Saint Valentine’s Day 1614 in Tokugawa Ieyasu’s Japan

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

Tokugawa_Ieyasu                Japanese_Crucifixion (1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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





February 5th: the Dictator Hideyoshi and the 26 Martyrs

     Four hundred and eighteen years ago —5 February 1597—twenty-six bloodied men and boys were crucified on a mountainside overlooking Nagasaki Bay for the crime of being Christian.  While being spat upon and ridiculed and otherwise abused, they had been marched for twenty-eight days through towns and villages and countryside toward their destination at the westernmost edge of Japan—for the Christian town of Nagasaki was, in the dictator’s eyes, the perfect place to make a show of his power.


(Toyotomi Hideyoshi)

            He had proscribed the Faith a decade earlier, perhaps in the merest fit of pique fueled by drunkenness, and ordered all clergy, or bateren, out of Japan.  Unwilling to abandon their flocks, however, most of the clergy in the country stayed on at the risk of their lives and went incognito as it were, abandoning the Jesuit habit to wear the ordinary Japanese clothing of the day.  They knew the ruler well:  Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the Taikō, the Retired Imperial Regent.  In the Japanese scheme of things, his so-called retirement was a screen behind which to freely wield dictatorial power, and he accepted the proscribed clergy’s screen of seeming-obedience to his edict as a convenient compromise, for he needed the good offices of the Jesuit clergy in Japan to smooth his acquisition of Chinese silk and European guns through the Portuguese traders who sailed to Nagasaki from Macao.
            But then, on October 19, 1596, the San Felipe—a Mexico-bound Spanish galleon laden with rich Chinese silks—limped into the Japanese port of Urado after having been blown off course by a typhoon.  The local daimyō (feudal lord), feigning helpfulness, had the ship towed into his harbor and right onto a sand-bar, which broke the ship’s back and converted her into a shipwreck.  Now, by Japanese law, her cargo was forfeit, or so the daimyō told the Spaniards, and he quickly sent word to Hideyoshi, from whom he could expect a rich reward.
            The Spanish captain dispatched an embassy of two Franciscan friars and two of his crewmen to Osaka to save his cargo, but such an embassy could be embarrassing for Hideyoshi:  he had already claimed the cargo for himself.  He therefore engineered an interrogation of the ship’s pilot at the hands of a clever underling:  Hideyoshi’s man construed a “confession” that the friars were the vanguards of Spanish conquest; this gave the ruler an excuse to explode with rage and in his fury order the round-up and crucifixion of all Franciscans in his captive realm.  In the event, his zealous men netted six Franciscans, three Jesuits and fifteen Catholic laymen.  (Two more martyrs would be added to their number later on.)  Hideyoshi ordered their ears and noses cut off; next they were to be paraded around the cities of Kyoto, Osaka and Sakai in carts, and thereafter marched eight hundred kilometers to Nagasaki, there to be crucified.  A sympathetic official in Kyoto intervened:  only their left earlobes were cut off, but the rest of the sentence would be carried out in full.
         The 26 Martyrs started their death-march on the tenth of January, 1597.  They were marched from dawn till nightfall for twenty-seven days, paraded as criminals and outcasts through town after town.  The youngest of the martyrs was twelve, the oldest sixty-four.  Twelve-year-old Louis Ibaraki laughed when they clipped his ear, and thereafter marched along jauntily toward Nagasaki.  On their wintry road to Calvary Thomas Kozaki, fourteen, wrote to his mother, “You should not worry about me and my father Michael”—his father was marching with him to be crucified—“I hope to see you both very soon, there in Paradise,” he explained.1
            At one point in their trek the guards grabbed Peter Sukejiro, a young believer accompanying the martyrs, robbed him of everything he had and threw him in with them, thus sentencing him to death on their own authority.  Rather than protest, Peter merely remarked, “Seeing that we all have to die anyway, it’s better to die for the Faith,” 2 thus proving his own fitness for martyrdom.
            Their last night on earth was miserable:  it was a bitterly frosty night and the Martyrs must have prayed and shivered all night long, since they were hunched together in open boats anchored offshore at Togitsu, a Christian village north of Nagasaki, with musket-men guarding the shoreline.  Hideyoshi’s sheriff, afraid of Christian violence, would not take the risk of putting them under a Christian roof for the night, as if he had something to fear from that “religion of love and union” he had proscribed.
            On the Fifth of February the martyrs were marshaled to their feet at dawn and marched double-time toward Nishizaka, the mountain slope atop which they would die; it would be a twelve-kilometer marathon.  The local Christians lined the roadside in silent reverence watching them pass, breathing not a whisper of rebellion.  From time to time Jesuit Brother Paul Miki exclaimed, “Today is Easter Sunday for me!  The Lord has shown me such mercy!” as they climbed toward their Calvary.3   They arrived at half-past nine in the morning:  just about the time Our Lord was crucified.
            Up on their crosses the Twenty-Six awaited the coup de graçe that would end their Japanese-style crucifixions:  twin spear-thrusts from below, into their left and right sides and upward through their hearts and out their shoulders.  The false charges laid against them were painted on a placard stood in front of the row of crosses for all to see, but all of Nagasaki knew that they had been condemned merely for the crime of being Christian.  Paul Miki spent his last minutes preaching, just as he had been doing all the length of their twenty-seven day march to Calvary, proclaiming to the thousands of Nagasaki Christians blanketing the hillside below, “I greatly rejoice to die for this cause!”
             When the soldiers unsheathed their spears, the crucified martyrs and the crowd all started shouting in one voice, “Jesus!  Mary!”  This holy cry resounded again and again until every last martyr’s heart was pierced; it resounded among the hills of Nagasaki, across the waters of the bay, through the rigging of the ships from halfway round the world that lay in Nagasaki Bay tethered to their moorings, their crewmen watching transfixed by the spectacle above, as if it were they themselves and their holy Faith whose hearts were being pierced.
            Twelve-year-old Louis Ibaraki had long been prepared for this moment.  Twenty-seven days earlier, at the start of their journey, the martyrs had been paraded in oxcarts around the capital and around nearby Sakai, the mercantile center of Japan, and in their oxcart the three youngest boys had brightly sung the Our Father and the Hail Mary as their just-clipped ears poured blood; now, raised on their crosses, the three sang a Psalm—Praise the Lord, O ye children, praise ye His Holy Name.  Louis alone among the Twenty-six was there entirely by personal choice, for he had been offered his freedom by Hanzaburō, the sheriff in charge of the execution, on condition that he give up the Faith.
       Louis didn’t hesitate; his answer was swift and clear:  “I do not want to live on that condition, for it is not reasonable to exchange a life that has no end for one that soon finishes” 4:  a holy precocity reminiscent of Our Lord at age twelve in the Temple, “Sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions, and all who heard him were astounded at His understanding and His answers” (Luke 2:46b-47).
       In that same spirit, on the Fifth of February in the Year of Our Lord 1597, atop that slope called Nishizaka that overlooked wholly-Catholic Nagasaki and its perfect harbor, the boy-Saint Louis Ibaraki shouted words that would carry His blessing to the ears and hearts of all the listening world, before the soldiers gouged their spears into his sides and up through his twelve-year-old heart:  “Paradise!  Paradise!” he shouted, struggling toward Heaven, “Jesus!  Mary!”




Copyright 2007/2014 by Luke O’Hara


1 Diego Yuuki, S.J., The Twenty-Six Martyrs of Nagasaki (Tokyo, Enderle, 1998), 55.

2 Yuuki, 56.

3 Yuuki, 70.

4 Yuuki, 60.