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Kirishitan Women Testify Today From Japan’s Christian Century, 1549–1650

Rev. Haruko Nawata Ward, PhD
Professor of Church History
Columbia Theological Seminary

Seminar Description

In 1549 Francis Xavier of the Society of Jesus brought Christianity for the first time to Japan. The Jesuits who succeeded Xavier in 1551 practiced accommodation to the Japanese way of life by principle and necessity. Japanese political and religious leaders suspected the motivations of these nambanjin (Southern Barbarians), coming from Portugal via Goa, India and Macau. These missionaries studied the Japanese language, literature, culture, history and religions with the aid of their converts. Soon they integrated Japanese men into the Society as dōjuku (evangelical preachers) and kambō (local pastors). As the mission grew, many of these catechists became Jesuit Brothers, and beginning in 1601, several were ordained as priests. The Jesuit active-contemplative apostolate attracted women converts. The Society’s Constitutions do not allow women to become members nor the members to work closely with women; nonetheless, women catechists created their own venues of ministry and contributed much to the mission. Although their own writings were destroyed during the persecution, women’s words and actions testifying to their faith survive in the Jesuit records.

This seminar introduces several Kirishitan women. These include Hibiya Monica, Blessed Hayashida Magdalena, Lady Hosokawa Tama Gracia, and Kiyohara Ito Maria. Most intriguing were women evangelists. Naitō Julia founded a society of active women catechists around 1600, who helped convert about 6,000 persons until 1614, when they were expelled from Japan. Julia’s community included Pak Marina and other Korean-born hostages of war. The community relocated to Manila. During the fierce period of persecution, numerous Kirishitan women became martyrs, of whom the Catholic Church has canonized two as saints and beatified a hundred fifty.

Since its foundation by Ignatius of Loyola in 1540, the Society of Jesus has pioneered the Spiritual Exercises, education, inter-religious dialogue, scholarship, preaching and social justice for the poor and the oppressed. These contributions are personified in Pope Francis. Having learned about these women leaders from Japan’s Christian Century, should the Catholic Church rethink the ordination of women, and should the Jesuits create an official Women’s Society of Jesus? Should Asian and Asian-American churches and denominations ordain women and publicly recognize their contributions?  

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