Photo: Public Domain (PD-Japan)
“I do not want this religion: a religion of love and union, which is therefore harmful for this kingdom.”
The Taikō Hideyoshi
On February 5, 1597, twenty-six bloodied men and boys were crucified on a mountain overlooking Nagasaki Bay for the crime of being Christian. For twenty-eight days they had been marched through towns and villages and countryside, being spat upon and ridiculed and otherwise abused along the way to their destination, Nagasaki, at the westernmost edge of Japan—for the Christian town of Nagasaki was, in the dictator Hideyoshi’s eyes, the perfect place to make a show of his power.
Hideyoshi had proscribed the Faith a decade earlier, perhaps in the merest fit of pique—fueled by drunkenness—and had ordered all clergy, or bateren, out of Japan. Unwilling to abandon their flocks, however, most of the clergy in the country had stayed on at the risk of their lives and gone incognito, 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—and they knew that he needed the good offices of the Jesuit clergy in Japan to smooth his acquisition of Chinese silk and European guns from the Portuguese traders who brought those goods to Nagasaki from Canton and beyond. Treading on this uncertain ground, the incognito Jesuits went on pastoring their flocks discreetly, striving to save their parishioners’ immortal souls while keeping their own heads down and making no blatant displays of their presence that might light the fuse of Hideyoshi’s volatile temper.
The fateful spark, however, was bound to come sooner or later. It came on October 19, 1596, when 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 in the divvying-up of the spoils.
The Spanish captain dispatched an embassy of two Franciscan friars and two of his crewmen to Ōsaka, 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 Hideyoshi 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 Kyōto, Ōsaka and Sakai in carts, and thereafter marched eight hundred kilometers to Nagasaki, there to be crucified. A sympathetic official in Kyōto intervened: only their left earlobes were cut off, but the rest of the sentence would be carried out in full.
The Twenty-Six Martyrs had started their death-march on the tenth of January, 1597. The youngest of the martyrs was twelve, the oldest sixty-four. Twelve-year-old Louis Ibaraki laughed when they clipped his ear, and thereafter he 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 with him 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.
The martyrs’ last night on earth was miserable: it was a bitterly frosty night and they 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” that Hideyoshi had proscribed.
On the Fifth of February the martyrs were marshaled to their feet at dawn and marched double-time toward Nishi-zaka, 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 he climbed toward his Calvary.3 The martyrs arrived there 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 grueling march to Nishi-zaka, proclaiming to the thousands of Nagasaki Christians blanketing the hillside below, “I greatly rejoice to die for this cause!”
St. Paul Miki crucified
by Antonio Cardim, Elogios, 1650
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, and 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. At the start of their journey, the martyrs had been paraded in oxcarts around Hideyoshi’s capital of Ōsaka and around nearby Sakai, the mercantile center of Japan; standing in one of those oxcarts 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 life 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.” 5
In that same spirit, on the Fifth of February in the Year of Our Lord 1597, atop that slope called Nishi-zaka 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!”
Martyrdom of Paul Miki S.J., Jacob Kisai S.J., John Goto S.J. and
P. Petrus Battista. Engraving, 1667, after A. van Diepenbeeck.
Source: Wellcome Collection, London
1 Diego Yuuki, S.J., The Twenty-Six Martyrs of Nagasaki (Tokyo, Enderle, 1998), 55.
2 Yuuki, 56.
3 Yuuki, 70.
4 Yuuki, 60.
5 Luke 2:46b-47 (New American Bible, Revised Edition)