The jumbled boulders of Nakaura lie brooding on the shore, defying the sea to do its worst. Behind them squats a hill clothed in bamboo, its giant knees of rock protruding through the trees. A continent of charcoal cloud looms over the coast, yet the sun blazes triumphantly in the distant west, riding high above the Gotoh Islands: it burns one’s face, even in the tail-end of winter.
Julian Nakaura was born here. They honor him with a memorial that overlooks the village: a pony-tailed boy in bronze pointing out at the sea, towards the Rome the real boy visited. But I prefer the Julian in bronze who stands, weathered and flinty, at the entrance to the Shimabara Catholic Church, way down south: a gentle old man steeled by trial and perseverance, a Missal in hand and nothing but his own two sandaled feet to carry him. Those old feet would carry him to a death unheard of even in a Europe where the burning of heretics and the disemboweling and mutilation of Roman Catholic priests was the order of the day.
In 1582 Catholicism was flourishing in some parts of Japan—especially on the island of Kyushu. The Jesuits had opened a school in Arima, southeast of Nagasaki, for training Catholic samurai youth to become future teachers, catechists and priests—a Seminario. Father Alessandro Valignano, dispatched by Rome as Visitor to Japan, had set up the school in 1580, and two years later he came up with a brainstorm: choose some fine young samurai from the student body and send them on an embassy to Rome as showpieces of the Japanese Church. Their mission would be to impress upon the nobility of Catholic Europe the quality of this newest and farthest-flung Catholic seedbed; and to impress upon themselves the grandeur of Catholicism in Europe and report their impressions to their native brethren on their return. Omura Sumitada, the first Japanese daimyo (domainal lord) to be baptized, loved the plan as soon as it hit his ears; he promised his full support. Two other daimyo also joined in; the mission was prepared immediately.
(to be continued)
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