Photo/IllutrationA boxed set of a possible Nativity scene includes an En no Gyoja statue, left back, a conch shell-shaped netsuke, second from left, a Nyorai statue, third from left, and three metal sticks under abalone shells. (Provided by the Nagasaki Oura Church Christian Museum)

  • Photo/Illustraion

NAGASAKI--Scholars are debating whether a set of small statues and objects passed down through generations of a Japanese hidden Christian family is the oldest example of a Nativity scene in Japan.

The Nagasaki Oura Church Christian Museum here concluded that the set, believed to have been produced during the Edo Period (1603-1867), likely represented the birth of Christ in a manger.

The set was secretly passed down in a family living in the Kurozo district of Goto, Nagasaki Prefecture, on Fukueshima island.

However, some scholars have cast doubt on the museum’s conclusion. They note that no other examples have been found of a diorama representing the Nativity manger being worshipped among Japanese hidden Christians.

They say the statues in the box had been considered representative of other Christian figures disguised as folk deities.

The statues were placed in a wooden box, measuring 27.4 centimeters high, 48.2 cm wide and 27.5 cm in depth.

They consisted of a netsuke ornament sculpted in the shape of mountain priest poking his head out a conch shell, a small Nyorai Buddha statue, and a larger statue of En no Gyoja, the legendary founder of Japanese mountain asceticism.

The box also includes three metal sticks that look like female figures holding something up.

The museum said these non-Christian figures were used to disguise the manger scene because Christianity was banned by Japanese authorities during the Edo Period.

The box also housed a Christian calendar booklet, notes of prayers that include the word “ontaiya,” which stands for Christmas Eve, and abalone shells that are known religious items in the Goto islands.

After referencing iconography in artworks in Christian nations, the museum researchers concluded that the figure in the shell likely represents baby Jesus wrapped in cloth, the Nyorai is the Virgin Mary, and En no Gyoja is either Joseph or God, while the metal sticks represent the Three Magi.

Minako Uchijima, chief of the museum’s research division, cited the European tradition of displaying Nativity scene figures to celebrate Christmas.

“To keep celebrating Christian events, a calendar was necessary, and it seems Christmas was recognized as an important ritual,” Uchijima said. “It makes sense if this diorama represents the Nativity.”

Kazuhisa Oishi, chief of the musem's research department, was intrigued by the shell-shaped netsuke. Its wooden base was finely carved to fit the round bottom of the miniature sculpture so it wouldn’t roll over.

Oishi, who is Uchijima's supervisor, said care was put in to make the base as if to gently lay down a small child.

“It indicates that the figure was considered baby Jesus,” Oishi said.

After Christianity was banned, some hidden Christians in Kyushu worshipped Kannon (bodhisattva) statues as Madonna. But no sets of statues and objects representing the Nativity manger have been found.

Hiroaki Yasutaka, associate professor of modern Japanese history at Kumamoto University, said an old document noted that a medal depicting a stable was confiscated in 1805 during a crackdown of Christians in Amakusa in today’s Kumamoto Prefecture.

According to Yasutaka, the document suggests that Japanese Christians of the time knew about the relationship between Christ and the stable.

He said if the boxed kit really represents the birth of Christ, it shows that “the story of Nativity was known among wider communities.”

Kentaro Miyazaki, a visiting professor of theology at Nagasaki Junshin Catholic University, has his doubts.

He said a study was needed to interview people of the Kurozo district on whether they worshipped the set as a religious item.

“The set being from the Edo Period is not conclusive evidence,” Miyazaki said. “A further careful investigation is necessary, including why there are no similar examples at hidden Christian settlements other than the Kurozo district.”

The box is on display at the Nagasaki Oura Church Christian Museum through Sept. 26.

(This article was written by Shunsuke Nakamura, a senior staff writer, and Koichi Hotta.)