(revised 9 June 2014)
“Martyr” is a word much abused in our day; here’s one excellent definition from the mouth of Joseph Takami, the Archbishop of Nagasaki: “True Christian martyrs forgive others. Even while being killed by others, they forgive them. They teach us the meaning of a death like Jesus’ death.”
Take Adam Arakawa, for example, one of the 187 Companions of Peter Kibe, beatified en masse by Pope Benedict XVI on 24 November 2008: “He was a man of prayer,” Jesuit historian and pastor Father Diego Yuuki told me. “When the last missionary in Amakusa was expelled, he took the responsibility of the church, and for that reason he was killed.”
Adam was a samurai, brought up in that proud martial tradition, but a samurai who had the humility to become a servant to his fellow-Christians after having been dismissed by his feudal lord. He served the church at Shiki, in the Amakusa Islands.
The Shōgun had banned the Faith in 1614, expelling all Christian missionaries, and Kawamura Jirōemon, the castellan of Tomioka Castle, which overlooked Shiki from a nearby mountaintop, was ordered by his lord to exterminate Christendom in the Amakusa Islands. Humble old Adam, in his seventies, was the obvious primary target: Kawamura thought that he could intimidate Adam into renouncing the Faith; then, he thought, the other local Christians would follow his example.
Kawamura had misjudged his man: when Adam, steely old Catholic samurai, heard that they were looking for him, he fell to his knees, thanking God, and asked Him to grant him martyrdom. Friends warned Adam to abandon Christ, lest he be killed. His answer is recorded in history: “’Disobey God,’ you’re telling me? You’re telling me to shame my God? Kawamura-sama’s orders or the law of the Shōgun of all Japan notwithstanding, please understand: I am a Christian. A true Christian puts Christ’s teaching above his own life. No matter how they torture me, I cannot disobey Christ, true God.”
Kawamura had Adam brought to his castle for interrogation and bound to a pillar outside; to break the old man’s spirit he kept him out there all night. Come morning, though, Adam’s spirit was unbroken. When Kawamura told him it was not just his own nor just his feudal lord’s command, but the very Shōgun’s orders that he apostatize, Adam replied, “A man’s soul is more important to him than his body. I obey the true God, Deus, savior of souls.” In old Japan, Catholic missionaries called God by his Latin name, Deus, rather than use the Japanese translation of “god,” i.e. kami, to avoid confusing Him with the “gods” of superstition.
On March 21, 1614, the Friday before Palm Sunday, Kawamura ordered Adam stripped naked, paraded through town, and then hung by his elbows from a cross-bar (or lintel) supported by two pillars; they tied his legs to these, with his tiptoes barely touching the ground. Adam was in constant agony, straining against the weight of his own body, besides being exposed to the elements and public ridicule. It was March—cold and windy—and Kawamura had had the pillars set up at land’s edge to expose him to the cold sea wind, but to keep from killing him, they untied him at night and took him indoors. This torture lasted nine days. Unable to join his hands while praying, Adam did his best to raise them toward Heaven. Rather than show his pain, he encouraged the local Christians in their faith, speaking only of things of the soul. He was finally untied on Holy Saturday, his faith untouched, and put in the hands of a local Christian, under house arrest—an internment that would last for sixty days.
Kawamura eventually sent a message to Adam: “We’ll cut your fingers off unless you renounce your faith. Not all at once, but slowly.” They would cut off one piece at a time, allow the wound to heal, and then come back to cut off another bit, to prolong his agony to the maximum, they told him. Adam’s response: “I’m determined to bear any sort of torture. God will surely strengthen me and give me perseverance to the end. Even if I die after long suffering, having undergone repeated tortures, I’ll be happy to get it, for penance’ sake and for love of God.” On hearing that, Kawamura, the castellan, ordered the cutting to begin; but his men, afraid of Heaven’s recompense should they mutilate such a good old man, held off.
Finally Kawamura sent to Terazawa Hirotaka, his feudal lord up in Karatsu, in northern Kyushu, for orders, reporting Adam’s unshakable determination to hold onto his faith. A courier came back at breakneck speed with new orders: kill him. Meanwhile, in his imprisonment, Adam had seen a vision of the Mother of God: she was holding a cross in her hands, and Adam understood that he was to become a holy Martyr.
Kawamura had Adam brought to his castle. Along the way a crier kept blowing a conch shell and announcing that Adam would be executed in two or three days. This was a lie: they just wanted to put the local Christians off the track, lest they come in droves to his execution, seeking relics. The next morning, at first cock’s crow, Kawamura’s executioners took Adam out of the castle in the pre-dawn darkness and led him up a steep mountain path with a rope around his neck. Anxious for martyrdom, Adam “climbed like a leaping deer,” pulling the soldier with the rope in his grip right off his feet. At the chosen place, Adam knelt and prayed. He then advised his executioners to make their children study the Christian Faith, and he told them they had better become Christians too, and fast.
The swordsman must have been unsteady on his feet on the steep slope, for his first slash went awry, into Adam’s shoulder: Adam didn’t flinch; he was too busy praying to Jesus. It was only after two more slashes that his blessed, hoary head fell to earth.
They put Adam’s bloody remains in a net, weighted down with two large stones, took them out in a boat and sunk them into the sea, afraid, perhaps, of that eternal truth: The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Faith. The local Christians, though, scooped up the earth on that hillside that had drunk Adam’s sacred blood and saved this as a relic.
Adam’s fearless testimony in blood did truly seed the Faith: repentant Catholics all over the Amakusa Islands publicly declared their faith, emboldened by Adam’s example after having been cowed into silence by the Shōgun’s ban on Christ. In one village alone, more than 150 emboldened souls declared their faith in the Truth that has overcome the world.
One almighty Truth indeed, and terror to the Enemy of all men’s souls.
Blessed Adam Arakawa, beatified by Pope Benedict XVI on 24 November 2008, is one of the 187 Companions of Blessed Peter Kibe Kasui. He was beheaded on or about Tuesday, June 5, 1614. (The date is unclear; that his martyrdom was fulfilled on a Tuesday, before dawn, is established.)
Father Diego Yuuki, consummate historian of Japanese Christendom, passed away on November 17, 2008 in Nagasaki, city of Martyrs. As of today, June 10, 2013, Joseph Takami continues in the office of Archbishop of Nagasaki.
Kataoka Yakichi, Nihon Kirishitan Junkyō-shi (Tokyo: Jiji Tsushinsha, 1979) p. 252.
Copyright 2014 by Luke O’Hara