I remember reading about Japan's Kakure Kirishitan, or Hidden Christians, years ago. They are descended from converts to Christianity made by Portuguese missionaries in the 1500s. Christianity was outlawed by Japan in 1614 and many of the converts were suppressed and even martyred. A few held out, practicing a distorted Christianity that evolved into something that no longer really resembles the religion that was originally taught to them. The faithful kept their religion an secret, hiding their religious symbols, called Nando-Gami or Gods in the Closet, in secret cupboards, only bringing them out when conducting their secret services. Now, there are fewer and fewer of the Kakure Kirishitan each year and the few remaining fear the religion will die out.
IKITSUKI ISLAND, Japan (Reuters) – One by one, the sacred relics — a medal of the Virgin Mary, a crucifix and other revered objects — are taken from a cupboard and placed on an altar for a Christmas Eve rite passed down through centuries from Japan's earliest Christians.
Then, kneeling in the simple hall built where martyrs are said to have been burned on this tiny, remote island 400 years ago, five elders murmur chants as they bow and make the sign of the cross.
The kimono-clad deacons are descendants of "Kakure Kirishitan," or Hidden Christians, who kept their religion alive on Ikitsuki and in other isolated pockets of Japan during 250 years of suppression, adapting their rites to the demands of secrecy and blending them with local beliefs.
These days, the religion faces a modern threat of extinction as young people, like those elsewhere in rural Japan, leave their homes in search of jobs, drifting away from their gods and the rituals that honor them.
"It's sad. The tradition of our ancestors is disappearing," said Ayuzo Matsuyama, one of those gathered to observe "Osanmachi" and "Gotanjo" — Christmas Eve and Christmas — last weekend, the last Saturday and Sunday before the winter solstice.
"We inherited this 'old Christianity' from our ancestors and we wanted to continue it forever, but young people don't feel that way," added the 79-year-old former maker of sake, or rice wine…..
…..Rites such as confession and communion that could be conducted only by priests were lost. Others took on elements of Buddhist ancestor worship, indigenous Shinto with its focus on purification, and folk practices such as prayers for good crops.
Medals or hanging scrolls depicting saints and martyrs, often with Japanese features, were hidden in cupboards as "nando-gami" ("gods in the closet") and only taken out on special days.
In an apparent echo of the bread and wine of the Eucharist, elders still share sashimi and sake as part of the Christmas Eve and other ceremonies. Huge "mochi" rice cakes adorn the alter.
Transmitted orally and in secret, Latin "oratio" chants, "orasho" in Japanese, lost all but symbolic meaning.
Now, the younger generation has moved away, seeking jobs or a different life and the number of adherents to the old religion is declining rapidly. There is much more on the Kakure Kirishitan here and here.