Well over a thousand years after Buddhism came to Japan from China, another foreign religion arrived in Unzen – Portuguese merchants and missionaries arrived preaching Christianity. The headless Buddhist statue just beyond the fence is an example of what happened when these two religions clashed.
Christianity arrived in Japan in the mid-1500s, and by the end of the sixteenth century, the religion had spread not only across Kyushu but also across Japan. The lord of the Shimabara Peninsula had also converted to Christianity and ordered attacks on Buddhist monks, temples, and symbols.
The statue you see nearby is of Yakushi Nyōrai, the buddha of medicine and healing. It and countless other Buddhist statues were beheaded during the attacks because they were seen as indicative of idol worship by the new Christians. Many remain headless to this day. Of those that do have their heads, many have also been repaired. Shinto believers destroyed more statues after the Meiji restoration in 1868, and there are stories of occupying soldiers after World War II carrying out similar attacks against Buddhist statues. Although a long-time center of spirituality, Unzen has not always been a place of religious harmony.
In Unzen, the Christian lord Arima Harunobu (1567–1612) ordered the destruction of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples as a rejection of centuries of religious tradition. Buddhist statues were beheaded by the newly converted Christians, and to this day these headless relics can still be seen around town, though others have been repaired with concrete.
In 1587, however, one of the great unifiers of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537–1598) ordered the first expulsion of missionaries, suspecting that the Portuguese were intending to colonize Japan after converting the Japanese to Christianity. In 1597, twenty-six Christians were executed by crucifixion in Nagasaki. They were the first of thousands to be killed in the religious upheaval that followed––culminating in the disastrous Shimabara Rebellion of 1637–1638.