Beyond “Laures Kirishitan Bunko”: Digital Repositories for Studying 16th and 17th Century Japanese Christianity

By James Harry Morris

Kirishitan (J. 吉利支丹/切支丹/キリシタン) were 16th and 17th Century, Japanese Roman Catholics introduced to Christianity by the Jesuits, Franciscans and other missionary orders contemporaneously present in the country; their religion and religious identity are the primary focus of my research. All scholars of the Kirishitan religion have heard of and most likely used Sophia University’s Laures Kirishitan Bunko Database (J. ラウレスキリシタン文庫データベース), a digital archive linked to the Kirishitan Bunko Library; the largest collection of Kirishitan texts in the world. The Laures Kirishitan Bunko Database is a highly useful resource including digitized versions of Johannes Laures’s Kirishitan Bunko (first published in 1940), copious bibliographical information on some 1819 texts, extensive descriptions of those texts, cross-references to modern day research and reprints, and image files for some of the texts in the collection. Other digital resources are easily overlooked by scholars in the field, however, there are several other digital databases which are highly useful for locating and reading primary and early secondary sources pertaining to the Kirishitan and their religion. Here I will assess some of those databases and provides some thoughts on their usefulness and limitations based on my own experiences using them.

Screen Shot 2018-08-20 at 11.18.00Laures Kirishitan Bunko Database.

The National Diet Library Digital Collections (J. 国立国会図書館デジタルコレクション)

The National Diet Library Digital Collections is the digital archive of the National Diet Library (the national library of Japan). As such its database is applicable not only to scholars of the Kirishitan religion, but of numerous other fields. The database is available in English and Japanese. Some items can only be viewed when visiting partner libraries, however, keyword searches for texts that can be accessed from any computer using the word Kirishitan provided the following results based on the characters used; 切支丹 – 314, キリシタン – 306, 吉利支丹 – 58. Most of these texts are secondary sources including journal articles and doctoral theses from the early 21st Century, although there are also earlier primary and secondary sources.

The system is easy to use and is based on keyword searches. Search parameters may be defined, or following a search the user can sort results based on subject, year of publication, type of resource etc. Basic information including author, title, publisher, and place of publication is given for most texts. Modern publications (those from the late 20th and early 21st Centuries) can be downloaded and viewed in PDF format, whereas earlier primary and secondary sources are viewed as images on the database’s system. The images are generally of a fair quality; some are formatted in monochrome and others in colour. Texts in monochrome tend to suffer when they include illustrations or images, which can become difficult to see. The database also allows users to easily save images of the texts as individual jpeg files or to print sections of the texts (up to 50 frames). The main problem that I have faced when using the system is navigation to the correct pages. The database allows users to navigate to different images and pages by selecting the image’s number from a drop-down menu, however, because the first few images are the book’s front cover, front matter, and table of contents, and because each image includes two pages, the numbering that the navigational system uses does not match the page numbers of the original text. This problem is further exacerbated in some older Japanese texts where each chapter restarts from a new, multiplicitous page one. Another potential issue for some users is that zooming in on the texts often results in pixelation.

Screen Shot 2018-08-20 at 11.25.38A portion of a modern reprint of the 1620 text, Ha Daiusu 破提宇子, from Tōhō Shoin’s collection Kirishitan Shiryō 吉利支丹資料 (1935).

I have found The National Diet Library Digital Collections particularly useful for accessing late 19th Century and early 20th Century secondary sources which are now out of print. For example, Anesaki Masaharu’s Kirishitan Shūmon no Hakugai to Senpuku 切支丹宗門の迫害と潜伏 (1925), Kirishitan Kinsei no Shūmatsu切支丹禁制の終末 (1926), and Kirishitan Shūkyō Bungaku切支丹宗教文学 (1932). These secondary sources and many others available on the system were foundational texts in the study of the Kirishitan, but are difficult to find through traditional library and archival research outside of Japan. Furthermore, many of these early 20th Century sources contain accessible reprints of 16th and 17th Century Kirishitan texts. For example, Anesaki’s aforementioned Kirishitan Shūmon no Hakugai to Senpuku includes some of the only modern reprints of the 17th Century martyrological texts Maruchiriyo no kagami マルチリヨの鑑 (pre-1615), Maruchiriyo no susume マルチリヨの勧め (1615), and Maruchiriyo no kokoroe マルチリヨの心得 (1622).[i] Other primary sources such as Habian’s Ha Daiusu 破提宇子 are easily accessed through other modern reprints available on the system such as Tōhō Shoin’s collection Kirishitan Shiryō 吉利支丹資料.[ii] Personally, this has made the database an essential resource for my research allowing me to read reprints of 16th and 17th Century documents when I have been unable to access them through archival research. The database is, therefore, a highly useful, but potentially overlooked resource for accessing texts pertaining to the Kirishitan.

Screen Shot 2018-08-20 at 11.26.21The title page from Anesaki Masaharu’s Kirishitan shūmon no hakugai to senpuku 切支丹宗門の迫害と潜伏 (1926).

Waseda University’s Kotenseki Sōgō Database (J. 古典籍総合データベース)

Like The National Diet Library Digital Collections, Waseda University’s Kotenseki Sōgō Database is useful for scholars of numerous historical fields. The database, which can only be navigated in Japanese, contains only eleven documents pertaining to the Kirishitan, accessible here. These texts consist of both books and manuscripts. They are from the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries and mostly pertain to the persecution of Christianity in Japan. Included in the database are classical anti-Kirishitan texts such as the Kirishitan monogatari 吉利支丹物語 and rare anti-Kirishitan documents such as the Kirishitan Kinsei Satoshigaki 切支丹禁制諷諭.

The database includes details for each text such as the title, date and place of publication, a description of its size, archival identification markers, and short historical notes (on the text’s acquisition for example). Each text is stunningly photographed, and can be viewed as individual images in HTML or downloaded as a complete PDF text. Such is the quality of the photography that one may zoom in on a text to quite extreme levels without pixelation, which is quite useful if there are characters that one is having difficulty identifying.

The Kotenseki Sōgō Database is of limited use to scholars of the Kirishitan religion due to its lack of materials, however, the rarity of the materials including in the database and the quality of the files therein make it a potentially exciting resource, particularly for those interested in the Edo period anti-Christian persecutions. I for one have not used the database to its full potential.

Screen Shot 2018-08-20 at 11.27.54First line from the Kirishitan Kinsei Ofuregaki 切支丹禁制御触書 in theKotenseki Sōgō Database.

Bibliotheca Sinica 2.0

Bibliotheca Sinica 2.0 is an Austrian bibliographical blog run by Monika and Georg Lehner. It provides English-language information on and links to European texts pertaining to China published up to 1939. While the bibliography is primarily useful for Sinologists, the historical links between the Roman Catholic missions to China and Japan, and the propensity of European publishers in the 16th and 17th Century to publish materials pertaining to the two mission fields in the same bindings, means that it can also be used to find early European materials on the Kirishitan and the missions to Japan. Unlike the previously described databases, Bibliotheca Sinica 2.0 is a search engine-like, bibliographical platform which allows one to access European language texts available on over 60 separate digital databases.

Since Bibliotheca Sinica 2.0 is a WordPress powered blog, the search function is limited and lists items based only on the date of their upload. I have therefore found the resource most useful when I am searching for specific texts or authors. After locating a text based on its title or author, the user clicks on the relevant blog post. The posts usually contain some limited bibliographical information; the author, title, place and date of publication, and publisher. This information is followed by multiple links to online repositories where the text may be accessed. Factors such as image quality and the ability to download documents ultimately vary based on the site that hosts the digitized documents.

A potentially useful feature of Bibliotheca Sinica 2.0 is the user’s ability to quickly compare different manuscript and monograph copies of the same text. Since its entries include links to digitized versions of the same text in different digital repositories, users can easily access and compare multiple iterations and editions of a text. Although the database is useful for locating European texts on the Kirishitan and the Roman Catholic missions to Japan, due to its primary focus on China some key texts pertaining to Japan that are available online are missing from the site.

Screen Shot 2018-08-20 at 11.28.27The homepage of Bibliotheca Sinica 2.0.

The University of Tsukuba’s Besson Collection (J. 筑波大学附属図書館 ベッソン・コレクション)

The University of Tsukuba’s Besson Collection, also known as The Max Besson Library of “Japonica” Collection, is one of the largest collections of texts pertaining to the Kirishitan in Japan outside of the aforementioned Laures Kirishitan Bunko. Unbeknownst to many, most of the collection has been digitized and is available online through the University of Tsukuba Library’s Website which offers both an English and a Japanese interface. The collection includes 377 primary and secondary sources mostly written in European languages and dating from the 16th and 17th Centuries.

The collection can be accessed by selecting the Besson Collection on the University of Tsukuba Library Personal Libraries and Collections page. Digitized texts include an icon of a scanner within their title. The texts can be accessed in HTML format by clicking on this icon. Bibliographical information such as title, author, date of publication, and publisher can be accessed by clicking on the title of the work.

Image quality is acceptable, but it appears that the images are only available in monochrome. I only recently discovered that most of this collection has been digitized, and therefore I have not had the opportunity to use it extensively. Nevertheless, the size of the database positions it as a potential challenger to the primacy of the Laures Kirishitan Bunko Database, since many texts in the Laures Kirishitan Bunko have not yet been digitized.

Screen Shot 2018-12-14 at 14.38.23

An image of the Besson Collection on the University of Tsukuba Library’s OPAC Page.


In this post, I have sought to outline the features and limitations of four useful online databases that can be used to access documents pertaining to 16th and 17th Century Japanese Christianity. While all scholars of the Kirishitan religion are familiar with Laures Kirishitan Bunko Database, there are numerous digital repositories that are often overlooked by scholars in the field. I have found that the databases described above can each be used for a different purpose; The National Diet Library Digital Collections is suitable for accessing early Japanese-language, secondary sources on the Kirishitan and reprints of classical texts; the Kotenseki Sōgō Database provides a small, but remarkably high-quality set of documents pertaining to the Edo period anti-Christian persecutions; Bibliotheca Sinica 2.0 allows users to easily access and compare European texts pertaining to the missions to East Asia; and the Besson Collection offers the possibility of accessing a large number of digitized primary sources. When used alongside Laure Kirishitan Bunko Database, which provides copious bibliographical details on Kirishitan period texts and the locations of their modern-day reprints, these databases have the potential to become primary tools in any Kirishitan Century (1549-1644CE) researcher’s arsenal. I hope that this short essay allows other scholars to discover and use these digital databases in their own research.


[i] Anesaki Masaharu 姉崎正治, Kirishitan shūmon no hakugai to senpuku 切支丹宗門の迫害と潜伏 (Tokyo: Dōbunkan, 1926), 131-239.

[ii] Tōhō Shoin 東方書院, ed., Kirishitan Shiryō 吉利支丹史料 (Tokyo: Tōhō Shoin, 1935).

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