Thu, May 14, 2020

Hara Castle remains in Minamishimabara: A testimony to Japan’s Christian history

Japan’s beauty in the eyes of CIRs

Remains of Hara Castle, as seen from above
By Sara Magugliani / CIR for Minamishimabara, Nagasaki Pref.

In July 2018, the “Hidden Christian Sites in the Nagasaki Region” were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Among the 12 components that testify to a unique religious practice of Christianity, the Remains of Hara Castle stands out as the only castle site.

To the hasty eye, the site seems to hold no reason for such an acknowledgment, but what today appears to be no more than a small hill was once at the center of a crucial episode in Japanese history.

A plywood-façade-reproduction of Hara Castle displayed during the Hara Castle Rebellion Festival (Courtesy of Minamishimabara city)

Hara Castle was first built between 1599 and 1604 in the Arima domain (present day Minamishimabara) by the Catholic feudal lord, Harunobu Arima.

The construction was intricate, and as it was also surrounded by the sea on three sides, the castle could be protected with ease. It was built following the leading technology of the time as exemplified by the size of the gateway, almost half that of the inner keep and one of the biggest entrances of a Japanese castle, as well as by the large masugata (the rectangular area between gates for troops to gather).

Map of the Siege of Hara Castle (Harajo Shiyori Kan’ei Kozu, National Archives of Japan)

The area surrounding the castle was densely populated by Catholic converts, thanks to the activity of European missionaries lead by the Jesuit visitor Alessandro Valignano during the late 16th century. After missionaries were banned in 1587, the persecution against Kirishitan (Japanese Catholic Christians) intensified, with a series of bans and numerous executions.

Arima himself, after the Okamoto Daihachi incident, was executed, and the shogunate sent a new lord (Matsukura) to replace him. Wanting to impress the shogun, he increased taxation on the population to help build a new castle in Shimabara as a show of strength, after abandoning Hara Castle and Hinoe Castle, the Arima clan’s main castle.

The local population, cornered by the extremely high taxation and a succession of poor harvests, coupled with a renewed crackdown on Kirishitan, took up arms during the Shimabara-Amakusa Rebellion (1637-38).

The uprising was quelled by the shogunate army and the approximately 37,000 rebels, largely Kirishitan, who had found refuge inside Hara Castle, were executed. The castle was demolished, its remains buried to prevent it ever sheltering a new insurrection.

New inhabitants were brought from other parts of Japan to take over the crops, thereby introducing new customs and a characteristic mix of dialects to the area. The remaining Kirishitan in the region went into hiding on the islands surrounding Nagasaki.

“The Fall of Hara Castle” by Shojiro Miyazaki, a modern reimaging of the last scene of the Shimabara-Amakusa Rebellion (Courtesy of Minamishimabara city)

The rebellion greatly contributed to the start of Japan’s seclusion period, which brought the isolation of the country from foreign forces, and an even stricter enforcement of the ban on Christianity. The shogun, who had already been worried that the missionary activities were a ploy put in place by European forces to conquer Japan, was in fact only further convinced of the dangers of Christianity as a destabilizing element in society.

The importance of Hara castle is thus twofold. On one hand, its remains and the findings of archaeological excavations provide us with important clues to that historical period. Primary examples are the foreign porcelains and numerous crosses and medals — evidence of the faith of a large percentage of the rebels — found at the site.

On the other, and perhaps even more importantly, the site is an intangible cultural heritage because of its history as a testimony to the resilience and strength of the faith of the rebels. This faith was maintained and then transformed within the small pockets of remaining Hidden Christians, who would go on to develop unique systems of faith based within their communities, and which were maintained for generations.

A map of the components of the UNESCO World Heritage Site “Hidden Christian Sites in the Nagasaki Region” (Made by Nagasaki Prefecture)

The Remains of Hara Castle is open to the public, and its history and heritage are detailed alongside displays of archaeological findings in the nearby Arima Christian Heritage Museum.

 One of the exhibition rooms in the Arima Christian Heritage Museum

(Cooperation: Council of Local Authorities for International Relations)


Sara Magugliani

Sara is Minamishimabara’s Coordinator for International Relations. Her duties are varied, ranging from organizing exchanges with Chieti, Minamishimabara’s Italian Friendship City, to translating pamphlets, interpreting during business meetings, and organizing classes and small events for the locals.



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