution" for its strong pacifist and anti-militarist direction. The famous Article 9 expressed the spirit of "nonviolence," in the form of the perpetual renunciation of war as a means of settling international disputes and the renunciation of arms.

In 1981, Pope John Paul II, during his pastoral visit in Japan, reminded the young Japanese people, gathered in a stadium at Tokyo, that peace is the "active fruit" - and not something like an automatic fruit gained easily without efforts - of conscience and of responsibility.10 At Hiroshima, then, in his "Appeal for Peace," the Pope said "to remember the past is to commit oneself to the future." The Appeal is recalled constantly by the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Japan, which encourages the Christians and all people with good will to cooperate for peace, particularly in Asia and Oceania.

Today, we, as Japanese and as members of the Catholic Church, are conscious that defending Article 9 of the Constitution ... the total renunciation of war ... is our duty and responsibility in front of all human beings, especially the Asian people. We have to repeat and renew the words of the Archbishop Shirayanagi, at that time, pronounced in the fourth plenary assembly of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences (FABC) in 1986, that said, "We ask forgiveness from God and from our brothers and sisters of Asia and the Pacific for the tragedy brought by Japan during World War II." The Archbishop said then, "We share in the responsibility for more than twenty million victims in Asia and Pacific," and "we deeply regret to have damaged the lives and cultures of the people of these regions. The trauma of it is not healed yet." At the end, the Archbishop expressed the determination of the Japanese Catholic Church "to keep Japan from committing the same crime again," and "to work towards the realization of human liberation and genuine peace in Asia and the Pacific."11

The Catholic Bishops' Conference of Japan, in the Peace Messages, published after fifty years and sixty years from the end of War World II, titled "Resolution for Peace" (1995) and "The Road to Peace Based on Nonviolence: Now is the time to be prophetic," (2005) 12 appealed to all Catholics in Japan to take the way for peace through nonviolence to solidarity, that is, the way of dialogue.

Now, we have another statue of the Virgin Mary in Nagasaki, that continues to remind us of our task to realize an enduring peace: the statue, called Hibaku no Maria, which means "Bombed Mary," is a singular "witness" of the atomic bomb, and it is also a symbol of peace. To talk about the statue, we have to return a little bit to the history of the Catholic community of Nagasaki.

The Hibaku no Maria- a statue of Mary, survived from the atomic bomb (1945)

When the persecution against Christianity in Japan finished in 1878, the Christians of Urakami began to build a cathedral. After thirty year's work, it was completed and dedicated to Mary Immaculate. A statue of the Immaculate Mary, carved of wood in Spain, was placed over the main altar of the cathedral.

On the August 9, 1945, at 11.02 AM, the atomic bomb exploded on the city of Nagasaki. The cathedral was right in the center of the explosion and it was destroyed completely. It's said that the atomic bombs brought about two hundred thousand persons to an immediate death in two cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that about six hundred thousand persons were contaminated by the radiation: they brought and are still bringing through many survivors, lethal effects transmitted to successive generations. Most of the victims were non-combatants. Moreover we have to remember those "unknown" victims of the bomb, the Koreans, Chinese, Taiwanese and other Asians who were forced to come and work in Japan during the war. In the parish of Urakami, about 8,500 faithful out of the 12,000 were killed. Six days after the bombing of Nagasaki, the war came to an end.

Two months afterwards, a Trappist monk, Fr. Noguchi (†2001), a native of Urakami and who was living in a monastery in Hakodate (in Hokkaidō, the Northern isle of Japan), returned to his hometown which was completely destroyed. Absentmindedly, he sat above the rubble of which, formerly, had been the Cathedral of Urakami. While praying to the Holy Mother to whom he was devoted since childhood, he saw under his feet something ... it was the head of the statue of Mary Immaculate, once placed above the altar. With emotion and thankfulness for the unexpected find, the monk brought it to his monastery of Hakodate and kept praying in front of the statue for the gift of peace. In 1975, thirty years after the explosion of the bomb, Fr. Noguchi decided to return the statue to the parish of Urakami. In Nagasaki, the statue began to be called Hibaku no Maria.

Some reflections as an open conclusion ... one of the roles of the Mariology in Asia: the consciousness of every single life, of solidarity and of peace ...

The contrast between the atomic bomb and the bombed statue of the Virgin is impressive: they represent, we can say, two cultures about which the Pope John Paul II talked - the "culture of death" and the "culture of life" (cf. Evangelium vitae, 21-24). The atomic bomb, a symbol of the culture of death, destroyed, in an instant and in an indiscriminate way, numerous lives, the lives of common people with their everyday story, the lives of animals and of vegetation, and contaminated also the air, the water and the earth, the basic elements for any creature to live. In the museum of the atomic bomb in Nagasaki, we can see several photographs that testify to that tragic day. In front of these photographs, we can't escape from simple and eternal question: What is life? What does it mean? Can it be justified that anyone, for any reason, would destroy the life of someone?

I, myself, was born after the end of the war. I come here, to the Philippines, for the first time, where we, Japanese, are responsible for incalculable damages in both the material and spiritual sense. Ancient and recent histories tells us that, inside the logic of war, of violence and of revenge, we, human beings, become, little by little, all unreasonable, incapable of seeing what is more important for all human beings. From the culture of death which is against our human nature which was created to live, no life can be born. We need the "logic of gift," as Pope Benedict XVI tells in his recent encyclical Caritas in veritate (2009). Only thorough the category of the "gift," we can see the true relationship with God, with ourselves, with other people and with all creation: the relationship based on the sincere and patient way of dialog. We need, then, a disinterested love, the love that, offers oneself totally for others, doesn't claim anything but love. looking only on the Crucified, can we recognize such love? The Son of God was really incarnated in the womb of the Virgin to make visible God's love- the love that pushed him to walk the path to his death on the cross, in order to help us enter in his life, freed from death. And the Virgin Mary, his mother, was the first and complete witness of it.

The people who visit the statue of Hibaku no Maria, Christians or non-Christians, are often struck by the sense of motherly compassion and forgiveness, which somehow, permeates this chapel. Strangely enough, in her burned face and "empty" eyes (the heat of the bomb had melted her eyes of glass) that saw the tragedy, one doesn't see any trace of hate or malice. Kneeling in front of the Hibaku no Maria, one begins to know how deep is the motherly heart of Mary, which, united closely to the heart of her son, shares his same sentiments ... forgiveness, solidarity, passion for every life created by the life-giving breath of God. The heart of the mother knows only to give life, and never to destroy it. In that "poor" statue without any exterior "beauty," we meet with the great "miracle": the Hibaku no Maria testifies that even in the midst of indiscriminate and exasperating destruction, the Mother has never abandoned her children, especially those in suffering, and has never taken back her appeal for the respect of every life, unique in this world.

Now, coming to the end of my presentation, I feel incapable of giving some words of conclusion. I would say, simply, one thing that has been in my heart for some time. That is about one of the particular roles of Mariology in Asia and Oceania, to encourage people, first of all the Christians, to cooperate for the "culture of life," contemplating the figure of the Virgin Mary as the "icon" that inspires and leads us to work for this purpose, in the concrete situation where we are now. The Virgin Mary, called by Church Tradition as the "New Eve" (Nove Eva), "Mother of all who are living" (Mater viventium), may help us to accept every life for itself, not for its utility, in other words, to accept every single life as the "gift" of the Creator for all human beings. Starting only from this conviction, we are made capable to cooperate in building the Kingdom of Jesus among us, the Kingdom of God's blessings ... of peace and of reconciliation.

Lastly, I would like to dedicate my presentation to our dear sister, Sr. Milagros, returned to the House of the Father on the August 2, 2009. We all know that the realization of this Conference was impossible without her presence. She suffered long from cancer, but she never gave up her dream: a Mariological conference in Asia. We thank you, Sr. Milagros, with all our heart, and we promise to bring forward this project just began. May her soul, rest in peace in the arms of Mary, whom she loved so much.

Thank you for your attention.

Franciscan Sisters of "Militia Immaculatae"
Totake 2747-6, Konagai-cho, Isahaya-city,
Nagasaki, 859-0167, Japan
e-mail address:

Principal references


Catholic Nagasaki Monthly, n. 916 (2005, 3), p. l; n. 920 (2005, 8) p. 4; n. 921 (2005, 9) p. 1.

Hibaku Maria zō (The statue of Bombed Mary), Pamphlet edited by the parish of Urakami, Nagasaki, 2003.

JAPAN CATHOLIC COUNCIL FOR JUSTICE AND PEACE, Kyōkai no sensō sekinin wo kangaeru (Run back over the responsibility of Japanese Catholic Church for the war), Nangei Press, Tōkyō 1995.

KAZUO TAKAGI, Modern history of Japanese Catholic Church: Taisyō-Syōwa, Seibo no kishi Press, Nagasaki 1985, voll. 2-3.

Nagasaki Genbaku no kiroku (Documents of the atomic bomb at Nagasaki), Museum of the atomic bomb, Nagasaki, 2002.5

T. YAMANAGA, The visit of the statue of Mary in Belarus, in Nagasaki no sora (The sky of Nagasaki), 18 Bank, Nagasaki 2002, pp. 41-42.

TAKASHI NAGAI, Nagasaki no kane (The Bell of Nagasaki), San Paolo, Tōkyō 2004.13

YAKICHI KATAOKA, Nagasaki no kirishitan (The Early Christians of Nagasaki), Seibo Press, Nagasaki 2003.10


A statue of Mary and the rediscovery of the "hidden Christians."

The beginning of Christianity (1549) and 250 years' persecution (1614-1873)

The "Mother of God that rediscovered the hidden Christians of Nagasaki" (1865)

The Japanese church during the war period (1931-1945)

The task of the Japanese church for peace in Asia and Oceania, in post-war period (1945-)

The "renunciation of war" in the Article 9 of the Constitution and the "Resolution for Peace" of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Japan

The "Hibaku no Maria"- a statue of Mary, survived from the atomic bomb (1945)

Some reflections as an open conclusion ... one of the roles of the Mariology in Asia: the consciousness of every single life, of solidarity and of peace ...

1- Though already in 1587, the "shogun" (sovereign and commander of the State) Toyotomi Hideyoshi (†1598) began a partial persecution, it was the shogun 'Tokugawa Ieyasu (†1616) that, in 1614, promulgated the decree of the total prohibition of Christianity. Between 1558-1650, circa 2010 Christians were martyred all over Japan, among that, there were 106 foreigners (cf. Catholic Bishops' Conference of Japan, Cathopedia 2004, Tokyo 2004, pp. 216-223; A. SCHWADE, Japan, in New Catholic Encyclopedia, The Catholic University of America, Washington 1966, vol. 7, pp. 837-838).

2- Fr. Konishi, the last priest was martyred in 1644.

3- Fr. Bernard-Thadèe Petitjean belonged to the Society of Foreign Missions of Paris (Sociètè des Missions Etrangères de Paris). In 1866, he was consecrated Bishop and nominated the third Apostolic Vicar in Japan. From 1866 to his death in 1884, he was the Archbishop of Nagasaki.

4- They were martyred at Nagasaki in 1597 and canonized by Pope Pius IX (18461878) in 1862. They are called "Japanese" martyrs, but among them, there were also six Franciscans natives of Spain, Mexico and Portugal.

5- The historians tell about 15,000 "hidden Christians" in this age at Kyusyu (the Southern isle of Japan, where Nagasaki is situated).

6- cf. A. SCOLA, Chi è la Chiesa?Una chiave antropológica e sacramentale per l'ecclesiologia, Queriniana, Brescia 2005, pp. 57-58; C. MlLITELLO, La Chiesa «il Corpo Crismato». Trattato di ecclesiologia, EDB, Bologna 2003, pp. 366-372.

7- The invasion of the Japanese force in China makes begin the war between China and Japan (1931-1945).

8- In fact, in an official comment of the Constitution, Itō Hirobumi, president of the commission for the revision of the Constitution, affirm that the Emperor comes down from the "uninterrupted line (...) of the Sacred throne (...) that gather in itself the sovereignty of the State and the Government of the country and of vassals" (quoted in R. F. GATTI, Storia del Giappono, Laterza, Roma-Bari 2004, p. 16).

9- The Japanese force conquered, by 1942, Indonesia, Philippine, Malaysia, Burma and the oriental part of India

10- «The peace doesn't mean a stasis ..., means an effort, an enormous effort, in which everyone has one's part. It's necessary to form the conscience and the sense of responsibility. It's necessary to show solidarity with the people whose rights are violated. It's necessary: voir-juger-agir» (Tokyo, 24.2.1981, in Insegnamenti di Giovanni Paolo II, vol. 4/1, p. 524),

11- Catholic Bishops' Conference of Japan, Cathopedia '92, Tōkyō 2004, pp. 401402.

12- The test is translated in English: ('eature/2005/peace/05eng.pdf).

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