Behold a heart-wrenching martyrdom in which whole families were burned together—including mothers with their infant children—just to satisfy the almighty Shōgun Hidetada’s ire.
In October of 1619, Hidetada was passing through Fushimi after a visit to Kyōto, the Imperial capital, when he heard that there were a great many Christians being held in Kyōto’s jail. The volatile Shōgun exploded into rage and ordered them all burned alive immediately, regardless of age, gender, or station. They were to be crucified and burned on their crosses as a mise-shime: a lesson to recalcitrant believers.
Itakura Katsushige, Kyōto’s Shogunal Governor, was a decent man—the most moderate man on earth, one account tells us—but he dare not contravene the Shōgun’s orders, not even to “defer the execution of a lady of the first quality who was about to give birth.” He had allowed the faithful Catholics to return to their homes, but now they were rounded up to be loaded onto eleven wagons and paraded through the streets of Kyōto, the men, the boys, and the girls in the foremost and hindmost wagons, and the women, many with babies at their breast or in their arms in the others. History records that
A crier led the cortege and proclaimed the death sentence: “The Shōgun … wills and commands that all these people be burned alive as Christians.” And the martyrs confirmed the crier’s words, saying, “This is true; we die for Jesus. Hurrah for Jesus!”
Twenty-seven crosses had been erected along the river called Kamo-gawa, on the outskirts of Kyōto, awaiting these sacrificial victims. Among the martyrs were Johane Hashimoto Tahioye and his wife, christened Tecla, along with their six beautiful children. On the Shōgun Hidetada’s orders, all the children must of course be burned along with their mothers. The martyrs were clamped to the crosses—the mothers with babies in their arms in the center, and the others back to back, in pairs. Historian Leon Pages lists more names: “Magdalena … had her two-year-old daughter Regina in her arms; Maria had Monica, her daughter, four years old; and Marta, her son Benito, two years old,” and on and on, including “little Marta, eight years old and blind.” And Tecla, mother of five, with four-year-old Lucia in her arms and her other children on crosses to her right and left.
The firewood was lit; as the Shōgun’s inferno erupted around the martyrs, their voices rose above the roar of the flames, calling the name of Jesus. Mothers with little ones in their arms caressed their babies’ faces to soothe their pain, as if to ward off the horror of the flames.
Tecla’s daughter Catherine cried, “Mother, I can’t see.”
“Call to Jesus and Mary,” her mother answered.
Richard Cocks, an English Protestant who witnessed this holocaust, wrote:
“I saw fifty-five martyred at Miyako, at one time when I was there, because they wold not forsake their Christian Faith, & amongst them were little Children of five or sixe yeeres old burned in their mothers armes, Crying out, Jesus recive their soules.”
Historian Léon Pagès wrote that a comet “and supernatural fires” marked this martyrdom. Fact or no, no-one of faith can doubt that Christ Himself was there among the martyrs, the Conqueror of Death claiming victory amidst those hellish earthly flames.
Copyright 2015 by Luke O’Hara
 Pierre François Xavier de Charlevoix, Histoire de l’établissement, des progrès et de ladécadence du christianisme dans l’empire duJapon, Vol. 2, p. 187.
 Léon Pagès, Histoire de la religion chrétienne au Japon depuis 1598 jusqu’à 1651, p. 413.
 Ibid, my translation.
 Ibid, my translation.
In the Year of Our Lord 1613, the domain of Arima was in the hands of Arima Naozumi, the son of Arima Harunobu, longtime stalwart patron and protector of the Church in Japan. After Harunobu’s execution in 1612, Naozumi had apostatized on the orders of the de-facto Shōgun Tokugawa Ieyasu and received lordship of his dead father’s domain on condition that he do his utmost to exterminate the very Faith that he had from his childhood espoused.
Although his domain was far removed from Ieyasu’s castle-town up on the Pacific coast of Honshu, down home in Arima, Naozumi had the ruler’s own hound at his heels: Hasegawa Sahiōye, Governor of nearby Nagasaki—a close advisor of Ieyasu’s and a hell-driven enemy of Christ. Plotting to grab the domain of Arima for himself, Hasegawa threatened Naozumi, greenhorn Lord of Arima, with the Shōgun’s own hellfire if he did not prove his determination to purge the land of Christians with some solid evidence posthaste.
Naozumi called in his eight top samurai, formerly his father’s liegemen, and pleaded with them to renounce Christ, if only on paper, to save him from the threatened wrath—indeed, to save all of Arima’s faithful from that wrath, or so he claimed, citing Hasegawa’s threat. Hearing their new liege lord’s artful pleading, five of the eight samurai agreed to the stratagem. Three, however, refused to budge: Leo Taketomi Kan’emon, Adrian Takahashi Mondo, and Leo Hayashida Sakuemon.
Naozumi sentenced them to death by burning, along with their wives and children. However, the new, spineless Lord of Arima postponed the order until the three Christian stalwarts were safely out of his castle and headed home. All of them being samurai, they and their families were escorted unbound to their respective prison cells, where each family was 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.
Soon twenty thousand Kirish’tan had surrounded their prison, singing prayers and keeping vigil—at which they stayed for three days and nights on end, some huddling around campfires to keep warm in the night, some distributing food to those who were too hungry to bear it. For fear that the faithful would take relics from their remains, Naozumi ordered the martyrs-to-be spirited out of his jail to another location—clear proof that Arima Naozumi, his apostasy notwithstanding, retained a clear understanding of the restorative power of relics. Undeceived, Arima’s Kirish’tan faithful followed the soon-to-be martyrs to their new prison to continue the vigil.
On the morning of Sunday, October 7, 1613, the prisoners were led out of their cells to meet their deaths. All were wearing the kimono of the Guild of Saint Mary, given them by its chief, and each but the youngest—eleven-year-old Diego—had his or her arms bound with rope in the form of a cross. Diego, seeing that all the others were bound, asked that the guards bind him too. They insisted that they had no more rope, and on hearing this, the boy submitted quietly.
En route to their deaths, each martyr was flanked left and right by a Marian with a lit candle in one hand and a rosary in the other; these members of the Guild sang the rosary as they marched with the holy ones. 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 across the mud, but the boy declined: “Our Lord Jesus didn’t ride a horse up Calvary,” he explained, and he tromped into the mud on his own two feet. Crowds of believers with scissors or knife in hand mobbed the holy ones to strip from their clothing some relic for saving; the condemned protested that they themselves were but mere sinners. Had the Eight not thus rebuffed these adorers, they would likely have been stripped stark naked.
They arrived at the place of execution: a wooden stable of sorts filled to the rafters with firewood, surrounded by a stockade, on the beach in front of the hill atop which loomed Hino-eh Castle. Their liege lord was most likely watching from up there, high above the heads of the countless Christians jammed into the town below the castle, people from all over the Peninsula, the erstwhile Christian bastion of Japan.
Leo Taketomi climbed onto a pile of wood and made a speech to the thousands, 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; each of the martyrs was tied to a stake; the executioners lit the firewood. Quickly a storm of flames erupted around the three families. The chief of the Guild of Saint Mary, just beyond the stockade, held up a painting of Jesus in his Passion so that the martyrs could see it, a help in their death-throes. The crowd sang the Credo, the Pater Noster, the Ave Maria, and other prayers to strengthen the martyrs; reportedly the martyrs evinced nothing but joy amidst the flames.
The boy Diego’s ropes were the first to burn away: he ran to his mother’s side shouting, “Zézusu! Maria!” and fell. Next his eighteen-year-old 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. Seeing 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; that word shook the crowd as a whirlwind of fire devoured the eight holy martyrs. All the onlookers beat their breasts as his shout resounded over all the scene.
When that shout of Heaven’s victory reached his ears, Arima Naozumi, looking down from his castle’s overlook, must have felt as if that maelstrom of flames were in his own stomach. Meanwhile, down below, all those thousands of his Kirish’tan subjects, fallen to their knees, were praying for the souls of the martyrs—and perhaps for the soul of their earthly lord as well, cowering in his fortress high above.
This martyrdom proved to be only a prelude to the litany of sufferings that Arima was bound to endure.
Copyright 2015/2016 by Luke O’Hara
The illustration is from a 1624 history of the persecution in Japan by Nicolas Trigault; I borrowed the image from the website of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Japan, at http://www.cbcj.catholic.jp/jpn/feature/kibe_187/arima.htm