28 February 1627: Paulo Uchibori and Companions

A glowering, scar-faced volcano named Unzen reigns 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.” In the 1600s, the daimyo of Shimabara found the biggest of its caustic, skin-eating pools perfect for torturing Christians.


Photo © 2007 by Luke O’Hara

Most tourists connect Unzen’s boiling fury only with the posh spas that ring her “Hell”; almost unknown is the history that lies buried within that smoking netherworld–a tale of superhuman heroism and epic tragedy. Unzen transfigured this land and laid bare its people’s souls. The volcano has reshaped the Peninsula time and again, most recently in a series of eruptions from 1991-94; and as for Shimabara’s Catholics of old, it fired them in its crucible, proving some, like Paulo Uchibori, to have been made of tempered steel. If only the whole world knew.
Back in the days when it was ruled by Arima Harunobu, this land, known as Arima, had been the Catholic bulwark of Japan; but in 1612, the Shogun exiled Harunobu for bribery, ordering his death and giving Arima to Harunobu’s spineless son Naozumi. Naozumi renounced Christ on the Shogun’s orders, joined a Buddhist sect, and vowed to his earthly lord and master to stamp out the Faith in his ancestral domain. On 7 October 1613–the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary–he burnt three of his top samurai along with their families outside the walls of his castle because they had refused his order to deny Jesus; yet Arima’s staunch Catholics, rather than being cowed, attended this glorious martyrdom in their thousands singing hymns and wearing rosaries around their necks while their earthly lord Naozumi cowered in his fortress on a hilltop overlooking the scene. Soon Naozumi asked the Shogun to transfer him out of Arima to another fief; rather than join him in apostasy and accompany their despised lord to his new home, most of Arima’s Christian samurai renounced their livelihoods for Christ and stayed behind in Arima. One of the staunchest Catholics among these samurai was Paulo Uchibori, and his three sons took after their father, their souls as tough and keen as Japanese swords.
In 1614, the Shogun’s vise tightened on Arima: Hasegawa Sahioye, the Magistrate 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. Although the Shogun had promised Hasegawa the fief of Arima if he solved the Christian problem, he was soon recalled to Edo, the Shogun’s capital, leaving behind in Arima many mutilated but victoriously-faithful Catholics and 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.
Arima was next entrusted to Matsukura Shigemasa, a tough warrior and an old stalwart in the retired Shogun Ieyasu’s camp. At first, Shigemasa turned a blind eye to the Christians in Arima, 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 do homage to the Christ-hating Shogun Iemitsu, the third of the Tokugawa Shoguns and Ieyasu’s grandson. According to the late Jesuit historian Father Diego Yuuki, Iemitsu could think of nothing but the crackdown on Christianity, as if he were possessed (Yuuki, Unzen no Junkyo-sha, 1984, p. 52).


(Matsukura Shigemasa’s castle at Shimabara; the moat has now become a garden.) Photo © 2007 by Luke O’Hara

In his year at the Shogun’s palace at Edo, Shigemasa drank deep of the poison in the wretched Shogun Iyemitsu’s soul: he went back to Arima a changed man, determined to purge Christ from his domain, and from the capital he had sent down orders to arrest Paulo Uchibori and his family. When he arrived at his castle at Shimabara, 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 them.
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 less, 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, showing not a 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 that 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 to would-be believers of the Shogun’s certain wrath; but rather than show their misery, these stalwart Catholics went around preaching Christ fearlessly, urging apostates to return to the Faith. This was not the lesson Matsukura-dono had intended for the souls of Arima, so the twenty were eventually ordered back to his castle.
At dawn on 28 February 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, as if they were not human beings but the merest meat for boiling.


(Two boiling pools (above and below) in “Unzen Hell.” What remain today are mere vestiges of the “Hell” of 1627: Mount Unzen was reshaped by a 1792 eruption.)

The first to die jumped into the violently-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, grisliest 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: here was the good earth that bore fruit a hundredfold. Eleven years later, Paulo’s prayer would crown Amakusa Shiro’s flag of rebellion, which 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.

cropped-Pim0008-Copy1.jpg EPSON scanner Image

(A reproduction of Shiro’s battle-flag, flying at a memorial Mass on the sacred earth where Hara Castle stood.)


Text and Photos Copyright 2007 by Luke O’Hara



The Galleon, the Tyrant and the 26 Martyrs of Nagasaki

The air was electric with a holy silence, all Nagasaki dumb with grief, as the parade of martyrs marched past toward the hilltop where their crosses waited.

Wolfgang Kilian, “The Martyrs of Nagasaki,” 1628 (photo: Public Domain)


Luke O’Hara Blogs February 5, 2022

Raked by frothing waves and howling wind, the galleon San Felipe rode the merciless Pacific bereft of mainmast and rudder, her battered old hull the merest plaything of the tempest. Aboard her were a litany of friars — Franciscan, Dominican and Augustinian — clinging for their lives to whatever handholds the creaking old behemoth could provide and praying for deliverance, if not for themselves, then at least for her proud Spanish captain and his crew. All had been alarmed by signs in the heavens — first, a blazing comet, then crosses burning in the clouds, seemingly pointing toward Japan.

The San Felipe had been bound for Acapulco in New Spain. An old workhorse heavy-laden with fine Chinese silks and other riches, she was grossly overloaded, well beyond the limit for safe sailing. She had left Manila on 12 July 1596, and well into her journey she was hit head-on by the last typhoon of the season. Not only did that raging tempest rip away her mainmast and her rudder; it carried her along on its rampage to Japan, dumping her at last off the west coast of Shikoku, near the port of Urado, on Oct. 19. 

San Felipe’s pilot, Francisco de Olandia, wanted to limp his vessel down the coast to Kyushu and on up to Nagasaki, Christian haven, with a makeshift rudder. The exhausted passengers, however, insisted on putting in to port at once, and their demands won the Captain, Matías de Landecho, over to their side. 

The pilot duly sounded the harbor at Urado and came back with bad news: a sand bar lurked underwater; the overloaded galleon would scrape bottom; some cargo must be offloaded first to lighten the ship.

The local ruler, Chōsokabe Motochika, forbade that necessary move. He offered, though, to tow the ship in and dredge a passage if needed. He at once enforced his “offer,” sending 200 armed boats out to tow the galleon straight onto that sand bar, breaking San Felipe’s back. Now she was a shipwreck, and now, by Japanese law, her rich cargo was forfeit. 

Motochika sent a dispatch to the warlord-ruler of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, with an inventory of the treasure-trove he had just purloined, expecting a rich reward. 

Hideyoshi was elated. He sent a man down at once to confiscate the cargo — who “even seized the gold that the shipwrecked Spaniards carried in their pockets.”

Historians have noted that Hideyoshi’s vengeful war in Korea, in addition to rebuilding in the wake of recent earthquakes, was draining his coffers. His driving force, though, is best explained in the words of Fray Pedro Bautista, Franciscan: “His greed devoured and engulfed everything.”

Captain Landecho sent his pilot, along with a friar-interpreter, on an embassy of protest to Hideyoshi, who had previously guaranteed security for Spanish shipping. This embassy was waylaid by Hideyoshi’s own confiscator, Masuda Emon, who asked the pilot to explain how the King of Spain had conquered his vast empire spanning the globe. Francisco de Olandia purportedly told him that first they sent in friars to suborn the locals, who then joined ranks with invading Spanish troops to take over the country. One Jesuit historian wrote that the wound this rash answer inflicted was still gushing blood 120 years later.

At any rate, it served as a pretext for Hideyoshi to explode into a rage and demand the execution of all Catholic priests in Japan. He soon realized, though, that without the intermediation of the Jesuits, he would be hard put to strike profitable deals with the Portuguese merchants bringing Chinese silks and gold from Macao. Thus, he moderated his orders: his men were to round up all religious in his capital of Osaka and the nearby imperial city of Kyoto. They would then cut off their ears and noses, parade them in oxcarts through Kyoto, Osaka, and nearby Sakai, and march them southwest to Nagasaki, where they would be crucified. 

Ishida Mitsunari, Governor of Lower Kyoto, mercifully intervened. At Captain Landecho’s request, he ordered his men to clip only the left earlobes of the prisoners, who numbered 24. The blood-letting began on Friday, Jan. 3, 1597, at a crossroads in Upper Kyoto. The youngest prisoner, 12-year-old Luis Ibaraki, laughed when they cut his ear, and Thomas Kozaki, 14, dared them to cut his, saying, “Come on, cut me and shed the blood of Christians!”

After this mutilation, all 24 were loaded onto oxcarts, three martyrs in each, and paraded around Kyoto, the imperial capital. All were Franciscans but the three in the last cart, Jesuit Brother Paul Miki and his two lay catechist companions. Many called Paul Miki the best preacher in Japan; he preached ceaselessly along his via crucis. The two catechists, John Goto and James Kisai, would become Jesuits before they mounted their crosses.

With their ears dripping blood, the three youngest — Luis, 12, Anthony, 13, and Thomas, 14 — sang the Our Father and the Hail Mary from their oxcart while others preached to the crowd, a spectacle that must have dazzled even the hardest of heart. 

This parade was repeated in Osaka and Sakai. Then, on Jan. 9, the martyrs began their brutal winter’s trek to Nagasaki, a journey of 27 days. They traveled daily from dawn to sunset in single file, sometimes on foot, sometimes on horseback, until they reached their lockup for the night. Brother Miki used every opportunity to preach, and many wrote letters that have been handed down to us. 

You should not worry about me and my father, Michael,” Thomas Kozaki, 14, wrote to his mother. “I hope to see you both very soon there in Paradise.” His father was with him on that via crucis; the bloodstained letter would be found on his crucified body.

To the Jesuit Provincial, Brother Miki wrote, “Please don’t worry about us three and our preparations for death, because by divine goodness we go there with joy and happiness.”

Perhaps the most bitter leg of their journey was their last night on earth, spent huddled, freezing, in three boats moored in Omura Bay offshore of Togitsu, a fishing village. The men in charge feared a Christian uprising if these bloodied religious were to be lodged ashore, for Togitsu was just north of Nagasaki, the Rome of Catholic Japan. 

Come morning, the road to Nagasaki was indeed lined with Christians, but there was not a hint of danger. Rather, the air was electric with a holy silence, all Nagasaki dumb with grief, as the parade of martyrs marched past toward Nishi-zaka, the hilltop where their crosses waited. The martyrs’ number was now 26, two laymen having been robbed and thrown in with them enroute by greedy guards. Neither protested, but accepted martyrdom as a blessing.

Atop Nishi-zaka lay the crosses. Although the climb was steep, young Luis was full of energy and asked, “Which cross is mine?” Then he ran to the one pointed out, lay down and hugged it: this vessel would take him home. 

Unique among the Twenty-Six, Luis had been offered a chance to save his life. The sheriff in charge of this execution had orders to crucify only 24; he wanted to save this innocent boy and offered him the chance to be his page — on condition that he stop being a Christian. “I do not want to live on that condition,” the brave boy replied, “for it is not reasonable to exchange a life that has no end for one that soon finishes.”

The crosses rose; Paul Miki began his last sermon, preaching that the only way to salvation was through Christ; the three youngest boys sang a Psalm, “Praise the Lord, ye children”; some sang the Te Deum and the Sanctus; and then the coup de grâce. 

Japanese crucifixions ended with paired spearmen driving their spearheads up into the flanks of each victim, through the heart and out the shoulders. On Nishi-zaka two pairs began their work, starting at opposite ends of the row of crosses and working toward the center. All, both the martyrs and the crowd, started chanting Jesus! Mary! as the martyrs’ hearts were pierced one by one. 

Before the spearmen reached young Luis Ibaraki, he was struggling to climb toward Heaven, and these words of hope burst from his lips: “Paradise, Paradise!” he shouted, his 12-year-old heart still beating. “Jesus! Mary!”

Words that no raging tyrant can ever hope to still.

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

This article appeared in The National Catholic Register.


A Winter Offering: The 53 Martyrs of Yonezawa

In January 1629, with hands bound and rosaries around their necks, this group of Catholic faithful were beheaded in Yonezawa, Japan.

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

Luke O’Hara Blogs    January 29, 2022

Looking down from Heaven on frosty Yonezawa in the winter of 1629, one would have seen blooms of crimson spreading upon the white-blanketed earth below, for her mantle of virgin snow was being baptized with Christian blood.

Although Yonezawa, in north-central Japan, was home to many Catholics, it seems to have escaped shogunal scrutiny for some years. Perhaps because its ruler, Uesugi Kagekatsu, was a redoubtable warrior, the Shogun Hidetada ignored his tolerance of Christians in his domain. Kagekatsu ruled Yonezawa until his death in 1623, the very year that Tokugawa Iemitsu succeeded to the shogunate. 

Iemitsu had a demonic taste for personally observing the torture of Christians. Perhaps this taste rubbed off on Kagekatsu’s heir, Sadakatsu, for in 1628, while paying homage to Iemitsu in Edo (now Tokyo), Sadakatsu sent orders back home to register all Catholics in his domain and order them to apostatize.  

Ishida Shuuri, the head sheriff in Yonezawa and a decent man with no taste for injustice, reported back to Sadakatsu that there were no Christians in his domain. Shuuri’s immediate underling, however, jealous of his position, reported to Sadakatsu that Yonezawa was in fact rife with Catholics.

On Dec. 22, 1628, Sadakatsu sent down orders to Shuuri to put to death all Catholics unwilling to apostatize.

There are 3,000,” Shuuri replied. This quashed Sadakatsu’s enthusiasm for murder for a time — he would be exterminating too many of his vassals and sacrificing considerable tax income and manpower. 

But Sadakatsu had the twisted Shogun Iemitsu breathing down his neck. He needed a sop. 

Prominent among Yonezawa’s Catholics was Amagasu Yemon, christened Luís, a veteran samurai. Sadakatsu ordered Yemon and all his family to apostatize on pain of death. 

Shuuri counted Yemon a good friend; to save his friend, he wrote up a summary of the Ten Commandments as best he could recall them, enhancing them, as he saw it, with one final commandment enjoining samurai loyalty, and presented this memorial to Sadakatsu. He then asked him to consider how a people so steeped in virtue could possibly be a threat to the state. This staved off the inevitable for a space of days; Yemon’s friends were overjoyed at the thought that he and his family would after all be spared.

Overjoyed until a friend of Yemon’s elder son, Tayemon, came from Sadakatsu’s castle to break the news to him that all of the family were to be executed. Tayemon was in his sickbed with fever, but at this news, he cried out that he was healed, jumped out of bed, and mounted a horse to gallop off and tell his father. Yemon ordered coffins prepared at once for all his family.

On Jan. 11, 1629, two samurai arrived at Yemon’s house to notify him, with Shuuri’s apologies, that he and his family were to die the next morning. Yemon thanked them and promised that all would be ready to leave at a moment’s notice when called.

As Yemon and his two sons were themselves samurai, they surrendered their paired swords, the long katana and the shorter wakizashi, to be delivered to Shuuri, promising that their matchlock guns and lances would be delivered on the morrow. It was the height of humility for a samurai to give up his swords.  

Yemon immediately set things in order — all would wear their finest apparel. They would make a grand procession to the execution ground, for they were celebrating the holiday of their lives. Yemon then offered to pay his servants and send them off to freedom; all refused, insisting they wanted to die for Christ along with their master. The servants of Yemon’s sons, Tayemon and Ichibyoe, did the same. 

With all the family and servants gathered at Yemon’s house, they spent the night in prayer. The next day, two hours before dawn, two of Shuuri’s officers arrived to start the proceedings. Yemon greeted them at the door and took them upstairs, where they found the entire household on their knees dressed in festal garb, the men and boys with hands tied behind their backs and rosaries around their necks and the ladies, hands untied, with rosaries in their hands. Two 12-year-old boys serving as pages would lead the procession, one carrying a pike on high with a picture of Our Lady fixed to its point and the other bearing a blessed candle.

Before leaving, the martyrs commended themselves to Our Lady’s protection and rose from their knees to file out onto the snowy street to begin their march. With Our Lady’s image on high, the two boys in front were followed by another servant, and then the women carrying their rosaries. Among these, 17-year-old Tecla, Ichibyoe’s wife, carried their infant daughter in her arms, perhaps with her rosary laced through her fingers, while Dominica, Tayemon’s young wife, walked ahead of her alone, clutching her rosary in silent anguish, I suspect, for her own infant daughter was nestled in the arms of her handmaid, Maria, to their rear. Perhaps she hadn’t the heart to coo to her child as she carried her off to be beheaded. 

At a distance behind the women, Yemon’s sons led the men. Each had his hands bound behind his back and a rosary round his neck, with Yemon last. As people lined the street watching them in awed silence, two men joined them along the way, Christian faithful going to their deaths in peace.

By the time they arrived at the execution ground, the sun was full risen, emblazoning a sharp contrast between the pristine blanket of white spread out under Heaven and the crimson blooms that soon began to spread with each new slash of a sword — but first, all knelt in prayer around the Blessed Virgin’s image held on high.

The women and girls, the vanguard, were beheaded first, followed by the men, and Yemon last. The two boys who had led the procession were denied martyrdom despite their protests, and sent home in tears.  

More martyrdoms would follow in Yonezawa that day — 53 Christian souls ascended to their Maker through the chill, crystal air of that January morning to nestle, finally, in his waiting, loving arms.

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

(This article appeared in the National Catholic Register.)