The 52 Martyrs of Kyoto

It’s true! We die for Jesus! Blessed be Jesus!”

Anonymous, “The Christian Martyrs of Japan,” 17th century (photo: Public Domain)
Anonymous, “Christian Martyrs Of Japan,” 17th century (photo: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Blogs  October 30, 2021

In October 1619, the Shogun Hidetada had just left Kyoto, the Emperor’s capital, when he was jolted by the news that the city’s jail held a great many Christians. Hidetada ordered that they all be burned alive, regardless of age, station or sex. 

Kyoto had been visited by St. Francis Xavier back in January 1551. Hoping to meet and convert the Emperor, Padre Francisco had made a long, grueling winter’s trek much the length of Japan only to find that, without fine silk on his back and rich gifts in hand, he could not set foot inside the Imperial Palace. His empty hands and ragged clothes earned him only disdain from the palace guard.

His fellow Jesuits would soon return to plant Gospel seeds in that town, though — seeds that would find good soil in many a noble heart. 

Thus, come Christmastide of 1618, the Feast of the Nativity was celebrated with all due devotion and solemnity by Kyoto’s Catholics — despite the fact that Hidetada’s father, Ieyasu, had banned the Faith in 1614 and Hidetada, now in command, was bent on expunging it with hellfire.

Outraged, some local pagans assailed the governor with complaints that the Christians neither feared the lord of all Japan nor respected his (murderous) laws.  

At first, Kyoto’s governor, Itakura Katsushige, gave little credit to those complaints, for he knew his Christians to be model citizens. His son, however, fresh from the shogun’s court, warned of Hidetada’s wrath should he hear of Itakura’s leniency. Thus began a roundup of Christians in Daiusu-cho, a district known for its Catholic artisans and samurai.    

Thirty-six of them were rousted out of their homes, strung together on one long rope, and dragged like dumb animals through the streets to Kyoto’s jail — a rank, pestilential hell like all Japanese prisons of the day, merely a holding pen for those condemned to die. 

Meanwhile, on July 8, Hidetada arrived for a three-month stay at his villa on the outskirts of Kyoto, and the anti-Christian frenzy heightened. Edicts against harboring Christians were posted, and the jail soon held 52 Catholics.

Apparently, Hidetada, at leisure in his walled retreat, was unaware of all this until he started back for Edo (now Tokyo), but when he heard the jail was full of Catholics, the death sentence exploded out of him.

When that news reached the prison, all that could be heard within its dank walls was a resounding chorus of praise for Jesus Christ.

On the morning of Oct. 7, the 52 were led out into the sunshine and loaded onto nine wagons to be paraded through the city as a terror to would-be Christians before their immolation.

The men and youths went in the foremost and hindmost wagons, while in the middle rode the women and small children. A crier led the parade proclaiming Hidetada’s decree:

The shogun … wills that these people be burnt alive because they are Christians. And Hidetada’s will would indeed be done, but it would redound to the horror and admiration of all Kyoto and the glory of the Almighty.

For “a great multitude of people” lined the streets to watch the unfolding atrocity, and the martyrs echoed the shogun’s charge with, “It’s true! We die for Jesus! Blessed be Jesus!”

Perhaps it was Itakura’s high regard for the Christians that guided his discharge of the shogun’s orders. In executions by fire, the Japanese normally tied the condemned to simple stakes, but in this October holocaust, Itakura’s men had set up crosses, not stakes, on the dry riverbed at Rokujo-ga-hara — 27 crosses “so artfully finished and polished that it seemed they ought rather to be adored by the Christians than serve as instruments to put them to death.”

The prisoners were tied, not nailed, to the crosses two by two — men with men on the left, women with women on the right. And in the middle of the row of crosses, mothers were crucified with their small children.

Thus, Magdalena had her 2-year-old daughter, Reina, in her arms. Maria held Monica, age 4. Mencia held Lucia, age 3. Marta held Benito, age 2. Rufina held her precious 8-year-old Marta, who was blind. Tecla, who was about to give birth to her sixth child, was crucified with 4-year-old Lucia in her arms, Thomas, age 12, on her right, and Francisco, 9, on her left — five on one cross. Her other children, 13-year-old Catarina and Pedro, 6, hung on the next cross.

Contrary to the usual custom, “slow fire,” Itakura ordered an abundance of firewood to be piled up around the crosses so as not to draw out the martyrs’ agonies.

Evening came. The wood was lit. Flames erupted around the Christians on their crosses.

Mothers with little ones in their arms caressed their faces to soothe their pain. Cries of “Jesus!” resounded from the inferno. Gasps of horror from the crowd mixed with hoots from the executioners.

Catarina cried to her mother on the next cross, “Mama, I can’t see anything.”

Call to Jesus and Mary, my beloved,” Tecla answered as she held Lucia on her swollen belly. “We’ll see them soon in Paradise.”

Richard Cocks, an English Protestant who witnessed this holocaust, wrote:

I saw fifty-five martyred at Miyako [Kyoto], 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.”

For seven days, Itakura’s men guarded the martyrs’ charred remains lest local Christians steal away with them for proper burial and veneration. Historian François Solier reports that a large, resplendent comet appeared that first night and a great light shone in that same patch of sky the next night. Another historian records “supernatural fires” on high.

Perhaps Itakura’s men stood guard with eyes uplifted, wondering and perplexed at those signs in the heavens. Signs, no doubt, that Christ himself had been there among the martyrs, the Conqueror of Death claiming victory from those hellish flames.

This article by Luke O’Hara appeared in the National Catholic Register.

21 October 1633 – Father Julian Nakaura, Priest, Samurai 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.


Statue of Father Julian Nakaura in his old age in the courtyard of the Shimabara Catholic Church

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 twofold: 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 Proclaimed the Name of Jesus to the End

Behold the faith of Arima’s Christians. For the honor and glory of the Lord and as a testimony to our faith we now die, knowing that there is no salvation other than through Jesus Christ.”

Anonymous, “The Christian Martyrs of Japan,” 17th century (photo: Public Domain)

Anonymous, “The Christian Martyrs of Japan,” 17th century (photo: Public Domain)

Luke O’HaraBlogsOctober 8, 2021

In 1613, the castle-town of Arima in southwestern Japan held a remarkable procession on the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, one surely witnessed in breathless silence by all the host of Heaven. 

Arima was the seat of a fervently Catholic domain whose fervor was fueled and stoked by her stalwart confraternities. Now, in 1613, that fervor was needed more than ever, for Arima Naozumi, Arima’s feudal lord, had expelled all Catholic clergy from his domain as a sop to the lord of all Japan, Tokugawa Ieyasu, who was bent on expunging the Faith from his domains — and Arima was in his sights. Ieyasu ordered Naozumi to purge his forefathers’ faith from Arima or lose his lordship of it and all the perks he was accustomed to.

Arima Naozumi, christened “Miguel,” was a third-generation Catholic. In 1612, Ieyasu had given him lordship over Arima after Naozumi connived with his illicit wife to depose his father and procure his execution. The wife, a ward of Ieyasu’s who despised Christ, had been the ruler’s ‘gift’ shoved down Naozumi’s throat in a deal signed with his own apostasy and sealed with divorce from his licit, Catholic wife, who now lived imprisoned in a hut somewhere in a mountain wood. 

As if to numb his conscience, Naozumi had already slaughtered his little half-brothers, pious Catholics, ages 6 and 8 — like Herod, he feared these innocents as rivals to his rule. 


Now, though, Naozumi had Ieyasu’s own hound at his heels — Hasegawa Sahioye, Governor of Nagasaki — who was threatening to denounce him if he didn’t force apostasy on eight of his prominent Catholic samurai or produce some blackened corpses as real proof of his fealty. 

Thus, on Sept. 30, Naozumi called the eight into his mountaintop castle to show them Hasegawa’s threatening letters and plead for some merely-symbolic sign of apostasy — he didn’t care, he assured them, what they went on believing in their hearts. All eight demurred.

On Oct. 1 he called them in one by one and begged their cooperation: his domain was at stake, not to mention their own lives and those of their families. He reminded them that St. Peter had denied Christ three times and yet had been forgiven. 

Five of them gave in, agreeing to invoke Amida Buddha with a Buddhist chant. 

Yet three stood firm: Adrian Takahashi Mondo, Leo Taketomi Kan’emon, and Leo Hayashida Sukuemon. 

Naozumi sent to Nagasaki for instructions. Hasegawa’s answer came back on Oct. 5: burn them alive, along with their wives and children. That afternoon, eight were taken to a house where they would be imprisoned awaiting death: Adrian Takahashi with his wife Joanna; Leo Taketomi with his son Paulo; and Leo Hayashida with his wife Marta, their 18-year-old daughter Magdalena (a consecrated virgin), and their son Diego, 11 years old. (Leo Taketomi’s wife, Monica, and their 9-year-old daughter were excluded, despite their pleas to join the martyrs.) 

That night the Catholics of Arima began to gather in their thousands, surrounding the prison with rosaries and candles in hand. To Naozumi, looking down from his fortress on high, it must have been an unsettling scene, as if that infinite array of stars that God had shown Abraham were turned topsy-turvy, shining up at him with indomitable faith. 

By the morning of Oct. 7, the crowd had grown to 20,000 souls or more. 

Oct. 7, 1613, the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary — the eight appointed martyrs marched out into the sunshine bedecked in the kimono of the Confraternity of the Rosary, flanked by Marians with lit candle in one hand and rosary in the other. They headed for the shore of the Ariakè Sea, where a wooden structure awaited them. The crowd of 20,000 marched along, carrying their rosaries. 

At one point they had to cross muddy ground. A certain man offered to ferry young Diego across on his back. The boy refused, saying, “Christ Our Lord didn’t ride on horseback or in a palanquin to the torture of the Cross.” He then assured the man of his hope in “certain and secure rest.” Unable to restrain his tears, the man picked up the boy and carried him. 

At the execution-ground stood a house of sorts with eight wooden columns in the center surrounded by branches and kindling. A stockade ringed its perimeter.

Leo Taketomi climbed onto a pile of firewood to address the thousands awaiting the holocaust. Many of his words were drowned out by the noise of the crowd, but his speech went something like this: 

Behold the faith of Arima’s Christians: for the honor and glory of the Lord and as a testimony to our faith we now die, knowing that there is no salvation other than through Jesus Christ, and that this present life is of little account. All of you also know this, as you have come here with such fervor. My brethren, my parting hope is that you preserve your faith unshaken to the very end, not sparing your own lives.”

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 a confraternity held up a picture of Christ’s scourging to strengthen them. The crowd sang the Credo, the Our Father, and the Ave Maria as the fire raged.

Diego’s ropes were the first to burn away: he ran to his mother, shouting three times, “Zézusu! Maria!”

Look up at Heaven, my son,” she said, and the boy fell dead. Next, his sister Magdalena found her arms free of the burning ropes: she reached down to pick up some flaming embers and held them above her head as if to venerate the fire that would send her home. At this, the gasping crowd made the sign of the cross. Finally, Leo Hayashida boomed the name of Jesus through the flames; his shout shook the crowd as a whirlwind of fire devoured all the holy martyrs. 

To send them home.

This article appeared in the National Catholic Register.