Martyrs of October: Father Julian Nakaura

Julian Nakaura: Samurai, Ambassador, and Martyr

          The jumbled boulders of Nakaura lie brooding on the shore, defying the sea to do its worst.  Behind them squats a hill clothed in bamboo, its giant knees of rock protruding through the trees.  A continent of charcoal cloud looms over the coast, yet the sun blazes triumphantly in the distant west, riding high above the Gotoh Islands:  it burns one’s face, even in the tail-end of winter.
      Julian Nakaura was born here.  They honor him with a memorial that overlooks the village:  a pony-tailed boy in bronze pointing out at the sea, towards the Rome the real boy visited.  But I prefer the Julian who stands, weathered and flinty, at the entrance to the Shimabara Catholic Church, way down south: a gentle old man steeled by trial and perseverance, a Missal in hand and nothing but his own two sandaled feet to carry him.  Those old feet would carry him to a death unheard of even in a Europe where the burning of heretics and the disemboweling and mutilation of Roman Catholic priests was the order of the day.
imported from fuji camera 13 oct 07 019 - Copy
Statue of Father Julian Nakaura in his old age, in the courtyard of the Shimabara Catholic Church, Shimabara City, Nagasaki Prefecture, Japan
      In 1582 Catholicism was flourishing in some parts of Japan, and especially on the island of Kyushu.  The Jesuits had opened a school in Arima, southeast of Nagasaki, for training Catholic samurai youth to become future teachers, catechists and priests—a Seminario.  Father Alessandro Valignano, dispatched by Rome as Visitor to Japan, had set up the school in 1580, and two years later he came up with a brainstorm:  choose some fine young samurai from the student body and send them on an embassy to Rome as showpieces of the Japanese Church.  Their mission would be to impress upon the nobility of Catholic Europe the quality of this newest and farthest-flung Catholic seedbed; and to impress upon themselves the grandeur of Catholicism in Europe and report their impressions to their native brethren on their return.  Omura Sumitada, the first Japanese daimyo (domainal lord) to be baptized, loved the plan as soon as it hit his ears; he promised his full support.  Two other daimyo also joined in; the mission was prepared immediately.
    For the four young ambassadors—Julian, Mancio, Martin and Miguel—the journey was no pleasure-cruise.  On the second leg—the voyage to India—some of the sailors died of fever; it nearly killed one of the four ambassadors, too.  They narrowly escaped shipwreck passing through the Singapore Strait; they spent a night cocooned in blankets tied to poles, being carried by porters through an Indian jungle, to be confronted in a clearing by a furious swordsman growling in a language none of their party understood, and all of them unarmed.
     But when the four adolescents from Kyushu hit Lisbon in August of 1584 they were the hottest personalities in Catholic Europe. Like the Beatles on tour they were awaited at the docks by an adoring mob; their guardians kept them on board ship until evening so they could be slipped ashore discreetly. From Lisbon to Rome and back again honor guards, trumpet fanfares and cannon and mortar salutes would greet them in town after town.
     They were received in private audience by Philip II, King of Spain, Portugal, Naples, Flanders and much of the Americas.  He gave each of them a hug:  these boys had sailed halfway round the world braving mortal dangers for the sake of God’s Church.  Pope Gregory XIII also greeted them with hugs, had them to dinners in his private quarters, and sent messengers to inquire about their welfare three times a day.
     Gregory fell ill during their stay and suddenly found himself nearing death.  Having received the Last Rites he asked about Julian, who had come down with a fever some days before, and hearing that the boy had recovered, was relieved; Gregory XIII died two hours later.  Sixtus V succeeded him; the four boys were seated around the new Pontiff at his coronation.
       But when the four—now young men—disembarked at Nagasaki in 1590 they were coming back to a Japan very different from the one they had left eight and a half years earlier.  That Japan had been made up of largely-independent feudal states, their own lords all ardent Catholics; in the new Japan all was under the heel of one man, the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who had banned the Christian religion in 1587 and ordered all the priests out; most had gone underground instead.  This was the beginning of three centuries of persecution—the grisliest persecution Christianity has ever seen, anywhere.
     Arima Harunobu, the lord of Arima, had bravely invited the Jesuits of Nagasaki into his domain after Hideyoshi’s crackdown, but his castle-town of Arima was becoming an ever-more-risky place for a Jesuit school, so they moved the Seminario first to another town in his domain, and then out of Arima entirely, deep into the interior of Amakusa-shimo Island to the south.  While at Rome the boys had asked for admission to the Society of Jesus; they finally entered on July 25, 1591, and after two more years of schooling, made the Jesuit vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.  During their novitiate Hideyoshi’s spies would sometimes come sniffing round; the four would then disperse and become refugees, holing up in farmers’ huts in the backwoods.  This too was training for a darker time to come.
     On February 5, 1597, Hideyoshi had twenty-six Franciscans, Jesuits and lay Catholics crucified in Nagasaki for the crime of being Christian; only his providential death in 1598 gave the Japanese Church a breathing-space, as well as the larger world:  his planned invasion of China would be cancelled, and Japanese forces withdrawn from Korea.  The future began to look promising again for the Japanese Church; but the Tokugawa Shoguns who succeeded Hideyoshi saw to it that being Catholic in Japan would become, instead, an ever-surer sentence of death.  In 1612 Tokugawa Ieyasu promulgated his first edict against Christianity.  Arima Harunobu was executed that year, and the Arima domain—long Japan’s Catholic haven—became a testing-ground for the Shogunate’s plan to exterminate the Faith.
     Julian had been ordained a priest in 1608, and was one of those who went underground when all religious were ordered deported to Manila or Macao in 1614.  For some years his base was the port-town of Kuchinotsu at the southern tip of Arima; he probably kept a boat tied up in the harbor for quick escapes to the Amakusa Islands, southward across the Hayasaki Strait.  In 1622 Julian wrote a letter to Father Nuño Mascarenhas, S.J., whom he had met in Rome on his mission to the Pope more than three decades earlier.  It gives a hint of the sort of life he was living in Kuchinotsu:  “Still the persecution continues unabated; because of it we cannot take a minute’s rest.  I cannot even calmly finish writing this letter to Your Excellency.  That is because, news having arrived that the lord of this domain has begun a new, special persecution, a believer has come to tell me that I am to be moved to a safer place.  The [feudal] lord hopes to uproot the teaching of the Gospel from this domain and see to it that not even one person remains who maintains the Faith and thus violates the command of the Tenka—the ruler of all Japan.”  The “special persecution” had already killed twenty-one believers in Kuchinotsu; but Julian adds, “Thanks to the Grace of God, I still have sufficient health and strength of spirit to shepherd the Christian charges of the Society of Jesus.”  He signs the letter, “Worthless servant / Julian Nakaura.”
      Strength of spirit and body he would need, and in superhuman abundance.  The Shogun’s police wanted broken clerics to parade in front of the Christians of Nagasaki and Arima and Omura and the other stubborn Catholic holdouts:  they hoped to start a landslide of apostasies that would empty Japan of Catholics.
This was their method of persuasion:  they would coil their victim tightly in rope from the feet up to the chest, his hands tied behind his back, and then hang him upside-down from a gallows with his head and torso lowered into a hole, six feet deep, perhaps containing human waste or other filth and covered with a lid to trap the stench.  The lid was made of two boards closed together; crescent cutouts in the center closed tight around the victim’s body, pinching his waist and cutting off his circulation. It felt like his head was going to explode; his mouth, nose and ears would soon start oozing blood.  François Caron, the chief of the Dutch trading-post in Hirado, wrote, “This extremitie hath indeed … forced many to renounce their religion; and some of them who had hung two or three days assured me that the pains they endured were wholly unsufferable, no fire nor no torture equalling their languor and violence.”
      On the Eighteenth of October, 1633, Julian faced the test.  He had been in prison for almost a year awaiting his turn as his fellow-servants of God were taken away to the pits, dug where the Twenty-Six Martyrs had been crucified thirty-six years before.  On that autumn morning he was herded with seven other men—Jesuits and Dominicans—up the hill called Nishi-zaka to the execution-ground overlooking Nagasaki Bay.  Julian was about sixty-five years old, and no longer robust:  he had largely lost the use of his feet and the climb was a struggle for him; but arriving, he faced his executioners and shouted, “I am Father Nakaura, who went to Rome.”  He was determined to die; he had shoved the fact into their faces, a challenge to do their worst.  They would.
       One of Julian’s brethren broke down:  Christovaõ Ferreira, the Jesuit Provincial, gave the signal of surrender after five or six hours of the pit.  The executioners came and told Julian.  Ferreira was his superior:  if he had apostatized, why not just give in?  Julian didn’t flinch:  he was there to die.  He endured the unendurable; and he no doubt prayed.  Perhaps he remembered that day in Rome when, as a teenage boy, his heart bursting with hope, he had ignored strict orders to stay in bed and, despite a high fever, insisted on joining the other three boy-ambassadors for their first audience with the Pope.  If only he could have His Holiness’s blessing, he told them, he would get well, and he refused to be restrained by either his anxious doctors or all the Jesuits in Rome.  He did take his place in the ambassadorial party and, shivering, marched forward and knelt before the Pope.  Gregory XIII conferred his blessing on faithful Julian and ordered him back to bed immediately.  This voice the boy obeyed.
       In the pit atop Nishi-zaka, that sacred slope overlooking Nagasaki Bay, Julian hung on to the end.  God took him home on the Twenty-first of October in the Year of Our Lord 1633.  No “Worthless Servant” he.
(Blessed Julian Nakaura was beatified on November 24, 2008; he is counted among the 188 Blesseds known as Peter Kibe Kasui and 187 Companions, Martyrs.)
Text and Photo Copyright 2005/2012 by Luke O’Hara
 (A version of this story first appeared in Our Sunday Visitor.)

7 October 1619: 52 Christian Faithful of Kyoto Sent to Heaven by Fire

Itakura Katsushige
Itakura Katsushige
Shōgun Tokugawa Hidetada
Shōgun Tokugawa Hidetada
     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[1]—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.”[2] 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.[3] 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!”[4]
            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.[5]
            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.[6]
            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

[1] Pierre François Xavier de Charlevoix, Histoire de l’établissement, des progrès et de ladécadence du christianisme dans l’empire duJapon, Vol. 2, p. 187.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Léon Pagès, Histoire de la religion chrétienne au Japon depuis 1598 jusqu’à 1651, p. 413.

[4] Ibid, my translation.

[5] Ibid, my translation.

[6] Ibid.

7 October 1613: Eight Martyrs of Arima


    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