Nanban-ji (or Nanban-dera) (南蛮寺)

Nanban-ji (or Nanban-dera) (lit. Foreign Temple) is the common name for churches that stood in Japan from the introduction of Christianity (1549) to the ban on Christianity imposed by the Tokugawa Shogunate.

The name strictly refers to a church, known as Miyako no Nanban-ji (Nanban-ji Temple of the Capital, described below) built by the Society of Jesus in Kyoto in 1576.


The first full-scale church in Japan was converted from the disused Buddhist temple Daido-ji Temple in Yamaguchi City in 1551. With the later expansion of missionary work, churches were opened in locations throughout the country including Bungo, Hirado, Arima, Nagasaki, Kyoto, Sakai, Azuchi, Osaka and Edo, and these were referred to by the Japanese people of the time as Nanban-ji or Nanban-do (both meaning Foreign Temple), and Daiusu-ji Temple or Daiusu-do Temple (from the word Deus).

As the Shogunate's ban of Christianity during the Edo period became more strictly enforced, the practice of openly building churches disappeared and existing churches were demolished. It was after the end of the Edo period that Christian churches could once again be opened publicly.

Architectural characteristics

As stated previously, the Nanban-ji Temple building itself no longer exists, but contemporary Japanese paintings (Nanban-ji folding screens etc.), written works (mainly the records of missionaries) and archaeological investigations of ruins thought to be those of churches have led to the following speculations as to the church's architectural characteristics.

As can be seen at Daido-ji Temple, whether existing Buddhist temples were converted to churches or new structures constructed, Japanese carpenters were used and Japanese architectural styles (in particular Buddhist temple styles) were emulated. These were wooden buildings with tiled roofs (Many being in the yosemune-zukuri style and irimoya-zukuri style. Crucifixes were mounted on the tops of the roofs) and they contained tatami mats, sliding doors, sliding panels and engawa verandas.

The layout from the entrance to the chapel and to the altar followed the conventions of Western church architecture, and a considerably larger width over length was considered much more desirable. As a result, a comparison of an irimoya-zukuri style chapel to a Buddhist temple main hall of the same style would show that the line from the position of the entrance to the altar (the principal image in the case of a Buddhist main hall) is rotated by 90 degrees.

In addition to the use of crucifix designs on roof tiles that has been determined from excavated artifacts, it is thought that Christian motifs were incorporated into the engravings and decoration on pillars, beams, gables and transoms, as well as sliding panel paintings and roof paintings.

Miyako no Nanban-ji (1576)

The details of the construction of Miyako no Nanban-ji (Nanban-ji Temple of the Capital) are detailed in a letter written by Luís Fróis that he sent from Usuki dated September 19, 1577. As the church that had been previously built in Kyoto by the Society of Jesus had become dilapidated, it was agreed at a missionary conference in 1575 that the church would be rebuilt. It was originally intended to appropriate the building materials of a closed Buddhist temple but the failure to reach an agreement on price meant that the building was rebuilt from scratch. The construction of the church directed by Gnecchi-Soldo Organtino was carried out thanks to the cooperation and donations of influential Christians from the Kinki region such as Tomoteru TAKAYAMA (baptismal name 'Dario'), with the sum of donations and Society of Jesus expenditures totaling approximately 3,000 cruzados. This made it a church of a grand scale compared to those in Japan at the time. The formal name of Miyako no Nanban-ji is Seibo no Hishoten Kyokai (Assumption of Mary Church), and the consecrating mass was held on August 15, 1576 (the day of the Assumption) before the completion of the church. The church is presumed to have been located in the vicinity of Ubayanagi-cho, Nakagyo Ward (Takoyakushi-dori Muromachi Nishi-iru). It is thought that the church was demolished after Hideyoshi TOYOTOMI promulgated the Bateren-tsuiho-rei (the Purge Directive Order to the Jesuits) in 1587.

This church is the only one in Japan for which a historical depiction of the building survives in the form of the painting Miyako no Nanbanji-zu, one of the 61 scenes of central and outer Kyoto painted on fans by artists of the Kano School. According to this painting, Miyako no Nanban-ji was a wooden three-story pavilion-style building topped by a roof covered with fired clay tiles. The top floor is of the irimoya-zukuri style, the 1st and 2nd floors are of the yosemune-zukuri style, and the 2nd floor is encircled by a handrail and corridor offering a view of the surrounding area. The Nanban-ji folding screen which dates from the same period depicts what appears to be a crucifix on top of the roof but this is omitted in the fan painting. The details of the 1st floor and the appearance of the interior are unclear but references in Luís Fróis's letter to the donation of 100 tatami mats by a Christian woman, the high standards of 'joinery and carpentry' among Kyoto craftsmen and 'the architectural expertise of the Italian missionary Organtino' have led to the assumption that the church, although created in a Japanese style by local craftsmen, was adorned with particularly European, and in particular Italian Christian motifs.


Santo Domingo Church (Nagasaki City)

[Original Japanese]