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Kanagawa museum says Japanese Christian scroll likely from 16th century

The picture scroll for Christians is seen in this photo. (Photo courtesy of the SawadaMiki Kinenkan museum)

HIRATSUKA, Kanagawa -- A museum has announced at a press conference here that a picture scroll depicting Christians in Japan in its possession was most likely created during the Azuchi-Momoyama period at the end of the 16th century, right after Christianity was introduced to Japan.

The SawadaMiki Kinenkan museum in the town of Oiso, Kanagawa Prefecture, believes that the picture is valuable to understand how early Japanese Christians practiced their faith at the time.

The picture scroll, measuring 22 centimeters high by 320 centimeters long, is a painting in Japanese ink. It depicts 15 scenes of Jesus Christ and Virgin Mary's lifetime with some of Latin prayers written in Japanese phonetic characters. The pictures contain Japanese elements, such as people wearing hakama, Japanese traditional pants.

There is also a writing saying "1592 years since His birth," implying that the artwork was created in 1592. A radiocarbon age measurement of the paper used in the scroll indicated that it was created sometime before 1633, said a museum at the press conference at the Hiratsuka Municipal Government.

"There is no reason to deny that it was created during the Azuchi-Momoyama period," an official at the museum said.

Only a few of such pictures were thought to remain because of persecution of Christians by Japanese rulers. After Saint Francis Xavier came to Japan to spread the religion in 1549, samurai lord Hideyoshi Toyotomi ordered to expel Christians in 1587 and the Edo shogunate also banned the faith in 1612.

Osamu Inoue, deputy chief of the Yokohama History Museum who examined the scroll, estimates the artwork is a reflection of a sharp increase in the number of faithful. "Ordinary people perhaps drew such pictures on papers because the material was inexpensive and (authentic) religious items were in short supply due to a rapid growth of the follower population," Inoue said.

The museum will begin displaying the picture scroll from Nov. 23.

(Japanese original by Akihiro Watanabe, Hiratsuka Local Bureau)

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