Holy Ghosts

The Christian Century in Modern Japanese Fiction

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Rebecca Suter
  • Honolulu, HI: 
    University of Hawaii Press
    , February
     2015.
     208 pages.
     $45.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780824840013.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Less than one percent of people self-identify as belonging to the Christian faith in Japan, a country whose religious traditions are primarily aligned with local Shintō practices and various native sects of Mahayana Buddhism. As Rebecca Suter explains in the introduction to her 2015 monograph Holy Ghosts, however, depictions of Christianity and Christian imagery are surprisingly common in Japanese fiction and popular culture. In fact, these depictions are so ubiquitous that Suter has chosen to focus only on representations of Japan’s “Christian Century.” This period stretches from 1549, when the first Jesuit missionaries arrived on the Japanese archipelago, to 1638, when the Tokugawa shogunate banned the foreign religion after the Shimabara Rebellion instigated by oppressed Christian agricultural workers in 1637. 

Suter has divided the introduction and five chapters of Holy Ghosts into three main parts. The first part provides the historical and cultural context of the Christian Century in Japan, the second part examines literature from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the third part explores the depiction of religious figures in contemporary media, including manga (serialized graphic novels) and video games. The brief conclusion offers a precise summary of Suter’s driving argument, which is that Japanese writers, artists, and media producers often use the internal otherness of Christianity to challenge and complicate dominant ideologies regarding globalized modernity (169).

In the introduction and chapter 1, Suter explains how Jesuit missionaries came to Japan and how they linguistically and culturally localized their religion for the Japanese faithful, whom Suter refers to by their Japanese appellation, “Kirishitan,” in order to underscore the significance of the nuances of their departures from European religions traditions. Suter also describes how Christianity was embraced and then rejected by the ruling elite, as well as how its history came to be rediscovered and re-examined in the 20th century despite the destruction of many official records and documents. Suter concludes chapter 1 by sketching several recent narratives concerning the cultural role of Christianity in Japan, which are examined in greater detail in the chapters that follow. 

Chapters 2 and 3 delve into close readings of the short literary fiction of Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, who is perhaps Japan’s most celebrated modern writer. During the early 1920s, Akutagawa wrote a series of Kirishitan stories, most of which are set either at the beginning of the Christian Century, with the arrival of the missionaries, or at its end, when Japanese Christians were persecuted by the shogunate. Chapter 2 is a study of Akutagawa’s portrayals of “red-haired Barbarians” and the Japanese reception of the Dutch, Portuguese, and Italian traders and priests who came to the archipelago in the 16th century. Chapter 3 deals with Akutagawa’s stories about Japanese martyrs and apostates during the early 17th century, when the Tokugawa regime strengthened its centralized rule by forcing people in rural areas to demonstrate their allegiance to the shogun as the highest power in the land. Through these historical tales, Akutagawa reflects on his own time, in which the imagined communities of “East” and “West” were similarly thrown into close proximity and conflict. Suter is especially interested in Akutagawa’s subtle critique of both the nationalist and Orientalist ideologies that informed Japan’s modernity.

Chapters 4 and 5 fast forward to the present to discuss contemporary popular media. Chapter 4, titled “Resurrection as Zombie Revolution,” is concerned with popular fiction, manga, and video games targeted at a male demographic, while chapter 5, “From Counter-Orientalism to Queer Spirituality,” focuses primarily on manga written for women. In the narratives detailed in chapter 4, the otherness of exotic Christian spirituality is construed as a threat to a masculine national identity. In the manga profiled in chapter 5, however, the cultural and racial hybridity of Kirishitan historical figures is configured and celebrated as a fantastical form of queer sexuality and fluid gender performance that facilitates religious syncretism and border crossings. 

Both of these chapters examine the portrayal of Masuda Shirō Tokisada (better known as Amakusa Shirō), the leader of the Shimabara Rebellion of 1937, which marked the end of the Christian Century when it was suppressed by the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1938. Historical accounts make it clear that the young and attractive Shirō was a symbolic leader, but many of his contemporaries seem to have believed that he possessed supernatural powers supposedly connected to Christian magic. Despite being hailed as a martyr and something of a Christ figure by the Kirishitan community, Suter demonstrates how contemporary popular work by male creators “epitomizes the irrational, threatening, and grotesque side of the Kirishitan religion,” especially in its depiction of Shirō as a villain and a literal demon (118). Romantic shōjomanga for young women and homoerotic BL (“boys love”) manga for a slightly older female audience configure the morally and ethnically ambiguous Shirō and the perceived otherness of the Kirishitan religion as “a tool to undermine binary distinctions in the realm of culture, morals, and now, also, gender” (144). Suter contextualizes these fictional representations within Japan’s economic recession and places them alongside the boom and subsequent decline in widespread interest in the occult of the 1990s and early 2000s in Japan. 

Rebecca Suter has previously published work on literary and popular Japanese fiction, including the work of bestselling contemporary author Haruki Murakami, and she has also translated a number of manga into Italian. Although Holy Ghosts covers a wide range of material, Suter is uniquely qualified to discuss her chosen texts within their religious and cultural contexts. Unfortunately, most of the titles she incorporates into these discussions are currently unavailable in English translation. Nevertheless, her monograph is accessible to Asian Studies scholars seeking a broader perspective on modern and contemporary literature and graphic novels, as well as to religious studies scholars interested in how Christianity has been received in Japan and continues to influence its media and culture.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kathryn Hemmann is Assistant Professor of Japanese Studies at George Mason University.

Date of Review: 
October 9, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Rebecca Suter is senior lecturer in Japanese Studies at the University of Sydney.

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