February 5, 1597: the 26 Martyrs of Japan

“I do not want this religion:  a religion of love and union, which is therefore harmful for this kingdom.”   The Taikō Hideyoshi

(Toyotomi Hideyoshi)

           Four hundred and twenty years ago today—5 February 1597—twenty-six bloodied men and boys were crucified on a mountainside overlooking Nagasaki Bay for the crime of being Christian.  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.

       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, the Taikō‘s capital, 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 offshore of 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”.

       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 hostility.  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.