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.
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.)