Christ finds a home near Japan's Eden: Terry McCarthy visits Shingo, where locals claim they are descended from Jesus, who, they say, is buried there

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The Independent Online
JESUS CHRIST was not crucified by the Romans. They got his brother, who was called Iskiri, by mistake. Christ escaped by way of Siberia to Japan, where he got married, had three children, and lived to the age of 106. At least that is what the residents of Shingo village in the northern prefecture of Aomori believe - and they have Christ's grave to prove it.

The graveyard is just outside the village in a valley of rice fields surrounded by pine-covered hills. On a small mound are two graves with wooden crosses: Christ reportedly brought his brother's body with him on the long journey from Judaea. A sign explains how Christ came to Japan at the age of 21 to study theology for 10 years, returned to his homeland only to flee back to Japan after his brother was put to death.

There are numerous conspiracy theories about the death and resurrection of Christ. What makes the story of Shingo so charming, however, is that the villagers are content to believe they have Christ's grave, but are making no effort to make it into a tourist attraction.

The tradition is accepted by the locals as just another part of local lore. Otherwise they have little interest in Christianity. Shingo has no Christian church. It doesn't even have any Christians. But, in a wonderful twist of inconsequentiality, there is still a family living in the village who are regarded as Christ's direct descendants.

The mystery doesn't stop there. As long as anyone can remember, the Buddhist and Shintoist villagers have celebrated Christmas, with present-giving and Christmas trees - the only village in the region to do so. They also have a festival once a year when they dance around Christ's grave. And old people remember that before the Second World War the villagers used to mark a cross on the foreheads of newborn babies.

'It may be hard for you to believe, but this is the local tradition,' said Norihide Nagano, the head of the local commercial and tourism departments. He was happy to show a curious foreigner to Christ's grave, but his tourism promotion is focused on the local hot spring baths, which have just been renovated. That a foreigner should travel 400 miles (650kms) from Tokyo to Shingo just to see a grave he thought faintly eccentric.

The story of Christ's grave goes back to a manuscript discovered in 1935 in a temple in Ibaraki, some 300 miles south of Shingo. The manuscript, written in Japanese, described Christ's travels between the Holy Land and Japan - he also took in Alaska - and identified his burial site in Shingo village.

Unfortunately the original manuscript has been lost. Mr Nagano said it might have been burned during wartime bombing. But he has a copy, a scroll decorated with Stars of David. There is also mention of the graves of Adam and Eve, some 15 miles to the west of Shingo. 'Eden was close by too, it seems,' said Mr Nagano with a chuckle.

At 73 Toyoji Sawaguchi is the oldest surviving descendant of Christ in Shingo. Cheeks rosy from the winter cold, he came in from the field where he was working to discuss his family tree. 'The tradition goes back a very long way,' he said, sitting in front of a Buddhist shrine in his living room. There are six people in his family, and they farm rice, apples and garlic. Christ's grave is on his family's land.

Did he really think he was descended from Christ? 'We half believe it. But anyway it is an interesting story.' And yes, it was true that babies in the village would have a cross drawn on their forehead for good fortune. But Mr Sawaguchi was not sure that his supposed Christian ancestry was altogether fortunate, and he was not above criticising his ancestor for the bad rice harvest this year. 'The weather was terrible this year - we did not get any help from Christ on that one. Zero.'

Some have suggested that the graves in Shingo are of two foreign missionaries, part of the influx of priests who came to Japan in the late 16th century to try to convert the country to Christianity. In the early 17th century Japan was abruptly closed to all foreigners, and Christians were forced to apostatise or were put to death. A number of missionaries continued to work underground, protected by local Christian converts. This could explain why Shingo's Christian traditions are unknown in neighbouring villages.

The local sake is called 'The Legend of Christ', but otherwise the Jesus industry is not very developed in Shingo. Like many of the villagers, Mr Nagano is bemused by the interest shown in Christ's grave by outsiders who comes across the story. 'I get letters from overseas sometimes about Christ's grave. But unfortunately no one in the village can read English well enough to reply. Even the schoolteacher is not so good in English.'

(Map omitted)

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