Thousands of Documents From Feudal Japan Found in a Vatican Collection

March 09, 2022
Cardinal Jose Tolentino de Mendonca

Thousands of ancient parchments recounting the persecution against Christians between the 17th and 19th centuries have been restored and digitized with the collaboration of Japanese cultural institutions. They were brought to the Vatican Library in 1953 by the Salesian missionary Mario Marega. 

A Vatican Library collection containing 14,000 ancient documents on the history of the persecution of Christians in Japan during the Edo period has been fully digitized and made available to historians, thanks to intense collaboration between the Holy See and several important Japanese cultural institutions.

The conclusion of the restoration and cataloging of the “Marega documents” – one of the most important archival collections kept outside Japan on the history of the Land of the Rising Sun between the 17th and 19th centuries – was presented this March 1st during a press conference at the Vatican.

Behind this important cultural treasure is the work of an Italian missionary, the Salesian Mario Marega, who lived in Japan between 1930 and 1974. A great connoisseur of Japanese culture – we owe him the Italian translation of Kojiki, the most ancient Japanese mythological text – Father Marega, through a network of personal connections, managed to collect thousands of jō.

These are “crushed” rolls of paper, which, after the Emperor's 1612 edict banning Christianity in Japan, were used by the Daimyo of Bungo (now Usuki, Oita Prefecture) for decades to write reports on the families of the first converts to Christianity.

A mass of documents which, in addition to offering testimony to the persecution, also offer a much broader sample of the reality of the Japanese countryside in premodern times.

Don Marega, with the help of the Apostolic Nuncio in Japan, managed to send the collected material to the Vatican in 1953. But the collection was difficult to catalog for a Western library. This is why these documents remained in storage for many years and were only found in March 2011.

The Marega project was then launched in collaboration with Japanese academic institutions. This was the beginning of a long process of inventorying and restoration. The collaboration with experts from the Far East was fundamental for the restoration of the materials: the old papers of Japanese manuscripts require special treatments.

The entire collection has finally been digitized, which will allow researchers to begin studies on these documents, which have been made available to everyone online. Cardinal José Tolentino de Mendonça, librarian and archivist of the Holy Roman Church, said during the presentation of the project:

“History has desired that the largest feudal archives outside of Japan be conserved here now. They are fundamental documents for reconstructing the history of Japanese Christianity, but their historical value goes far beyond this tableau, constituting a varied portrait of Japanese society in the pre-modern era.”