How 26 Men and Boys Conquered a King

On the morning of February 5, 1597, twenty-six crosses lined the brow of Nishizaka, the western slope of the mountain overlooking Nagasaki Bay. Below, the mountainside was blanketed with Christians awaiting the spearmen’s coups de grâce. Perhaps, amid the muffled sounds of weeping, they heard the mournful creaking of the ships in the harbor—that gateway to the West that had spawned this most Catholic of Asian cities. But above all else, they heard a preacher’s voice ringing out atop the slope.  

All of you here, please hear what I have to say,” he sang out.

Read the rest of this story at Crisis Magazine, here

6 February 2024: The 26 Martyrs of Nagasaki

Saint Paul Miki crucified – from Elogios by António Francisco Cardim, 1650
26 Martyrs monument on Nishi-zaka, Nagasaki, with Saint Luís Ibaraki in center (photo by William Underwood)

Four hundred twenty-seven years have passed since Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the Taikō of Japan, crucified the 26 Martyrs atop Nishi-zaka, the steep western slope of the mountain overlooking Nagasaki Bay. Although all of them experienced great suffering during their 27-day via crucis from Kyoto to Nagasaki, each one of them held in his heart the bright promise God gave them through Saint Paul in his first Epistle to the Corinthians:

But, as it is written: That eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man, what things God hath prepared for them that love him. (1 Cor. 2:9)

Armed with Christian courage and patience throughout their ordeal, they won eternity—a prize they can now help us win with their intercessory prayers.

Here are links to some of my stories about them, with more stories of individual martyrs to come.

1) in the National Catholic Register:

2) in Crisis Magazine:

3) on my website:


Luke O’Hara


December 8th, 1941: Birth, Death, Eternity

 The fourth angel poured his bowl on the sun, and it was allowed to scorch people with fire; they were scorched by the fierce heat, but they cursed the name of God, who had authority over these plagues, and they did not repent and give him glory.    Revelation 16:8-9

USS Shaw exploding at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. Source: US Archives, photo by unknown Navy photographer


December 8, 1941: a day that has lived in infamy for 82 years.

What? December 8th?

Americans remember Pearl Harbor on the 7th of December, but it was already December 8th in Japan when 353 of the Japanese Imperial Navy’s carrier-based fighters, dive bombers and torpedo bombers hit our ships and bases in Hawaii. 

December 8th , incidentally, marks the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin in the Roman Catholic Church.

Mere coincidence, one might say, but here’s another Marian “coincidence”: the Emperor of Japan’s surrender proclamation was broadcast to his distraught, astonished nation on August 15, 1945. The 15th of August marks the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, which pegs the end of the earthly life of the Mother of God, who would thereafter return to earth time and again to dazzle the wondering, upturn’d eyes of mortals in the form of countless apparitions warning mankind to believe in her Son’s reality and the direness of man’s addiction to sin, lest countless souls needlessly consign themselves to eternal fire—the lake of fire that is the second death.

So the front and back covers of that Book of Death that mankind knows as the Pacific War coincide with the conception of the Blessed Virgin (wherein began her earthly life) and her departure from this earth—which, for those who cling to Christ, is just the start of eternal bliss. But all this must be merest coincidence.

 That Imperial proclamation of surrender had been sparked by the fiery holocausts that incinerated Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the 6th and 9th of August respectively, two atomic immolations from above that began with the release of the U-235 bomb named Little Boy high above its target, Aioi Bridge in central Hiroshima, on the morning of the 6th. The B-29 bomber named Enola Gay, having released her weapon, sped away to escape the apocalypse like an exploding sun that would otherwise consume her along with the city below. Little Boy dropped through Enola Gay’s bomb bay doors at 8:15 a.m., thus releasing all the heavens’ pent-up wrath—or so it would seem.

Eight Fifteen again.

And, curiously enough, August 6th in Hiroshima and August 9th in Nagasaki suggest another coincidence, i.e., 6+9=15. And, of course, the surrender proclamation broadcast six days after the Nagasaki bombing on the ninth brings us, certainly by the merest coincidence, to August 15th.

Just like the coincidence of Saint Francis Xavier’s arrival in virgin, unevangelized Japan by dint of an irresistible wind that drove his ship straight to Kagoshima, the home town of his Japanese interpreter, a refugee from Japanese justice who was now a convert to the Faith. The ship’s captain, a Chinese pirate, had been determined to avoid Japan, but that almighty wind had had its way, and now there was nothing to do but land his passengers on Japanese soil.

To secure that voyage into the unknown, the Saint had placed his own life and those of his mission companions in the Blessed Virgin’s hands. They had sailed from Malacca (in present-day Malaysia) on 24 June 1549, the Feast of St. John the Baptist, 52 days before their miracle-driven arrival on that hoped-for Japanese shore. That June Feast, incidentally, marks the birth of the prophet who prepared the way of the Lord, the prophet whom the sound of Mary’s voice made leap for joy by cleansing him of original sin in his mother’s womb.

And the date of the Christ-bearers’ miraculous arrival in Japan?

It was, surely by the merest coincidence, the 15th of August 1549, the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, and thus the birth of Christendom in Japan.

Eight Fifteen: miraculous birth, fiery death, and hopeful Eternity, if only men would heed the lesson of these scourgings with fire:

Wage Christ, not war.

Wristwatch in the Hiroshima museum frozen at 8:15 am on 6 August 1945. Photo by Zigomar, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Luke O’Hara,











December 3rd: St. Francis Xavier and the Divine Wind That Brought Christ to Japan

Thus began the reign of Christ in Japan, carried on the wings of his own almighty wind.

Joaquín Sorolla, “St. Francis Xavier,” 1891 (photo: Public Domain)

Luke O’Hara Blogs August 17, 2022

There is only one God, the Creator of heaven and earth, and His Son Jesus Christ. He is not a foreign God. No, He is the God of all the world.” — Robert M. Flynn, S.J., The Martyrs of Tsuwano

Japan is a land of mystery and paradox — a bright, shining promise at first sight, but a puzzling perplexity on deeper study. St. Francis Xavier would find that out as he labored to plant Christ in the hearts of the Japanese.

On the feast of the Assumption of 1549, his pioneering mission to Japan landed at Kagoshima. Clearly the saint was moved by his early encounters there, for in his first report from Japan, he states:

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. … They are a people of very good will, very sociable and very desirous of knowledge; they are very fond of hearing about things of God, chiefly when they understand them.

“When they understand them” would prove to be a huge challenge at first, for Padre Francisco tells us, in his first weeks in Kagoshima:

Now we are like so many statues among them, for they speak and talk to us about many things, while we, not understanding the language, hold our peace. And now we have to be as little children learning the language.

And yet, his mission was clearly ordained of God, for although all hell’s furies seem to have conspired to stop his getting there, all things worked together for good in the end. The saint writes that he and his men had “set out from Malacca on the feast of St. John Baptist” and continues thus:

We sailed on board the ship of a heathen merchant … who promised the [Portuguese] Commandant at Malacca that he would carry us to Japan. By the goodness of God we had very favorable winds. However, as perfidy so often rules barbarians like him, our captain at one time changed his intention, and began to give up keeping to his course toward Japan, and loiter about the islands that came in the way, for the sake of wasting time.

Wasting time, that is, until the monsoon wind for Japan had quit its seasonal blow. To St. Francis Xavier’s horror and disgust, the captain and his crew depended utterly on the auguries of an idol graven on the prow of their ship, where they sacrificed birds to the thing to glean their sailing orders. This captain was in fact a Chinese pirate, his ship having been the only one in Malacca ready to sail for Japan on short notice — and St. Francis Xavier was determined to carry the Gospel there without delay. The Commandant of Malacca had secured the Jesuit mission’s safety by holding the captain’s wife hostage until his return, and off they went.

Enroute the balmy weather turned foul, and the captain saw one of his daughters fall overboard into a raging sea that swallowed her up; the idol later “told” him that she wouldn’t have died if one of the Catholic mission’s men had been killed instead. Tensions, thus, were high between the captain and his missionary passengers when he “learned” from the entrails of a bird that he would have no safe return to Malacca should he sail onward to Japan that year. He changed course for the Chinese port of Quanzhou.

But God Almighty overruled the idol. As the saint relates it, they were nearing that port …

… when on a sudden a boat puts out to us in a great hurry, telling us that the harbor is invested by pirates, and that it will be all over with us if we come any nearer. This bit of news frightened the captain, who moreover saw that the brigantines of the pirates were not more than four miles distant from us; and so, to avoid that immediate danger, he determined to shun that port.

Reluctantly the captain turned toward Japan, whereupon Providence took over in the form of a marvelous wind.

The word kamikaze, often translated ‘divine wind,’ is a landmark in Japan’s history, but it connotes diametrical opposites in the minds of Westerners and Japanese. At the mention of kamikaze, any Western student of history worth his salt will picture those suicide planes that came screaming down on Allied ships in the Pacific. To the ordinary Japanese, though, kamikaze conjures up chest-swelling visions of the seemingly heaven-sent typhoons that sank two Mongol invasion fleets attacking Japan in the 13th century — and thus the name, derived from kami (god, as in “the gods”) and kaze (wind).

But let me show you a truly Divine wind. Padre Francisco writes:

But now the wind was adverse to a return to Canton and favorable to sailing to Japan, and so we held our course thither against the will of the captain, the sailors and the devil himself. So by the guidance of God we came at last to this country, which we had so much longed for, on the very day of the feast of our Blessed Lady’s Assumption 1549. We could not make another port, and so we put into Kagoshima, which is the native place of Paul of the holy Faith. We were most kindly received there both by Paul’s relations and connections and also by the rest of the people of the place.

Thus, that wind blew the reluctant pirate’s ship, along with him, his crew and his passengers, straight to Kagoshima — the home town of the mission’s main guide and interpreter, disallowing any turning back toward China or even heading for another port of Japan. The pirate captain later died in Kagoshima — unconverted, to Padre Francisco’s regret — having done one great service to God, if against his own will.

“Paul of the holy Faith” was none other than Anjiro, a Japanese refugee from justice who had sailed to Malacca in 1547 after learning from a Portuguese ship’s captain of this priest, Padre Francisco, who could heal wounded souls. St. Francis Xavier sent Anjiro to Goa in Portuguese India to study the Faith and the Portuguese language, which he learned quickly. Arriving in Goa himself, the saint baptized Anjiro, christening him Paulo de Santa Fe. This man would do yeoman’s work for the mission through the countless perplexities facing them at every turn once they reached Japan.

The mission comprised three Spanish Jesuits: Padre Francisco himself, a Basque; Father Cosme de Torres, born in Valencia; and Brother Juan Fernández, from Córdoba. Their helpers were Paulo de Santa Fe (or Anjiro), from Kagoshima; João and Antonio, two other Japanese converts; Amador, from India; and a Chinese christened Manuel. Having made it to Japan in spite of all that man, nature and the Enemy could throw at them, they made dry land just in time to celebrate the glorious feast of the Assumption. Forty-five days later, Shimazu Takahisa, the Daimyo (or Duke) of Satsuma, gave them a warm reception at his palace on Sept. 29, the feast of St. Michael the Archangel, and granted them permission to spread the Faith in his domain.

Shimazu would soon scotch his seeming kindness and withdraw that permission when he saw that Portuguese trading ships were bypassing Kagoshima to trade at other ports and enrich other daimyos: he had expected St. Francis Xavier to command them to give him precedence. The mission thus moved on to greener pastures, notably Hirado, Ikitsuki and Yamaguchi, and conversions — which had been lagging — took off.

And in Yamaguchi, the Jesuits added one to their number, a remarkable blessing in strange disguise. While boldly preaching the Gospel in the streets of that metropolis, the capital of the sprawling Ōuchi domains, St. Francis Xavier found himself standing face to face with a most curious image and likeness of God. Blind in one eye and almost sightless in the other, a bald-headed man with a misshapen face and a biwa lute slung over his shoulder heard the Word of God from the mouth of this strange foreigner and kept coming back time and again, asking ever more questions until there was no doubt in his mind.

St. Francis Xavier baptized him as Lorenzo, the first Japanese Jesuit. Abandoning his old life as a wandering minstrel, Lorenzo would live out his days preaching brilliantly and fearlessly, daring any and every sort of affliction or danger to impede his spreading Christ’s love throughout his beloved land, and he is credited with bringing countless thousands of souls into the Kingdom of God, where the weak confound the strong.

And thus began the reign of Christ in Japan, carried thither on the wings of his own almighty wind.


October 7th, 1613: The Eight Martyrs of Arima

The Eight Martyrs of Arima Proclaimed the Name of Jesus to the End

Behold the faith of Arima’s Christians. For the honor and glory of the Lord and as a testimony to our faith we now die, knowing that there is no salvation other than through Jesus Christ.”

Anonymous, “The Christian Martyrs of Japan,” 17th centuryAnonymous, “The Christian Martyrs of Japan,” 17th century (photo: Public Domain)

Luke O’Hara Blogs October 8, 2021

In 1613, the castle-town of Arima in southwestern Japan held a remarkable procession on the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, one surely witnessed in breathless silence by all the host of Heaven. 

Arima was the seat of a fervently Catholic domain whose fervor was fueled and stoked by her stalwart confraternities. Now, in 1613, that fervor was needed more than ever, for Arima Naozumi, Arima’s feudal lord, had expelled all Catholic clergy from his domain as a sop to the lord of all Japan, Tokugawa Ieyasu, who was bent on expunging the Faith from his domains — and Arima was in his sights. Ieyasu ordered Naozumi to purge his forefathers’ faith from Arima or lose his lordship of it and all the perks he was accustomed to.

Arima Naozumi, christened “Miguel,” was a third-generation Catholic. In 1612, Ieyasu had given him lordship over Arima after Naozumi connived with his illicit wife to depose his father and procure his execution. The wife, a ward of Ieyasu’s who despised Christ, had been the ruler’s ‘gift’ shoved down Naozumi’s throat in a deal signed with his own apostasy and sealed with divorce from his licit, Catholic wife, who now lived imprisoned in a hut somewhere in a mountain wood. 

As if to numb his conscience, Naozumi had already slaughtered his little half-brothers, pious Catholics, ages 6 and 8 — like Herod, he feared these innocents as rivals to his rule. 

Now, though, Naozumi had Ieyasu’s own hound at his heels — Hasegawa Sahioye, Governor of Nagasaki — who was threatening to denounce him if he didn’t force apostasy on eight of his prominent Catholic samurai or produce some blackened corpses as real proof of his fealty. 

Thus, on Sept. 30, Naozumi called the eight into his mountaintop castle to show them Hasegawa’s threatening letters and plead for some merely-symbolic sign of apostasy — he didn’t care, he assured them, what they went on believing in their hearts. All eight demurred.

On Oct. 1 he called them in one by one and begged their cooperation: his domain was at stake, not to mention their own lives and those of their families. He reminded them that St. Peter had denied Christ three times and yet had been forgiven. 

Five of them gave in, agreeing to invoke Amida Buddha with a Buddhist chant. Yet three stood firm: Adrian Takahashi Mondo, Leo Taketomi Kan’emon, and Leo Hayashida Sukuemon. 

Naozumi sent to Nagasaki for instructions. Hasegawa’s answer came back on Oct. 5: burn them alive, along with their wives and children. That afternoon, eight were taken to a house where they would be imprisoned awaiting death: Adrian Takahashi with his wife Joanna; Leo Taketomi with his son Paulo; and Leo Hayashida with his wife Marta, their 18-year-old daughter Magdalena (a consecrated virgin), and their son Diego, 11 years old. (Leo Taketomi’s wife, Monica, and their 9-year-old daughter were excluded, despite their pleas to join the martyrs.) 

That night the Catholics of Arima began to gather in their thousands, surrounding the prison with rosaries and candles in hand. To Naozumi, looking down from his fortress on high, it must have been an unsettling scene, as if that infinite array of stars that God had shown Abraham were turned topsy-turvy, shining up at him with indomitable faith. 

By the morning of Oct. 7, the crowd had grown to 20,000 souls or more. 

Oct. 7, 1613, the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary — the eight appointed martyrs marched out into the sunshine bedecked in the kimono of the Confraternity of the Rosary, flanked by Marians with lit candle in one hand and rosary in the other. They headed for the shore of the Ariakè Sea, where a wooden structure awaited them. The crowd of 20,000 marched along, carrying their rosaries. 

At one point they had to cross muddy ground. A certain man offered to ferry young Diego across on his back. The boy refused, saying, “Christ Our Lord didn’t ride on horseback or in a palanquin to the torture of the Cross.” He then assured the man of his hope in “certain and secure rest.” Unable to restrain his tears, the man picked up the boy and carried him. 

At the execution-ground stood a house of sorts with eight wooden columns in the center surrounded by branches and kindling. A stockade ringed its perimeter.

Leo Taketomi climbed onto a pile of firewood to address the thousands awaiting the holocaust. Many of his words were drowned out by the noise of the crowd, but his speech went something like this: 

Behold the faith of Arima’s Christians: for the honor and glory of the Lord and as a testimony to our faith we now die, knowing that there is no salvation other than through Jesus Christ, and that this present life is of little account. All of you also know this, as you have come here with such fervor. My brethren, my parting hope is that you preserve your faith unshaken to the very end, not sparing your own lives.

Leo stepped down; the Eight were tied to their stakes; the firewood was lit. As a storm of flames erupted around the martyrs, the chief of a confraternity held up a picture of Christ’s scourging to strengthen them. The crowd sang the Credo, the Our Father, and the Ave Maria as the fire raged.

Diego’s ropes were the first to burn away: he ran to his mother, shouting three times, “Zézusu! Maria!”


Look up at Heaven, my son,” she said, and the boy fell dead. Next, his sister Magdalena found her arms free of the burning ropes: she reached down to pick up some flaming embers and held them above her head as if to venerate the fire that would send her home. At this, the gasping crowd made the sign of the cross. Finally, Leo Hayashida boomed the name of Jesus through the flames; his shout shook the crowd as a whirlwind of fire devoured all the holy martyrs. 

To send them home.

This article appeared in the National Catholic Register.


The Galleon, the Tyrant and the 26 Martyrs of Nagasaki

The air was electric with a holy silence, all Nagasaki dumb with grief, as the parade of martyrs marched past toward the hilltop where their crosses waited.

Wolfgang Kilian, “The Martyrs of Nagasaki,” 1628 (photo: Public Domain)


Luke O’Hara Blogs February 5, 2022

Raked by frothing waves and howling wind, the galleon San Felipe rode the merciless Pacific bereft of mainmast and rudder, her battered old hull the merest plaything of the tempest. Aboard her were a litany of friars — Franciscan, Dominican and Augustinian — clinging for their lives to whatever handholds the creaking old behemoth could provide and praying for deliverance, if not for themselves, then at least for her proud Spanish captain and his crew. All had been alarmed by signs in the heavens — first, a blazing comet, then crosses burning in the clouds, seemingly pointing toward Japan.

The San Felipe had been bound for Acapulco in New Spain. An old workhorse heavy-laden with fine Chinese silks and other riches, she was grossly overloaded, well beyond the limit for safe sailing. She had left Manila on 12 July 1596, and well into her journey she was hit head-on by the last typhoon of the season. Not only did that raging tempest rip away her mainmast and her rudder; it carried her along on its rampage to Japan, dumping her at last off the west coast of Shikoku, near the port of Urado, on Oct. 19.

San Felipe’s pilot, Francisco de Olandia, wanted to limp his vessel down the coast to Kyushu and on up to Nagasaki, Christian haven, with a makeshift rudder. The exhausted passengers, however, insisted on putting in to port at once, and their demands won the Captain, Matías de Landecho, over to their side.

The pilot duly sounded the harbor at Urado and came back with bad news: a sand bar lurked underwater; the overloaded galleon would scrape bottom; some cargo must be offloaded first to lighten the ship.

The local ruler, Chōsokabe Motochika, forbade that necessary move. He offered, though, to tow the ship in and dredge a passage if needed. He at once enforced his “offer,” sending 200 armed boats out to tow the galleon straight onto that sand bar, breaking San Felipe’s back. Now she was a shipwreck, and now, by Japanese law, her rich cargo was forfeit.

Motochika sent a dispatch to the warlord-ruler of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, with an inventory of the treasure-trove he had just purloined, expecting a rich reward.

Hideyoshi was elated. He sent a man down at once to confiscate the cargo — who “even seized the gold that the shipwrecked Spaniards carried in their pockets.”

Historians have noted that Hideyoshi’s vengeful war in Korea, in addition to rebuilding in the wake of recent earthquakes, was draining his coffers. His driving force, though, is best explained in the words of Fray Pedro Bautista, Franciscan: “His greed devoured and engulfed everything.”

Captain Landecho sent his pilot, along with a friar-interpreter, on an embassy of protest to Hideyoshi, who had previously guaranteed security for Spanish shipping. This embassy was waylaid by Hideyoshi’s own confiscator, Masuda Emon, who asked the pilot to explain how the King of Spain had conquered his vast empire spanning the globe. Francisco de Olandia purportedly told him that first they sent in friars to suborn the locals, who then joined ranks with invading Spanish troops to take over the country. One Jesuit historian wrote that the wound this rash answer inflicted was still gushing blood 120 years later.

At any rate, it served as a pretext for Hideyoshi to explode into a rage and demand the execution of all Catholic priests in Japan. He soon realized, though, that without the intermediation of the Jesuits, he would be hard put to strike profitable deals with the Portuguese merchants bringing Chinese silks and gold from Macao. Thus, he moderated his orders: his men were to round up all religious in his capital of Osaka and the nearby imperial city of Kyoto. They would then cut off their ears and noses, parade them in oxcarts through Kyoto, Osaka, and nearby Sakai, and march them southwest to Nagasaki, where they would be crucified.

Ishida Mitsunari, Governor of Lower Kyoto, mercifully intervened. At Captain Landecho’s request, he ordered his men to clip only the left earlobes of the prisoners, who numbered 24. The blood-letting began on Friday, Jan. 3, 1597, at a crossroads in Upper Kyoto. The youngest prisoner, 12-year-old Luis Ibaraki, laughed when they cut his ear, and Thomas Kozaki, 14, dared them to cut his, saying, “Come on, cut me and shed the blood of Christians!”

After this mutilation, all 24 were loaded onto oxcarts, three martyrs in each, and paraded around Kyoto, the imperial capital. All were Franciscans but the three in the last cart, Jesuit Brother Paul Miki and his two lay catechist companions. Many called Paul Miki the best preacher in Japan; he preached ceaselessly along his via crucis. The two catechists, John Goto and James Kisai, would become Jesuits before they mounted their crosses.

With their ears dripping blood, the three youngest — Luis, 12, Anthony, 13, and Thomas, 14 — sang the Our Father and the Hail Mary from their oxcart while others preached to the crowd, a spectacle that must have dazzled even the hardest of heart.

This parade was repeated in Osaka and Sakai. Then, on Jan. 9, the martyrs began their brutal winter’s trek to Nagasaki, a journey of 27 days. They traveled daily from dawn to sunset in single file, sometimes on foot, sometimes on horseback, until they reached their lockup for the night. Brother Miki used every opportunity to preach, and many wrote letters that have been handed down to us.

You should not worry about me and my father, Michael,” Thomas Kozaki, 14, wrote to his mother. “I hope to see you both very soon there in Paradise.” His father was with him on that via crucis; the bloodstained letter would be found on his crucified body.

To the Jesuit Provincial, Brother Miki wrote, “Please don’t worry about us three and our preparations for death, because by divine goodness we go there with joy and happiness.”

Perhaps the most bitter leg of their journey was their last night on earth, spent huddled, freezing, in three boats moored in Omura Bay offshore of Togitsu, a fishing village. The men in charge feared a Christian uprising if these bloodied religious were to be lodged ashore, for Togitsu was just north of Nagasaki, the Rome of Catholic Japan.

Come morning, the road to Nagasaki was indeed lined with Christians, but there was not a hint of danger. Rather, the air was electric with a holy silence, all Nagasaki dumb with grief, as the parade of martyrs marched past toward Nishi-zaka, the hilltop where their crosses waited. The martyrs’ number was now 26, two laymen having been robbed and thrown in with them enroute by greedy guards. Neither protested, but accepted martyrdom as a blessing.

Atop Nishi-zaka lay the crosses. Although the climb was steep, young Luis was full of energy and asked, “Which cross is mine?” Then he ran to the one pointed out, lay down and hugged it: this vessel would take him home.

Unique among the Twenty-Six, Luis had been offered a chance to save his life. The sheriff in charge of this execution had orders to crucify only 24; he wanted to save this innocent boy and offered him the chance to be his page — on condition that he stop being a Christian. “I do not want to live on that condition,” the brave boy replied, “for it is not reasonable to exchange a life that has no end for one that soon finishes.”

The crosses rose; Paul Miki began his last sermon, preaching that the only way to salvation was through Christ; the three youngest boys sang a Psalm, “Praise the Lord, ye children”; some sang the Te Deum and the Sanctus; and then the coup de grâce.

Japanese crucifixions ended with paired spearmen driving their spearheads up into the flanks of each victim, through the heart and out the shoulders. On Nishi-zaka two pairs began their work, starting at opposite ends of the row of crosses and working toward the center. All, both the martyrs and the crowd, started chanting Jesus! Mary! as the martyrs’ hearts were pierced one by one.

Before the spearmen reached young Luis Ibaraki, he was struggling to climb toward Heaven, and these words of hope burst from his lips: “Paradise, Paradise!” he shouted, his 12-year-old heart still beating. “Jesus! Mary!”

Words that no raging tyrant can ever hope to still.

Luke O’Hara became a Catholic in Japan. His articles and books about Japan’s martyrs can be found at his website,

This article appeared in The National Catholic Register.


November 1, 1622: Father Pietro Paolo Navarro, S.J.

This story begins on Christmas Day in the Year of Our Lord 1560, when the town of Laino in Cosenza, Italy was graced with the birth of a boy of noble blood, Pietro Paolo Navarro. Eschewing the life of privilege that could have awaited him, Pietro chose instead to serve his God and save the souls of his fellow men in a foreign land.

Pietro Paolo Navarro entered the Society of Jesus at Nola (Kingdom of Naples) in 1579, the very year that Father Alessandro Valignano, the great Italian Jesuit, entered Japan at the port of Kuchinotsu to remake the face of her Church and spread its fame across the Catholic world. Father Navarro arrived in Japan in 1586, landing at the port of Hirado along with seven other priests aboard the trading-ship of Domingos Monteiro.  Saint Francis Xavier had visited Hirado in 1550, leaving a number of converted souls in his trail of miracles, along with great hopes for the future of the Japanese Church.

First, Father Navarro applied himself assiduously to the study of Japanese. He learned the language quickly and could soon preach powerfully to the Japanese in their own tongue, so he was sent to Iyo in Shikoku to found a new apostolate. Sadly, that was to be short-lived.

On July 25, 1587, the Feast of St. James, the dictator Toyotomi Hideyoshi proclaimed a ban on the Catholic Faith and ordered the expulsion of all clergy. Fr. Navarro withdrew from Iyo but stayed on in Japan, moving secretly around the island of Kyushu to serve her orphaned Christians.

By 1596, Father Navarro was pastoring the church of Yamaguchi, famously founded by St. Francis Xavier with an astounding display of courage. In the face of constant threats to his life, the saint had preached the Gospel in the streets of that city, railing against the unspeakable abuses committed by the Buddhist clergy of his day, particularly the “abominable sin” of pederasty so rampant among them. He had preached the same lesson in an audience with the ruler of Yamaguchi, an addicted pederast, while Brother Juan Fernández, his companion and interpreter, trembled for their lives.  


On February 5, 1597, Hideyoshi crucified the 26 Martyrs of Nagasaki in a fit of megalomania. The following year he died in a frenzy, babbling incoherently about “a thousand things out of context” and talking about crowning his little son King of Japan.[1] This dream never saw fruition, nor did Hideyoshi’s command, in his last will and testament, that he be deified after death as Shin-Hachiman, i.e. the New God of War.


Father Navarro professed his fourth solemn Jesuit vow at Nagasaki in 1601. It seemed a time of great promise for the Japanese Church: Hideyoshi was dead, and his successor, the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, seemed anything but hostile to the Catholic mission. Dutch and English protestants, bitter enemies of everything Catholic, had arrived in Japan in 1600, however, and their calumnies were quick to find the Shogun’s ear. In 1612, things came to a head when the Catholic lord of Arima got duped into bribing a shogunal official for a phony promise to enlarge the Arima domain. Both schemer and victim were Catholic; this infuriated the Shogun, who banned the Faith in all shogunal territories. The ban would extend to all Japan in 1614.

1617 was a year replete with the shedding of Christian blood on Japanese soil. We find Father Navarro in the domain of Bungo, where, given the frantic hunt to round up and exterminate Catholic missionaries, he was forced to hide for some days on end in a hole he had dug. There, having no help from his fellow man, he turned to God, who not only sustained him, but gave him strength to ‘return to his work with ardor’ once the danger had passed. He went about disguised as a baggage-porter, wearing a straw hat under which he could presumably hide his face in shadow.[2]

In May of 1619, Fr. Navarro was given responsibility for all of the Shimabara Peninsula (Arima) and the far flung Amakusa Islands to the south, among the most fervently-Catholic regions of all Japan. He must have foreseen his end, for, come Advent of 1621, he made a general confession to the Jesuit Provincial at Kazusa in southern Arima. He sailed northward from there to the hot-springs town of Obama and, two days later, passed by night to the village of Hachirao, where he went on retreat to do the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. He had intended to then celebrate the Nativity at the old Catholic castle-town of Arima, but the locals wrote him urging him to stay away for fear of the daimyo’s spies. He thus celebrated Christmas at Hachirao and afterwards set out for Arima in the night, a risky journey, for he had to take the main road in bright moonlight. He was readily spotted by a servant of the daimyo’s, who grabbed him by the robe; the priest submitted without protest.

Matsukura Shigemasa, the daimyo of Arima, was as yet no enemy of the Christians. He had taken over the domain from Arima Naozumi, an apostate who had failed in his promise to the Shogun to purge his ancestral religion from the land. Matsukura put Fr. Navarro under house arrest but gave him the privilege of receiving visitors, saying Mass and hearing confessions. In the meantime, he strove to get shogunal permission to merely deport the well-beloved priest to Macao rather than burn him alive as the Shogun’s law demanded, often summoning him to his fortress, Shimabara Castle, to question him about the Catholic Faith.[3] Father Navarro’s answers clearly moved Matsukura profoundly, for at their final meeting, he, the lord of the castle, escorted the priest of that banned ‘foreign’ religion outside, fell to his knees, put his palms to the earth, and bowed his head to the ground—a gesture that could have cost him his life.

The Shogun’s answer—death by fire—arrived on the eve of the Feast of All Saints. On the morning of 1 November, 1622, Father Navarro said Mass “with an abundance of tears,” apparently informed by the Spirit that this was his last day in this Vale of Tears, for he had not yet been told of his death sentence. Matsukura gave him the word two hours before noon.

Father Navarro “put his chaplet around his neck to prepare himself for the final combat” and stepped outside into a windy autumn day.[4]  He would be burned along with three companions—Jesuit brothers Dennis Fujishima, 38, and Pedro Onizuka, 18; and layman Clemente Kyuemon— none of whom could keep up with 64-year-old Fr. Navarro in his zeal to reach the site of his holocaust. The condemned Christians were accompanied by fifty armed soldiers to the execution-ground outside the gate of the city, all of them presumably sprinting to keep up with that old Italian priest burning with an unquenchable love of the Lord he would soon meet face to face.

Reaching his appointed stake, he took off his hat and bowed to it before the guards tied him to the instrument of his death as they would the three others. When Matsukura arrived, the firewood was lit, and a gust of wind engulfed Fr. Navarro’s mantle in flame, yet he used all his strength to encourage his companions to hold on for the crown of glory. When his ropes had burnt away, he fell onto his side shouting, “Jesus! Mary!” These holy names he shouted to his last breath, with the hair-shirt he had worn for penance clinging to his skin, revealed under his burnt-away mantle. His three companions, too, held on to the end, all worthy sons of St. Francis Xavier.


In 1623 a new Shogun took over: Tokugawa Iemitsu—sadist, pederast, and such an enemy of Christ that it seemed he was possessed by a demon. Matsukura Shigemasa he soon won to his side, turning him into a persecutor who tortured his Catholic subjects by mutilation, branding, and boiling them in the hot sulfur springs atop Mount Unzen.  

Matsukura fell mortally ill in 1630 and summoned 200 apothecaries to bring their cures to Shimabara Castle. In a panic he took all their concoctions together, creating a brew that boiled noxious in his stomach and drove him to a frenzy in which he hallucinated demons from hell. Or were they hallucinations? For stones came flying from out of nowhere in the corridors of Shimabara Castle, and ‘long, supernatural howls’ resounded within its walls.[5]

On 19 December, Matsukura fled to the hot-springs town of Obama, where he slipped into a bath whose water his servants had tested and found merely tepid. Yet their raving master felt himself burning, and he thought that the fire inside him could devour his surroundings. This was his final frenzy.[6] The mountain atop which he had tortured and killed so many Christians in boiling sulfur-springs towered over his bath-house; perhaps as he died he was hearing the voices and seeing the faces of the martyrs he had murdered.  

I wonder if he saw the face of Father Pietro Paulo Navarro looking benignly down at him as he bowed his forehead to the earth to do the priest reverence on that bygone day at Shimabara Castle? Or did he see him wrapped in flames, cheering on his companions in martyrdom? Either memory, with a wriggle of repentance, might have saved poor Matsukura Shigemasa’s soul.


Copyright © 2021 by Luke O’Hara



[1] François Solier, Histoire Ecclesiastique des Isles et Royaumes du Japon, v.2 (Paris: Sebastien Cramoisy, 1627) 127.

[2] Solier, 767-8.

[3] James Murdoch,  A History of Japan during the Century of Early Foreign Intercourse 1542-1651 (Kobe: Office of The “Chronicle”, 1903) 647 note.

[4] Solier, 766.

[5] Léon Pagès, Histoire de la religion chrétienne au Japon depuis 1598 jusqu’à 1651: pte. Texte (Paris: Charles Douniol, 1869) 732.

[6] Ibid, 732.

7 October 1613: the Eight Martyrs of Arima

Faithful Catholics martyred on the

Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary

   In the mid-16th century, Japan was a mishmash of feudal domains unfettered by any central authority. Civil war was common, with peace to be had only intermittently or in remote outposts of calm. One such outpost, at least for a time, was the little domain of Arima, ensconced on a peninsula southeast of Nagasaki.

On the Feast of the Assumption of 1549, Saint Francis Xavier arrived in Japan with two fellow-Jesuits and three lay helpers to sow the Gospel seeds that would soon sprout throughout that fertile land. In 1562 those seeds reached Arima and bore fruit in abundance.

Arima’s port of Kuchinotsu became the seat of the Church in Japan, with Fr. Cosme de Torres, S.J. in charge. His successor baptized the Daimyō of Arima, and this man’s heir, Harunobu, would become the mainstay of the Church in Japan, harboring clergy and protecting the faithful even at risk of his life. He built churches all over his little peninsula, and children in his towns and villages got a Jesuit education, learning catechesis through Bible stories set to Japanese melodies that they happily sang in the streets.

If only Harunobu’s heir, Naozumi, had been made of such metal. Instead, he betrayed his father to the de-facto Shōgun Ieyasu, who beheaded Harunobu in 1612. Naozumi then apostatized, taking over Arima on condition that he expunge from her the very Faith that he had from his childhood espoused.

Although Arima was far from Ieyasu’s capital, Naozumi had the ruler’s own hound at his heels: Hasegawa Sahiōye, Governor of nearby Nagasaki—Ieyasu’s toady and a hell-driven enemy of Christ. Hasegawa threatened Naozumi with the Shōgun’s own hellfire if he did not produce some hard evidence of his work to purge Arima of Christians.

The cowed Naozumi called in his eight top samurai, all Catholics, and pleaded with them to renounce Christ, if only on paper, to save his skin. He reminded them that even Saint Peter had thrice denied Him and yet had been forgiven. Hearing this artful pleading, five of the men agreed to the stratagem. Three, however, refused to budge: Leo Taketomi, Adrian Takahashi, and Leo Hayashida.

Naozumi ordered them burnt along with their wives and children. The spineless princeling postponed the execution of his orders, though, until the three stalwarts were well out of his castle and headed home. All of them being samurai, they and their families were escorted unbound to prison, where the members of each family were 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.

Twenty thousand Christians surrounded their prison, singing prayers and keeping vigil—at which they stayed for three days and nights on end. On the morning of Sunday, October 7, 1613—the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary—the condemned were led out of their cells. All were wearing the kimono of the Guild of Saint Mary, and all but the youngest—the boy Diego—had their arms bound in cruciform position. Diego asked the guards to bind him too, but they demurred, perhaps ashamed of their duty.

En route to their deaths, each of the martyrs was flanked left and right by a Marian with a lit candle in one hand and a rosary in the other; as they marched they sang the rosary. 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, but the boy said, “Our Lord Jesus didn’t ride a horse up Calvary,” and he tromped into the mud on his own two feet.

At last they reached the beach where their death-cage stood, built within sight of Naozumi’s mountaintop castle. He was probably watching from up there, awed by the masses crowding the landscape below—faithful from all over Arima, the Christian bastion of Japan.

Leo Taketomi climbed onto a pile of firewood and addressed the thousands awaiting the holocaust, 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; the Eight were tied to their stakes; the firewood was lit. As a storm of flames erupted around the martyrs, the chief of the Guild of Saint Mary held up a picture of the Scourging of Christ to strengthen them. The crowd sang the Creed, the Our Father, and the Ave Maria as the holy ones endured the flames.

Diego’s ropes were the first to burn away: he ran to his mother’s stake shouting, “Zézusu! Maria!” and fell. Next, his 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. At 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; his shout shook the crowd as a whirlwind of fire devoured him and his companions.

When that victory-shout reached the ears of the apostate lord of Arima, the wretch must have felt as if those flames were in his own stomach. Meanwhile, down on the killing-ground, those thousands of his Christian subjects, fallen to their knees, were praying for the souls of the martyrs—and perhaps for the soul of their wretched earthly lord cowering in his fortress on high.

This holocaust was but a prelude to the litany of sufferings that Arima was bound to endure: a testimony to eternal life forged in the cauldron of the World’s slithering temptations.


Luke O’Hara became a Roman Catholic in Japan. His articles and books about Japan’s martyrs can be found at his website,

This article by Luke O’Hara appeared on

A Ladder to Heaven

A Ladder to Heaven, Part I

The Kirish’tan battle-flag of the Shimabara Rebellion

It all started in 1620 with some Japanese Catholics, bereft of their pastor, pleading for his return to Nagasaki to console them in their sufferings and their needs.

After Tokugawa Ieyasu’s expulsion of all Catholic clergy from Japan in 1614, Augustinian Friar Pedro de Zúñiga had stayed on to minister to his flock in secret, his survival in that deadly task being due in large part to the connivance of Hasegawa Gonroku, the Shogunal Governor of Nagasaki. Gonroku had succeeded the former governor, his uncle Sahioye, in 1615 — but, unlike him, had no taste for overseeing gory scenes of torture and bloodshed in the name of the Shogun’s law.

By 1619, though, finding himself increasingly compelled to shed the blood of Christians, Gonroku urged Father Zúñiga, whom he knew and respected, to leave for the Philippines lest he be forced by the Shogun Hidetada to burn him alive. On conferring with the Augustinian Vice Provincial in Japan, the friar was ordered to do just that, for he was known to all and sundry in and about Nagasaki. With Gonroku’s guarantee of safe passage out of Nagasaki, Father Zúñiga sailed for Manila via Macao.

The following year, two letters arrived in Manila from Father Zúñiga’s former flock — one for the friar himself and another for the Definitor of the Augustinians in the Philippines — requesting that he return to them. In exchange for that favor, they offered to send the remains of the Augustinian martyr Friar Hernando de San José, which they had managed to fish out of the depths of Omura Bay, where the bodies of five martyrs had been sunk together on 1 June 1617.    

The letters arrived just as the fathers of the Augustinian Province of the Philippines were holding their provincial meeting of 1620.

Léon Pagès writes,

After having consulted one another on the fruits that might be expected if Fr. Zúñiga were sent [back to Nagasaki], they proposed to him the apparent advantages of this new voyage.

Fr. Zúñiga, with a wealth of onsite experience under his belt, pointed out that, being so well known in Nagasaki, he would be seized immediately upon arrival, and although his inevitable suffering and martyrdom might redound to the greater glory of God, his former parishioners’ desire of his pastorship would remain unfulfilled; nevertheless, he added, he would render obedience to his superiors, whatever they decided.  

Fr. Zúñiga’s orphaned flock had promised in the letter to rendezvous with his ship and bring it to safe haven. Given that assurance, the Augustinian fathers felt compelled to grant those persecuted Christians that gift they so desired, and Fr. Zúñiga surrendered himself to the will of God.

Among the local Dominicans, meanwhile, Fr. Luís Flores, aged and infirm, had retired from active mission work in Nueva Segovia, Philippines, and settled into a life of prayer and contemplation. News of the Japanese persecution fired his spirit, though, with a desire to join the Japan mission, which could bring him suffering, Pagès explains, and, perhaps, martyrdom. In early June of 1620, Fr. Flores found himself in Fr. Zúñiga’s company, along with two other Spaniards, headed for Japan aboard a junk captained by Joachim Hirayama, a staunch Japanese Catholic. They soon hit heavy seas and were forced to dump part of their cargo and put in at Macao. The suffering had already begun.

On 2 July they set out again and, 20 days later, were within sight of Formosa when English pirates on the bark Elizabeth attacked, took them captive, and commandeered their ship. The Elizabeth, captained by Edmund Lenmyes, had sailed out of Batavia (now Jakarta) in a merchant-pirate fleet of five sail, three English ships and two Dutch, to prey upon Portuguese and Spanish shipping and sell their booty (as well as some trade goods) to the Japanese at Hirado.  

Captain Lenmyes soon sussed out the fact that two of his prisoners were “Papist” priests, a fact discernible in their deportment. He locked them below in the hold without food or drink, jammed in among a heap of deerskins whose stench was insufferable, afraid, apparently, of losing such valuable cargo as those two friars. If their priestly identities were proven, the captured junk would, by the Shogun’s law, become the pirates’ prize, with her captain and crew condemned to death for transporting Catholic priests to Japan.

As the Dutch and English were cooperating in brigandage in the Eastern seas, the captured junk and its cargo became their common property. They sailed their prize to the Dutch trading-post at Hirado with her passengers and crew imprisoned below, all chained together so closely that none could move without jostling the others. At Hirado, the Dutch found three letters in their captives’ luggage, one conferring the title of Augustinian Provincial Vicar on Fr. Zúñiga and two confirming Fr. Flores’ authority among Dominicans in Japan, yet neither priest would acknowledge his identity for fear of thereby condemning Captain Hirayama and his Japanese crew to death. Now the real suffering would begin.

The priests were lowered into a dark pit, where they languished in filth and near-starvation for thirteen days, squatting on the naked earth as vermin fed on them. This was but a prelude to their torture. The Dutchmen pulled them, crawling with vermin, out of the pit to strip them to the waist, tie their hands behind their backs, and hoist them up to hang them by their wrists with boxes full of gunpowder attached to their feet. They threatened to light the powder if the fathers didn’t confess their identities, to no avail; they would move on to more exquisite tortures in due time.

Eventually, thanks to the concerted pleading of the Spaniard Alvaro Muñoz — a friend of the English trading-chief in Hirado — the fathers were moved into a small cell with a narrow window, a distinct improvement over the torture-chambers they had grown used to.

On 16 February 1621, Gonroku left Nagasaki to head up to the Shogun’s court in Edo (Tokyo) and pay his New Year’s respects. On the way he stopped at Hirado, where he summoned the Dutch merchant-pirates to appear before him in audience and bring along the two prisoners in whom they placed such high hopes of lucre. Although the Dutchmen produced the aforesaid letters as proof that their prisoners were priests, the two friars denied the charge, and Gonroku rejected the proffered evidence as counterfeit, upbraiding the brigands for scheming to appropriate a Japanese merchant’s ship and holding its passengers hostage without substantiating their charges. He even warned them that he might cut off trade with Holland entirely if they couldn’t produce real proof. He sent the Dutchmen packing with a warning to look after their prisoners carefully until his return, assigning two of his own men to see that they did just that.

Incidentally, as Gonroku knew Fr. Zúñiga quite well, he must have strained his acting skills to the limit — and his performance would have unexpected and unforgettable consequences: consequences that will play out in Part 2 of this story.

A Ladder to Heaven, Part II

          On 22 July 1620, English corsairs on the barque Elizabeth seized a Japanese junk headed for Japan carrying two friars disguised as Spanish merchants: Augustinian Fr. Pedro de Zúñiga and Dominican Fr. Luís de Flores. Soon, the two were imprisoned in the Dutch trading-post at Hirado, north of Nagasaki, while the Dutchmen and their English cohorts strove to prove to the authorities that their prisoners were Catholic priests. If successful, they would see the two burned alive and keep the ship as their prize to boot.

The Dutchmen decided to wrench the truth out of their prisoners with torture: they bound Fray Pedro to an X-shaped “Saint Andrew’s cross” and poured a flood of water onto his face and down his throat so that he could hardly catch his breath; during this torture, blood vessels in the victim’s neck would often burst in his struggle to breathe. Once Fr. Zúñiga’s belly was swollen with water, his torturers beat on it to force it back out; as he vomited the mess out, bloody water seeped out through his pores. Jacques Specx, the Dutchmen’s boss, then demanded that the friar confess his true identity, and this failing, ordered more water poured. They repeated this procedure again and again, emptying a full hogshead of water onto Fr. Zúñiga’s face and down his throat before resignedly sending the tortured priest back to his cell in defeat.

Fr. Flores was next. Elderly and frail, he looked like a corpse by the time his torture was over. Nevertheless, neither man had given in, for the lives of Captain Joachim Hirayama and his crew hung on the fiction that their former passengers were merchants, not Catholic priests come to save endangered human souls.

In November, Hasegawa Gonroku, Governor of Nagasaki, visited Hirado to clear up the problem of the imprisoned friars and the sequestered ship. Along with Matsuura Takanobu, the local daimyo, he held four hearings wherein the Dutch merchant-pirates laid on the charge that their prisoners were the vanguard of Spanish conquest, agents sent by the very king who had subdued the Philippines and many other lands. Will Adams, the famous Englishman-turned-samurai, and Richard Cocks, his compatriot in Hirado, had kept that same bug of suspicion buzzing in Tokugawa Ieyasu’s ear as long as he lived, a bug now grown into rage in the mind of the Shogun Hidetada, Ieyasu’s son.   

Gonroku therefore had to tread as if on eggs as he pretended to disbelieve the ever-more-convincing proof that the prisoners were indeed priests. Witnesses from Nagasaki who knew Fr. Zúñiga were brought in, one of them a blind man who swore he recognized the friar’s voice. Richard Cocks, head of the English trading-post in Hirado, had earlier said he wanted his own head cut off if the man before him was not in fact Fr. Zúñiga. Ignoring the mounting evidence could wind up being Gonroku’s self-inflicted death-sentence.

He had priests brought in from the prison in Omura: Jesuit Fr. Carlo Spinola, Dominican Fr. Francisco de Morales, and Fr. Pedro de Avila, Franciscan — pallid men (and future martyrs) who looked like walking corpses with hair and beards grown wild and fingernails curling beyond their fingertips. They barely had the strength to stand when called upon, yet all answered with discretion, neither lying nor admitting that they knew Fr. Pedro to be a priest as they tried to preserve the lives of Joachim Hirayama and his crew — and perhaps Gonroku’s life as well.

But things had gone too far: to go on denying the obvious could only lead to scandal, the priests concurred together, and thus, on 7 December, the feast of St. Ambrose, Fr. Zúñiga donned his Augustinian habit, shaved his tonsure, and declared himself a priest, insisting that the mariners he had sailed with hadn’t known.

Gonroku duly proceeded up to Edo to report this news to the Shogun. Infuriated, Hidetada ordered the priests and Captain Hirayama roasted by “slow fire” and all the ship’s crew beheaded. James Murdoch writes that all religious held in prison, along with their hosts, were also to be burnt alive, and the wives and children of the latter beheaded, “as well as the wives and children of the martyrs immolated three years before.” All the latter would be accomplished in the Great Martyrdom of 1622.

Just outside of Nagasaki lay a plain between two mountains stretching from the town to the sea. Nishi-zaka, also known as Martyrs’ Hill, overlooked the scene. Léon Pagès writes:

A stockade enclosed the place of execution. Three large stakes of two palms’ diameter were destined for the confessors who were to be burnt alive; the wood and the fascines lay twenty-five palms, or twelve feet, distant. … Opposite the stakes, a long table, arrayed with pegs, would receive the heads of the twelve condemned to decapitation.

         The firewood was set at a distance to prolong the martyrs’ agonies. The condemned arrived to find a sea of Christians spread across the plain: Nagasaki’s faithful, numbering thirty or sixty or even one-hundred-thirty thousand — various sources differ — raising their voices to Heaven in prayer and song. Children’s choirs were intoning Magnificat; Laudate, Pueri; Laudate Dominum, Omnes Gentes; songs that would not cease until all was accomplished. The martyrs knelt to pray once inside the execution-ground, and the twelve sailors were quickly beheaded. Seeing their heads lined up on the table, Fr. Zúñiga called them flowers of Paradise.

The three knelt and recited the Creed. Then, before being tied to their stakes, the two priests blessed the crowd. Captain Hirayama, finding his stake unsteady, stamped the dirt around it, firming up the vessel he would ride to Heaven. He then preached to the crowd, telling them that the Son of Man came to heal mankind of the infirmities they suffered because of sin. He went on:

The fathers you see, O Japanese people, are come from the ends of the earth, sent by the Lord Jesus to work your salvation, to reap the divine fruits of Redemption, and to make you worship the true God instead of idols of stone and wood.

Meanwhile, the executioners were beating him to shut him up, to no avail: what terror could they inflict, he asked them, when they were about to burn him alive? Captain Hirayama proclaimed to all Nagasaki that the bloody scene before their eyes was in fact a ladder to Heaven.

The fire was lit; to keep the flames from blazing too freely, the wood was doused with water, for “slow fire” was the torture the Shogun prescribed. It took forty-five minutes of roasting to wrench the souls out of those three images of God standing firm against the ruler’s odium fidei: first Fr. Luís de Flores, the eldest, bowed his head in death, and then Joachim Hirayama — the ship’s captain who had dared to bring Christ to his beloved land — followed him up that ladder to eternal life. Fr. Pedro de Zúñiga held on the longest, enduring hellish agonies for the sake of his former flock, whose dream of his return to them was being immolated before their eyes.

Yet they knew that in that fiery hell their precious pastor’s soul was climbing straight to Heaven.


A version of this story (not edited by me) first appeared on

The Great Martyrdom of Nagasaki, 10 September 1622

The Great Martyrdom, 10 September 1622

Depiction of the Great Martyrdom by an anonymous Japanese artist. Credit: By Japanese artist, unknown [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

            Below I have transcribed an account of the Great Martyrdom of 1622 from an English translation (1705) of Jean Crasset’s Histoire de l’Eglise du Japon (History of the Church of Japan), published in Paris in 1689. I have changed only the archaic capitalizations (in the original, all nouns were capitalized) and the inaccurate or non-standard renderings of Japanese names. Otherwise, the translator’s spellings and punctuation remain.


             We begin this book [The Sixteenth Book of Crasset’s History] with one of the most glorious sights that hath yet appear’d in Japan. One and fifty, partly religious, and partly seculars, burnt alive, and beheaded for the Holy Faith, and the celebrated Father Spinola of the Society of Jesus, at the head of the troop, whose precious death falls next under our consideration.

Gonroku, Governour of Nagasaki, pursuant to his last instructions from Court, order’d Hikoemon Lieutenant to the Prince of Omura, to bring all the prisoners in those parts, under a strong guard to Nagasaki. In the mean while, he pick’d up at home of men and women, to the number of thirty, and condemn’d them to be beheaded, for professing the holy Faith.

These good Religious had now laid four years languishing in the prisons of Omura. Nine of them were of the Society of Jesus, the rest partly of St. Dominick, and partly of St. Francis’s Order, together with ten pious Christians. They lay winter and summer, expos’d to the weather. Brother Fernandez was perfectly starv’d to death. Father Charles Spinola never once chang’d his cloaths in three years time, so that he was in a manner cover’d over with odure and filth. But the greatest torment of all was the intollerable stench, and noisomness of the prison, and it was so streight withall, that they had not room to lie in. Moreover, they wou’d not so much as let them move out of the spot, for the common ease and benefit of nature, which bread such swarms of vermin about them, that they were little better than eaten alive. In a word, the place was in it self a perfect resemblance of Hell, and their life (abstracting from the interiour quiet of their souls) a continual martyrdom. Their common allowance was a spoonful of black rice boil’d in water, with porridge made of roots, and sometimes a herring half rotten ; but this dainty was soon retrench’d.

The Governour of Omura having orders to conduct the Prisoners to Nagasaki, chose out of the respective Orders to the number of twenty four, viz. nine of the Society [of Jesus], namely Father Charles Spinola, and Father Sebastian Kimura, with seven other novices, who made their vows afterwards to the foresaid Father Spinola, as the Provincial had directed. The rest were all Dominicans and Fryars. But as it happen’d heretofore, in the case of the Forty Martyrs at Sebaste, so it fair’d now with these Saints, all did not gain the crown, for two sunk under torments, as Father Spinola had more than once foretold.

All the prisoners were ship’d off for Nangoya [Nagayo], besides two Priests of the Order of St. Dominick and St. Francis, and the guards strictly charg’d to let none speak with them on the way. This notwithstanding, one Leo Sukezayemon, a noble Japonian, made up to Father Kimura, and recommending himself to his prayers, cut off a piece of his garment by way of relick.

From this village began the glorious cavalcade of the Martyrs. First of all went an officer, and numbers of guards after him, both foot and horse, arm’d with lances, pikes, and musquets. Next after them follow’d Father Spinola, and then the rest of the Martyrs, but without any order or distinction. Each of them had a cord about his neck, and an executioner at his side, to drag him along, God so permitting, for the greater glory of his Saints.

Being benighted at Urakami, they shut them up in a double enclosure, but the rain coming on at the same time, were forc’d to remove them into a little straw hut till next morning. At break of day three Christians were permitted to speak with them, and amongst the rest, Father Spinola’s catechist, who brought him the first news of his death [-sentence]. The Father was overjoy’d at the account, and in acknowledgment of the happy tidings, presented him with a discipline [a scourge] which he had us’d in prison, and a pair of beads. These were all the riches of that holy man.

He desir’d extremely to enter into the field of battel in his surplice, with an embroider’d banner of the name of Jesus in his hand, which he had caus’d to be made for this purpose, and design’d that Father Kimura should do the same, but the guards positively refus’d it. Then they mounted them again on horseback, and conducted them in the same order as before, to the place of execution, about a league off. The ways were all lin’d with people, and the Christians from all parts flock’d thither to ask their blessing, weeping and lamenting to see their Pastors, who came from the end of the world to teach them the way of salvation, so barbarously murther’d.

Drawing near to the place of execution, on an eminence near the sea side, within sight of Nagasaki, they found the whole bordering plain clad with people, insomuch, that it was impossible to distinguish what the Saints spoke, for the noise and clamour of the multitude. Father Kimura indeed raising his voice, pray’d a moment’s silence, and then said (so that all might hear him) He long’d with all his heart to let them know what joy he felt in his soul upon his approaching end ; but the noise of the people depriv’d us of the rest of his discourse, which he pronounc’d with the zeal of an apostle and Martyr.

Notwithstanding their earnestness to consummate the sacrifice, a stop was put to the execution, till such time as thirty more of their companions, who were condemn’d for harbouring the priests, had joyn’d them. They brought with them their wives, children, and neighbours, as also the families of the four martyrs, that were burnt alive some years before. Being then all arriv’d, they enter’d the list in their robes of ceremony, and express’d in their looks the comfort they had of dying with the Fathers.

They ty’d those that were to be burnt to stakes, but so slightly, that if courage fail’d, nothing was easier than to make an escape. All the religious were bound, except one John Chūgoku, of the Society, whom they beheaded for want of a stake. Father Spinola falling on his knees, embrac’d the wood, to the surprise of the heathens, who much admir’d to see a man take pleasure in dying so cruel a death.

They planted twenty five stakes in a line, and set guards both at the water side, and at the foot of the hill, to hinder the people from approaching, and a kind of throne in the middle, cover’d with China tapistry, for Sukedayu the Governour’s Lieutenant to sit on, who presided in the action.

The time of sacrifice now drawing near, Father Spinola, to excite his companions, and the other Christians to praise God for his great mercy, began to entone the Psalm Laudate Dominum omne Gentes ; immediatly the rest answer’d, and made up altogether a most harmonious concert, insomuch, that if we may believe Gonzales Montero, in his informations at Manila (who was present at the action) he had never heard any thing so charming in his whole life.

The Psalm ended, Father Spinola addressing himself to the Lieutenant, and the rest of the company, began this discourse:

You may guess, noble Japonians, by the joy that appears on our countenances, at the sight of these dreadful torments, whether we came from the other world to seize on your estates, or to teach you the way of salvation. The Christian religion inspires her children, with a contempt of all worldly greatness. It’s your souls happiness we aim at, and not your riches. Fortunate Japonians that embrace the law of the true God, for everlasting happiness will be your recompence. On the contrary, the lot of those that still persist in their infidelity, is Hell fire for all eternity, and flames infinitely more active than those we are now to encounter. The torments we are here to suffer, are of a short continuance, but the glory that’s prepar’d for us in Heaven, and the blessed life, which thro’ his mercy we hope to enjoy, will never have an end. For the rest, don’t think to terrify the preachers of the Gospel with these frightful appearances, for the greatest happiness that can attend us in this life, is to suffer and die for the God we adore and worship.

Then turning to the Portuguese merchants, who were not a little concern’d for their death, he made them so moving a discourse, that one of the heads of them resolv’d to leave the World upon it, and enter into the Society of Jesus.

In the mean while, the executioners were preparing to do their office, and march’d up to those that were to be beheaded. With that the thirty glorious champions fell on their knees, and whilst they were fitting themselves for the work, a gentlewoman of the company call’d Isabella Fernandez (Widow to Don Dominick George the Portuguese) took up her child, who was only four years of age, and call’d to Father Spinola to recommend him to God in his prayers. They call’d the child Ignatius as being born on that Saint’s day. Father Spinola baptiz’d him, and his parents consecrated him to God from his infancy. Being amongst the rest of the croud, and clad after a decent manner, the eyes of the whole multitude were upon him, but Father Spinola not discerning him, cry’d out in a concern to his mother ; Where’s little Ignatius? What’s become of him? With that the devout parent took him up in her arms, and shewing him to the Father, reply’d again : Behold him here in my arms, he is pleas’d to die with me, and I freely sacrifice to God what’s dearest to me in the world, my son, and my life. Then turning to the child, Behold (said she) him that made you a son of God, and gave you a life, better than what you are now going to lose. Recommend your self to his prayers, and beg his blessing.

With that the child fell down on his knees, and joyning his hands, did as the mother had order’d. The people were all strangely mov’d at the passage, insomuch, that the officers were forc’d to hasten the execution for fear of a tumult. The first that suffer’d was Mary, widow to Andrew Tokuan the Martyr. Her head and two more fell down at the child’s feet; and yet he was not in the least surpris’d ; what’s more, when they beheaded his mother who stood next him, he did not so  much as change colour ; on the contrary, falling on his knees, and loosening himself the collar of his coat, cheerfully submitted to the sword.

Father Spinola stood all the while and beheld this butchery from his stake. Questionless the sacrifice of so many noble victims, was a most agreeable spectacle, at the same time, he could not but be sensible of the death of little Ignatius. This first scene over, the executioner set fire to the wood, which stood a matter of five and twenty foot from the Martyrs, and this to prolong their torments, and force them to renounce the Faith.

The fire being well kindled, a hideous shout was rais’d round the plain, some wept, others lifted up their eyes to Heaven, others cry’d for mercy, the Martyrs only were silent, and stood immoveable in the flames. The first that carried the Crown was Father Charles Spinola, and that after two hours rosting at the fire. Probably he died first, as being of a more delicate complection, or thro’ weakness by his long sickness in prison, or perchance by favour of the sparks, which happen’d to light on his cloaths before the fire reach’d his stake. All the time of his suffering he stood streight up, with his eyes, fix’d on Heaven and the cords being burnt, his body fell down into the flames, and was consum’d in a holocaust, to the glory of His Divine Majesty.

The other religious follow’d presently after, and honour’d our Faith, with their invincible constancy and patience. Above all, the Novices of the Society were particularly taken notice of, as expressing a celestial kind of sweetness in their looks, which continu’d with them to their last breath. The last that died, was Father Sebastian Kimura of the Society, and if we credit the report of those that were present, he liv’d by their hour-glasses, three full hours in the flames.

All had not the same resolution, for two young men of the troop, who had lately enter’d into a religious order, unhappily verify’d Father Spinola’s prediction. Being overcome with the torments, after a short struggle to break the cords, without regard to the good advice of Brother Lewis of the Society who stood next them, they forc’d their way thro’ the fire, and falling at the Judge’s feet, call’d upon Shaka and Amida. Virtue is charming in the opinion of its very enemies, on the contrary, the lewdest libertines profess a dislike and aversion to vice. Both one and t’other were verifyed on this occasion. Every one applauded the constancy of the Martyrs, at the same time they conceiv’d so strange an aversion to these apostats, that nothing would serve them, but they must commit them again to the flames, and in effect they did.

A secular Japonian also, breaking his cords, attempted an escape, but reflecting upon the constancy of his wife, who had newly suffer’d before his eyes, he was so touch’d, that he flung himself again into the fire, and so repair’d his fault by a voluntary sacrifice of his life. They speak variously of this latter : However this is certain, he never call’d upon Amida, nor is there any proof, that he deny’d his faith, if then he committed any fault, and afterwards return’d back to his stake, without all question, Almighty God had mercy on his soul.

The Martyrs being all expir’d, the Christians forc’d the enclosure to carry off their relicks. Amongst the rest Leo Sukezayemon disguising himself in a soldier’s coat, press’d in with the guards, and stole one of the Martyrs bones, but being taken in the theft, they seiz’d him, and soon after put both him and his wife to death at Omura. The Governour to hinder the Christians from taking away their relicks, order’d the soldiers to pile up all the bones and instruments, as also the very earth that was stain’d with their blood, and burn them to ashes, and these too to be thrown into the sea. All they preserved was the head of Mary, wife to Tokuan, which was given to the Christians in consideration of her near alliance to the Governour.

Their martyrdom fell on the Second [sic] of September, 1622, and is commonly call’d the Great Martyrdom, in regard of the number and quality of the persons that suffer’d. We may add also the vast concourse of heathens and Christians that came from all parts to see the execution. As for this last I appeal to a letter of Father Baza’s, then Rector of the College of Nagasaki.

Nagasaki (says he) is this day thinner of people than before the persecution, and yet by common computation, they reckon in and about the town, a matter of fifty thousand Christians. Probably curiosity, and devotion together, invited them abroad to assist at the great solemnity. Hence also it’s easie to conjecture what trouble the good Fathers were in, to see their flourishing Church cultivated for the space of sixty years with continual labour and fatigue, so suddainly defac’d. Before the persecution, the number of the Christians all together, amounted to upwards of three hundred thousand, besides children. Questionless, there was nothing but the glory which redounded to God by the Martyrs sufferings, that cou’d make them anywise tolerable easie. Behold the names of those that dy’d on this memorable day.

The names of those that were burnt alive.

Of the Order of St. Dominick.

Father Francis Morales.

Father Joseph.

Father Alphonsus de Mina.

Father Hyacinth Orfanelli.    

Father Angelus Ferrie.

Brother Alexius the Japonian.

Of the Order of St. Francis.

Father Peter Avila.

Brother Leo.

Father Richard of St. Ann.

Brother Vincent.


Of the Society of Jesus.

Father Charles Spinola.

Brother Thomas Akohoshi.

Father Sebastian Kimura.

Brother Michael Shumpu.

Brother Peter Sampo.    

Brother Anthony Kiuni.

Brother Consaluus [Gonzalo] Fusai.

Brother Lewis Cavara [Kawaura].


Seculars burnt alive.

Anthony a Coreyan.

Paul a Japonian.

Luke Irtites a Japonian. [Error: the original French reads ‘Luce des Irtites Japonnoise’ i.e. a lady. Perhaps Lucia de Freitas]

Anthony Sanga the catechist.


The names of those that were beheaded.

Brother Thomas of the Order of St. Dominick.

John of the Third Order of St. Dominick.

Brother John Chūgoku of the Society.

Isabella Fernandes, wife to Don Dominick George a Portuguese, who was burnt for the Faith.

Ignatius her son, at the age of four years.

Mary widow to Andrew Tokuan the Martyr.

Marina a widow.

Mary wife to Anthony Corey [Antonio, a Korean] the Martyr.

Apollonia a widow.

Agnes, widow to the late Martyr Cosmas.

John son to Anthony Corey [son of Antonio, a Korean], a youth of 12 years of age.

Peter his brother at the age of three years.

Mary widow to John Shun the Martyr.

Dominica a widow.

Magdalen wife to Anthony Sanga the Martyr.

Dominick Yamanda [Yamada or Hamada].

Mary late wife to Paul who was burnt for his faith.


Thecla wife to Paul of Nangaixi [Nagaishi].

Peter his son, at the age of seven years.

Dominick Nacavo [Domingo Nakano] son to one Matthias that died for the faith.

Peter Motoyama a child of five years of age, and son to John the Martyr.

Bartholomew Kawano.

Damien and his son Michael a child at the age of five years.


Clement and Anthony his son, an infant of three years old.

Rufus, and Clare, the spouse of a Martyr.



      Crasset’s list of Martyrs is incomplete. In reality, twenty-five were burned at the stake and thirty beheaded. His account, nevertheless, is priceless.

       May all of us who suffer doubt meditate on these Christian stalwarts’ lesson in faith unshakable.

         Luke O’Hara


Copyright © 2018 by Luke O'Hara