The Blue Sky: A Tale of Christian Descendants at the end of Tokugawa Era [青い空 幕末キリシタン類族伝]

by Yasuhisa Ebisawa [海老沢 泰久], Bunshun Bunko [文藝春秋], 2009, Volume One, 431 pages, 743 yen, ISBN-10: 4167414120  & Volume Two, 478 pages, 790 yen, ISBN-10: 4167414139

Review by Fumiko Halloran


The Meiji Restoration in 19th century Japan not only overthrew the Shogun’s rule but rewrote the nation’s religious map. That propelled the emperor into a deity whose absolute authority was crafted by the founders of the new regime for political purposes. Prior to that transformation, no traditional belief held that the emperors were gods; that was so even among scholars who believed in the Way of the Gods. This is the basic theme in Yasuhisa Ebisawa’s best-selling novel that got rave reviews in 2004 and is now available in paperback.

Even during World War II, when Japanese military leaders relentlessly sought to indoctrinate the public with the emperor’s status as a deity to legitimize their actions, many Japanese sensed the artificiality of that assertion. The imperial system and the Shinto shrines were inseparable then and the emperor remains the chief Shinto priest in present day Japan.

Ebisawa’s tale revolves around a sixteen year old boy, Toemon, whose ancestors were Christians in Dewa, the present day Akita Prefecture in north-eastern Japan. This novel is set in 1863, ten years after the American black ships appeared near Edo to divide the nation into a bitter conflict between those who pushed for opening Japan and those who rejected it.

Toemon’s ancestors were Christians who went into hiding after the Shimabara Rebellion in 1637. That revolt was triggered by anger of peasants toward the greedy clan lord in Shimabara domain in Kyushu because he had imposed heavy taxes on people already in extreme poverty. Since almost all of the 30,000 rebels who fought the Shogun’s army of more than 120,000 soldiers were Christians, the Shogunate soon banned Christianity and closed the country to foreigners except for the limited trade of the Dutch and Chinese in Nagasaki. Persecution of the hidden Christians when they were exposed was thorough and ruthless. Yet even after the ban, for thirty years, more than one hundred European missionaries secretly entered Japan to baptize, preach, and say Mass for the surviving Christians. These missionaries were all caught, tortured, executed, or imprisoned for life.

That persecution did not stop with those who were discovered. A law was imposed on the surviving descendants of the Christians to discriminate against them in every way, from being prohibited from leaving their clans to being required to report any change in their lives such as employment, marriage, birth of children, and death. They were required to belong to Buddhist temples to prove they had recanted the Christian faith of their ancestors. They were not allowed to be educated at

community schools called juku. Even in death, families had to get permission to bury the deceased. The surviving descendants of Christians were called “Ruizoku” [類族] or groups associated with Christians, with a separate koseki or family registry.

In the novel, Toemon no longer practices the Christian faith, after five generations, but is keenly aware of injustice and is angry with exploitation of the Ruizoku by Buddhist temples. He kills a man who raped a sister of his best friend and flees from his village without identity papers. With the help of an underground network that helps men and women without permits to move through check points, he manages to arrive in Edo and finds a job as a servant to a sword master.

He changes his name to Ugenta to hide from the authorities. In the rapidly changing political situation with the Shogunate at the brink of collapse, Ugenta is thrown into chaotic and bloody struggles between supporters of the imperial court and the Shogunate. He kills another man who had murdered his close friend, a Shinto priest who openly criticized the Buddhist establishment. Ugenta cannot shake off his sense of guilt even though he justifies his action. He asks for forgiveness to a Higher Being whom he cannot name, yet feels His presence.

Ugenta comes to distrusting promises of those who were pressing to overthrow the Shogunate that they will liberate the Christian Ruizoku. The Meiji government turns out to be just as oppressive as the old regime, accelerating the persecution of Christians who had come out believing that the new regime would protect them. Not only that, the Meiji Government persecuted the Buddhist establishment that was the backbone of the Shogunate. By ordering the registration of every person at a Buddhist temple, the Shogunate controlled the census, taxation, and labour for public works.

As a state religion, the Buddhist establishment became powerful and corrupt. The Buddhist monks thought nothing of breaking the code of conduct that prohibited drinking, fornication, and eating meat. They became wealthy by owning vast estates. The public’s anger against the Buddhist establishment reached a boiling point and it welcomed with vengeance the new government’s persecution of Buddhism. Crowds ran amok destroying temples, looting statues of Buddha, burning texts, and beating up monks.

In addition, the Meiji government targeted the powerful influence of Confucian teachings that required people to follow the moral code of absolute respect for elders by the young, loyalty to masters by their vassals, obedience of wives to their husbands, and of children to parents. That was a convenient tool for the Shogunate to control the nation. Confucian scholars became official advisors to the Shogun and the elite samurai class.

Scholars of national studies, or kokugakusha [国学者], such as Norinaga Motoori [本居 宣長] and Atsutane Hirata [平田 篤胤], asserted that Buddhism was a foreign religion imposed on Japanese since the 6th century by the ruling class to amass power. They also attacked Confucian teachings as unrealistic and hypocritical in light of Chinese history that experienced constant warfare, making the winners to be as virtuous rulers when in fact they were bandits of low origin who were skilful in warfare and power struggles.

Both Motoori and Hirata returned to Shinto as the core of true Japanese soul. While Motoori’s life was devoted to criticism of Buddhism and Confucianism, Hirata was dedicated to raising Shinto to a level that would be powerful enough to eradicate Buddhism and Confucianism. Hirata searched for a concept of peace for the soul after the death of the flesh. In ancient times, Japanese believed in the permanent existence of the soul. They also believed that this world was “exposed” and one in which souls after death resided was a “ghostly twilight” one.

Both Motoori and Hirata read the Chinese text of a book written by the Jesuit priest, Matteo Ricci, whose Chinese name is Li Madou [利瑪竇]. That book on Christian teachings, “Tien-chu-she-i,” [天主实录] or “The True Doctrine of God,” was published in Beijing in 1630 and Hirata found the Christian idea of the permanent existence of soul and the importance of life beyond death resonant with his own interpretation of Shinto teaching.

Both scholars promoted the emperor as the embodiment of the Shinto spirit but the Meiji government went further by making the emperor the head of state, a political presence, rather than the symbol of history,tradition, culture, and spirit. The novel argues that the founders of the Meiji government were lower class samurai who, in the eyes of the imperial court and the Shogun, had no legitimacy. The founders had to come up fast with evidence of legitimacy and authority. Their solution was to make the emperor the supreme leader of both spiritual and political spheres of Japanese life, claiming that this was the form of rule in ancient Japan.

The era of the emperor’s infallibility whose conflicting identity dragged modern Japan onto a troubled path was implied in remarks by Kaishu Katsu, a hero in this novel.  Ugenta was sent by opponents of the opening of Japan on a mission to assassinate Katsu. But Ugenta found he could not do it and was persuaded by Katsu to become his loyal agent.

Katsu, a hatamoto of the Shogun’s security guard, had an enlightened view of the world. His meeting with Takamori Saigo [西郷 隆盛], the commander of theimperial army advancing to Edo to overthrow the Shogun, resulted in a bloodless transfer of power from the Shogun to the emperor. Katsu agreed to the Shogun family’s moving out of the Edo Castle that prevented civil war in Edo.

This novel is yet another example of how spiritual faith can be transformed into an organized religion that goes along with state power to create discrimination and oppression of those who have dissenting beliefs. Yet the author Ebisawa finds hope in a faith in a Supreme Being, from whom Ugenta asks forgiveness for his sin of killing two human beings. Ebisawa succeeds in weaving the personal pursuit of a soul finding peace with a historical drama of modern Japan.

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