An April Holocaust in Shimabara


        In the Japanese village of Minami Arima, every spring at cherry-blossom time, two mortal foes march their little armies up the castle road. One is a leathery old samurai in battle armor and the other a pony-tailed teenager in a flowery red cape with his face painted up like a geisha’s. The man is the shogun’s general; the boy is the rebels’ leader, Amakusa Shiro. At road’s end, atop the mountain, their armies will have mock combat, eliciting laughs from the crowd as cherry-blossom petals flutter to earth among them.

Statue of Amakusa Shiro on the grounds of the citadel. Photo by Luke O’Hara

    Beyond the cherry trees, overlooking the sea, stands a very different Amakusa Shiro: a stout young man in prayer with two swords in his belt. This statue is truer to history, more like the fifteen-year-old samurai who stood here awaiting the holocaust in that horrific cherry-blossom spring of 1638. Here thirty-seven thousand Christian souls would offer up their starving flesh, writing their testament in blood into this sacred soil. Here stood Hara Castle, the grave of the Shimabara Rebellion, the dying gasp of old Catholic Japan.

     In the reign of the Catholic daimyo Arima Harunobu, the Shimabara Peninsula had been the Christian bulwark of Japan. This land, then called Arima, had boasted seventy Catholic churches in her prime, and the nearby Amakusa Islands had been staunchly Catholic too. In 1612, however, the Tokugawa shoguns’ vise began to close. Arima Harunobu was executed that year, and by Amakusa Shiro’s day, all faithful Catholics faced death by torture. 

      The current shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu, demanded Christ’s extinction.  Iemitsu was a sadist, a pederast, a drunkard, a tyrant and a paranoiac, and he feared Christ as a demon would.

         Under Iemitsu’s aegis, the lords of Shimabara and Amakusa were not only suppressing the Faith; they were also practicing tax-extortion. Despite a three years’ drought having starved the land, these two profligates demanded exorbitant tax payments from their captive subjects, or else. Some defaulters were tied up in coats made of straw and their coats set alight. One sheriff seized a farmer’s wife—nine months pregnant—stripped her, and put her into a cage in an icy stream to make her husband pay up. She and her baby died in the cage.

            Then there was the torture of another tax-defaulter’s only daughter, a beautiful virgin. The sheriff stripped her naked and burnt her artfully with torches; enraged, her father killed him. Perhaps this was the spark for the Shimabara Peninsula’s explosion into rebellion. Thousands attacked their cruel master’s fortress in the town of Shimabara brandishing banners that proclaimed: We were timely born to die for the Faith.

            It did seem like the end of time: there were burning, vermilion skies, and flowers were blooming out of season. And down in Amakusa there was a teenage prodigy. Fifteen-year-old Shiro was the son of an old Catholic samurai named Masuda Jinbei. Jinbei and his cronies concocted a phony prophecy by a mythical missionary of old that “foretold” Shiro’s coming to liberate the downtrodden Christians; then, in a public ceremony, they acclaimed the boy as their prophesied redeemer.

      Thus was the rebellion seeded. After the explosion in Shimabara, closet-Christians in nearby Amakusa flocked to Amakusa Shiro’s flag to wage war on their despotic feudal lord’s minions, the armed thugs who policed their religion and robbed them blind. The boy-general’s army of reborn Catholics swelled with ever more recruits as it swept from east to west across Amakusa’s three main islands, driving its oppressors before it. These fled to their commander’s mountaintop fortress at Tomioka, an islet dangling from the archipelago’s northwestern corner, scrambling for refuge.

     Meanwhile, entire villages throughout the Shimabara Peninsula were vowing in writing to obey Shiro to the death. After three unsuccessful assaults on the fortress at Tomioka, Shiro decided not to squander his forces but instead took his army across the Hayasaki Strait to Shimabara. There they would join their brethren in arms, and all would barricade themselves, along with all their households, inside the disused fortress called Hara-no-jo, or Hara Castle, in the south of the peninsula.

         On Christmas Day of 1637, Shogun Iemitsu learned of the rebellion and commissioned Itakura Shigemasa, an aristocrat with little experience of war, to muster troops under the shogunal seal, march them to distant Shimabara and there wipe out the despised Catholics. Itakura’s army—thrown together with units from various feudal clans—didn’t wait for his orders but attacked as soon as they had arrived at Hara Castle, expecting an easy victory; the Christian marksmen atop the castle walls mauled them. Enlightened, the invaders withdrew to lick their wounds and prepare themselves for real warfare.

          Reinforcements came, but the rebels repulsed Itakura’s second, bigger assault. Now he had to save his honor: he ordered an all-out attack on Japanese New Year’s Day (Feb. 14, 1638). Many contingents fought bravely, but the determined rebels exhausted them, and when Itakura tried to rally his army for a last, grand effort, all the mustered units refused to budge. Itakura had to save face: grimly leading only his own little band of vassals, he charged the fortress. A hail of bullets killed the men on his left and right, but he made it to the wall and died trying to scale it alone, shot through the chest.

             Next a new, veteran general—Matsudaira Nobutsuna—arrived with orders from the shogun to stand clear and starve the Christians out. He surrounded the fortress with over 125,000 men and backed them up with cannon-fire from both the government camp and a 20-gun Dutch merchantman anchored offshore.

          That winter was severe, and inside Hara Castle the cold and hunger did its work: what had been a triumphal juggernaut transformed into a purgatory. By March the rebels had run out of rice and some were eating the empty sacks; they were also short of drinking-water, firewood, and gunpowder. The Shogun’s vise was pinching their Christian kingdom and their very bellies while cannonballs came screaming in to crunch flesh and bone. One went through Shiro’s sleeve and killed four or five of his companions.

         Matsudaira masterfully played his hand once he had tightened the vise. He tempted the Christians with promises: rice and homes and land and tax-relief, if only they would leave their fortress and abandon the Faith. These tempting lies dropped out of the sky, delivered as letters wrapped around arrows shot over the castle walls. Some nonbelievers, dragged into the rebellion against their will, did defect, but the Catholic stalwarts shot testimonies back to the besiegers: they wanted only to worship Christ; that denied them, they would just have to die, they declared. Letting them live as Christians, of course, was not an option, for the wretched shogun, trapped in his private darkness, viewed the Faith with terror.

            By spring the rebels were desperate. In a sudden night-sortie in early April they tried to rob food and ammo from the government camp, but were repulsed with heavy losses: the Christians had made the mistake of setting fire to enemy tents and thus illuminated themselves, perfect targets for massed musketry. After the raiders’ retreat into the fortress, the government troops cut open the stomachs of rebel dead and found they had been eating only leaves.

             The shogun’s hour had finally arrived. On the Eleventh of April 1638, his horde swarmed over the outermost wall of Hara Castle, having first sent down a rain of fire-arrows. The wasted defenders fought with anything at hand—empty guns, cooking-pots—while their Christian kingdom burned all around them. The innermost wall, the wall of the citadel at the mountaintop, was stormed on the morning of the Twelfth, and the fighting ended at noon, when the last rebel combatant was dead. Those taken prisoner—the elderly, the ill, mothers and their children—they beheaded, without exception. “Even the little girls,” one observer lamented.

           The shogun’s army ringed the burnt-out Hara Castle with 10,860 impaled Christian heads; they sent 3,300 more to Nagasaki as a lesson to that town’s underground Catholics. As a warning to the Portuguese there—who had brought the Catholic Faith to Japan—they stuck four heads, including Shiro’s, onto stakes at the foot of the bridge to the man-made island where the Portuguese were now confined. Soon the Portuguese would be banned from Japan entirely, and all Japanese required to appear before a magistrate annually and tread on a Christian sacred image to prove their loyalty to the shogun.

          In the wake of the rebellion, barely a soul remained in the south of the Shimabara Peninsula: all but the rare deserter had died at the hands of the shogun’s army. In order to have the land tilled, therefore, the shogunate repopulated the peninsula by forcibly removing peasants from the islands of Shikoku and Honshu and installing them willy-nilly in the ghost towns of Shimabara.

            In Japan’s Catholic heyday, at least seventy churches dotted the Shimabara Peninsula; today there are only three—a sad testament to the successful expunging of the Faith from a fervently-Catholic land. Sadder still, the slaughter of those 37,000 who believed themselves ‘timely born to die for the Faith’ goes unnoticed by the Church at large, for they died as rebels fighting against—not praying for—their persecutors.

Yet this view ignores the countless martyred children: martyrs because they, unlike so many of the adults, had not chosen to rebel, but had been scooped up by their parents and rushed to Minami Arima and through the gates of Hara Castle, there to await the holocaust through months of bitter cold, terror, and starvation. These little ones the shogun’s horde executed solely for the crime of being Christian. Even the little girls.

         In this strange April of our own affliction, let us remember the souls of Hara Castle’s little martyrs.


A Lenten Sacrifice in Shimabara

The battle-flag of the Shimabara rebels. Photo by Luke O’Hara


Paulo Uchibori sat fixed like leaden ballast, straining to see beyond the horror before him and glimpse Eternity, for nothing else would stanch the pain. Ignacio, his five-year-old, was hanging from the torturers’ ropes naked, mutilated, blue with the frigid wind and sea; being dangled above the waves until they saw fit to sink him into the deep. Ignacio must die, for he, like his father, was an unflinching Christian, a terror to the lord of Arima, who had sold his soul to the Shogun Iemitsu.

Matsukura Shigemasa had once been sympathetic to the Catholics in his domain; after all, the three previous lords of Arima had themselves been Catholics, and although the last one, Arima Naozumi, had apostatized, the land was filled with staunchly-Catholic laity, many of them veteran samurai. Thus, when the Shogun moved Shigemasa into Arima in 1616, he and his own corps of samurai maintained a tacit truce with the locals. He even took a liking to Father Pietro Paolo Navarro, the Italian Jesuit captured in Arima after celebrating Christmas Mass in 1621. Shigemasa had such respect for Fr. Navarro that he merely put him under house arrest, gave him freedom to celebrate Mass and hear confessions, and invited him often to Shimabara Castle to hear him out on the Catholic Faith. After their final meeting, Shigemasa escorted that priest of the forbidden law outside, knelt, and bowed his head to the earth to show the man of Christ his deep respect, for he would soon have to burn him alive: this was the Shogun Hidetada’s law.

Such sympathy was long extinct by 1627. In January, Shigemasa returned from the shogunal court intent on destroying Christendom in his domain, for the Shogun Iemitsu, Hidetada’s successor, hated Christ as if he were possessed. Thus, Shigemasa’s own life hung on the barest thread should he not quench his lord and master’s bloodlust.

His ally in bloodletting was his headman, Taga Mondo, who had developed exquisite tortures while his master was away. He would not merely beat Christians with clubs; he stripped them naked, tied them hand and foot to an upright rack of sorts, and burnt them with torches—but first, he branded their faces with red-hot iron, searing three Chinese characters spelling KIRI-SHI-TAN (“Christian”) into their cheeks and forehead. Since these cruelties were not producing the apostasies he desired, he started singeing the flesh off their fingers with red-hot tongs and then cutting the exposed bones away—but only bit by bit, so as to prolong the torture. Finally, he left the Christians tied to their racks stark-naked, exposed to public derision and the winter cold until nightfall, when they would be shut up indoors so as not to die prematurely and spoil Mondo’s horror-show: for he took his traveling circus to all the towns of Arima to scare her Christians out of their faith, collecting new victims along the way.

Notable among these was Maria Piriz (or Perez), 88 years old and blind. When they brought the branding-iron close to her face, she pulled away, unaware of what this meant; but when her daughter told her she was being branded as a Christian, she held still, proud to be given this badge of honor.     

Mondo had no compunction about torturing children. His men burned the face and body of 12-year-old Maria with torches and hot coals, trying to force her parents’ apostasy. They beat Sukuemon of Arie unconscious, and coming to, he started singing Benedictus Dominus Deus Israel, so they tied him to the rack and started burning him: he sang Gloria Patri. Furious, they started this torture on his wife Susana, to no effect, so they threw their three-year-old daughter into the fire. When Mondo ordered 16-year-old Andres to step into a fire of hot coals, he made the sign of the cross, kicked off his sandals, and jumped in, standing there long enough for one to pray twenty Hail Marys before Mondo bashed him out of the fire with a club.  

All this was but a prelude to Matsukura Shigemasa’s Lenten holocaust. His prison was brimming with unshakable Catholics, with Paulo Uchibori, former Arima samurai and lay Catholic leader, chief among them. On the First Sunday of Lent, 1627, thirty-five prisoners were led outside, each with a noose around the neck in the hands of an executioner. Maria Piriz had been so crippled by torture that she could barely move, but for this Lenten holocaust she found the strength to march out to her martyrdom like a healthy young girl.

They were taken to the moat and lined up in two rows. Fifteen would have their fingers cut off, more or fewer at the torturers’ discretion, with the others forced to watch.

Paulo’s three sons were the first called to the cutting-board. Antonio, 18, bravely spread out his fingers to offer up that sacrifice, as did his elder brother, Baltasar. When five-year-old Ignacio stepped up to take his turn, the executioner sliced off the index finger of his right hand. Raising the hand to his face, the child calmly watched the blood spurt out as if beholding a beautiful rose. Next, the other index finger: Ignacio raised his left hand and beheld that wound and its jetting blood without a flinch. Unable to bear this sight, many onlookers fled the scene—perhaps, like the Gerasenes, overwhelmed by Christ’s power over evil.

When the cutting was over, the twenty were stripped of their upper garments and all taken out to sea, the fifteen in two boats and the twenty in another, forced to watch. The torturers stripped the fifteen naked and tied ropes to their hands and feet. They would suspend the victims, one at a time, between the boats, dunking them and pulling them out time and again to demand apostasy until, vanquished, they tied a stone around the victim’s neck for the death-plunge into the deep. In the midst of this torture, Antonio, shivering with the February cold, shouted, “Thanks be to God for such a singular mercy!” Little Ignacio they suspended above the waves for a full hour before finally sinking him to the bottom. All the while, Paulo watched in silence.  

The killing done, the twenty were taken back ashore to find signs sewn on their garments forbidding anyone to give them shelter. Next, with a blunt knife the torturers cut the three middle fingers, bit by bit, off each of the Christians’ hands and branded their faces in three places—but four for Paulo—and set them loose as public horrors to anyone daring to embrace Christ.

That night Paulo fell unconscious for loss of blood and, coming to, reported that he had seen his three beloved sons. Juan Kihachi, unconscious for an hour, told the others that he had been taken up to a place too rich and beautiful to describe with words.  

Public horrors they might have seemed to any cowed apostate, but to Arima’s dauntless Catholics they were Christ’s Passion incarnate treading the very soil under their feet. This fact soon dawned on Matsukura Shigemasa, who ordered the heroes rounded up and brought back to his prison.

Morning dawned on the Second Sunday of Lent. A scar-faced volcano named Unzen beckoned from afar as a holy procession headed out of Shimabara Castle to start the long climb to its smoldering peak—its boiling, sulfurous pools caustic enough to burn off one’s skin. They call it “Unzen Hell.”

After their climb, the condemned Christians sang Laudate Dominum Omnes Gentes, recited the Creed, and prayed. Paulo Uchibori  then preached Christ to his persecutors, explaining that he and his companions were happy to die for the Creator and Redeemer of the world. Next they knelt, prayed the Confiteor, and sang Laudate again. Finally, Paulo sang Nunc Dimittis as they approached the so-called “Mouth of Hell” where all were to die.

As the executioners stripped them bare, Paulo urged all to have no fear, but to trust in God and Our Lady. Nooses would be used to dunk the Christians, like meat, into the boiling hell. Luis Shinzaburo, ordered to jump in on his own, made the sign of the cross, said the names of Jesus and Mary, and leapt. Paulo warned the others that Christians must not commit suicide, and the dunking began. Plunged into the murky, boiling hell, each Christian would sink and reappear to gasp, “Jesus! Mary!” and sink again helplessly, perhaps to bob up and pray again, and again—until only smoking bubbles appeared.

They saved Paulo till last, he who clung to that banned religion so tenaciously, he who was so intent on fanning its flames into a fire fit to light all the world. They would tie a noose to Paulo’s feet and dunk him head-first.

Plunging him in, they pulled him out quickly to plunge him in again—and again and again, until finally they dangled him, well-boiled, above the seething hell, just as they had dangled his youngest son.

Praised be the Blessed Sacrament!” he proclaimed.

Clearly that Christian samurai had won: his vanquished torturers sunk him to the depths of that hell to join his brethren in faith.

Imagine the reunion in that place too rich and beautiful to describe with words.

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

This article, in a slightly-different version, first appeared in the National Catholic Register.