A Christian Samurai: The Trials of Baba Bunkō
by William J. Farge, SJ;
Foreword by Kevin M. Doak.
The Catholic University of America Press, 2016.
Hardcover, 336 pages, $35.

For decades, the standard American academic treatment of Japanese Christianity has been that there was no such thing. Jesuit missionaries came to Japan in 1549 under the direction of St. Francis Xavier (1506–1552), and a Christian settlement was founded at Nagasaki, on the remote southern tip of Kyushu, in that same year. But Japanese internal politics was in a state of upheaval, as the warlords who controlled the islands piecemeal were in the throes of the winner-take-all phase of the civil war that had been raging off and on since the breakdown of Heian imperial rule in the late twelfth century. Unable to secure the political backing that would allow their mission the protection it needed in such a dangerous setting, the Jesuits were either deported or martyred, untold thousands of Japanese Catholics were martyred (many of them crucified or buried alive) or forced to convert to Buddhism, and all forms of Christian worship were outlawed. In 1639, the government of the warlord Tokugawa house—which had eventually won the civil war and imposed martial law on everyone else in the country—continued the policies of predecessor warlords Oda Nobunaga (1534–1582) and Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536–1598) in proscribing Christianity in perpetuity, while also shutting off interaction with the outside world. After 1639, the received narrative goes, and until the return of missionaries to Japan in the late nineteenth century, Christianity was, for all intents and purposes, a non-factor in Japanese history.

William J. Farge, SJ, aims to overthrow this near-universal consensus in one daring rōnin charge with his splendid new book, A Christian Samurai: The Trials of Baba Bunkō. Taking aim, albeit very gingerly and respectfully, at George Elison—whose Deus Destroyed: The Image of Christianity in Early Modern Japan (1973) remains the locus classicus of the “Christianity died in Japan” school—Farge builds on other classic texts, such as Ronald Toby’s rethinking of the sakoku isolationist policy, in making the case that Christianity did, indeed, survive the persecutions and endure into the nineteenth century, when a French Jesuit missionary arrived and was amazed to find, in 1865, “hidden Christians” (kakure Kirishitan) in Nagasaki.

Most scholars have assumed that, after the Shimabara Rebellion of the late 1630s pitting Catholic peasants against the Tokugawa hegemon in Edo, Christianity was essentially extinct. But, as Farge points out (in a chapter very provocatively titled, “Deus Restored”), the reason historians have been wrong about this is that they have not bothered to look. Blinded by their own prejudices—and here Farge makes skillful use of the relativists’ favorite, Hayden White, in arguing that each historian has hisown story to tell—historians have been unwilling to admit the possibility that post-Shimabara Japan may have been a much more diverse place than had been imagined. Let us make no mistake: Farge’s intention here is very much to launch a latter-day Shimabara Rebellion of his own, as his book is a direct challenge to one of the most dogmatically held positions in scholarship on East Asia.

As the title suggests, Farge’s champion in this is Shikoku samurai Baba Bunkō, whom Farge asserts was unmistakably, if surreptitiously, Catholic. In 1751, in the midst of a devastating famine, Bunkō, born Nakai Bun’emon in 1718, renounced his samurai heritage in disgust at the samurai’s moral decay, left his heavily kakure-Kirishitan domain, and moved to Edo, the shogunal capital, where he began a lively career as a kōdanshi, or street-performing raconteur. Bunkō was a merciless critic of his age, which he saw as one of hypocrisy, lechery, bribery, greed, and a nearly complete disregard for the downtrodden and disadvantaged. Great lords and ladies, pious monks and nuns, and government ministers of all stripes frequented the Yoshiwara red-light district of Edo, living lives of profligate debauchery while pretending to be upright paragons of Confucian and Buddhist virtue. From his street-corner pulpit, Bunkō named names, calling out even the shogun himself in denouncing the escapades of the high-born and the well-to-do who had turned the capital, and the rest of Japan with it, into a haven for what Bunkō called “monsters” (bakemono). They had lost their humanity, Bunkō was saying, in their contempt for others’ misfortunes.

Farge’s case for Bunkō’s alleged Christianity must necessarily rely on circumstantial evidence. As Farge admits, there will be no baptismal certificate or other parish documentation proving that Bunkō was a bona fide member of the Body of Christ. After all, Farge reminds his reader, Christianity had been officially proscribed again and again throughout the Tokugawa period (1603–1868). But therein lies the rub. Wasn’t that repetition strange? Indeed, not only were the edicts banning Christianity periodically reissued, but many of the most renowned Edo scholars, such as Arai Hakuseki (1657–1725), Aizawa Seishisai (1781–1863), and even Hirata Atsutane (1776–1843), had some knowledge of Christianity. Some of this was gleaned from Christian visitors to Japan, to be sure, but the court scholars’ fretting over a Shimabara redux was a mainstay of Edo political thought.

One must also reckon with Bunkō’s understanding of the Shimabara banner, which is a depiction of angels worshipping the Eucharist, above which had been written, in Portuguese, “LOUVAD[O] SEJA O SANTISSIM[O] SACRAMENTO,” “Praised be the most holy Sacrament.” Bunkō boldly proclaimed this banner to be “more worthy of respect than either the imperial chrysanthemum or the Tokugawa paulownia,” and clearly refers to the Eucharist as “the body of a person” (hito no karada). Circumstantial evidence, perhaps, but if Christianity was dead in Japan, then were all of these occurrences throughout the Edo period merely sightings of its ghost?

But the most persuasive of Farge’s evidence, to my mind, are these two: first, that Bunkō’s criticisms were indisputably grounded in a moral understanding that was radically different from Confucianism, Buddhism, or Shintō (the only three philosophies or religions with which, according to the erstwhile regnant no-Christianity school, anyone in the Edo period would have been familiar); and, second, that Bunkō was the only person in the entire 265-year history of Tokugawa rule to be executed for satire.

On the first point, it is clear by the end of Farge’s book that Bunkō had a fondness for the outcasts and despised of the world, a fondness that would have been alien to nearly anyone else of his time and place. Whereas many of Bunkō’s “monsters,” for example, saw the women of the Yoshiwara district as mere means to ends (whether that was bodily pleasure or heightened prestige), Bunkō frequented Yoshiwara in order to get to know the women as people. His interest in them was not selfish, but, rather, selfless. He reveals in his writings that he finds the Yoshiwara courtesans, and even the cheap prostitutes living in shanties elsewhere in the city, to be morally far superior to the totality of their clientele. Bunkō’s condemnation is reserved for hypocrites like the Narukami Nun, who took the tonsure after her husband’s death only in order to be able to seduce the bonzes; Hotta Masasuke (1712–64), a shogunal official who pretended to be fiscally conservative but who took bribes from devious office-seekers; and Toda Tadami (1689–1746), daimyo of Hizen and one of countless lords who spent peasants’ rice taxes lavishly on wine, women, and song while the peasants themselves went hungry. To be fair, there were others among Bunkō’s contemporaries who pointed out the breakdown of the Neo-Confucian moral order. Even some of the shoguns themselves, such as Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (1646–1709) and his successor and nephew, Tokugawa Ienobu (1662–1712), were de facto Confucian scholars, attempting to shore up the social pillars that were then buckling under profound economic and cultural change. But there was no one but Baba Bunkō who took such a radical, bottom-up approach to understanding Edo society by affirming the inherent dignity of those born outside the castle walls.

The second point is where Farge really drives his thesis home. Although the soi-disant modernists in the fledgling Meiji government found it commodious to portray their forebears as benighted wretches (think of Leonardo da Vinci’s estimation of the Scholastics and you get the idea), the truth is that the Tokugawa period was one of great freedom of expression and artistic and philosophical innovation. Readers of Farge’s book will likely be shocked to learn just what people got away with. Exile was the worst that one might expect for even the most bawdy and cutting criticisms of the high and mighty. Bunkō publicly, personally, and repeatedly insulted the most powerful men and women in the entire country, and did so right in their own backyards. He also had his zingers printed up on broadsheets and sold or auctioned off in order to raise a little money for expenses. And yet, he was untouched. Until, that is, he was likely accused of being a Christian, after which nothing more was heard of him.

From the perspective of law, the Tokugawa period was a time of what are now known as “legal fictions.” The law, as the Tokugawa saying went, does not bend. But the facts could. Justice was served in the Tokugawa courts by pretending that certain things did or did not happen in order to avoid the strictures of the law. For example, a boy innocently throwing rocks into a pond accidentally struck and killed a bird sacred to the imperial household. The punishment was, of course, death. But the judge, examining the body of the bird brought in as evidence, blithely declared the thing to be a duck, and the crisis was averted. Similar examples abound. A thing inconvenient to admit in court simply wasn’t. The main thing was to preserve the integrity of the law, which, perhaps counterintuitively, allowed for wide latitude in dispensing justice.

Farge argues that the ongoing problem of Christianity is nearly invisible in the Edo court records because the Tokugawa authorities saw no need to call the law into question by admitting that it was being so widely breached. To claim, in court, that Bunkō was a Christian (an offense that certainly would be punishable by death) would be tantamount to saying that the many edicts and proscriptions against the religion had failed. Bunkō, who in one of his last writings praised the “prayers of the padres,” had crossed one of the very few red lines of Tokugawa jurisprudence. In a martial law police state governed by the largely hypocritical profession of a Chinese doctrine, stirring up the most numerous and oppressed of all the defeated populations—the Christians, and the Western missionaries who might return to help them—was perhaps the one thing the Tokugawa authorities feared the most. No longer just a loud-mouthed nuisance, Bunkō, once his Christianity had become suspected, became seen as the thin end of the Christian wedge, and he was quietly and summarily done away with.

The title of Farge’s book notwithstanding, A Christian Samurai is about much, much more than Baba Bunkō. Even without the bold assertion that Christianity survived the pitiless crackdowns and remained a vital force in Japanese society throughout Catholicism’s darkest hour on the archipelago, this exciting book would be worth reading if only for the panorama it presents of Edo life and culture as a whole. Many Western authors have tried to recreate the zeitgeist of the Tokugawa. Constantin Vaporis, for example, has reimagined the alternate-attendance system used by the Tokugawa to keep the daimyō in check, and Michael Dylan Foster has tried to find the threads of historical continuity running through the Edo fascination with the bizarre. But no one, in my estimation, has succeeded half as brilliantly as Farge in understanding the fullness of life under Tokugawa rule.

It is not hyperbole to say that Farge’s knowledge of all things Edo is encyclopedic, but he has marshalled all of his facts into a very accessible volume that hums in tune with its central thesis. Taking Bunkō’s writings as his touchstone, Farge reanimates one Edo vignette after another—a river full of disappointed boaters waiting in vain for a bait-and-switch fireworks display, a lowly factotum ridiculously demanding the beheading of some servants who had mistakenly splashed water on his father, a histrionic scene between prostitute and jilted wife over a worthless husband squandering the family’s money at the Yoshiwara. It is almost as though Farge has actually been to Edo and looked around for himself. Surely some of the credit for this must go to Bunkō’s vivid prose (which Farge has deftly translated), but explicating the endless historical references and onomastic wordplay of Edo political satire is no easy task, and yet Farge has made it look, as they say in Japanese, like something that could be done before breakfast.

Apart from a handful of very minor typographical errors, one finds very little in this book to criticize. It is virtually certain, though, that Farge’s book will be attacked by those who have built careers on the understanding that Christianity in Japan disappeared after the Great Martyrdom of 1622 and the Shimabara Rebellion and subsequent proscriptions shortly thereafter. But I am confident that Farge’s impeccable scholarship and unimpeachable mastery of the minutiae of Edo history will frustrate even the most concerted attempts to debunk the debunker. A school of thought has crumbled here, and we should be grateful to Farge for having the courage and intellectual honesty to write history—his praise for White and Ralph Waldo Emerson notwithstanding—in a refreshingly objective and humble way.

Just as this book will be attacked, though, it is also certain to provide fodder for much future research by open-minded scholars. Two things that might be taken up, out of a myriad. First, does Bunkō’s use of the literary device known as the mitate, or intentionally jarring juxtaposition of radically opposite things, have more to do with Bunkō’s understanding of the Eucharist than Farge has let on? In other words, did Bunkō’s attack on the sham and hypocrisy of Edo’s empty pieties stem from his understanding of a different kind of mitate, that is, the Body and Blood under the species of bread and wine? One senses, at any rate, that Bunkō saw a deeper reality in the Eucharist, and that this perhaps influenced his impatience with a society that, in a mirror image (another of Bunkō’s literary devices, this one for comparing Catholic and Buddhist confession) of the Host, was exalted on the outside, but hollow within.

Second, might there be a fruitful comparison made beyond Farge’s concluding remarks about the poet Dana Gioia’s generalizations on Catholic writers? Beyond Gioia’s broad conception of Catholic writers as seeing mankind wending its way through a fallen and broken world, Bunkō’s oeuvre calls to mind more specific comparisons with another Catholic writer, also vastly outnumbered in her time and despised for her provincial pedigree, who told the hard truth of life by means of strangely sacramental grotesqueries centered around the Eucharist: Flannery O’Connor. At any rate, while it is highly doubtful that O’Connor ever heard of Baba Bunkō, it seems worth pointing out that she would have loved him. Likewise, Hazel Motes would have been right at home in Bunkō’s bakemono menagerie. Now that Farge has ushered Bunkō into the Catholic literary ball, let us hope that Bunkō will be introduced to many, many more of his compatriots in the years ahead. It is exciting to think about what new affinities lie waiting to be discovered.

A Christian Samurai: The Trials of Baba Bunkō is the best book on Japan that has been published last year, by far. It is, in my estimation, one of the best books on Japan, period. I recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone interested in Christian history, in Tokugawa history more narrowly, or to those who simply enjoy good scholarship for its own sake. It is hoped that this will be merely the first in a long line of works on the Christian samurai who has been defying conventional wisdom for nearly three hundred years.  

Jason Morgan is a doctoral candidate in the department of history at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.