Paulo Uchibori and Sons, Japanese Martyrs of Unzen, Part IV

   Finally, at dawn on 28 February 1627, Paulo and fifteen others were taken out of Matsukura’s dungeon to start their climb up Mount Unzen.  Along the way they sang hymns and recited the Creed, and when their guards stopped to rest, they knelt, made an Act of Contrition, and prayed a Rosary; and, singing another hymn, arrived at the “hell” where they were to die; where the guards tied ropes around their necks, as if they were not human beings but the merest meat for boiling.

(Two boiling pools (above and below) in "Unzen Hell."  What remain today are mere vestiges of the    "Hell" of 1627:  Mount Unzen was reshaped by a 1792 eruption.)


The first to die jumped into the violently-boiling sulfur-water on the executioners’ command; Paulo admonished the others to wait for Matsukura’s men to do the killing:  faithful Catholics must not kill themselves.  He kept on encouraging and guiding his fellow-Catholics through their martyrdoms, guiding them Heavenward, which infuriated Matsukura’s executioners; so they saved Paulo for the last, grisliest execution:  they hung him upside-down by his feet and dunked him head-first, yanking him out to see the result.  He sang out, “Praised Be the Most Blessed Sacrament!”
They dunked him again, maybe expecting better results this time, and pulled him out a second time.  Again he prayed, “Praised Be the Most Blessed Sacrament!”   No whining, no squirming, no sur- render to the Shogun:  only praise for the Conqueror of death, until they plunged him in a third time, for good.
This was the stuff of which Saint Francis Xavier had exulted on his first arriving in Japan:  here was the good earth that bore fruit a hundredfold.  Eleven years later, Paulo’s prayer would crown Amakusa Shiro’s flag of rebellion, the flag that would fly over Hara Castle, where 37,000 Catholics would shed their blood for Christ.  It was the flag of the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament.  Those words of  praise, joy and victory would soar over the Shimabara martyrs’ final battleground while the Shogun’s horde stamped out his fury; words that cannot be erased or silenced, singing through Japan’s buried centuries of darkness; words flying high and ringing still:  Praised be the Most Blessed Sacrament.
We dare not shut our eyes, nor stop our ears.




 (A reproduction of Shiro's battle-flag, flying at a memorial Mass on the sacred earth where Hara           Castle stood.)

Text and Photos Copyright 2007 by Luke O'Hara


Paulo Uchibori and Sons, Japanese Martyrs of Unzen, Part III


               Twenty others, stripped naked, were forced to watch the tortures and executions; Paulo himself was one of these witnesses.  First, the executioners lined the condemned Christians up along the bank of the moat around Matsukura’s fortress, calling each one forward and cutting that victim’s fingers off one by one:  some all ten, some less, at the torturer’s whim.  Paulo’s eighteen-year-old son Antonio they called first:  he bravely strode up and spread his hands out on the cutting-board, showing not a wince as they sliced his fingers off.  Paulo’s youngest, five-year-old Ignacio, manifested a miracle when they cut his tender little index-fingers off:  after each slash, he brought that hand to his face and smiled, watching the blood jet out.  The astonished pagans drew away in fear:  like the Gerasenes, terrified by Christ’s power over evil.
After mutilating these heroes, Matsukura’s men stripped them, tied ropes around their necks and ankles, and took them out in a boat for the final torture:  hanging stones around their necks, they plunged each into the icy sea, pulling him out and demanding that he renounce Christ to save his life, and dropped him in again, pulling him out to give him another “chance”, and in, and out, over and over.  None of the Christians apostatized; every one they drowned.
Looking on from a nearby boat were the twenty other Christians forced to watch the tortures and drownings, with Paulo among them.  He heard his heroic son Antonio gasp, “Father, let us thank God for such a big blessing” before they drowned him; and he watched them suspend little Ignacio above the waves before his eyes for a small eternity before they finally sunk the mutilated five-year-old to the bottom of the sea.

The twenty witnesses they then took back to their stripped-off clothes; warning-signs had been sewn on them, threatening with grave punishment anyone who would dare give these Christians alms or shelter them.  Next, they cut the three middle fingers off each of their hands, branding the word CHRISTIAN on their foreheads and setting them loose to fend for themselves:  stark, horrific examples to would-be believers of the Shogun’s certain wrath; but rather than show their misery, these stalwart Catholics went around preaching Christ fearlessly, urging apostates to return to the Faith.  This was not the lesson Matsukura-dono had intended for the souls of Arima, so the twenty were ordered back to his castle.

(to be continued)


Paulo Uchibori and Sons, Part II


Part II


       In 1614, the Shogun’s vise tightened on Arima:  Sahioye, the Magistrate of Nagasaki, invaded her with an army of ten thousand men to wage a gruesome campaign of anti-Christian terror, and he threw Paulo Uchibori into prison.  Sahioye, a spiritual precursor of Adolf Hitler, had been promised the fief of Arima if he solved the Christian problem.  He was soon recalled by the Shogun, though, leaving behind in Arima many mutilated but victoriously-faithful Catholics, and two hills of Christian flesh:  one of chopped-up bodies and the other of heads, in a field below Naozumi’s abandoned hilltop castle in the south of Arima.

Arima was next entrusted to Matsukura Shigemasa, a tough warrior and an old stalwart in the retired Shogun Ieyasu’s camp.  At first, Shigemasa turned a blind eye to the Christians in Arima, and since he respected Paulo Uchibori’s samurai grit, he let him out of prison; but in 1626, Shigemasa went up to the capital to do homage to the Christ-hating Shogun Iemitsu, the third of the Tokugawa Shoguns and Ieyasu’s grandson.  According to historian Father Diego Yuuki, S.J., Iemitsu could think of nothing but the crackdown on Christianity, as if he were possessed (Yuuki, Unzen no Junkyo-sha, 1984, p. 52).

Matsukura Shigemasa’s castle at Shimabara; the moat has now become a garden
(Photo © 2007 by Luke O’Hara)

In his year at the Shogun’s palace at Edo, Shigemasa drank deep of the poison in the wretched Shogun Iyemitsu’s soul:  he went back to Arima a changed man, determined to purge Christ from his domain, and from the capital he had sent down orders to arrest Paulo Uchibori and his family.   When he arrived at his castle at Shimabara, he found thirty-seven Christians in his dungeon.  On 21 February 1627, Shigemasa decreed this doom for sixteen of them:  cut their fingers off, hang stones around their necks, and drown them in the sea.  Paulo’s three sons were among them.

(to be continued)

Paulo Uchibori and Sons, Part I


          A glowering, scar-faced volcano named Unzen reigns over the Shimabara Peninsula in southwestern Japan.  Atop it, bubbling, sulfurous hot springs vomit out white crud and belch acrid steam.  They call this place “Unzen Hell.”  In the 1600s, the daimyo of Shimabara found the biggest of its caustic, skin-eating pools perfect for torturing Christians.
Photo © 2007 by Luke O’Hara

Most tourists connect Unzen’s boiling fury only with the posh spas that ring her “Hell”; almost unknown is the history that lies buried within that smoking netherworld–a tale of superhuman heroism and epic tragedy.  Unzen transfigured this land and laid bare its people’s souls.  The volcano has reshaped the Peninsula time and again, most recently in a series of eruptions from 1991-94; and as for Shimabara’s Catholics of old, it fired them in its crucible, proving some, like Paulo Uchibori, to be made of tempered steel.  If only the whole world knew.

Back in the days when it was ruled by Arima Harunobu, this land, known as Arima, had been the Catholic bulwark of Japan; but in 1612, the Shogun exiled Harunobu for bribery, ordering his death and giving Arima to Harunobu’s spineless son Naozumi.  Naozumi renounced Christ on the Shogun’s orders, joined a Buddhist cult, and vowed to his earthly lord and master to stamp out the Faith in his ancestral domain.  On 7 October 1613–the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary–he burnt three of his top samurai along with their families outside the walls of his castle because they had refused to deny Jesus; yet Arima’s staunch Catholics, rather than being cowed, attended this glorious martyrdom in their thousands singing hymns and wearing rosaries around their necks while their earthly lord Naozumi cowered in his fortress on a hilltop overlooking the scene.  Soon Naozumi asked the Shogun to transfer him out of Arima to another fief; rather than join him in apostasy and accompany their despised lord to his new home, most of Arima’s Christian samurai renounced their livelihoods for Christ and stayed behind in Arima.  One of the staunchest Catholics among these samurai was Paulo Uchibori, and his three sons took after their father, with souls as tough and keen as Japanese swords.


(to be continued)


Slaughtering the Healers


Item:  The Democratic Party strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to make decisions regarding her pregnancy, including a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay. We oppose any and all efforts to weaken or undermine that right. Abortion is an intensely personal decision between a woman, her family, her doctor, and her clergy; there is no place for politicians or government to get in the way.


(excerpt from the Platform of the Democratic Party, 2012)


Slaughtering the Healers


            “It is the little ones who heal us,” said Father Leonard, completely out of the blue.  I had been confessing some now-forgotten sin, and out came this treasure from the storeroom of his heart.


            It came to me some days later that the face of God must have something in it of the face of a child.  This would explain why Jesus said, “In heaven their angels always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matt. 18.10)  That is, the faces of the angels’ appointed little ones, untainted as yet by actual sin, are so many little faces of God.


            When the Pharisees asked Jesus why He hung around with the likes of us, He answered, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” (Lk 5:31)  In those days people understood the pricelessness of each human life, and thus the infinite value of healing.  How appalled they would have been to breathe the putrid ambiance of our brave new world where ‘freedom of choice’ means the wholesale murdering of babies in their mothers’ wombs, and even—horror unspeakable—the slaughtering of babies while they are being born, murdered by the very ‘physicians’ who should be delivering those newborn healers into their mothers’ loving arms.  How infuriated our forebears would have been by the hissing sound of those three slithery words—‘Freedom of Choice’—that deny both freedom and choice to the little boys and girls being butchered by so-called physicians.  And how it must wrench the guardian angels to see their own tiny, Godlike charges torn out of the womb with steel pincers piece by piece, limb by limb, tiny hands and feet and torso, and, most wrenching of all, the tiny bleeding head with its tortured face of God frozen in eternal agony.  How bitterly the guardians must weep to see us slaughter their helpless little ones, those tiny healers, as if infanticide really were the merest expression of ‘reproductive rights’.


            If only we could hear the angels gasp, or feel the rain of tears they shower over every butchered child, but perhaps we are too far gone, too ‘experienced’, too hardened of heart:  perhaps our calluses are long since grown too thick for us to hear or feel such holy pain.  We are so desperately in need of love, of innocence, of healing.


              How very sick indeed our world will be when we have finally slaughtered all the little ones.


Under the Fallen Blossoms, Buried History: Amakusa Shiro and the Fall of Hara Castle




Under the Fallen Cherry-Blossoms, Buried History


            In the Japanese village of Minami Arima, every spring at cherry-blossom time, two mortal foes march their little armies up the castle road.  One is a leathery old samurai in armor and the other a pony-tailed teenager in a flowery red cape, with his face painted up like a geisha’s.  The man is the Shogun’s general; the boy is Amakusa Shiro.  At road’s end their armies will have mock combat, eliciting laughs from the crowd.


            Beyond the cherry trees, overlooking the sea, stands a very different Amakusa Shiro:  a stout young man in prayer with two swords in his belt.  This statue is truer to history, more like the young samurai who stood here awaiting the holocaust in that horrific cherry-blossom spring of 1638.  Here thirty-seven thousand souls would offer up their starving flesh, writing their testament in blood into this sacred soil.  Here was Hara Castle, the grave of the Shimabara Rebellion, the dying gasp of old Catholic Japan.


            The Shimabara Peninsula had boasted seventy Catholic churches in her prime, and the nearby Amakusa Islands had been staunchly Catholic too; but since 1612 the Shoguns had been tightening the vise and all faithful Catholics now faced death by torture.  The current Shogun, Iemitsu, demanded Christ’s extinction.  Iemitsu was a sadist, a pederast, a drunkard, a tyrant and a paranoiac, and he feared Christ as a demon would.


            To top this off, the lords of Shimabara and Amakusa were practicing tax-extortion.  There had been three years of drought and starvation, but these two profligates demanded exorbitant payments from their peasants, or else.  Some defaulters were tied up in coats made of straw and set alight.  One sheriff seized a farmer’s wife—nine months pregnant—stripped her and put her into a cage in an icy stream to make her husband pay up.  She and her baby died in the cage.


            Then there was the torture of another tax-defaulter’s only daughter, a beautiful virgin.  The sheriff stripped her naked and burnt her artfully with torches; enraged, her father killed him.  Perhaps this sheriff’s atrocity was the spark for the Shimabara Peninsula’s explosion into rebellion.  Thousands attacked their cruel master’s fortress in the town of Shimabara, brandishing a banner that proclaimed:  We were timely born to die for the Faith.


            It did seem like the end of time:  there were burning, vermilion skies, and flowers blooming out of season.  And down in Amakusa there was a prodigy.  Fifteen-year-old Shiro was the son of an old Catholic samurai named Jinbei.  Jinbei and his cronies had concocted a phony prophecy by a mythical missionary of old that “foretold” Shiro’s coming to liberate the downtrodden Christians; and then they acclaimed the boy as their prophesied redeemer in a public ceremony.


            Thus was the rebellion seeded.  After the explosion in Shimabara, closet-Christians in the nearby Amakusa Islands flocked to Shiro’s flag to wage war on their own oppressors; meanwhile, entire villages throughout the Shimabara Peninsula were vowing in writing to obey Shiro to the death.  After an unsuccessful attempt to take their despotic feudal lord’s fortress at Tomioka, Shiro’s Amakusan army sailed to Shimabara with him to join their Shimabaran brethren, and all barricaded themselves and their families inside the disused fortress called Hara Castle, in the south of the Peninsula.


            On Christmas Day the Shogun learned of the rebellion and commissioned a general, Itakura Shigemasa, to go down south to Shimabara and wipe out the despised Catholics.  His army—thrown together with units from various feudal clans—didn’t wait for his orders but attacked as soon as they had arrived at Hara Castle, expecting an easy victory:  the Christian marksmen atop the castle walls mauled them.  Enlightened, they withdrew to lick their wounds and prepare themselves for real warfare.


            Reinforcements came, but the rebels repulsed Itakura’s second, bigger assault.  Now he had to save his honor:  he ordered an all-out attack on Japanese New Year’s Day (Feb. 14, 1638).  Many contingents fought bravely, but the determined rebels exhausted them, and when Itakura tried to rally his army for a last, grand effort, all the mustered units refused to budge.  Now Itakura must save face:  grimly leading only his own little band of vassals, he charged the fortress.  A hail of bullets killed the men on his left and right, but he made it to the wall and died trying to scale it alone, shot through the chest.


            Now a new, veteran general—Matsudaira—arrived with orders from the Shogun to stand clear and starve the Christians out.  He surrounded the fortress with over 125,000 men and backed them up with cannon-fire from both the government camp and a 20-gun Dutch merchantman anchored offshore.


            That winter was severe, and inside Hara Castle the cold and hunger did its work:  what had been a triumphal juggernaut transformed into a purgatory.  By March they had run out of rice and some were eating the empty sacks; nor was there any more drinking-water or firewood, nor gunpowder.  The Shogun’s vise was pinching their Christian kingdom and their very bellies, while cannonballs came screaming in to crunch flesh and bone.  One went through Shiro’s sleeve and killed four or five of his companions.


            Matsudaira masterfully played his hand once he had tightened the vise.  He tempted the Christians with promises:  rice and homes and land and tax-relief, if only they would leave their fortress and abandon the Faith.  These tempting lies dropped out of the sky, delivered as letters wrapped around arrows shot over the castle walls.  Some nonbelievers, dragged into the rebellion against their will, did defect, but the Christian stalwarts shot testimonies back to the besiegers:  they wanted only to worship Christ; that denied them, they would just have to die, they declared.  Letting them live as Christians, of course, was not an option, for the Shogun, trapped in his private darkness, viewed the Faith with terror.


            By spring the rebels were desperate.  In a sudden night-sortie in early April they tried to rob food and ammo from the government camp, but were repulsed with heavy losses: the Christians had made the mistake of setting fire to enemy tents and thus illuminated themselves, perfect targets for massed musketry.  After the raiders’ retreat into the fortress, the government troops cut open the stomachs of Christian dead and found they had been eating only leaves.


            The Shogun’s hour had finally arrived.  On the Eleventh of April, 1638, his horde swarmed over the outermost wall of Hara Castle, having first sent down a rain of fire-arrows.  The wasted defenders fought with anything at hand—empty guns, cooking-pots—while their Christian kingdom burned all around them.  The innermost wall, the wall of the citadel at the mountaintop, was stormed on the morning of the Twelfth, and the fighting ended at noon, when the last rebel combatant was dead.  Those taken prisoner—the elderly, the ill, mothers and their children—they beheaded, without exception.  “Even the little girls,” one observer lamented.


            The Shogun’s army ringed the burnt-out Hara Castle with 10,860 impaled Christian heads; they sent 3,300 more to Nagasaki as a lesson to that town’s surviving Catholics.  As a warning to the Portuguese there—who had brought the Catholic Faith to Japan—they stuck four heads, including Shiro’s, onto stakes at the foot of the bridge to the island where the Portuguese were now confined.  Soon the Portuguese would be banned from Japan entirely, and all Japanese required to appear before a magistrate annually and tread on a Christian sacred image to prove their loyalty to the Shogun.


            Today only three Catholic churches can be found in the Peninsula, frequented by perhaps three dozen souls; but every spring at cherry-blossom time, the villagers of Minami Arima do remember the holocaust of the 37,000 with a Buddhist memorial service in the evening, and the next day with a parade, with Amakusa Shiro made up like a dainty geisha, and the Shogun’s general a proper man.


            Perhaps the Shogun really won.


Copyright © 2005, 2013 by Luke O’Hara


(Originally published, in an earlier version, in Our Sunday Visitor)