Otome Toge Saint Mary’s Chapel
Whether for religion or to learn history, the chapel and its grounds have something to teach.By Laura Payne
In the late 19th century, this location in the woods outside of Tsuwano served as a prison for Christians from Nagasaki, who were persecuted and abused because of their religion. This former prison has been repurposed today as a pilgrimage site dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
Whether one visits for religious reasons or to learn about history, the chapel and its grounds have something to teach.
Christianity’s history in Japan
Catholic missionaries first began spreading Christianity to Japan in the 1500s. However, in the late 1500 and early 1600s, political tensions and fear prompted Japan’s shogunate to expel missionaries and ban Christianity. Converts who refused to renounce their faith were tortured until they were recanted or executed. To avoid persecution, Japanese Christians began worshiping in secret.
About two centuries later, edicts that restricted foreigners’ access to Japan were lifted, and a limited number of churches were built to serve foreign residents. These events prompted some Japanese Christians to emerge quietly from hiding. However, the ban on Christianity had not been lifted yet, so those who revealed themselves were arrested.
Then, 153 Christians from Nagasaki were imprisoned in Tsuwano for “reeducation.” At first, jailers attempted to change the Christians’ faith through lectures, but starvation and torture were used when these failed. Thirty-seven of those sent to Tsuwano died due to their treatment, and today these 37 are known as the Martyrs of Tsuwano.
Those who survived imprisonment were released in 1873 after the ban on Christianity was lifted.
The chapel grounds
Anyone can enter Otome Toge Saint Mary’s Chapel today to pray or view the art. Stained glass windows and a mural depict stories of individual martyrs.
Outside stands a statue of the Virgin Mary and Yasutaro, one of the most famous martyrs. It is said that the Virgin Mary visited him several nights before Yasutaro’s death and kept him company. This is why the chapel is dedicated to Mary today.
Nearby, a trail through the woods leads pilgrims through the Stations of the Cross before reaching the martyrs’ gravesite.
The chapel grounds are also the site of the Otome Toge Festival, one of Tsuwano’s major annual events. On May 3, a procession carrying a statue of the Virgin Mary starts at Tsuwano Catholic Church and ends at Saint Mary’s Chapel. This procession is followed by an outdoor Mass that honors those once imprisoned.
Topics: history in japan, landmarks, shimane