The Twelfth of April 1638: The Shōgun’s Horde Storms Hara-jō’s Castle Keep

       12 April 1638 saw the gory finale of the months-long siege of Hara Castle, a finale that would expunge Christendom in all of Shimabara and Amakusa and drive it underground throughout the remaining scraps of Japan where Christians dared to cling to the Faith.  The excerpt below from “Amakusa Shiro and the Fall of Hara Castle: a Kirishitan Holocaust” describes the final assault and its aftermath.

       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 to tread on a Christian sacred image to prove their loyalty to the Shogun.

          In the wake of the rebellion, barely a soul remained in the south of the Shimabara Peninsula: all but the rare deserter had died at the hands of the Shogun’s army. In order to have the land tilled, therefore, the Shogunate repopulated the Peninsula by forcibly removing peasants from Shikoku and Honshu and installing them willy-nilly in the ghost towns of Shimabara.

            In Japan’s Catholic heyday, at least seventy Catholic churches dotted the Shimabara Peninsula; today only three remain. 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 a fitting testament to the expunging of the Faith from what was once a Catholic land—after all, a prettied-up cartoon parody of that would-be forgotten slaughter of yesteryear fits in well with the animé unreality that so enthralls the Japan of today. But the made-up fun obscures the monstrous truth of the slaughter of those 37,000 who believed themselves ‘timely born to die for the Faith,’ and it ignores the countless martyred children: martyrs because they, unlike so many of their parents, had not chosen to rebel, but had been scooped up by their parents and rushed to Minami Arima and through the gates of Hara Castle. These the Shogun’s hordes executed for the crime of being Christian. Even the little girls.

          When will Hara Castle’s little martyrs be remembered?

11 April 1638: Tokugawa Iemitsu’s Army Swarms over Hara Castle’s Outer Walls

Iemitu                                                           Shōgun Tokugawa Iemitsu
            The Eleventh of April marks the beginning of the end of the Shimabara Rebellion.  Matsudaira Nobutsuna, commanding officer of the Shogun Iemitsu’s massed armies, had planned for his general assault to begin two days earlier, but  a driving rain postponed his plans: matchlock guns would be useless in a rainstorm.  In the interim, a gaggle of about ten girls descended from Hara Castle, fleeing through the rain for their lives.  They astonished their captors as they were dressed in the finest silks, as if they had just alighted from palanquins coming out of the very Imperial Palace rather than having slipped out of a beleaguered and starving rebels’ stronghold in the dark of night.  As if they had not spent an interminable winter of constant barrage, bitter cold, and starvation huddled in a makeshift bunker in mysterious service to their liege lord, a trumped-up adolescent messiah.
            They were Shiro’s pages, as it turned out—his harem? But among them were a nine-year-old, a seven-year-old, and a two-year-old. His wards, perhaps. Perhaps he had released them in an act of mercy, foreseeing the inevitably-grisly slaughter that was to befall the 37,000 professed Christians whose blood and flesh and bone was to blanket the soil of Hara-no-jo two days thence. Perhaps he hoped to spare that sacred soil a baptism of blood so dear to him. Only God and his angels can say.
            In any case, the death-tsunami began at ten o’clock on the morning of 11 April: the troops of the Nabeshima Clan, having spent the ninety days of siege raining musket-fire on the ramparts of Hara Castle’s Demaru—an arc of stonework jutting out from the central part of the fortress’s massive western wall—stole a march on all the other Shogunal troops and stormed the wall, seeing a dearth of defenders atop the ramparts. Matsudaira had ordered that the assault begin at six o’clock the next morning, but on seeing that the Nabeshima men had jumped the gun (a fait accompli prefiguring the Marco Polo Bridge Incident of 7 July 1937), he ordered all clan contingents to the attack.
            The bloodbath had begun.