Today, 6 February, the Church marks the martyrdom of Saint Paul Miki and Companions, also known as the 26 Martyrs of Japan. Here is their story:
“I do not want this religion: a religion of love and union, which is therefore harmful for this kingdom.” The Taikō Hideyoshi
On February 5, 1597, twenty-six bloodied men and boys were crucified on a mountainside overlooking Nagasaki Bay for the crime of being Christian. Being spat upon and ridiculed and otherwise abused, they had been marched for twenty-eight days through towns and villages and countryside toward their destination at the westernmost edge of Japan—for the Christian town of Nagasaki was, in the dictator’s eyes, the perfect place to make a show of his power.
He had proscribed the Faith a decade earlier, perhaps in the merest fit of pique—fueled by drunkenness—and ordered all clergy, or bateren, out of Japan. Unwilling to abandon their flocks, however, most of the clergy in the country stayed on at the risk of their lives and went incognito as it were, abandoning the Jesuit habit to wear the ordinary Japanese clothing of the day. They knew the ruler well: Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the Taikō, the Retired Imperial Regent. In the Japanese scheme of things, his so-called retirement was a screen behind which to freely wield dictatorial power, and he accepted the proscribed clergy’s screen of seeming-obedience to his edict as a convenient compromise, for he needed the good offices of the Jesuit clergy in Japan to smooth his acquisition of Chinese silk and European guns through the Portuguese traders who sailed to Nagasaki from Macao.
But then, on October 19, 1596, the San Felipe—a Mexico-bound Spanish galleon laden with rich Chinese silks—limped into the Japanese port of Urado after having been blown off course by a typhoon. The local daimyō (feudal lord), feigning helpfulness, had the ship towed into his harbor and right onto a sand-bar, which broke the ship’s back and converted her into a shipwreck. Now, by Japanese law, her cargo was forfeit, or so the daimyō told the Spaniards, and he quickly sent word to Hideyoshi, from whom he could expect a rich reward.
The Spanish captain dispatched an embassy of two Franciscan friars and two of his crewmen to Osaka, the Taikō‘s capital, to save his cargo, but such an embassy could be embarrassing for Hideyoshi: he had already claimed the cargo for himself. He therefore engineered an interrogation of the ship’s pilot at the hands of a clever underling: Hideyoshi’s man construed a “confession” that the friars were the vanguards of Spanish conquest; this gave the ruler an excuse to explode with rage and in his fury order the round-up and crucifixion of all Franciscans in his captive realm. In the event, his zealous men netted six Franciscans, three Jesuits and fifteen Catholic laymen. (Two more martyrs would be added to their number later on.) Hideyoshi ordered their ears and noses cut off; next they were to be paraded around the cities of Kyoto, Osaka and Sakai in carts, and thereafter marched eight hundred kilometers to Nagasaki, there to be crucified. A sympathetic official in Kyoto intervened: only their left earlobes were cut off, but the rest of the sentence would be carried out in full.
The 26 Martyrs started their death-march on the tenth of January, 1597. They were marched from dawn till nightfall for twenty-seven days, paraded as criminals and outcasts through town after town. The youngest of the martyrs was twelve, the oldest sixty-four. Twelve-year-old Louis Ibaraki laughed when they clipped his ear, and thereafter marched along jauntily toward Nagasaki. On their wintry road to Calvary Thomas Kozaki, fourteen, wrote to his mother, “You should not worry about me and my father Michael”—his father was marching with him to be crucified—“I hope to see you both very soon, there in Paradise,” he explained.1
At one point in their trek the guards grabbed Peter Sukejiro, a young believer accompanying the martyrs, robbed him of everything he had and threw him in with them, thus sentencing him to death on their own authority. Rather than protest, Peter merely remarked, “Seeing that we all have to die anyway, it’s better to die for the Faith,” 2 thus proving his own fitness for martyrdom.
Their last night on earth was miserable: it was a bitterly frosty night and the Martyrs must have prayed and shivered all night long, since they were hunched together in open boats offshore of Togitsu, a Christian village north of Nagasaki, with musket-men guarding the shoreline. Hideyoshi’s sheriff, afraid of Christian violence, would not take the risk of putting them under a Christian roof for the night, as if he had something to fear from that “religion of love and union”.
On the Fifth of February the martyrs were marshaled to their feet at dawn and marched double-time toward Nishizaka, the mountain slope atop which they would die; it would be a twelve-kilometer marathon. The local Christians lined the roadside in silent reverence watching them pass, breathing not a whisper of hostility. From time to time Jesuit Brother Paul Miki exclaimed, “Today is Easter Sunday for me! The Lord has shown me such mercy!” as they climbed toward their Calvary.3 They arrived at half-past nine in the morning: just about the time Our Lord was crucified.
Up on their crosses the Twenty-Six awaited the coup de graçe that would end their Japanese-style crucifixions: twin spear-thrusts from below, into their left and right sides and upward through their hearts and out their shoulders. The false charges laid against them were painted on a placard stood in front of the row of crosses for all to see, but all of Nagasaki knew that they had been condemned merely for the crime of being Christian. Paul Miki spent his last minutes preaching, just as he had been doing all the length of their twenty-seven day march to Calvary, proclaiming to the thousands of Nagasaki Christians blanketing the hillside below, “I greatly rejoice to die for this cause!”
When the soldiers unsheathed their spears, the crucified martyrs and the crowd all started shouting in one voice, “Jesus! Mary!” This holy cry resounded again and again until every last martyr’s heart was pierced; it resounded among the hills of Nagasaki, across the waters of the bay, through the rigging of the ships from halfway round the world that lay in Nagasaki Bay tethered to their moorings, their crewmen watching transfixed by the spectacle above, as if it were they themselves and their holy Faith whose hearts were being pierced.
Twelve-year-old Louis Ibaraki had long been prepared for this moment. Twenty-seven days earlier, at the start of their journey, the martyrs had been paraded in oxcarts around the capital and around nearby Sakai, the mercantile center of Japan, and in their oxcart the three youngest boys had brightly sung the Our Father and the Hail Mary as their just-clipped ears poured blood; now, raised on their crosses, the three sang a Psalm—Praise the Lord, O ye children, praise ye His Holy Name. Louis alone among the Twenty-six was there entirely by personal choice, for he had been offered his freedom by Hanzaburō, the sheriff in charge of the execution, on condition that he give up the Faith.
Louis didn’t hesitate; his answer was swift and clear: “I do not want to live on that condition, for it is not reasonable to exchange a life that has no end for one that soon finishes” 4: a holy precocity reminiscent of Our Lord at age twelve in the Temple, “Sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions, and all who heard him were astounded at His understanding and His answers” (Luke 2:46b-47).
In that same spirit, on the Fifth of February in the Year of Our Lord 1597, atop that slope called Nishizaka that overlooked wholly-Catholic Nagasaki and its perfect harbor, the boy-Saint Louis Ibaraki shouted words that would carry His blessing to the ears and hearts of all the listening world, before the soldiers gouged their spears into his sides and up through his twelve-year-old heart: “Paradise! Paradise!” he shouted, struggling toward Heaven, “Jesus! Mary!”
Copyright 2007/2014 by Luke O’Hara
1 Diego Yuuki, S.J., The Twenty-Six Martyrs of Nagasaki (Tokyo, Enderle, 1998), 55.
2 Yuuki, 56.
3 Yuuki, 70.
4 Yuuki, 60.
In the Year of Our Lord 1613, the domain of Arima was in the hands of Arima Naozumi, the son of Arima Harunobu, longtime stalwart patron and protector of the Church in Japan. After Harunobu’s execution in 1612, Naozumi had apostatized on the orders of the de-facto Shōgun Tokugawa Ieyasu and received lordship of his dead father’s domain on condition that he do his utmost to exterminate the very Faith that he had from his childhood espoused.
Although his domain was far removed from Ieyasu’s castle-town up on the Pacific coast of Honshu, down home in Arima, Naozumi had the ruler’s own hound at his heels: Hasegawa Sahiōye, Governor of nearby Nagasaki—a close advisor of Ieyasu’s and a hell-driven enemy of Christ. Plotting to grab the domain of Arima for himself, Hasegawa threatened Naozumi, greenhorn Lord of Arima, with the Shōgun’s own hellfire if he did not prove his determination to purge the land of Christians with some solid evidence posthaste.
Naozumi called in his eight top samurai, formerly his father’s liegemen, and pleaded with them to renounce Christ, if only on paper, to save him from the threatened wrath—indeed, to save all of Arima’s faithful from that wrath, or so he claimed, citing Hasegawa’s threat. Hearing their new liege lord’s artful pleading, five of the eight samurai agreed to the stratagem. Three, however, refused to budge: Leo Taketomi Kan’emon, Adrian Takahashi Mondo, and Leo Hayashida Sakuemon.
Naozumi sentenced them to death by burning, along with their wives and children. However, the new, spineless Lord of Arima postponed the order until the three Christian stalwarts were safely out of his castle and headed home. All of them being samurai, they and their families were escorted unbound to their respective prison cells, where each family was locked up together: Adrian Takahashi with his wife Joanna; Leo Taketomi with his son Paulo; and Leo Hayashida with his wife Marta, his eighteen-year-old daughter Magdalena, and his son Diego, eleven years old.
Soon twenty thousand Kirish’tan had surrounded their prison, singing prayers and keeping vigil—at which they stayed for three days and nights on end, some huddling around campfires to keep warm in the night, some distributing food to those who were too hungry to bear it. For fear that the faithful would take relics from their remains, Naozumi ordered the martyrs-to-be spirited out of his jail to another location—clear proof that Arima Naozumi, his apostasy notwithstanding, retained a clear understanding of the restorative power of relics. Undeceived, Arima’s Kirish’tan faithful followed the soon-to-be martyrs to their new prison to continue the vigil.
On the morning of Sunday, October 7, 1613, the prisoners were led out of their cells to meet their deaths. All were wearing the kimono of the Guild of Saint Mary, given them by its chief, and each but the youngest—eleven-year-old Diego—had his or her arms bound with rope in the form of a cross. Diego, seeing that all the others were bound, asked that the guards bind him too. They insisted that they had no more rope, and on hearing this, the boy submitted quietly.
En route to their deaths, each martyr was flanked left and right by a Marian with a lit candle in one hand and a rosary in the other; these members of the Guild sang the rosary as they marched with the holy ones. Coming to a river, the martyrs were ferried across, after which they had to traverse muddy ground. A certain man offered to carry Diego on his back across the mud, but the boy declined: “Our Lord Jesus didn’t ride a horse up Calvary,” he explained, and he tromped into the mud on his own two feet. Crowds of believers with scissors or knife in hand mobbed the holy ones to strip from their clothing some relic for saving; the condemned protested that they themselves were but mere sinners. Had the Eight not thus rebuffed these adorers, they would likely have been stripped stark naked.
They arrived at the place of execution: a wooden stable of sorts filled to the rafters with firewood, surrounded by a stockade, on the beach in front of the hill atop which loomed Hino-eh Castle. Their liege lord was most likely watching from up there, high above the heads of the countless Christians jammed into the town below the castle, people from all over the Peninsula, the erstwhile Christian bastion of Japan.
Leo Taketomi climbed onto a pile of wood and made a speech to the thousands, but many of his words were drowned out by the noise of the crowd. His few audible words went something like this:
Behold the faith of Arima’s Christians: for the glory of the Lord and as a testimony to our faith we now die. My brethren, my hope is that you shall preserve your faith unshaken to the very end!
Leo stepped down; each of the martyrs was tied to a stake; the executioners lit the firewood. Quickly a storm of flames erupted around the three families. The chief of the Guild of Saint Mary, just beyond the stockade, held up a painting of Jesus in his Passion so that the martyrs could see it, a help in their death-throes. The crowd sang the Credo, the Pater Noster, the Ave Maria, and other prayers to strengthen the martyrs; reportedly the martyrs evinced nothing but joy amidst the flames.
The boy Diego’s ropes were the first to burn away: he ran to his mother’s side shouting, “Zézusu! Maria!” and fell. Next his eighteen-year-old sister Magdalena found her arms free of the burning ropes: she reached down to pick up a flaming branch and held it above her head, seemingly worshiping the fire that would send her to Heaven as she held up her head with her other hand. Seeing this, the gasping crowd made the sign of the Cross. Finally, Leo Hayashida boomed the name of Jesus out of the midst of the flames; that word shook the crowd as a whirlwind of fire devoured the eight holy martyrs. All the onlookers beat their breasts as his shout resounded over all the scene.
When that shout of Heaven’s victory reached his ears, Arima Naozumi, looking down from his castle’s overlook, must have felt as if that maelstrom of flames were in his own stomach. Meanwhile, down below, all those thousands of his Kirish’tan subjects, fallen to their knees, were praying for the souls of the martyrs—and perhaps for the soul of their earthly lord as well, cowering in his fortress high above.
This martyrdom proved to be only a prelude to the litany of sufferings that Arima was bound to endure.
Copyright 2015/2016 by Luke O’Hara
The illustration is from a 1624 history of the persecution in Japan by Nicolas Trigault; I borrowed the image from the website of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Japan, at http://www.cbcj.catholic.jp/jpn/feature/kibe_187/arima.htm
Behold a heart-wrenching martyrdom in which whole families were burned together—including mothers with their infant children—just to satisfy the almighty Shōgun Hidetada’s ire.
In October of 1619, Hidetada was passing through Fushimi after a visit to Kyōto, the Imperial capital, when he heard that there were a great many Christians being held in Kyōto’s jail. The volatile Shōgun exploded into rage and ordered them all burned alive immediately, regardless of age, gender, or station. They were to be crucified and burned on their crosses as a mise-shime: a lesson to recalcitrant believers.
Itakura Katsushige, Kyōto’s Shogunal Governor, was a decent man—the most moderate man on earth, one account tells us—but he dare not contravene the Shōgun’s orders, not even to “defer the execution of a lady of the first quality who was about to give birth.” He had allowed the faithful Catholics to return to their homes, but now they were rounded up to be loaded onto eleven wagons and paraded through the streets of Kyōto, the men, the boys, and the girls in the foremost and hindmost wagons, and the women, many with babies at their breast or in their arms in the others. History records that
A crier led the cortege and proclaimed the death sentence: “The Shōgun … wills and commands that all these people be burned alive as Christians.” And the martyrs confirmed the crier’s words, saying, “This is true; we die for Jesus. Hurrah for Jesus!”
Twenty-seven crosses had been erected along the river called Kamo-gawa, on the outskirts of Kyōto, awaiting these sacrificial victims. Among the martyrs were Johane Hashimoto Tahioye and his wife, christened Magdalena, along with their six beautiful children. On the Shōgun Hidetada’s orders, all the children must of course be burned along with their mothers. The martyrs were clamped to the crosses—the mothers with babies in their arms in the center, and the others back to back, in pairs. Historian Leon Pages lists more names: “Magdalena … had her two-year-old daughter Regina in her arms; Maria had Monica, her daughter, four years old; and Marta, her son Benito, two years old,” and on and on, including “little Marta, eight years old and blind.” And Tecla, mother of five, with four-year-old Lucia in her arms and her other children on crosses to her right and left.
The firewood was lit; as the Shōgun’s inferno erupted around the martyrs, their voices rose above the roar of the flames, calling the name of Jesus. Mothers with little ones in their arms caressed their babies’ faces to soothe their pain, as if to ward off the horror of the flames.
Tecla’s daughter Catherine cried, “Mother, I can’t see.”
“Call to Jesus and Mary,” her mother answered.
Richard Cocks, an English Protestant who witnessed this holocaust, wrote:
“I saw fifty-five martyred at Miyako, at one time when I was there, because they wold not forsake their Christian Faith, & amongst them were little Children of five or sixe yeeres old burned in their mothers armes, Crying out, Jesus recive their soules.”
Historian Léon Pagès wrote that a comet “and supernatural fires” marked this martyrdom. Fact or no, no-one of faith can doubt that Christ Himself was there among the martyrs, the Conqueror of Death claiming victory amidst those hellish earthly flames.
Copyright 2015 by Luke O’Hara
 Pierre François Xavier de Charlevoix, Histoire de l’établissement, des progrès et de la décadence du christianisme dans l’empire duJapon, Vol. 2, p. 187.
 Léon Pagès, Histoire de la religion chrétienne au Japon depuis 1598 jusqu’à 1651, p. 413.
 Ibid, my translation.
 Ibid, my translation.
Amakusa Shiro as depicted in sculpture on the grounds of the vanished Hara Castle
Under the Fallen Cherry-Blossoms, Buried History
In the Japanese village of Minami Arima, every spring at cherry-blossom time, two mortal foes march their little armies up the castle road. One is a leathery old samurai in armor and the other a pony-tailed teenager in a flowery red cape, with his face painted up like a geisha’s. The man is the Shogun’s general; the boy is Amakusa Shiro. At road’s end their armies will have mock combat, eliciting laughs from the crowd.
Beyond the cherry trees, overlooking the sea, stands a very different Amakusa Shiro: a stout young man in prayer with two swords in his belt. This statue is truer to history, more like the young samurai who stood here awaiting the holocaust in that horrific cherry-blossom spring of 1638. Here thirty-seven thousand souls would offer up their starving flesh, writing their testament in blood into this sacred soil. Here was Hara Castle, the grave of the Shimabara Rebellion, the dying gasp of old Catholic Japan.
The Shimabara Peninsula had boasted seventy Catholic churches in her prime, and the nearby Amakusa Islands had been staunchly Catholic too; but since 1612 the Shoguns had been tightening the vise and all faithful Catholics now faced death by torture. The current Shogun, Iemitsu, demanded Christ’s extinction. Iemitsu was a sadist, a pederast, a drunkard, a tyrant and a paranoiac, and he feared Christ as a demon would.
To top this off, the lords of Shimabara and Amakusa were practicing tax-extortion. There had been three years of drought and starvation, but these two profligates demanded exorbitant payments from their peasants, or else. Some defaulters were tied up in coats made of straw and set alight. One sheriff seized a farmer’s wife—nine months pregnant—stripped her and put her into a cage in an icy stream to make her husband pay up. She and her baby died in the cage.
Then there was the torture of another tax-defaulter’s only daughter, a beautiful virgin. The sheriff stripped her naked and burnt her artfully with torches; enraged, her father killed him. Perhaps this sheriff’s atrocity was the spark for the Shimabara Peninsula’s explosion into rebellion. Thousands attacked their cruel master’s fortress in the town of Shimabara, brandishing a banner that proclaimed: We were timely born to die for the Faith.
It did seem like the end of time: there were burning, vermilion skies, and flowers blooming out of season. And down in Amakusa there was a prodigy. Fifteen-year-old Shiro was the son of an old Catholic samurai named Jimbyoei. Jimbyoei and his cronies had concocted a phony prophecy by a mythical missionary of old that “foretold” Shiro’s coming to liberate the downtrodden Christians; and then they acclaimed the boy as their prophesied redeemer in a public ceremony.
Thus was the rebellion seeded. After the explosion in Shimabara, closet-Christians in the nearby Amakusa Islands flocked to Shiro’s flag to wage war on their own oppressors; meanwhile, entire villages throughout the Shimabara Peninsula were vowing in writing to obey Shiro to the death. After an unsuccessful attempt to take their despotic feudal lord’s fortress at Tomioka, Shiro’s Amakusan army sailed to Shimabara with him to join their Shimabaran brethren, and all barricaded themselves and their families inside the disused fortress called Hara Castle, in the south of the Peninsula.
On Christmas Day the Shogun learned of the rebellion and commissioned a general, Itakura Shigemasa, to go down south to Shimabara and wipe out the despised Catholics. His army—thrown together with units from various feudal clans—didn’t wait for his orders but attacked as soon as they had arrived at Hara Castle, expecting an easy victory; the Christian marksmen atop the castle walls mauled them. Enlightened, the invaders withdrew to lick their wounds and prepare themselves for real warfare.
Reinforcements came, but the rebels repulsed Itakura’s second, bigger assault. Now he had to save his honor: he ordered an all-out attack on Japanese New Year’s Day (Feb. 14, 1638). Many contingents fought bravely, but the determined rebels exhausted them, and when Itakura tried to rally his army for a last, grand effort, all the mustered units refused to budge. Now Itakura must save face: grimly leading only his own little band of vassals, he charged the fortress. A hail of bullets killed the men on his left and right, but he made it to the wall and died trying to scale it alone, shot through the chest.
Now a new, veteran general—Matsudaira—arrived with orders from the Shogun to stand clear and starve the Christians out. He surrounded the fortress with over 125,000 men and backed them up with cannon-fire from both the government camp and a 20-gun Dutch merchantman anchored offshore.
That winter was severe, and inside Hara Castle the cold and hunger did its work: what had been a triumphal juggernaut transformed into a purgatory. By March they had run out of rice and some were eating the empty sacks; nor was there any more drinking-water or firewood, nor gunpowder. The Shogun’s vise was pinching their Christian kingdom and their very bellies, while cannonballs came screaming in to crunch flesh and bone. One went through Shiro’s sleeve and killed four or five of his companions.
Matsudaira masterfully played his hand once he had tightened the vise. He tempted the Christians with promises: rice and homes and land and tax-relief, if only they would leave their fortress and abandon the Faith. These tempting lies dropped out of the sky, delivered as letters wrapped around arrows shot over the castle walls. Some nonbelievers, dragged into the rebellion against their will, did defect, but the Christian stalwarts shot testimonies back to the besiegers: they wanted only to worship Christ; that denied them, they would just have to die, they declared. Letting them live as Christians, of course, was not an option, for the Shogun, trapped in his private darkness, viewed the Faith with terror.
By spring the rebels were desperate. In a sudden night-sortie in early April they tried to rob food and ammo from the government camp, but were repulsed with heavy losses: the Christians had made the mistake of setting fire to enemy tents and thus illuminated themselves, perfect targets for massed musketry. After the raiders’ retreat into the fortress, the government troops cut open the stomachs of Christian dead and found they had been eating only leaves.
The Shogun’s hour had finally arrived. On the Eleventh of April 1638, his horde swarmed over the outermost wall of Hara Castle, having first sent down a rain of fire-arrows. The wasted defenders fought with anything at hand—empty guns, cooking-pots—while their Christian kingdom burned all around them. The innermost wall, the wall of the citadel at the mountaintop, was stormed on the morning of the Twelfth, and the fighting ended at noon, when the last rebel combatant was dead. Those taken prisoner—the elderly, the ill, mothers and their children—they beheaded, without exception. “Even the little girls,” one observer lamented.
The Shogun’s army ringed the burnt-out Hara Castle with 10,860 impaled Christian heads; they sent 3,300 more to Nagasaki as a lesson to that town’s surviving Catholics. As a warning to the Portuguese there—who had brought the Catholic Faith to Japan—they stuck four heads, including Shiro’s, onto stakes at the foot of the bridge to the island where the Portuguese were now confined. Soon the Portuguese would be banned from Japan entirely, and all Japanese required to appear before a magistrate annually and tread on a Christian sacred image to prove their loyalty to the Shogun.
In the wake of the rebellion, barely a soul remained in the south of the Shimabara Peninsula: all but the rare deserter had died at the hands of the Shogun’s army. In order to have the land tilled, therefore, the Shogunate repopulated the Peninsula by forcibly removing peasants from Shikoku and Honshu and installing them willy-nilly in the ghost towns of Shimabara.
In Japan’s Catholic heyday, at least seventy Catholic churches dotted the Shimabara Peninsula; today only three remain. But every spring at cherry-blossom time, the villagers of Minami Arima do remember the holocaust of the 37,000 with a Buddhist memorial service in the evening, and the next day with a parade, with Amakusa Shiro made up like a dainty geisha, and the Shogun’s general a proper man.
Perhaps a fitting testament to the expunging of the Faith from what was once a Catholic land—after all, a prettied-up cartoon parody of that would-be forgotten slaughter of yesteryear fits in well with the animé unreality that so enthralls the Japan of today. But the made-up fun obscures the monstrous truth of the slaughter of those 37,000 who believed themselves ‘timely born to die for the Faith,’ and it ignores the countless martyred children: martyrs because they, unlike so many of their parents, had not chosen to rebel, but had been scooped up by their parents and rushed to Minami Arima and through the gates of Hara Castle. These the Shogun’s hordes executed for the crime of being Christian. Even the little girls.
When will Hara Castle’s little martyrs be remembered?
Copyright © 2005, 2013, 2015 by Luke O’Hara
(Originally published, in an earlier version, in Our Sunday Visitor)
Father Albert Meczynski, S.J. was born of Polish nobility, the Poraj of Kurozwęki; his father (who, as best I can determine, was the Count of Kurozwęki) died when Albert was a boy. Sent to study at the Jesuit college in Lublin at age fourteen, Albert soon embraced a desire to join the Society of Jesus. His mother, outraged, sent him to school in Krakow to deter this ambition she thought unfitting a nobleman; there he studied medicine, which would later come in handy.
Despite parental opposition, Albert did eventually join the Society at Rome; he was ordained at Evora after years of study. Having repeatedly requested permission to go on mission to Japan, he finally set sail from Lisbon in 1631. An epidemic of typhus raged on board the ship, during which Father Albert rendered constant medical service; to make matters worse, contrary winds forced the ship to turn back to Lisbon. Thereafter Father Albert spent two years convalescing because of a circulatory ailment.
He sailed again on 5 March 1633; on this voyage, too, the crew was plagued by mortal illness, but they finally arrived at Goa, India on 20 August. There Father Albert visited the tomb of Saint Francis Xavier, miracle worker and “Apostle of the Indies,” where he received an infusion of spiritual strength. Setting sail then for Malacca, Father Albert was captured by Dutch pirates, taken to their colony on Formosa and kept captive for seven months; here, too, his medical skills proved useful, as the Dutchmen, who had been starving him, began to treat him more humanely when he effected a cure for their commandant’s ailing son.
Eventually he made it to Portuguese Macao, near Hong Kong; there he studied Japanese—and presumably prepared himself for martyrdom, for he had early on donated his entire fortune to the Society of Jesus with the words: “Now I have nothing but my blood to give to God.”
To make this ultimate donation, Father Albert joined Father Antonio Rubino’s bold atoning mission to Japan, which set sail from Manila in 1642. Its purpose was to repair the insult to the Christian Faith and to the Society of Jesus that Father Christovão Ferreira’s public apostasy after four hours’ torture in the Pit at Nagasaki had inflicted—and, if possible, to bring the apostate Ferreira back to Christ.
As for the ultimate fate of Ferreira’s soul, only God knows, but the Name of Christ suffered no soiling at the hands of Father Rubino’s Jesuit missionaries: in the hands of the Shogun’s torturers they would withstand seven month’s torture being scalded with sulfur-water and branded with hot iron at the volcanic “Unzen Hell” without a whisper of apostasy and finally be condemned to the torture of the Pit, the very apex of contrived human cruelty. From his gallows atop Nishi-zaka in Nagasaki, Father Albert hung upside-down in a dark, stinking toilet of a hole with his waist crimped in a wooden vise and every nerve of his body in torment, enduring a man-made hell far worse than Unzen, giving his blood to God drop by drop, dripping from his ears and mouth and nose into the filth he had to breathe for seven days, seven eternities: atonement seventy times seven for Christovão Ferreira’s apostasy, a debt far more than mere mortal man should ever have to pay.
Father Albert, holy immortal, entered Eternity on 23 March 1643.
Hallelujah. Glory be to God in all His angels and saints and martyrs.
Copyright 2017 by Luke O’Hara
 Menology of the Society of Jesus, Toronto: 1874.
Humankind—as well as all creation—owes an immeasurable debt of gratitude to Father Antonio Rubino and his companions, fearless men of God who threw their very lives to the wind for the sake of Japan and its harried people, to give the Japanese an example intended to lead them to freedom in aeternam. They had set out for Japan in 1642 from Manila in a ship secretly prepared for them by the Governor of the Philippines; they had traveled disguised as Chinese; but they died as public spectacles, proudly and fearlessly proclaiming the saving truth of Christ, the Faith they had come to die for.
In October of 1633, the acting Provincial of the Jesuit Province of Japan had apostatized under the most extreme torture and was reputed to be acting as an agent of the Shogun in effecting the apostasies of other missionaries caught by the Japanese authorities. This man, Christovão Ferreira, was indeed acting as interpreter and translator for the Shogun’s men, but there seems to be no evidence that he in fact urged the captives to apostatize; rather, he did his translating work in shame. Nevertheless, his public example of renouncing Christ was a scandal that could lead the whole Japanese nation to perdition, and Father Rubino vowed to offer himself up as a shining counter-example of faithfulness to Christ unto death, a torch of truth to dazzle the eyes and firm the wills of all Japan’s Christians: he and his companions would sail to Japan, enter the country by stealth, and try to bring Ferreira back to life—eternal life, that is—or atone for his apostasy by dying as heroic martyrs themselves.
Giovanni Antonio Rubino was born in Turin in 1578, thirty-one years after Saint Francis Xavier’s pioneering mission to Japan to spread the Word and save yet another race of man. Of noble birth, Father Rubino determined in his youth to devote his life to Christ by joining holy orders. Overcoming his father’s opposition, he joined the Society of Jesus and was sent to Goa in the Portuguese Indies. The consummate scholar, he served the Church in Asia for some forty years at Goa, Cochin, and Colombo as teacher or principal at those cities’ Jesuit academies.
This man, this faithful scholar-priest, is a towering unsung giant of Christian history, a real-life version of the tortured priests in Martin Scorcese’s Silence: a giant because, unlike the fictional priest in that movie who decided to tread on an image of Christ and thus wordlessly proclaim his apostasy, Father Antonio Rubino held out for the heavenly crown of glory—held out to the end, which came on 22 March 1643, when he finally expired hanging in the Pit atop the slope called Nishi-zaka in Nagasaki, Japan’s capital city of martyrs.
Father Rubino and his mission companions—four priests, one brother, and three lay Catholics—sailed out of Manila disguised as Chinese; on 11 August 1642 their ship ran aground on a small island in the Satsuma Strait: they had reached Japan. Within three days they were discovered, arrested, and taken to Nagasaki. There they were interviewed by the Nagasaki Bugyo, the Shogun’s deputy; the apostate priest Christovão Ferreira served as the Bugyo’s interpreter, but slunk out in shame after having been harshly scolded by Father Rubino for his faithlessness.
The Bugyo sent Father Rubino’s party to Mount Unzen, where they would endure the boiling sulfur-water tortures of “Unzen Hell” for seven months; the torturers also burned them with rods of red-hot iron. The final torture session on Unzen, especially gruelling, they suffered on 16 March 1643. None apostatized.
Boiling sulfurous springs atop Mount Unzen
The men of Father Rubino’s party were given their death-sentence, torture to death in the Pit, on 18 March: they rejoiced at the news, thanking God. The Bugyo, mystified, asked if they understood what he had told them; they replied that they had understood the Japanese perfectly: this was why they had come—to testify to the truth of Christ with their own precious lives, lives they held worthless if not spent for the Faith.
They were paraded through the streets of Nagasaki as spectacles of shame: riding on pack-horses with hands tied behind their backs; their heads and beards half-shaven, the shaven half painted red; iron “tongues” in their mouths to clamp their tongues and keep them from speaking; and signs on their backs proclaiming their crime:
The Emperor of Japan condemns these people to death for having preached the Roman Faith, long proscribed in all these domains.
Atop the slope called Nishi-zaka, on the execution-ground overlooking Nagasaki Bay, Father Rubino and his companions were violently thrown from their horses and their bodies bound in tight coils of rope. Then each martyr was suspended from a gallows head-downward waist-deep into his appointed pit, whose bottom was filled with the vilest filth. A lid was closed around his waist, closing out fresh air, closing in the stench; the lid cut off his circulation, causing excruciating pain. To multiply the martyr’s agonies astronomically, the torturers twisted the rope from which he hung: back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, each turn an eternity of earthly hell.
The Pit (an artist’s inaccurate conception)
Yet no-one apostatized: all five men of Father Rubino’s mission held out for the Christian crown of glory, and thus, in their dauntless silence, refuted the lie of apostasy, the vacuous notion that any temporary earthly suffering—no matter its present horror—is too high a price to pay for Eternal Life.
Father Antonio Rubino won the martyr’s crown on 22 March, 1643 at age 64 or 65, the second of his mission-group to gain that victory. The lifelong scholar and teacher had taught his life’s greatest lesson in silence, a silence blaring out its truth to all mankind like a startling angelic trumpet in the heavens.
Copyright 2017 by Luke O’Hara
On March 21, 1643, a Christian hero whom we know only by the name of Thomas died in the pit on Nishi-zaka in Nagasaki. Born in Korea, he was a humble lay Catholic serving Catholic exiles at a Japanese church in Cambodia when he was chosen to accompany Father Antonio Rubino and his companions on a one-way self-sacrificial mission to Japan.
Like the brave Jesuit priests of Martin Scorcese’s Silence, Father Rubino offered his life up to God on a wildly reckless mission to sneak into Japan, find the apostate priest Christovao Ferreira, and convince him to recant his apostasy and die for the Faith—both to save his own soul and to repair the bad example he had set for the onlooking Japanese faithful by his apostasy.
Unlike the Jesuit-priest characters in Silence, however, the real historical Jesuit Antonio Rubino, along with all the other members of his mission, endured seven months of the “Unzen Hell” boiling sulfur-water torture pictured in that film; they did not give in. The Shogun’s deputy in Nagasaki then condemned the dauntless members of Father Rubino’s mission to the ultimate torture of the Pit. This test too would prove fruitless for the Shogun’s purpose: Father Rubino and his companions all gave their lives for Christ atop the slope called Nishi-zaka, that holy ground sanctified first by the blood of the Twenty-six Martyrs of Nagasaki on 5 February 1597.
Thomas, faithful lay Catholic, was the first to die, the first among the hardy souls of Father Rubino’s mission to give up his earthly life for the sake of his immortal soul—indeed, for all our immortal souls, whether watching from that slope overlooking Nagasaki Bay on the 21st of March in the Year of Our Lord 1643 or gaping through the lens of history, still transfixed by the sight of that fearless Peace that passeth all understanding.
Copyright 2017 by Luke O’Hara
A glowering, scar-faced volcano named Unzen reigns over the Shimabara Peninsula in southwestern Japan. Atop it, bubbling, sulfurous hot springs vomit out white crud and belch acrid steam. They call this place “Unzen Hell.” In the 1600s, the daimyo of Shimabara found the biggest of its caustic, skin-eating pools perfect for torturing Christians.
Photo © 2007 by Luke O’Hara
Most tourists connect Unzen’s boiling fury only with the posh spas that ring her “Hell”; almost unknown is the history that lies buried within that smoking netherworld–a tale of superhuman heroism and epic tragedy. Unzen transfigured this land and laid bare its people’s souls. The volcano has reshaped the Peninsula time and again, most recently in a series of eruptions from 1991-94; and as for Shimabara’s Catholics of old, it fired them in its crucible, proving some, like Paulo Uchibori, to have been made of tempered steel. If only the whole world knew.
Back in the days when it was ruled by Arima Harunobu, this land, known as Arima, had been the Catholic bulwark of Japan; but in 1612, the Shogun exiled Harunobu for bribery, ordering his death and giving Arima to Harunobu’s spineless son Naozumi. Naozumi renounced Christ on the Shogun’s orders, joined a Buddhist sect, and vowed to his earthly lord and master to stamp out the Faith in his ancestral domain. On 7 October 1613–the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary–he burnt three of his top samurai along with their families outside the walls of his castle because they had refused his order to deny Jesus; yet Arima’s staunch Catholics, rather than being cowed, attended this glorious martyrdom in their thousands singing hymns and wearing rosaries around their necks while their earthly lord Naozumi cowered in his fortress on a hilltop overlooking the scene. Soon Naozumi asked the Shogun to transfer him out of Arima to another fief; rather than join him in apostasy and accompany their despised lord to his new home, most of Arima’s Christian samurai renounced their livelihoods for Christ and stayed behind in Arima. One of the staunchest Catholics among these samurai was Paulo Uchibori, and his three sons took after their father, their souls as tough and keen as Japanese swords.
In 1614, the Shogun’s vise tightened on Arima: Hasegawa Sahioye, the Magistrate of Nagasaki, invaded her with an army of ten thousand men to wage a gruesome campaign of anti-Christian terror, and he threw Paulo Uchibori into prison. Although the Shogun had promised Hasegawa the fief of Arima if he solved the Christian problem, he was soon recalled to Edo, the Shogun’s capital, leaving behind in Arima many mutilated but victoriously-faithful Catholics and two hills of Christian flesh, one of chopped-up bodies and the other of heads, in a field below Naozumi’s abandoned hilltop castle in the south of Arima.
Arima was next entrusted to Matsukura Shigemasa, a tough warrior and an old stalwart in the retired Shogun Ieyasu’s camp. At first, Shigemasa turned a blind eye to the Christians in Arima, and since he respected Paulo Uchibori’s samurai grit, he let him out of prison; but in 1626, Shigemasa went up to the capital to do homage to the Christ-hating Shogun Iemitsu, the third of the Tokugawa Shoguns and Ieyasu’s grandson. According to the late Jesuit historian Father Diego Yuuki, Iemitsu could think of nothing but the crackdown on Christianity, as if he were possessed (Yuuki, Unzen no Junkyo-sha, 1984, p. 52).
(Matsukura Shigemasa’s castle at Shimabara; the moat has now become a garden.) Photo © 2007 by Luke O’Hara
In his year at the Shogun’s palace at Edo, Shigemasa drank deep of the poison in the wretched Shogun Iyemitsu’s soul: he went back to Arima a changed man, determined to purge Christ from his domain, and from the capital he had sent down orders to arrest Paulo Uchibori and his family. When he arrived at his castle at Shimabara, he found thirty-seven Christians in his dungeon. On 21 February 1627, Shigemasa decreed this doom for sixteen of them: cut their fingers off, hang stones around their necks, and drown them in the sea. Paulo’s three sons were among them.
Paulo himself and nineteen others were stripped naked and forced to watch the tortures and executions. First, the executioners lined the condemned Christians up along the bank of the moat around Matsukura’s fortress, calling each one forward and cutting that victim’s fingers off one by one: some all ten, some less, at the torturer’s whim. Paulo’s eighteen-year-old son Antonio they called first: he bravely strode up and spread his hands out on the cutting-board, showing not a wince as they sliced his fingers off. Paulo’s youngest, five-year-old Ignacio, manifested a miracle when they cut his tender little index-fingers off: after each slash, he brought that hand to his face and smiled, watching the blood jet out. The astonished pagans drew away in fear: like the Gerasenes, terrified by Christ’s power over evil.
After mutilating these heroes, Matsukura’s men stripped them, tied ropes around their necks and ankles, and took them out in a boat for the final torture: hanging stones around their necks, they plunged each into the icy sea, pulling him out and demanding that he renounce Christ to save his life, and dropped him in again, pulling him out to give him another “chance”, and in, and out, over and over. None of them apostatized; every one drowned a Christian.
Looking on from a nearby boat were the twenty other Christians forced to watch the tortures and drownings, with Paulo among them. He heard his heroic son Antonio gasp, “Father, let us thank God for such a big blessing” before they drowned him; and he watched them suspend little Ignacio above the waves before his eyes for a small eternity before they finally sunk the mutilated five-year-old to the bottom of the sea.
The twenty witnesses they then took back to their stripped-off clothes; warning-signs had been sewn on them, threatening with grave punishment anyone who would dare give these Christians alms or shelter them. Next, they cut the three middle fingers off each of their hands, branded the word CHRISTIAN on their foreheads and set them loose to fend for themselves: stark, horrific examples to would-be believers of the Shogun’s certain wrath; but rather than show their misery, these stalwart Catholics went around preaching Christ fearlessly, urging apostates to return to the Faith. This was not the lesson Matsukura-dono had intended for the souls of Arima, so the twenty were eventually ordered back to his castle.
At dawn on 28 February 1627, Paulo and fifteen others were taken out of Matsukura’s dungeon to start their climb up Mount Unzen. Along the way they sang hymns and recited the Creed, and when their guards stopped to rest, they knelt, made an Act of Contrition, and prayed a Rosary; finally, singing another hymn, they arrived at the “hell” where they were to die; there the guards tied ropes around their necks, as if they were not human beings but the merest meat for boiling.
(Two boiling pools (above and below) in “Unzen Hell.” What remain today are mere vestiges of the “Hell” of 1627: Mount Unzen was reshaped by a 1792 eruption.)
The first to die jumped into the violently-boiling sulfur-water on the executioners’ command; Paulo admonished the others to wait for Matsukura’s men to do the killing: faithful Catholics must not kill themselves. He kept on encouraging and guiding his fellow-Catholics through their martyrdoms, guiding them Heavenward, which infuriated Matsukura’s executioners; so they saved Paulo for the last, grisliest execution: they hung him upside-down by his feet and dunked him head-first, yanking him out to see the result. He sang out, “Praised Be the Most Blessed Sacrament!”
They dunked him again, maybe expecting better results this time, and pulled him out a second time. Again he prayed, “Praised Be the Most Blessed Sacrament!” No whining, no squirming, no surrender to the Shogun: only praise for the Conqueror of death, until they plunged him in a third time, for good.
This was the stuff of which Saint Francis Xavier had exulted on his first arriving in Japan: here was the good earth that bore fruit a hundredfold. Eleven years later, Paulo’s prayer would crown Amakusa Shiro’s flag of rebellion which would fly over Hara Castle, where 37,000 Catholics would shed their blood for Christ. (It had long been the flag of the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament.) Those words of praise, joy and victory would soar over the Shimabara martyrs’ final battleground while the Shogun’s horde stamped out his fury—words that cannot be erased or silenced, singing through Japan’s buried centuries of darkness; words flying high and ringing still: Praised be the Most Blessed Sacrament.
We dare not shut our eyes, nor stop our ears.
(A reproduction of Shiro’s battle-flag, flying at a memorial Mass on the sacred earth where Hara Castle stood.)
Text and Photos Copyright 2007 by Luke O’Hara