TOKYO (AP) -- Archeologists have unearthed what is believed to be the oldest Christian tombstone in Japan, a granite slab buried centuries ago to elude persecution by feudal authorities who outlawed the foreign religion.
Dating to 1581, the pointed plot marker is believed to be that of Tsushima Tawara, a local warlord whose family apparently hid the stone to erase connections to the taboo faith, an official said Thursday.
Christianity was introduced to Japan in 1549 by Spanish missionary Francisco Xavier. But as the religion took on thousands of converts and began to rival the authority of ruling warlords, the shogun banned the religion in 1613.
Practicing the faith was made punishable by death.
The stone is emblazoned with a cross and Tawara's Christian name "Reiman" inscribed in Chinese characters meaning "many honors," according to Masao Kume, an official in the western state of Osaka, where the stone was found.
It also bore a Greek letter and date. Scholars believe the gravestone was buried after the shogun's edict banned Christianity, Kume said.
The marker was dug up last month at a parking lot construction site some 240 miles west of Tokyo.
The next oldest Japanese Christian tombstone, also discovered in Osaka, dates to 1582, Kume said.
During Japan's feudal ban on Christianity, thousands continued worshipping underground, severing all public connections to the faith. There were an estimated 50,000 Christians in Japan when the country decreed freedom of religion in 1873.