The Light of the Flying Bird (飛鳥の光)

The land of Japan saw the most significant changes in society, politics, culture and arts during the Asuka Period of imperial Japan (538 – 710 A.D.). The Asuka Period (飛鳥時代, Asuka-jidai) of Japan is named after the Asuka region south of Nara (奈良) in Japan. Asuka literally means “flying bird” in Japanese. So, what exactly do I mean in saying, “the Light of the Flying Bird”, or in other words, “the Light of the Asuka Period”?

The Asuka Period of Japan is recognized as the period in which Buddhism first entered Japan from Korea and started making influences alongside Japan’s traditional religion, Shinto (神道). However, little do many know that it was also during the Asuka Period when Christianity first made its entry into the land of Japan. Hence, in saying “the Light of the Flying Bird” (飛鳥の光, Asuka no hikari), I’m actually implying the introduction of Christianity into Japan during the Asuka Period.

A drawing of a phoenix from the Asuka Period

Firstly, let me tell you about the Hata clan (秦氏) in imperial Japan. The Hata clan was a clan which originated from the region of Central Asia, which was once under Persian rule. The Hata clan was mostly Nestorian Christian in religion and they migrated away from Persian rule towards the East to attain religious freedom. The Persian government at that time was rather hostile towards Christians and launched persecution against Christians from time to time. Hence, the Hata clan set out towards the East in around the 2nd century to the 6th century.

The Hata clan travelled from Central Asia towards China at first, but they were met with some persecution from the Chinese. They then travelled through China towards the Baekje Kingdom of Korea, but were met with similar persecution from the Koreans. Subsequently, the clan left Korea through sea and finally landed in Sakoshi (坂越) and Izumo (出雲) in Japan. Sakoshi is presently near the city of Himeji (姫路), Hyogo Prefecture (兵庫県) while Izumo is presently a large city in Shimane Prefecture (島根県). The Hata clan then settled down in Sakoshi and Izumo before spreading out to the rest of Japan.

Eventually, the Hata clan spread out to other towns and cities in Japan such as Nara (奈良), Kyoto (京都) and Osaka (大阪). In most of the cities that they spread out to, the Hata clan, which professed the religion of Nestorian Christianity, built churches to serve as places of worship and welfare. Many churches were built throughout these cities where the Hata clan went, especially in Nara and Kyoto. However, due to the destruction of these churches over time, Buddhist temples and shrines were then built over the ruins of these churches, in which these temples remain functional until now.

Koryu Temple (広隆寺) / Uzumasa Temple (太秦寺), Kyoto

An example of such a temple is the Koryu Temple (広隆寺, Kouryuu-ji) in Kyoto, Japan. The Koryu Temple is also known as Uzumasa Temple (太秦寺). According to some sources that I have come across, it is said that the Koryu Temple was initially built in 603 by Hata no Kawakatsu (秦の河勝), but this temple was at that time built as a Nestorian Christian church, not a Buddhist temple. The source states that after the church was destroyed by a fire, a Buddhist temple was then erected on top of the church remains in 818.

Hata no Kawakatsu (秦の河勝)

According to these sources, evidences that the Koryu Temple in Kyoto was once a church include the existence of a copy of The Gospel According to Apostle Matthew, written in old Mandarin Chinese, inside the temple. Other Christian relics were also reported to exist inside the temple. In another temple, known as the Horyu Temple (法隆寺, Houryuu-ji) situated in Ikaruga (斑鳩), Nara Prefecture, Japan, it is said that the temple was once partially destroyed by a fire. However, a beam in the temple survived the fire and is presently stored in the Tokyo National Museum. It is said that two Nestorian Christian crosses are inscribed upon this beam, laying evidence that the Horyu Temple was also once a Nestorian Christian church.

Horyu Temple (法隆寺), Ikaruga, Nara Prefecture

Prince Shotoku (聖徳太子, Shoutoku Taishi) (573 – 621 A.D.) was a renowned Japanese prince and regent during the Asuka Period. Being the devout Buddhist that he was, Prince Shotoku was highly interested in Chinese culture and literature. He frequently looked up to China as a model for improving his governance and Japanese culture. He was a great intellectual who was very learned in Chinese literature, Buddhism and Confucianism. Besides building many Buddhist temples in Japan, he often sent students to China to study Buddhism and Confucianism.

During his reign, Prince Shotoku established the Shitenno Buddhist Temple (四天王寺, Shitennou-ji) in Osaka, in the year 593. In this temple, Prince Shotoku established the Four Institutions (四箇院, Shika-in), which consists of the Pharmacy Institution (施薬院, Seyaku-in), Hospital Institution (療病院, Ryoubyou-in), Welfare Institution (悲田院, Hiden-in) and Institution of Religion and Education (教田院, Kyouden-in). These institutions served as places of welfare, healthcare and education for the Japanese people of the era.

Prince Shotoku (聖徳太子) (573 – 621 A.D.) at the centre

It is commonly known amongst Japanese Buddhists that Prince Shotoku’s willingness to establish the Four Institutions for the welfare of the people reflects his kindness and mercy to the people, being a devout Buddhist himself. However, some sources and researches state that the concept of welfare and charity almost did not exist in Japanese Buddhism at that time, and that such welfare and charity work did not even exist in Buddhism in China and Korea at that time. Buddhism was commonly treated as the religion for the ruling and aristocratic classes.

Hence, according to these sources, Prince Shotoku was influenced by the welfare and charity work done by the Nestorian Christians in other cities such as Kyoto and Nara. In fact, such similar charity and welfare work was commonly done by many Nestorian Christians who lived throughout the Silk Road in Persia, India, China and Korea. Such welfare work done by Nestorian Christians in their churches in Nara and Kyoto influenced and inspired Prince Shotoku to start the Four Institutions for the benefit of the people. In other words, Prince Shotoku’s idea of welfare and charity came not from Buddhism, but rather from Nestorian Christianity. Thus, Nestorian Christianity’s influence in Asuka Japan was rather significant.

Shitenno Temple (四天王寺), Osaka

No doubt, information about Nestorian Christianity in Imperial Japan during the Asuka Period is rather insufficient and shoddy, due to the fact that many churches which were built during that period were subsequently destroyed and Buddhist temples were built in place of the ruins. Moreover, the influence of Buddhism and Shintoism in Imperial Japan over the centuries since the Asuka Period was extremely strong, thus burying many of the Nestorian Christian traces left behind. On top of that, many of the Christian relics left behind since the Asuka Period are largely unknown, unheard of and left hidden in the depths of existing Buddhist temples which were built on former church sites. With all these factors combined, the task of rediscovering Japan’s Christian past during the Asuka Period becomes extremely daunting and challenging.

However, one thing’s for sure, that Japan must have had Christian influence and even Japanese Christian communities flourishing during the Asuka Period and the succeeding Nara Period (奈良時代, Nara-jidai), as it is not surprising that Christians travelling on the Silk Road must have reached the road’s end-point, that is Japan, and some may also have settled in Japan. Besides, if China during the Tang Dynasty had flourishing Christian communities, then it is not surprising that Japan must also have received the influence from such communities. After all, the Japanese, in imperial times, had always looked up to anything and everything in China as inspirations and examples to follow……

Prince Shotoku depicted in the 10000 yen Japanese banknote

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