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Immaterial Heritage and The Risk of “Forgetting”: A Case Study of the Hidden Christian Sites in Nagasaki, Japan

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World Heritage Patinas

Part of the book series: The Latin American Studies Book Series ((LASBS))

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Listed as a World Heritage Site because of its cultural syncretism between East and West, the nomination of the “Sites of the Hidden Christians in the Nagasaki Region”, Japan, has revealed old and new paradigms for the safeguard of the Intangible Heritage, as some of the oral tradition and local rites are at risk of disappearance due to demographic and socio-economic changes in the region. Thus, based on a broad theoretical framework and field research in Nagasaki, this study will address the main historical aspects that supported its nomination; challenges in preserving the intangible heritage among minority groups; and, finally, some strategies found by the local community and the Japanese government, through the Agency for Cultural Affairs, to preserve local history and traditions. In short, a battle against oblivion itself.

This text was originally published in the Annals of the 1st International Congress on Urban Heritage of Humanity/1st International Symposium on World Heritage of Minas Gerais in the international context. UFJF. 2020.

Joanes da Silva Rocha―Currently an International Graduate Research Student at the University of Tokyo, Japan, and an associate researcher at the Center for Asian Studies at the University of Brasilia (NEASIA-UnB). His main research deals with the Portuguese presence in East Asia (Japan and Macau) between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries and its heritage safeguard. He is also an architectural historian at ICOMOS-Brazil.

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  1. 1.

    Since 2003, when UNESCO Convention on the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage was established.

  2. 2.

    Among them we can highlight Amakusa Hisatane, Hasekura Tsunenaga, Ōmura Sumitada (Dom Bartolomeu), Arima Harunobu (Don Protasio), Takayama Ukon (Takayama Justus) and Ōtomo Sōrin (Elisonas 2006; Ellis 2012).

  3. 3.

    In 1604, the bakufu created the itowappu nakama, a guild of Japanese traders selected from Sakai, Kyōto and Nagasaki and, later, Edo and Ōsaka. This guild was responsible for buying assets imported by the Portuguese at a fixed and favorable rate to the Japanese. This started to be described in the Portuguese documentation as “A pancata”, or the blow (Souza 2004).

  4. 4.

    The fumi-e (踏み絵) ceremony, or e-fumi, can be translated as “stepping (fumi) on the figure (e)”. It was an annual event in which a person accused of being a Christian was forced to step on the image of Christ or the Virgin Mary, on the assumption that Christians, or at least Catholics, would not perform such sacrilege. If he did not, he would be sentenced to death and if he were a “known Christian” the event would be proof of his apostasy before the Japanese authorities.

  5. 5.

    By way of distinction, senpuku kirishitan (潜伏キリシタン) is the name attributed to those who suffered the persecution of bakufu between 1614 and 1854, called in this text “hidden Christians”, while kakure kirishitan (隠れキリシタン) refers to the formed communities after 1854 they decided to keep the tradition of the senpuku kirishitan and still inhabit Japan.

  6. 6.

    NORA, Pierre (org.), Les lieux de mémoire. Vol. I. Paris: Gallimard, 1997.

  7. 7.

    Hidden Christian Sites in the Nagasaki Region (長崎と天草地方の潜伏キリシタン関連遺産).

  8. 8.

    In fact, there is a subchapter in the nomination document called “Comparative analysis” in which it seeks to present the exceptionality of the proposal based on comparative studies with other world heritage sites. In the case of Nagasaki, they are: early christian Necropolis of Pecs, Ouadi Qadisha (the Holy Valley), Forest of the Cedars of God (Horsh Arz el-Rab), Goreme National Park and the rock sites of Cappadocia (Turkey), Masada (Israel), Auschwitz Birkenau German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp (1940–1945) (Poland), among others (ACA 2017a, pp. 223–248).

  9. 9.

    This heritage was registered in series and the properties are spread over different islands of the archipelago and occupy an area of approximately 5.569 ha, with buffer zones of over 12 thousand hectares.

  10. 10.

    In the additional report sent to ICOMOS on February 28, 2018, the Japanese government redefined the limits of the area in the southwest corner, removing them from the indicated main area, but keeping them within the buffer zone. In other words, he it did not move the buildings or the real landscape, he just removed them from the polygonal defined for the inscription project.

  11. 11.

    Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, Disasters and Disaster Prevention. <> (Accessed June 15, 2019).

  12. 12.

    Hidden Christians migrated to these islands from 1797 on the run from persecution, and today we see the reverse movement of young people retsurning to the central areas.

  13. 13.

    In 2005, Nagasaki Prefecture launched the Discovery and transmission of history in Nagasaki project, in which it published books and pamphlets on the history of the region. In the same year, the Archdiocese of Nagasaki published the Guide to pilgrimage sites and churches in Nagasaki. These two documents, like so many other current guides, are based on pilgrimage routes to historic sites for the Christian community, such as churches and places of martyrdom.

  14. 14.

    Even though I was a member of ICOMOS, a researcher at a Japanese university with the support of my advisor and with the necessary fluency to conduct the interviews in Japanese, I found it difficult to access certain places and niches during the research.


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da Silva Rocha, J. (2021). Immaterial Heritage and The Risk of “Forgetting”: A Case Study of the Hidden Christian Sites in Nagasaki, Japan. In: Christofoletti, R., Olender, M. (eds) World Heritage Patinas. The Latin American Studies Book Series. Springer, Cham.

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