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The burial ground to what some claim is Jesus' final resting place. (Jensen Walker / Getty Images)

The Little-Known Legend of Jesus in Japan

A mountain hamlet in northern Japan claims Jesus Christ was buried there

The museum contends that the local dialect contains words like aba or gaga (mother) and aya or dada (father) that are closer to Hebrew than Japanese, and that the old village name, Heraimura, can be traced to an early Middle Eastern diaspora. Religious scholar Arimasa Kubo, a retired Tokyo pastor, thinks Shingo may have been settled by “descendants of the ten lost tribes of Israel.”

As if to fuel this unlikely explanation, in 2004, Israeli ambassador Eli Cohen visited the tombs and dedicated a plaque, in Hebrew, to honor the ties between Shingo and the city of Jerusalem. Embassy spokesman Gil Haskel explained that while Hebrew tribes could have migrated to Japan, the marker was merely “a symbol of friendship rather than an endorsement of the Jesus claims.”

Another theory raises the possibility that the tombs hold the bodies of 16th- century missionaries. Christian evangelists first came to Japan in 1549, but bitter infighting for influence and Japanese converts led to a nationwide ban on the religion in 1614.

Believers went underground, and these Hidden Christians, as they are called, encountered ferocious persecution. To root them out, officials administered loyalty tests in which priests and other practitioners were required to trample a cross or an image of the Madonna and the baby Jesus. Those who refused to denounce their beliefs were crucified, beheaded, burned at the stake, tortured to death or hanged upside-down over cesspools to intensify their suffering. For more than 200 years, until an isolated Japan opened its doors to the West in 1868, Christianity survived in scattered communities, which perhaps explains why Shingo’s so-called Christian traditions are not practiced in the rest of the region.

The key to Shingo’s Christ cult lies in a scroll purported to be Christ’s last will and testament, dictated as he was dying in the village. A team of what a museum pamphlet calls “archeologists from an international society for the research of ancient literature” discovered the scripture in 1936. That manuscript, along with others allegedly unearthed by a Shinto priest around the same time, flesh out Christ’s further adventures between Judea and Japan, and pinpoint Shingo as his final resting place. (As luck would have it, the graves of Adam and Eve were just 15 miles west of town.)

Curiously, these documents were destroyed during World War II, the museum says, allowing it to house only modern transcriptions—signed “Jesus Christ, father of Christmas”—inside a glass case. Even more curiously, Jesus lived during Japan’s Yayoi period, a time of rudimentary civilization with no written language.

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The original scrolls were brought to Shingo by an Eastern magi that included the Shinto priest, a historian and a charismatic Christian missionary who preached that the Japanese emperor was the Jewish Messiah. They were joined by Shingo Mayor Denjiro Sasaki, a publicity hound eager to make the town a tourist destination. Sasaki led them through a valley of rice fields and up a slope to a bamboo thicket that concealed the burial mounds. For generations, the land had been owned by the garlic-farming Sawaguchis.

One of the clan, a youth named Sanjiro, was renowned for his blue eyes, something seldom seen in Japan and, as nationalist historian Banzan Toya insisted, proof that the Sawaguchis were progeny of Jesus and Miyuko, who, to complicate matters even more, is variously known as Yumiko, Miyo and Mariko. Among the magi’s other extravagant finds were seven ancient pyramids, all of which were said to predate the ones built by the Egyptians and the Mayans by tens of thousands of years. The heap of rocks generously dubbed the Big Stone God Pyramid is just down the road from the Christ tomb. Miraculously, the historian and the priest stumbled upon the rubble a day after they stumbled upon the graves. A sign beside this Shinto sanctuary explains that the pyramid collapsed during a 19th-century earthquake.

Shinto is a religion of nature, and during the imperialist fervor that gripped Japan before World War II, its message of Japanese uniqueness was exploited to bolster national unity. “Religious organizations could only operate freely if they had government recognition,” says Richard Fox Young.

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About Franz Lidz

A longtime Senior Writer at Sports Illustrated and the author of several memoirs, Franz Lidz has written for the New York Times since 1983, on travel, TV, film and theater. He is a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.

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