On 30 November, the mayor of Yamaguchi, Sumita Watanabe, declared to Nishinippon Newspaper that his city of Yamaguchi will be renamed “Xmas City” for the entire month of December. The move is a part of a tourism campaign which involves a month-long event of festive activities.
More than simply a PR campaign, Yamaguchi actually has a valid claim as being the launching pad for Christianity in Japan and thus the “hometown” of Christmas in Japan. Yamaguchi was where Saint Francis Xavier, the patron saint of Japan, and his followers celebrated their first Christmas.
Gather around kids, it’s time to hear the story of how Christmas first came to Japan.
Saint Francis Xavier (who I will refer to as Saint X because it’s cooler) was a missionary hired by the King of Portugal in 1542 to travel to Asia and reconvert Portuguese sailors in India who had married locals and “lost their way.”
Reaching the Portuguese colony in India, Saint X was very successful at reaching the previous Christian sailors but also converted many of the resident Indians to Christianity.
When the time came he moved on to Indonesia to meet with the Portuguese stationed there and eventually could set up a permanent mission with 10,000 converted and reconverted Catholics.
During his time in Indonesia, Saint X met with a Japanese man named Anjiro. Saint X had previously not considered missionary work in Japan, but with Anjiro’s help translating and interpreting, he decided to try.
Saint X and Anjiro had a very difficult time entering the country. Many ports outright refused entry and when he was finally permitted to land he was warned not to preach Christianity under penalty of death.
He was finally granted permission to preach in the Yamaguchi area by the Daimyo (Lord) at the time, Ouchi Yoshitaka. It was here that Saint X celebrated Japan’s first Christmas in 1552.
Even with Anjiro’s language help Saint X had a hard time convincing the Japanese people of the inherent logic of Catholicism. Concepts like Hell and an omnipotent single deity didn’t mix well with their previously held beliefs.
Furthermore, widespread persecution of outside religions made them have to work quietly which was further complicated by Saint X’s own struggles grasping the Japanese language.
Despite these complications Saint X was able to establish three small missions in Yamaguchi and parts of Kyushu and train people to run them. Saint X died of fever in China during his return voyage.
Yamaguchi is currently home to the Yamaguchi Xavier Memorial Church. The church was rebuilt after a fire destroyed the old one in 1991. During December of every year an illumination display will recreate the old church using 100,000 LED lights.
There are also a variety of other illumination displays, a gospel performance, Hatsune Miku’s opera THE END, and much more planned for the month. Mayor Watanabe hopes many will come to Yamaguchi city this and every December to celebrate Christmas in X-mas (X for Xavier) City.
▼ The symbol of Xmas City
▼Xavier Memorial Church in Yamaguchi