An October Martyr: Santa Magdalena of Nagasaki

Santa Magdalena of Nagasaki, the Perfect Bride

      In October of 1634 throughout a fortnight of hell she hung in the pit, singing hymns and blessing her God: no-one else ever withstood the torturers’ cruelties so long. In the end, though, it was not those cruelties that ended her life: it was God’s gentle Hand that took pretty Magdalena home.

     The orphaned daughter of Catholic martyrs, Magdalena of Nagasaki was a bilingual prodigy who consecrated her virginity to Our Lady of the Rosary and became an Augustinian tertiary at age 15. She worked tirelessly for two Augustinian friars until their arrest in November of 1629. They would die by “slow fire,” a protracted torture designed to procure public apostasy.

     Slow fire wasn’t working, though: something more demonic was in order. Enter Takenaka Uneme. In 1629 the Shogun Iemitsu installed him as Governor of Nagasaki with orders to expunge the Catholic Faith from that staunchly-Catholic town. Soon, Uneme went to work devising the ultimate torture: “the pit.”

     The victim, bound in coils of rope, would be hung upside-down in a hole containing human waste or other filth. A two-piece wooden lid with cutouts in the center would be clamped around the victim’s waist, cutting off his circulation and shutting out fresh air. It felt like his head was going to explode; his mouth, nose and ears would soon start oozing blood.

     This would kill Magdalena’s next two pastors, both Dominicans: Fr. Domingo de Erquicia, who described Uneme as man dressed as demon, or devil incarnate,” and Fr. Giordano Ansaloni. Upon Fr. Giordano’s arrest, Magdalena marched into Uneme’s lair in her religious habit to declare her love for Christ and her right to die for Him.

At first, taken by her beauty and refinement, Uneme tried to dissuade her, but when she stood firm, he ordered her jailed. “She entered with great happiness, shedding tears of joy.” To dampen her spirits, the torturers jammed sharpened strips of bamboo under her fingernails. Seeing blood pouring from her wounds, Magdalena reveled, “With what rubies have you adorned my hands!” When they ordered her to scratch furrows in the earth with the bamboo strips, she obeyed, undaunted.

     Next they tried a water torture, pouring gallons down her throat, throwing her onto the floor, and loading stones onto her so that water gushed out through her mouth, ears, and nose. Though they repeated this torture time and again, beautiful Magdalena was unmoved.

They hung her by her arms on ropes, raised her high, and dropped her, dislocating her shoulders, to no avail: still she clung to Christ.

     Defeated, Uneme condemned Magdalena to the pit along with ten other Christians. They were paraded around the streets of Nagasaki with Magdalena at their head on horseback, a rope around her throat like a garrote and her wrists bound fast behind her. A sign on her back proclaimed her sentence—CONDEMNED TO DEATH FOR REFUSING TO ABANDON THE LAW OF THE CHRISTIANS—yet her eyes showed no terror, but glowed with joy as she preached to onlookers all along the way.

     Finally, the procession climbed the steep slope called Nishi-zaka to the execution-ground overlooking Nagasaki Bay. There Magdalena was cocooned in rope, slung by her heels from a gallows, and lowered into the reeking pit of horrors. The lid clamped her waist, shutting out all light and fresh air. Perhaps, as usual, blood began to drip from her ears and mouth and nose. François Caron, head of the Dutch trading-post in Japan, 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.

     Yet Magdalena uttered neither groan nor plaint nor squeal; instead, she sang sweet songs in Japanese to Jesus, her Spouse in Heaven.

    This went on for nearly fourteen days. The guards would hear her ask, “Would you like to hear a song?” and on their answering, ‘Yes,’ Magdalena would break into song, singing “a thousand canticles of praise to God our Lord in the Japanese tongue.” Accounts abound of miracles attributed to Magdalena during that October fortnight of 1634, but it was miracle indeed that she survived without food or water through that hellish ordeal.

     Perplexed, the torturers’ overlords ascended Nishi-zaka to see for themselves just what was going on. They were sure that the guards had been suborned, that some Christian misfits were slipping her food and drink. This the guards denied, and Magdalena backed up their words when they opened the lid.

     “Don’t be surprised if I don’t die in this ordeal,” she told the incredulous officials. The Lord whom I adore preserves me and holds me up. I feel a paternal hand touching my face, and my body is lightened so that I don’t suffer.”

     That was enough for Uneme’s minions: they told the guards to club her unconscious, orders they must have obeyed with bitter reluctance, having been soothed for nearly fourteen days on end by Magdalena’s angelic songs—songs “in praise of her Husband [sung] with singular melody and sweetness, so much so that they said it couldn’t be a human voice.”

      Their dirty work done, those men must have closed that lid with leaden stomachs and searched their souls for some relief, something like that soothing Hand that had caressed that lovely maiden’s face throughout her earthly hell. Perhaps they felt a hint of that relief when Heaven opened her floodgates that evening, drenching them as they stood at their posts atop Nishi-zaka, looking down on benighted Nagasaki, home of so many martyrs, and trying to make sense of the horrors they had to stand watch over.

     Then, come morning, there was perfect silence: no heavenly joy, no sweet, angelic songs, for they saw Magdalena’s hole filled to the brim with Heaven’s cleansing rain, and pulling her out, they found that she had drowned: her Lord and Husband had finally, and ever so gently, taken her home.

     Pretty Magdalena, holy Magdalena: the perfect bride for Heaven’s earthborn King.

This story appeared on


            Luke O’Hara became a Roman Catholic in Japan. His articles and books about Japan’s martyrs can be found at his website,


October 21, 1633: Father Julian Nakaura Gives his Life for Christ

Today, October 21st, all Christians would do well to remember the heroic sacrifice of Father Julian Nakaura, Catholic samurai, Ambassador to Rome, and holy martyr.  Read his story here:

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; 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 twofrold: 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–Arima Harunobu and Otomo Sorin. 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 were 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, Arima, 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 on 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.)


The Eight Martyrs of Arima: October 7, 1613

Faithful Catholics martyred on the

Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary

   In the mid-16th century, Japan was a mishmash of feudal domains unfettered by any central authority. Civil war was common, with peace to be had only intermittently or in remote outposts of calm. One such outpost, at least for a time, was the little domain of Arima, ensconced on a peninsula southeast of Nagasaki.

On the Feast of the Assumption of 1549, Saint Francis Xavier arrived in Japan with two fellow-Jesuits and three lay helpers to sow the Gospel seeds that would soon sprout throughout that fertile land. In 1562 those seeds reached Arima and bore fruit in abundance.

Arima’s port of Kuchinotsu became the seat of the Church in Japan, with Fr. Cosme de Torres, S.J. in charge. His successor baptized the Daimyō of Arima, and this man’s heir, Harunobu, would become the mainstay of the Church in Japan, harboring clergy and protecting the faithful even at risk of his life. He built churches all over his little peninsula, and children in his towns and villages got a Jesuit education, learning catechesis through Bible stories set to Japanese melodies that they happily sang in the streets.

If only Harunobu’s heir, Naozumi, had been made of such metal. Instead, he betrayed his father to the de-facto Shōgun Ieyasu, who beheaded Harunobu in 1612. Naozumi then apostatized, taking over Arima on condition that he expunge from her the very Faith that he had from his childhood espoused.

Although Arima was far from Ieyasu’s capital, Naozumi had the ruler’s own hound at his heels: Hasegawa Sahiōye, Governor of nearby Nagasaki—Ieyasu’s toady and a hell-driven enemy of Christ. Hasegawa threatened Naozumi with the Shōgun’s own hellfire if he did not produce some hard evidence of his work to purge Arima of Christians.

The cowed Naozumi called in his eight top samurai, all Catholics, and pleaded with them to renounce Christ, if only on paper, to save his skin. He reminded them that even Saint Peter had thrice denied Him and yet had been forgiven. Hearing this artful pleading, five of the men agreed to the stratagem. Three, however, refused to budge: Leo Taketomi, Adrian Takahashi, and Leo Hayashida.

Naozumi ordered them burnt along with their wives and children. The spineless princeling postponed the execution of his orders, though, until the three stalwarts were well out of his castle and headed home. All of them being samurai, they and their families were escorted unbound to prison, where the members of each family were 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.

Twenty thousand Christians surrounded their prison, singing prayers and keeping vigil—at which they stayed for three days and nights on end. On the morning of Sunday, October 7, 1613—the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary—the condemned were led out of their cells. All were wearing the kimono of the Guild of Saint Mary, and all but the youngest—the boy Diego—had their arms bound in cruciform position. Diego asked the guards to bind him too, but they demurred, perhaps ashamed of their duty.

En route to their deaths, each of the martyrs was flanked left and right by a Marian with a lit candle in one hand and a rosary in the other; as they marched they sang the rosary. 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, but the boy said, “Our Lord Jesus didn’t ride a horse up Calvary,” and he tromped into the mud on his own two feet.

At last they reached the beach where their death-cage stood, built within sight of Naozumi’s mountaintop castle. He was probably watching from up there, awed by the masses crowding the landscape below—faithful from all over Arima, the Christian bastion of Japan.

Leo Taketomi climbed onto a pile of firewood and addressed the thousands awaiting the holocaust, 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; the Eight were tied to their stakes; the firewood was lit. As a storm of flames erupted around the martyrs, the chief of the Guild of Saint Mary held up a picture of the Scourging of Christ to strengthen them. The crowd sang the Creed, the Our Father, and the Ave Maria as the holy ones endured the flames.

Diego’s ropes were the first to burn away: he ran to his mother’s stake shouting, “Zézusu! Maria!” and fell. Next, his 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. At 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; his shout shook the crowd as a whirlwind of fire devoured him and his companions.

When that victory-shout reached the ears of the apostate lord of Arima, the wretch must have felt as if those flames were in his own stomach. Meanwhile, down on the killing-ground, those thousands of his Christian subjects, fallen to their knees, were praying for the souls of the martyrs—and perhaps for the soul of their wretched earthly lord cowering in his fortress on high.

This holocaust was but a prelude to the litany of sufferings that Arima was bound to endure: a testimony to eternal life forged in the cauldron of the World’s slithering temptations.


Luke O’Hara became a Roman Catholic in Japan. His articles and books about Japan’s martyrs can be found at his website,

This article by Luke O’Hara appeared on