28 February 1627: the First Martyrdom at Unzen Hell

Paulo Uchibori and Sons, Martyrs of Arima

A glowering, scar-faced volcano named Mount Unzen looms over the Shimabara Peninsula in southwestern Japan. Atop it, bubbling, sulfurous hot springs vomit out white crud and belch acrid steam: they call this place “Unzen Hell.” From 1627 onward, the local ruler found the biggest of its caustic, skin-eating pools perfect for torturing Christians. 

In the hands of the Catholic ruler Arima Harunobu, this peninsula, known as Arima, had once been the Christian bulwark of Japan. In 1612, though, the de-facto shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu condemned Harunobu to death and entrusted Arima to Harunobu’s spineless heir Naozumi. Naozumi then renounced Christ, joined Ieyasu’s own Buddhist sect, and vowed to stamp out the Faith in Arima, his family’s ancestral domain. 

As if to seal his apostasy, Naozumi burnt three staunchly-Catholic samurai along with their wives and children on the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary of 1613. Arima’s faithful Catholics flocked to this martyrdom in their thousands, wearing rosaries around their necks and singing hymns to the martyrs while Naozumi cowered in his hilltop fortress overlooking the scene. He soon requested transfer to another fief; rather than accompany their apostate lord to his new home, most of Arima’s Catholic samurai renounced their livelihoods and stayed behind in Arima. Prominent among these stalwarts was Paulo Uchibori, a samurai born in Arieh, a coastal village not far from the Arimas’ home castle. 

The shogun’s vise tightened on Arima in 1614: Hasegawa Sahioye, Governor of Nagasaki, invaded her with an army of ten thousand men to wage a gruesome campaign of anti-Christian terror, and he threw Paulo Uchibori into prison. Hasegawa was soon recalled to the capital, but he left behind two hills of Christian flesh, one of chopped-up bodies and the other of heads, in a field below Naozumi’s abandoned hilltop castle in the south of Arima.

This was the spiritual landscape handed over to Matsukura Shigemasa, an old ally of Ieyasu’s, in 1616. At first, Shigemasa turned a blind eye to Arima’s Christians, and since he respected Paulo Uchibori’s samurai grit, he let him out of prison; but in 1626, Shigemasa went up to the capital to pay homage to Ieyasu’s grandson, the Christ-hating Shogun Iemitsu, third of the Tokugawa shoguns. According to the late Jesuit historian Father Diego Yuuki, Iemitsu could think of nothing but the crackdown on Christianity as if he were possessed. (A hypothesis bolstered by this shogun’s appetites for pederasty, for cutting down random strangers with his sword, and for gleefully watching the torture of Christians.)  

Matsukura Shigemasa drank deep of the poison in the wretched Iemitsu’s soul during his stay at the shogun’s capital: he went back to Arima a changed man, determined to purge Christ from his domain, and he had sent down orders to arrest Paulo Uchibori and his family. When Shigemasa got back home, he found thirty-seven Christians in his dungeon. On 21 February 1627, Shigemasa decreed this doom for sixteen of them: cut their fingers off, hang stones around their necks, and drown them in the sea. Paulo’s three sons were among the sixteen. 

Paulo himself and nineteen others were stripped naked and forced to watch the tortures and executions. First, the executioners lined the condemned Christians up along the bank of the moat around Matsukura’s fortress, calling each one forward and cutting that victim’s fingers off one by one: some all ten, some fewer, at the torturer’s whim. Paulo’s eighteen-year-old son Antonio they called first: he bravely strode up and spread his hands out on the cutting-board, evincing not the slightest wince as they sliced his fingers off.

Paulo’s youngest, five-year-old Ignacio, manifested a miracle when they cut his tender little index-fingers off: after each slash, he brought the mutilated hand to his face and smiled, watching the blood jet out. The astonished pagans drew away in fear: like the Gerasenes, terrified by Christ’s power over evil.

After mutilating these heroes, Matsukura’s men stripped them, tied ropes around their necks and ankles, and took them out in a boat for the final torture: hanging stones around their necks, they plunged each into the icy sea, pulling him out and demanding that he renounce Christ to save his life, and dropped him in again, pulling him out to give him another “chance,” and in, and out, over and over. None of them apostatized; every one drowned a Christian.

Looking on from a nearby boat were the twenty other Christians forced to watch the tortures and drownings, with Paulo among them. He heard his heroic son Antonio gasp, “Father, let us thank God for such a big blessing” before they drowned him, and he watched them suspend little Ignacio above the waves before his eyes for a small eternity before they finally sunk the mutilated five-year-old to the bottom of the sea.

The twenty witnesses they then took back to their stripped-off clothes; warning-signs had been sewn on them, threatening with grave punishment anyone who would dare give these Christians any shelter. Next, they cut the three middle fingers off each of their hands, branded the word CHRISTIAN on their foreheads and set them loose to fend for themselves: stark, horrific examples of the shogun’s certain wrath to would-be believers; but rather than succumb to their misery, these stalwart Catholics went around preaching Christ fearlessly, urging apostates to return to the Faith. This was not the lesson that Matsukura had intended for the souls of Arima, so the twenty were eventually ordered back to his castle.

At dawn on February 28, 1627, Paulo and fifteen others were taken out of Matsukura’s dungeon to start their climb up Mount Unzen. Along the way they sang hymns and recited the Creed, and when their guards stopped to rest, they knelt, made an Act of Contrition, and prayed a Rosary. Finally, singing another hymn, they arrived at the “Hell” where they were to die; there the guards tied ropes around their necks for dunking them, as if they were not human beings but the merest meat for boiling.

The first to die jumped into the boiling sulfur-water on the executioners’ command; Paulo admonished the others to wait for Matsukura’s men to do the killing: faithful Catholics must not kill themselves. He kept on encouraging and guiding his fellow-Catholics through their martyrdoms, guiding them Heavenward, which infuriated Matsukura’s executioners; so they saved Paulo for the last, cruelest execution: they hung him upside-down by his feet and dunked him head-first, yanking him out  to see the result. He sang out, “Praised be the Most Blessed Sacrament!”

They dunked him again, maybe expecting better results this time, and pulled him out a second time. Again he prayed, “Praised be the Most Blessed Sacrament!” No whining, no squirming, no surrender to the shogun: only praise for the Conqueror of Death, until they plunged him in a third time, for good.

This was the stuff of which Saint Francis Xavier had exulted on his first arriving in Japan on the Feast of the Assumption of 1549: here was the good earth that bore fruit a hundredfold. 

Eleven years later, Paulo’s prayer would crown the flag of rebellion that would fly over Hara Castle, where 37,000 Catholics would shed their blood for Christ. (It had long been the flag of the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament.) Those words of  praise, joy and victory would soar over the Shimabara martyrs’ final battleground while the Shogun’s horde stamped out his fury—words that cannot be erased or silenced, singing through Japan’s buried centuries of darkness; words flying high and ringing still: Praised be the Most Blessed Sacrament.

We dare not shut our eyes, nor stop our ears.

A reproduction of the Kirish’tan rebels’ battle-flag, flying at a memorial Mass on the sacred earth where Hara Castle stood.


Photos Copyright 2007 by Luke O’Hara



The Twenty-Six Martyrs, San Felipe, and the Tyrant

On a brisk February morning in the Year of Our Lord 1597, 26 haggard men and boys were marched up a steep slope called Nishi-zaka toward a terrace of land that overlooked Nagasaki Bay. There they would find a row of crosses laid out on the ground awaiting them.

The scene might have looked restful to the condemned men and boys as they surveyed those crosses, for this was the end of a 28-days’ winter marathon. With their left ears mutilated and their hands trussed up tight behind their backs, they had been herded like cattle half the length of Japan to spend their last night on earth shivering in bitter cold, huddled in open boats moored offshore of Togitsu, a fishing village north of Nagasaki. Now, as they stood atop Nishi-zaka, gasping perhaps for breath, there was just one question, voiced by the youngest first:

“Which cross is mine?”

Louis Ibaraki, twelve years old, ran to the cross pointed out to him and fell to earth to hug it: here was the vessel that would carry him heavenward to meet his Lord.

It had all started when a Mexico-bound Manila galleon named San Felipe limped into Urado Bay, battered and blown off course by a typhoon. San Felipe was laden with Chinese silks and other luxuries, her cargo worth a fortune, and the ruler of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, was sore in need of funds to finance his war in Korea.

Spanish galleon – Public Domain (PD-US)

As Urado Bay was blocked by underwater sand bars, the ship’s pilot wanted to take her westward to Nagasaki, but the daimyo of Urado convinced the wearied passengers that he could safely tug her into port, and their demands won the day. Reluctantly the pilot watched as the daimyo’s men tugged his heavy-laden ship over two sand bars; the first merely scraped San Felipe’s keel, but the second broke her back. Seawater flooded into the cloven ship as crateful after crateful of her precious cargo poured out onto the bay, and now San Felipe was a shipwreck, her cargo forfeit by Japanese law.

Gleefully the daimyo reported his jackpot to Hideyoshi, who immediately arranged for the cargo’s transfer to his storehouses; the daimyo he rewarded with 5,000 silver bars.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi (PD-US)

The exasperated captain dispatched an embassy of two Franciscan friars and two of his crewmen to Hideyoshi’s capital to save his cargo, but such an embassy could be embarrassing for the tyrant: 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 Martyrs started their death-march on January 10, 1597. The youngest three were twelve, thirteen and fourteen, and 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.”

On February 5, 1597, after that bitterly-frosty night at Togitsu, the martyrs were marshaled to their feet at dawn and marched double-time toward Nishi-zaka—a twelve-kilometer marathon—as the local Christians lined the roadside in silent reverence. Br. Paul Miki preached all along the way, just as he had been doing all the length of their march: he was said to be the greatest preacher in Japan.

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 flanks and upward through their hearts and out their shoulders. 

At the start of their journey, while being paraded in oxcarts around the capital, 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. 

When the soldiers unsheathed their spears, the crucified martyrs and the crowd blanketing the mountainside all started shouting in unison, “Jesus!  Mary!” This holy cry resounded again and again until every last martyr’s heart was pierced—resounding among the hills of Nagasaki and across the bay, where ships from halfway round the world lay tethered to their moorings, their crewmen watching transfixed by the spectacle above as if it was their holy Faith whose heart was being pierced.

Saint Paul Miki crucified (PD-US)

Cheerful despite his mutilated ear, the wintry marathon, that final night of misery, and even his sentence of death, twelve-year-old Louis Ibaraki had long been prepared for this moment. He alone among the Twenty-Six was there entirely by personal choice, for Terazawa Hanzaburo, the sheriff in charge of the execution, had tried to save the boy’s life, offering to make him his page. Louis asked if he could then go on being a Christian, and on hearing “No,” his answer was swift and clear: he chose eternal life over a merely-mortal one.

A faith implicit in his immortal words, prayed 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!”


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