February 5, 1597: the 26 Martyrs of Japan

“I do not want this religion:  a religion of love and union, which is therefore harmful for this kingdom.”   The Taikō Hideyoshi

(Toyotomi Hideyoshi)

           Four hundred and twenty years ago today—5 February 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.

 The Life and Death of Father Marcello Mastrilli:

An Atoning Sacrifice, a Shout to Earth and Heaven

Father Marcello Mastrilli, S.J.
       Father Marcello Mastrilli S.J. is a martyr credited in his lifetime with countless miracles, an intrepid warrior for Christ whose dream was to convert the Emperor of Japan to the Faith or die martyred as a testimony to its absolute truth. Twice he testified to that truth with his lifeblood, first on a parchment signed in his own blood and placed in the hand of Saint Francis Xavier’s corpse in its sepulchre at Goa, India. His second and final blood testament was his voluntary death by torture in Nagasaki, the fulfillment of his longing to atone for the apostasy of a fellow Jesuit who had preceded him to Japan.
            Marcello Mastrilli was born in Naples on 14 September 1603, the son of the Marquis of San Marzano. Although born into a life of aristocratic privilege, at age 14 Marcello recognized his calling to religious vocation and announced this to his parents. Meeting his father’s opposition, the determined Marcello nevertheless left home in 1618 and entered the Jesuit novitiate at Naples. Soon thereafter he had a vision of Heaven opening and instantaneously understood his life’s purpose: a mission to the Indies. In that same instant, he was infused with a love for Christ that he knew he must live out by suffering for Him.[1] During his years of novitiate, he was often visited by apparitions of Saint Francis Xavier, the Apostle of the Indies, in the form of a horseman dressed in white.
          On 11 December 1633 Marcello was gravely injured when a workman, taking down draperies hung in the Cardinal’s palace at Naples for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, dropped a hammer on his head from a great height. He fell into delirium and lingered on the edge of death for ten days. On the 21st he was visited by yet another apparition of that friend of his in Heaven, who led him through a series of prayers and vows, finally declaring, “You are healed: kiss in thanksgiving the sacred wounds of the Crucifix.” [2]
           And healed he was, restored to perfect health.[3]
            Although the news had not yet reached Catholic Europe, on October 18th of that same year, the Jesuit Provincial in Japan had apostatized under torture at Nagasaki. This man, Christovão Ferreira, had given in after five hours’ hanging in “the pit”—perhaps the most horrible torture ever devised by man. When the disconcerting news did finally arrive, many European Jesuits came forward to volunteer themselves for an atoning mission to Japan, hoping to die there as martyrs. Father Mastrilli was chosen as the mission’s superior, with good reason: he had earlier asked the Father General of the Society of Jesus for permission to go to the Indies to convert souls, whereupon the Father General responded that he need not ask him for the permission that Saint Francis Xavier—in apparition—had already given him.
            The mission left Lisbon on Holy Saturday, 7 April 1635. Forty religious were originally to have left for Japan, but, “due to the parsimony of the Royal Treasury” of Philip IV, only 33 embarked.[4] On 8 December, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, they reached Goa, the capital of Portuguese India. There they learned of the martyrdom in Japan of twenty-four Jesuits the preceding year.
            In Goa, Father Marcello spent many hours praying at St Francis Xavier’s tomb; he had it opened and the Saint’s corpse dressed in a “magnificent chasuble” donated by the Spanish Crown. He also got leave from the Provincial to take relics from the body—a handkerchief soaked in Francis Xavier’s blood and a little box containing a relic of his flesh—and left in the Saint’s hand a letter signed in his own blood.[5]
            From Goa the mission sailed to Macau—the Portuguese base in East Asia—hoping to proceed onward to Japan, but found there that no Japan-bound Portuguese ship would take a priest aboard. For fear of cutting Macao’s economic lifeline—the Japan silk trade—and of putting all Portuguese in Nagasaki at risk of capital punishment by the Shōgun’s deputies, the clerical authorities in Macao had banned the smuggling of clergy into Japan on pain of excommunication.[6] The Jesuits sailed on to Manila to try their luck there, arriving on 3 July. The Governor of the Philippines, Don Sebastián Hurtado de Corcuera, was enthusiastic about their intended mission to Japan, but the Spanish populace opposed the plan for fear of the mass slaughter of clergy that it would almost certainly entail; they dissuaded Father Mastrilli’s companions from accompanying him, and all but he returned to Macau.
         His companions gone, Father Mastrilli accompanied Governor Hurtado de Corcuera on an expedition against the Mindanao pirates. The Spanish forces flew two standards: an image of Saint Francis Xavier and an image of Christ crucified that had been rescued from the pirates’ hands. During the battle Father Marcello was struck on the flank by a cannonball; it bounced off him, leaving him unharmed. In the end the Spaniards achieved a resounding victory—which they attributed to the power of Saint Francis Xavier and Father Mastrilli’s intercession.[7]
            With that victory sealed, Father Mastrilli joined the Japanese exile community in the Philippines and devoted himself to learning their language. He also procured their services in building him a boat of Japanese design in which he planned to slip into Japan in Japanese guise; many of the Japanese exiles insisted on going with him. A Chinese ship carried Father Mastrilli, his companions, and their boat to Macau, where the Governor became their secret ally: he pardoned a certain ship’s pilot condemned to death for transporting a Dominican Friar to Japan on condition that he carry Father Mastrilli’s mission to Japan. Embarking on a Spanish ship that would carry them and their landing craft to Japanese waters, they met with numerous vicissitudes along the way, including a fierce storm off Formosa. Father Mastrilli is reported to have calmed the storm by making the Sign of the Cross over the sea with his reliquary containing Saint Francis Xavier’s relics.[8]
            Once lowered onto the waves, the little vessel[9] carrying Father Mastrilli and his companions struck out for shore, making land at Satsuma on 19 September. He entered Japan with one Japanese companion and was immediately discovered, but bribed his discoverer and set off inland; as their boat lay offshore, all his other Japanese companions were recognized as Christians and seized. Eventually they confessed that they had sailed with Father Mastrilli, which information sparked a frenzied search of the countryside for the intrepid priest. After several days he was discovered, his captors led to him by the smoke of his campfire. When they arrived he told them, “My sons, come and seize me.”
            Taken to Nagasaki, Father Mastrilli appeared before the Shōgun’s magistrates on 5 October 1637. When asked why he had come to Japan, he answered that he had come to speak to the Emperor, to restore him to health were he still alive, and to teach him the law of Jesus Christ.[10] (The “Emperor” of whom he spoke was in fact the Shōgun Iemitsu, who was thought to be afflicted with leprosy.[11]) He then told them that he had been sent as an ambassador by Saint Francis Xavier, whom the magistrates knew to have been long since dead, and he recounted to them the story of his miraculous healing by Xavier’s spirit.
            Impressed though they were by their prisoner’s apparent sincerity and strength of character, the Nagasaki magistrates had to carry out the Shōgun’s law. To urge Father Mastrilli’s apostasy, they subjected him to the water torture for two days on end. The first day they used the funnel technique, wherein the victim has a funnel shoved into his mouth and great amounts of water poured into him so that water and blood come gushing out through the victim’s mouth, ears and nose.[12] The second day’s torture was more refined. A contemporary eyewitness, quoted by historian C. R. Boxer, describes this method:
“They tie the martyr down on a board, leaving his left hand free so that he can place it on his breast if he wishes to give a sign that he will recant. His head is left hanging down a little, and the torturers do not stop pouring great quantities of water on his face … The victims make such frantic efforts to breath[e] that they usually burst a blood-vessel.”[13]
            Boxer tells us, “the record for enduring [this torture] is still that of the seventeenth-century Italian Jesuit, Mastrilli, who is said to have withstood it for two days, and received four hundred jars of water on the second day alone.”[14]
            Having been unshaken by the water torture, Father Mastrilli was returned to his prison cell, where he discovered that all his companions but one had apostatized; Andrew Koteda had died in the pit, holding out to the glorious end.[15] While interrogating the others, the magistrates gleaned information that Mastrilli had withheld from them; they interrogated him again, threatening direr torments. He told them to do their worst, adding, “My God will give me the strength to bear it.”[16]
            Handed over to the torturers, he was stripped naked and subjected to scorching of his private parts with red-hot tongs. His modesty offended, he shamed the torturers for stooping to such vile torments; they put away their branding-iron and subjected him to the water-torture for a third time.[17] Although tortured to the edge of death, he still clung to his faith.[18]
            Father Mastrilli was returned to his prison to recuperate for the final torture: he had been sentenced to die in the pit. Joyfully welcoming the bearer of his death-sentence, he prophesied that he would not die in the pit, but would instead be beheaded.[19] It would prove to be his last night before the final horrors began. “He passed the rest of the night in an ecstasy accompanied by miracles,” reports Léon Pagès.[20]
            At eleven o’clock on the morning of Wednesday, 14 October 1637, Father Mastrilli was led from his prison to the execution-ground atop the slope called Nishi-zaka that overlooked Nagasaki Bay. The Jesuits’ report on his martyrdom reads:
His mouth was gagged by an iron tongue with sharp, projecting points that prevented him from proclaiming our Holy Faith. Trussed with ropes and chains he was borne astride a horse. The right side of his head was totally shaven, while the left side was painted red, a token of extreme ignominy to the Japanese. [21]
            Yet he was not jeered at by the crowd. Behind him was carried a banner proclaiming:
The Grand Shōgun, Emperor of Japan, orders this sentence to be inflicted on the person of this madman for coming to Japan to preach an alien religion contrary to the beliefs of Buddhism and Shintō, so that all others may learn from his punishment. [22]
            And learn they did. When the “iron tongue” was removed from his mouth on that mountaintop killing-ground sanctified with countless martyrs’ blood, Father Mastrilli thanked the magistrates, who themselves had come to Nishi-zaka, and proclaimed to them, to the torturers, and in the hearing of all the crowd, the thousands of citizens of Nagasaki who had come to see this spectacle, “Now you shall know, Sirs, how great is the God whom we adore, and how precious the Paradise for which we hope.”[23]
            This was the life-defining moment: from his youth Marcello Mastrilli had studied and labored and yearned precisely for this great and precious hour. The very proving-ground where Christovão Ferreira, his unhappy predecessor, had abandoned Christ, His Church, and the religious order called by His Name—the Society of Jesus—would be the stage upon which the integrity, truth, and power of that Name would shine forth in all its dazzling glory. Indeed, Ferreira’s own given name, Christovão, derived from the Greek Christophoros: “Bearing Christ.” Certainly, Mastrilli the scholar would have known that etymology and wrestled in his soul with its implications: he must bear the burden, the Cross, the honor and the glory of that Name into the darkness and horror of the Pit—bear the Name unflinching, unyielding, undaunted by the Pit’s dank, claustrophobic closeness, its unvented stench, its inferno of unrelenting, unendurable agonies that must be endured, that were his chosen path to Paradise, with no turning back short of apostasy. For Father Marcello’s apostasy would declaim the falsity and the madness of his “alien religion contrary to the beliefs of Buddhism and Shintō”; were he to break down after having proclaimed to all of Nagasaki—indeed, to all Creation—that his end would redound to the glory of his God and to his unshakable faith in that God’s promise of Heaven, then news of that breakdown, bruited far and wide, would gravely wound his already-brutalized religion and smear that spotless Name he bore into the Pit with the foul muck of cowardice, a fault unforgivable in martial-spirited Japan. Countless earthbound souls would indeed “learn from his punishment”—to the horror and dismay of all the onlooking souls up in Heaven.
       Father Marcello, hands tied behind his back, was wrapped in coils of rope from his feet up to his chest and, hanging by his feet from a gallows, lowered head-down into the pit. Then the wooden lid—made in two halves, with cut-outs in the center to clamp and pinch the victim’s body—was closed on him. This method of “persuasion,” invented by Takenaka Uneme-no-Shō,[24] a former magistrate of Nagasaki, had proven more effective in procuring forced apostasies from Christians than had any other regime of torture. This was understandable, given its effects on the victim:
It felt like his head was going to explode; his mouth, nose and ears would soon start oozing blood. François Caron, the chief of the Dutch trading-post in Hirado, wrote, “This extremitie hath indeed … forced many to renounce their religion; and some of them who had hung two or three days assured me that the pains they endured were wholly unsufferable, no fire nor no torture equalling their languor and violence.”[25]
            Contrary to the executioners’ expectations, however, this Bateren,[26] this priest, neither squirmed nor groaned, but kept perfectly still. Thinking him prematurely dead, the executioners opened the lid; Father Mastrilli told them, “I desire nothing; I am in Paradise.” When the magistrates renewed their effort to tempt him to apostasy, he told them that the sun would reverse its course before his faith would fail. When the guards, perhaps to tempt him or perhaps out of real concern, asked him if he wanted water, he answered, “I want neither water nor anything else; only glory, glory!”[27]
            Normally, when a Christian had been hung upside-down in the pit for an extended time, toxic blood would collect in his head, blood that must be vented by means of incisions on the temples lest he die too soon—for, after all, the magistrates wanted apostasy through torture, not death. Yet, after four days’ torture in the pit, Father Mastrilli showed none of the usual symptoms. Reports of this phenomenon alarmed the magistrates. One can guess their fears: perhaps the Paradise this dauntless Bateren had spoken of was real. Perhaps the people of Nagasaki, the guards and executioners included, were witnessing an ongoing miracle granted this Bateren by his foreign God, a sign that all others might indeed learn from—but a lesson prejudicial to “the Grand Shōgun, Emperor of Japan,” an incontrovertible sign of the truth of that “alien religion contrary to the beliefs of Buddhism and Shintō.” If so, then they must act, and fast.[28]
            The magistrates ordered that the priest be beheaded at once. On hearing the news, Father Mastrilli was jubilant, as this was precisely the end he had predicted. After the executioners had pulled him from the pit, he knelt on the sacred earth atop Nishi-zaka and, invoking his patron in Heaven, “he cried out with great emotion, ‘Father Saint Francis Xavier, Father Saint Francis Xavier,’ words that were heard by the Portuguese who were present.” [29]
            And heard, no doubt, by that friend of his in Heaven and all the heavenly host.
            It took three slashes of the sword to sever his venerable head. Perhaps the swordsman, in the silence of his heart and in that Name the Bateren had borne into the pit, was shouting his own cry to Heaven as he raised his sword atop Nishi-zaka—whose earth, mixed with holy Martyrs’ blood, overlooked Christian Nagasaki and its sparkling bay, Japan’s door to the wider world.
Copyright © 2016 by Luke O’Hara
[1] Léon Pagès, Histoire de la religion chrétienne au Japon depuis 1598 jusqu’à 1651. (Paris: Charles Douniol, 1869), 828, note.
[2] Pagès, 829.
[3] For interesting details on this apparition, see: Ines G. Županov, “Passage to India: Jesuit Spiritual Economy between Martyrdom and Profit in the Seventeenth Century” in Journal of Early Modern History, Vol. 16, Issue 2 (2012), pp 121-159.
[4] Pagès, 830.
[5] Pagès, 831.
[6] C. R. Boxer, The Christian Century in Japan, 1549-1650. (Lisbon: Carcanet, 1951), 369-370.
[7] Pagès, 832.
[8] Pagès, 833.
[9] A replacement for the boat the Japanese exiles had built; it had been found unsuitable.
[10] Pagès, 834.
[11] He may in fact have had smallpox. See Liam Matthew Brockey, The Visitor: André Palmeiro and the Jesuits in Asia.  ( Cambridge, Mass:  Belknap Press, 2014), 405.
[12] Saint Magdalena of Nagasaki received that torture, described here: http://kirishtan.com/santa-magdalena-of-nagasaki-spouse-of-christ-martyr-and-one-of-gods-greatest-miracles/
[13] Boxer, The Christian Century, 351.
[14] Ibid, 351.
[15] Pagès, 836.
[16] Willis, Clive. “The Martyrdom of Father Marcello Mastrilli S.J.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Branch 53 (2013): 220. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23891244.
[17] Willis, 220-221.
[18] Pagès, 836.
[19] Pagès, 836-837.
[20] Pagès, 837.
[21] Willis, 222. A translation from the original Portuguese.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Pagès, 838.
[24] 竹中采女正, Nagasaki Bugyō from 1629 to 1633, when he was  removed from his post for illegal trading. He was forced to commit seppuku in 1634.
[25] Borrowed from http://kirishtan.com/samurai-martyrs-father-julian-nakaura/ . The excerpt from François Caron is quoted in Boxer, The Christian Century, 354.
[26] Japanese borrowing of the Portuguese ‘padre.’
[27] Pagès, 838.
[28] The Jesuits’ report notes an additional reason: “The reason for their hurry was a forthcoming celebration in the temple the next day, a day on which acts of judicial punishment were forbidden.” Willis, 223.  Also noted in Léon Pagès, Histoire, 838.
[29] Willis, 223.

Martyrs of October: Father Julian Nakaura

Julian Nakaura: Samurai, Ambassador, and Martyr

          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 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.
imported from fuji camera 13 oct 07 019 - Copy
Statue of Father Julian Nakaura in his old age, in the courtyard of the Shimabara Catholic Church, Shimabara City, Nagasaki Prefecture, Japan
      In 1582 Catholicism was flourishing in some parts of Japan, and 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.
    For the four young ambassadors—Julian, Mancio, Martin and Miguel—the journey was no pleasure-cruise.  On the second leg—the voyage to India—some of the sailors died of fever; it nearly killed one of the four ambassadors, too.  They narrowly escaped shipwreck passing through the Singapore Strait; they spent a night cocooned in blankets tied to poles, being carried by porters through an Indian jungle, to be confronted in a clearing by a furious swordsman growling in a language none of their party understood, and all of them unarmed.
     But when the four adolescents from Kyushu hit Lisbon in August of 1584 they were the hottest personalities in Catholic Europe. Like the Beatles on tour they were awaited at the docks by an adoring mob; their guardians kept them on board ship until evening so they could be slipped ashore discreetly. From Lisbon to Rome and back again honor guards, trumpet fanfares and cannon and mortar salutes would greet them in town after town.
     They were received in private audience by Philip II, King of Spain, Portugal, Naples, Flanders and much of the Americas.  He gave each of them a hug:  these boys had sailed halfway round the world braving mortal dangers for the sake of God’s Church.  Pope Gregory XIII also greeted them with hugs, had them to dinners in his private quarters, and sent messengers to inquire about their welfare three times a day.
     Gregory fell ill during their stay and suddenly found himself nearing death.  Having received the Last Rites he asked about Julian, who had come down with a fever some days before, and hearing that the boy had recovered, was relieved; Gregory XIII died two hours later.  Sixtus V succeeded him; the four boys were seated around the new Pontiff at his coronation.
       But when the four—now young men—disembarked at Nagasaki in 1590 they were coming back to a Japan very different from the one they had left eight and a half years earlier.  That Japan had been made up of largely-independent feudal states, their own lords all ardent Catholics; in the new Japan all was under the heel of one man, the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who had banned the Christian religion in 1587 and ordered all the priests out; most had gone underground instead.  This was the beginning of three centuries of persecution—the grisliest persecution Christianity has ever seen, anywhere.
     Arima Harunobu, the lord of Arima, had bravely invited the Jesuits of Nagasaki into his domain after Hideyoshi’s crackdown, but his castle-town of Arima was becoming an ever-more-risky place for a Jesuit school, so they moved the Seminario first to another town in his domain, and then out of Arima entirely, deep into the interior of Amakusa-shimo Island to the south.  While at Rome the boys had asked for admission to the Society of Jesus; they finally entered on July 25, 1591, and after two more years of schooling, made the Jesuit vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.  During their novitiate Hideyoshi’s spies would sometimes come sniffing round; the four would then disperse and become refugees, holing up in farmers’ huts in the backwoods.  This too was training for a darker time to come.
     On February 5, 1597, Hideyoshi had twenty-six Franciscans, Jesuits and lay Catholics crucified in Nagasaki for the crime of being Christian; only his providential death in 1598 gave the Japanese Church a breathing-space, as well as the larger world:  his planned invasion of China would be cancelled, and Japanese forces withdrawn from Korea.  The future began to look promising again for the Japanese Church; but the Tokugawa Shoguns who succeeded Hideyoshi saw to it that being Catholic in Japan would become, instead, an ever-surer sentence of death.  In 1612 Tokugawa Ieyasu promulgated his first edict against Christianity.  Arima Harunobu was executed that year, and the Arima domain—long Japan’s Catholic haven—became a testing-ground for the Shogunate’s plan to exterminate the Faith.
     Julian had been ordained a priest in 1608, and was one of those who went underground when all religious were ordered deported to Manila or Macao in 1614.  For some years his base was the port-town of Kuchinotsu at the southern tip of Arima; he probably kept a boat tied up in the harbor for quick escapes to the Amakusa Islands, southward across the Hayasaki Strait.  In 1622 Julian wrote a letter to Father Nuño Mascarenhas, S.J., whom he had met in Rome on his mission to the Pope more than three decades earlier.  It gives a hint of the sort of life he was living in Kuchinotsu:  “Still the persecution continues unabated; because of it we cannot take a minute’s rest.  I cannot even calmly finish writing this letter to Your Excellency.  That is because, news having arrived that the lord of this domain has begun a new, special persecution, a believer has come to tell me that I am to be moved to a safer place.  The [feudal] lord hopes to uproot the teaching of the Gospel from this domain and see to it that not even one person remains who maintains the Faith and thus violates the command of the Tenka—the ruler of all Japan.”  The “special persecution” had already killed twenty-one believers in Kuchinotsu; but Julian adds, “Thanks to the Grace of God, I still have sufficient health and strength of spirit to shepherd the Christian charges of the Society of Jesus.”  He signs the letter, “Worthless servant / Julian Nakaura.”
      Strength of spirit and body he would need, and in superhuman abundance.  The Shogun’s police wanted broken clerics to parade in front of the Christians of Nagasaki and Arima and Omura and the other stubborn Catholic holdouts:  they hoped to start a landslide of apostasies that would empty Japan of Catholics.
This was their method of persuasion:  they would coil their victim tightly in rope from the feet up to the chest, his hands tied behind his back, and then hang him upside-down from a gallows with his head and torso lowered into a hole, six feet deep, perhaps containing human waste or other filth and covered with a lid to trap the stench.  The lid was made of two boards closed together; crescent cutouts in the center closed tight around the victim’s body, pinching his waist and cutting off his circulation. It felt like his head was going to explode; his mouth, nose and ears would soon start oozing blood.  François Caron, the chief of the Dutch trading-post in Hirado, wrote, “This extremitie hath indeed … forced many to renounce their religion; and some of them who had hung two or three days assured me that the pains they endured were wholly unsufferable, no fire nor no torture equalling their languor and violence.”
      On the Eighteenth of October, 1633, Julian faced the test.  He had been in prison for almost a year awaiting his turn as his fellow-servants of God were taken away to the pits, dug where the Twenty-Six Martyrs had been crucified thirty-six years before.  On that autumn morning he was herded with seven other men—Jesuits and Dominicans—up the hill called Nishi-zaka to the execution-ground overlooking Nagasaki Bay.  Julian was about sixty-five years old, and no longer robust:  he had largely lost the use of his feet and the climb was a struggle for him; but arriving, he faced his executioners and shouted, “I am Father Nakaura, who went to Rome.”  He was determined to die; he had shoved the fact into their faces, a challenge to do their worst.  They would.
       One of Julian’s brethren broke down:  Christovaõ Ferreira, the Jesuit Provincial, gave the signal of surrender after five or six hours of the pit.  The executioners came and told Julian.  Ferreira was his superior:  if he had apostatized, why not just give in?  Julian didn’t flinch:  he was there to die.  He endured the unendurable; and he no doubt prayed.  Perhaps he remembered that day in Rome when, as a teenage boy, his heart bursting with hope, he had ignored strict orders to stay in bed and, despite a high fever, insisted on joining the other three boy-ambassadors for their first audience with the Pope.  If only he could have His Holiness’s blessing, he told them, he would get well, and he refused to be restrained by either his anxious doctors or all the Jesuits in Rome.  He did take his place in the ambassadorial party and, shivering, marched forward and knelt before the Pope.  Gregory XIII conferred his blessing on faithful Julian and ordered him back to bed immediately.  This voice the boy obeyed.
       In the pit atop Nishi-zaka, that sacred slope overlooking Nagasaki Bay, Julian hung on to the end.  God took him home on the Twenty-first of October in the Year of Our Lord 1633.  No “Worthless Servant” he.
(Blessed Julian Nakaura was beatified on November 24, 2008; he is counted among the 188 Blesseds known as Peter Kibe Kasui and 187 Companions, Martyrs.)
Text and Photo Copyright 2005/2012 by Luke O’Hara
 (A version of this story first appeared in Our Sunday Visitor.)

6 October 1619: 52 Christian Faithful of Kyoto Sent to Heaven by Fire

Itakura Katsushige
Itakura Katsushige
Shōgun Tokugawa Hidetada
Shōgun Tokugawa Hidetada
     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[1]—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.”[2] 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.[3] 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!”[4]
            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.[5]
            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.[6]
            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

[1] Pierre François Xavier de Charlevoix, Histoire de l’établissement, des progrès et de ladécadence du christianisme dans l’empire duJapon, Vol. 2, p. 187.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Léon Pagès, Histoire de la religion chrétienne au Japon depuis 1598 jusqu’à 1651, p. 413.

[4] Ibid, my translation.

[5] Ibid, my translation.

[6] Ibid.

7 October 1613: Eight Martyrs of Arima


    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 

                     Website:  Kirishtan.com

             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

The Twelfth of April 1638: The Shōgun’s Horde Storms Hara-jō’s Castle Keep

       12 April 1638 saw the gory finale of the months-long siege of Hara Castle, a finale that would expunge Christendom in all of Shimabara and Amakusa and drive it underground throughout the remaining scraps of Japan where Christians dared to cling to the Faith.  The excerpt below from “Amakusa Shiro and the Fall of Hara Castle: a Kirishitan Holocaust” describes the final assault and its aftermath.

       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 to 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?

11 April 1638: Tokugawa Iemitsu’s Army Swarms over Hara Castle’s Outer Walls

Iemitu                                                           Shōgun Tokugawa Iemitsu
            The Eleventh of April marks the beginning of the end of the Shimabara Rebellion.  Matsudaira Nobutsuna, commanding officer of the Shogun Iemitsu’s massed armies, had planned for his general assault to begin two days earlier, but  a driving rain postponed his plans: matchlock guns would be useless in a rainstorm.  In the interim, a gaggle of about ten girls descended from Hara Castle, fleeing through the rain for their lives.  They astonished their captors as they were dressed in the finest silks, as if they had just alighted from palanquins coming out of the very Imperial Palace rather than having slipped out of a beleaguered and starving rebels’ stronghold in the dark of night.  As if they had not spent an interminable winter of constant barrage, bitter cold, and starvation huddled in a makeshift bunker in mysterious service to their liege lord, a trumped-up adolescent messiah.
            They were Shiro’s pages, as it turned out—his harem? But among them were a nine-year-old, a seven-year-old, and a two-year-old. His wards, perhaps. Perhaps he had released them in an act of mercy, foreseeing the inevitably-grisly slaughter that was to befall the 37,000 professed Christians whose blood and flesh and bone was to blanket the soil of Hara-no-jo two days thence. Perhaps he hoped to spare that sacred soil a baptism of blood so dear to him. Only God and his angels can say.
            In any case, the death-tsunami began at ten o’clock on the morning of 11 April: the troops of the Nabeshima Clan, having spent the ninety days of siege raining musket-fire on the ramparts of Hara Castle’s Demaru—an arc of stonework jutting out from the central part of the fortress’s massive western wall—stole a march on all the other Shogunal troops and stormed the wall, seeing a dearth of defenders atop the ramparts. Matsudaira had ordered that the assault begin at six o’clock the next morning, but on seeing that the Nabeshima men had jumped the gun (a fait accompli prefiguring the Marco Polo Bridge Incident of 7 July 1937), he ordered all clan contingents to the attack.
            The bloodbath had begun.

Saint Valentine’s Day 1614: Tokugawa Ieyasu Bans the God who is Love

        Below: Tokugawa Ieyasu (left) and one of the many fruits of his rule (right)

Tokugawa_Ieyasu                Japanese_Crucifixion (1)

On 14 February 1614, Tokugawa Ieyasu, “retired” Shogun and de-facto ruler of Japan, promulgated his Christian Expulsion Edict.  How ironic that he chose Saint Valentine’s Day to set in motion the juggernaut that would, like a steamroller, smash into oblivion every public, visible manifestation of Christianity—that “religion of love and union” that his predecessor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, had first attacked in 1587 with his own Expulsion Edict.

Hideyoshi had decreed: “I do not want this religion: a religion of love and union, which is therefore harmful for this kingdom.” To press his point, he crucified 26 Christian men and boys on a mountainside overlooking Nagasaki bay on 5 February 1597.

His successor Ieyasu’s 1614 edict declared: “the Kirishitan band have come to Japan … longing to disseminate an evil law … so that they may change the government of the country, and obtain possession of the land.”[i]  In reality, though, far from aiming to ‘change the government of the country, and obtain possession of the land,’ the Jesuit mission to Japan strove to win souls to Christ so that the people of Japan themselves might ‘obtain possession’ of Heaven.

The question of whether or not the men bringing Christ to Japan were plotting to “disseminate an evil law” the ruler might well have left to the judgment of the Japanese people themselves.  Saint Francis Xavier records that:

The bonzes [i.e. the native Buddhist clergy] were much displeased at [the mission’s success], and when they were present at the sermons and saw that a great number became Christians daily, they began to accuse them severely for leaving their ancestral religion to follow a new faith. But the others [i.e. the converts] answered that they embraced the Christian law because they had made up their minds that it was more in accordance with nature than their own, and because they found that we [Christian missionaries] satisfied their questions while the bonzes did not. [ii]

Indeed, Saint Francis Xavier held the Japanese in such high regard that, after his providential arrival in Kagoshima on 15 August 1549, he was inspired to report:

By the experience which we have had of this land of Japan, I can inform you thereof as follows,–Firstly the people whom we have met so far, are the best who have as yet been discovered, and it seems to me that we shall never find among heathens another race to equal the Japanese. [iii]

He found no other race their equal because of the disposition of the Japanese to embrace the truth, once it had been clearly presented to them and all their doubts confuted.

Furthermore, the mission’s goal was clearly not to ‘change the government of the country,’ and the missionaries’ reward was just as clearly not to ‘obtain possession of the land’ as Ieyasu had falsely claimed.  Rather, their goal was to change human hearts and lead sinners to Christ, and their reward was the joyful anticipation of hearing: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant … enter thou into the joy of thy lord’[iv] once they themselves had passed from this life into Heaven. Another letter of Saint Francis Xavier’s makes this clear:

The labours which are undergone for the conversion of a people so rational, so desirous to know the truth and be saved, result in very sweet fruit to the soul. Even at Amanguchi [Yamaguchi], when the King allowed us to preach the faith and a vast concourse of people gathered round us, I had so much joy and vigour and delight of heart, as I never experienced in my life before. … These things made me so overflow with joy, that I lost all sense of suffering. Would to God that these divine consolations which God so graciously gives us in the midst of our labours might not only be related by me, but also some experience of them be sent to our European Universities, to be tasted as well as heard of! Then many of those young men given up to study would turn all their cares and desires to the conversion of infidels, if they could once taste the delight of the heavenly sweetness which comes from such labours, and if the world knew and was aware how well the souls of the Japanese are prepared to receive the Gospel, I am sure that many learned men would finish their studies, canons, priests, and prelates even, would abandon their rich livings, to change an existence full of bitterness and anxiety for so sweet and pleasant a life. And to gain this happiness they would not hesitate to set sail even to Japan.[v]

Setting sail to Japan from Portugal in the mid-sixteenth century involved great risk:  besides the dangers of scurvy, amoebic dysentery, food poisoning, starvation, shipboard fires, and countless communicable diseases, there were typhoons, shipwreck, and pirates to be feared.  No wonder then that time and time again, when their Japanese hosts asked the missionaries why they had braved such dangers to sail to the very end of the earth, to faraway Japan, the answer so astonished the natives:  these fearless men had come to save human souls, pure and simple.

Rather than ‘longing to disseminate an evil law … so that they may change the government of the country, and obtain possession of the land,’ then, the Jesuit mission that opened Japan to Christ sought a much more lasting reward, an eternal one, as described by Christ Himself:  ‘But lay up to yourselves treasures in heaven: where neither the rust nor moth doth consume, and where thieves do not break through, nor steal. For where thy treasure is, there is thy heart also.’[vi]

Where Saint Francis Xavier’s heart and treasure were, he himself made clear in closing his letter of 29 January 1552:

So now I will end though I know not how to end when I am writing to my dearest fathers and brothers, and about my joys in Japan too, the greatness of which I could never express, how ever much I might wish to do so. I end my letter then, begging and imploring God to vouchsafe to unite us some day in the bliss of heaven.  Amen.[vii]

To unite him with all his brethren in Christ, that is, including—if God would grant his dearest hope—every last precious human soul in Japan.

[i] C.R. Boxer, The Christian Century in Japan.  (Manchester: Carcanet, 1993) p. 318.

[ii] St. Francis Xavier: Letter from Japan, to the Society of Jesus at Goa, 1551

[iii] St. Francis Xavier: Letter from Kagoshima, Japan, to the Society of Jesus at Goa, November 1549.

[iv] Matthew 25:21, Douay Rheims Bible, excerpt.

[v] The Life and Letters of St. Francis Xavier, v. 2, Henry J. Coleridge, S.J., ed. (London:  Burns and Gates, 1872.) p. 349.

[vi] Matthew 6:20-21, Douay Rheims Bible.

[vii] The Life and Letters of St. Francis Xavier, v. 2, Henry J. Coleridge, S.J., ed. (London:  Burns and Gates, 1872.) p. 349

November 11, 1634: Saint Marina of Omura

             November the Eleventh marks the martyrdom of Saint Marina of Ōmura, canonized by Pope John Paul II on October 18, 1987.  I first learned of her story on seeing her statue in the courtyard of the Kako-machi Catholic Church in Ōmura, Nagasaki Prefecture, Japan—a lady in black-and-white Dominican habit clutching a crucifix to her breast and standing atop a crown of flames that would send her straight to Heaven, her face aglow with faith and hope and love—and superhuman strength. 
          In 1626, entering the Dominican Order as a Tertiary, or lay Dominican, she had dedicated her life and her virginity to Christ:  a vow which was anathema to the Shōgun up in Edo (modern-day Tokyo):  Iemitsu, a sin-enslaved sadist who, heavily guarded, would prowl the streets of his capital at night in disguise, looking for innocent victims to test the sharpness of his sword on. Of all his imagined enemies he feared Christ the most.    
          Marina lived in Ōmura, a very long way from the capital but not far from the port-town of Nagasaki, the Christian capital of Japan. Ōmura itself had been a Christian stronghold in former times. Indeed, Ōmura Sumitada, lord of Ōmura three generations past, had been Japan’s first-baptized Christian domainal lord, and had had his own daughter baptized as ‘Marina’. Alas, since those days, a profusion of anti-Christian tyrants had put an end to the freedom of conscience that some parts of Japan had once known: in Saint Marina’s day, to profess Christ was death throughout Japan.
          Her supposed crimes were legion:  she had manifested charity selflessly, giving refuge in her home to hunted priests and persecuted Christians at risk of her life. Thank God that Saint Marina—like so many Holy Martyrs before her—despised the pains of death, for in her eyes these were but the merest footsteps in her steady climb to Heaven to meet her one true Spouse and Lord.  Once arrested, she was stripped naked and paraded through the whole domain of Ōmura to shame her, yet she marched with perfect modesty: as a virgin self-promised to Christ, she remained untainted. She was transferred to Nagasaki and immolated by ‘slow fire’ on Nishi-zaka, the holy execution-ground overlooking Nagasaki Bay—the sacred soil that had held the crosses of the Twenty-Six Martyrs of Japan back in February of 1597.  Many holy souls had followed their path to Heaven since that icy winter day thirty-seven years before; Marina of Ōmura would stand tall among them as a paragon of indomitable faith. 
          ‘Slow fire’ meant that the firewood prepared for her execution had been covered with saltwater-wetted straw, leafy green branches and soil to produce noxious, stinging smoke; it was also placed at a distance from the stake to which she was bound in order to prolong her miseries by slow roasting, thus delaying merciful death. Marina, however, did not amuse her torturers with displays of agony; instead she prayed for her persecutors and her fellow persecuted Christians: thus is she remembered in Ōmura and beyond as a Christian heroine of remarkable strength. 
          Superhuman, supernatural strength, modesty, and courage, as befits a faithful spouse of Christ.
          Saint Marina of Ōmura, pray for us.
Copyright © 2015 by Luke O’Hara
Witnesses of the Faith in the Orient, Ed. Ceferino Puebla Pedrosa, O.P., Trans. Sister Maria Maez, O.P. 2nd. Ed. (Hong Kong: Provincial Secretariat of Missions, Dominican Province of Our Lady of the Rosary, 2006) 78-79.
Boxer, Charles Ralph, The Christian Century in Japan 1549-1650 (Lisbon: Carcanet, 1993) 363-364.
On “slow fire”:  P. Ángel Peña, O.A.R., Santa Magdalena de Nagasaki (Lima: Agustinos Recoletos, Provincia del Perú, no date) 39-40.


11 November 1634 : Seventy-one Christian Faithful Climb Martyrs’ Hill

November 11, 1634: a day of infamy and glory. The train of martyrs led up Martyrs’ Hill was extraordinarily long. Two Dominican Friars on horseback, their hands tied behind their backs and hoops around their necks, led the procession; sixty-nine other Christians formed their train. The sixty-nine lay Catholics were destined for beheading or burning at the stake; the two priests would be hung upside-down in torture-pits to meet a slower, more excruciating sort of death.
On the flat stretch of earth atop the steep slope called Nishi-zaka, all the martyrs found their allotted spots prepared, arrayed inside a stockade built to keep out the milling onlookers. Here were the chopping-blocks from which severed heads would drop to earth, here the stakes against which human forms would squirm and writhe, emitting groans and screams and squeals if the torturers could have their way; and then there were those two pits with the gallows built over them, the stone counterweights readied with ropes to hold the priests dangling by their ankles head-down in the dark, horrid, filth-strewn pits. No sunshine would peek in once the wooden lids were closed tight around those two human waists—no natural sun, at least.
And yet the darkness failed to do its work: neither man called out for respite, neither gave the hoped-for signal that, after all, this unexampled agony, this horror, this test too terrible for merest human mettle to endure, had done its work. The slightest groan could suffice, some word that could be twisted to the tyrant’s purpose, a supposed sign of apostasy, of surrender to his evil will. Instead the two Christian heroes endured their agonies unflinching, surrendering their flesh and lives and souls to the God to whom they had consecrated these in their youth.
Friar Thomas Nishi was the first to die: so weakened by privations and tortures was his flesh that his soul escaped Heavenward within a day; it would take a week for Friar Giacinto Giordano Ansalone to follow his friend home. These two, the only Dominican Friars left in Japan, had been arrested on the fourth of August, the feast day of their Order’s patron saint. With what warm embraces he must have welcomed them home.
Yet more such fearless preachers would come.



Kataoka Yakichi, Nippon Kirishitan Junkyo-shi (Tokyo: Jijitsu Shinsha, 1979) 429-432.

Léon Pagès, Histoire De La Religion Chrétienne Au Japon Depuis 1598 Jusqu’à 

  1651: Pte. Texte (Paris: Charles Douniol, 1869) 807-809.

Copyright © 2015 by Luke O’Hara