He who receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true. John 3:33 (Ignatius Bible)
Enduring hell to gain Heaven: what better declaration of freedom could mortal man make than testifying to the truth of Christ in one’s own death? This is the essence of martyrdom, and thus does ‘martyr’ derive from Greek μαρτύριον (martyrion), i.e., testimony, proof.
Meet the scion of a Catholic family, a samurai youth who saw the dayspring from on high on the remotest shore the Church had ever reached and pledged to Him his life and breath and blood. He traversed half the world to become a priest and risked countless mortal dangers to get back home, knowing he would face a gruesome death there, for he had vowed to bring light to his benighted land if only for a day, a week, or, God willing, a few restless years. His name is Peter Kibe.
Peter Kasui Kibe was born in Urabe, a seaside hamlet in northeast Kyushu perched beside the Bungo Strait. His parents were both samurai and Catholic, kin of the castellan of Kibe Castle. The word ‘samurai’ derives from the verb ‘saburau,’ ‘to serve,’ but Peter Kibe had a higher calling than serving a merely-mortal lord. Peter’s birth in 1587, the very year of Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s ban on the Faith, looks like the hand of Providence taking up a fiery sword. He was baptized in the church at Nakatsu, a coastal town north of Urabe, where Miguel Kuroda, samurai and future lord of Akizuki, was baptized on Easter Sunday of that very year.
At age 13, Peter entered the Jesuit Seminario at Nagasaki, but the school was moved to Arima, the staunchest redoubt of Catholic Japan, after a fire in November 1601. While studying in Arima, young Peter must have imbibed the spirit of that land so Catholic that the Faith would flourish there even when driven underground, its flame burning bright until all its adherents were slaughtered by the Shogun Iemitsu’s horde in April of 1638.
On his graduation in 1606, Peter requested admission to the Society of Jesus, but first he would have to labor as a humble dojuku—a lay helper, preacher, translator and catechist. He chose the name ‘Kasui’ as his dojuku surname; some presume it was written “living water” in kanji ideographs, though no record of its kanji spelling survives. Notably, Peter labored in Miguel Kuroda’s Catholic haven of Akizuki, where a miraculous apparition, a burning cross, would appear on a mountaintop on the Easter Vigil of 1616, in the early years of the Tokugawa persecution.
The elder shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu set loose that persecution in 1612, a juggernaut that bared its fangs with a demonic venom specially destined for Arima, where hundreds of Catholics signed their names to registers of those willing to suffer for the Faith rather than apostatize. The tortures inflicted on them by Ieyasu’s governor in Nagasaki, Hasegawa Sahioye, are too repulsive to recount here: suffice it to say that he left behind virtual mountains of human flesh when he withdrew from Arima with his 10,000 shogunal troops.
This was the prelude to Ieyasu’s exile of all Catholic missionaries to Macao and Manila in November 1614. Undaunted, Peter continued his studies in Macao, dreaming of a future as an underground Jesuit priest serving his countrymen under the heel of the Tokugawa tyranny.
But the Jesuits in Macao, finding their resources strained by the huge influx of Japanese exiles, discontinued their Latin lessons in 1618 and later closed their Seminario entirely. Clearly, the top brass were reluctant to see these young Japanese ordained and sent back into the inferno of Tokugawa Japan. Many dojuku left Macao for Manila, while three sailed for India, seeking ordination in Rome: Miguel Minoes (from Mino), Mancio Konishi (grandson of the famous Catholic general Augustine Konishi, beheaded by the Shogun Ieyasu), and Peter Kibe. From India, Miguel and Mancio would sail for Rome via Portugal, but the intrepid Peter Kibe would set off on foot, aiming first for the Holy Land, trekking through 3,000-odd miles of mountains, deserts, and countries hostile to Christians to reach Jerusalem (the first Japanese to do so), and thence on to Rome.
Where, having appeared out of the blue with no proof on paper of his studies in Japan and Macao, he nevertheless conquered the churchmen’s doubts, and on Sunday, November 15, 1620, he became Father Peter Kibe by the laying-on of the Bishop’s hands in a chapel at the Lateran. He was 33 years old. When he showed up in his cassock at the Jesuits’ door in Rome five days later, they didn’t turn him away, despite the Jesuit Visitor’s exhortations, written from Macao, to distrust wandering Japanese exiles like him: he won them over too, and he entered the Jesuit novitiate — normally lasting two years.
But two years was too long to wait for a samurai-priest determined to save his countrymen’s souls. Father Peter asked the General of the Society for permission to complete his novitiate enroute to Japan, and his fervor won the day. A fervor stoked, no doubt, by the Canonization Mass of St. Francis Xavier, which Peter Kibe attended, possibly shaken to his knees. More fuel was added to that fire in his soul, no doubt, by his studying in Rome with St. John Berchmans and his acquaintance with St. Robert Bellarmine. On 6 June 1622, he left Rome for Portugal, and while in Madrid read the Jesuits’ 1621 report from Japan: the persecution was worsening, with house-to-house searches for underground priests and once-friendly daimyos turning up the heat on Catholics in their domains—not only priests and dojuku, but even laity were now in their sights.
Finishing his novitiate on 21 November 1622, Peter Kibe made his public Jesuit vow in Lisbon and then entered the Colegio there to await passage to India. A fleet of six sail — three huge, lumbering carracks and three galleons to protect them — embarked on the Feast of the Annunciation, 25 March 1623, carrying an archbishop, two auxiliary bishops and seventeen missionaries, and ran into a fierce gale that very afternoon. They returned to port to wait out the storm and get repairs: one carrack had a broken mast and a galleon had smashed into rocks.
A few days later they set sail again into the crucible of nature’s dangers and Dutch and English pirates’ predations, aiming for the Cape of Good Hope. In the tropics their food and water would putrefy; cholera, typhus, dysentery and the like would flourish; and many of the passengers and crew would spend weeks flat on their backs, mortally ill, as their vessels crawled interminably on under the merciless sun. The archbishop himself was bled nine times during two months’ prostration. Rounding the Cape, they met a gale that destroyed the mainsail of the archbishop’s carrack, then doldrums, and finally a contrary wind that blocked their way to India; they wintered in Mozambique.
On 28 May 1624, the fleet would reach India, only a rest-stop for Fr. Peter Kibe. He was off to Macao, whence he had begun his pioneering journey.
Macao: an outpost of Catholic Portugal at the very gate of Ming China. Portugal’s commitment to the Faith ordained her as Christ-bearer to the Orient in an era when the Portuguese were “the finest [ship’s] pilots and seamen in the world.” Thus, St. Francis Xavier, the Basque Jesuit titan from Navarre who seeded a swath of Christendom from India to Japan, could always depend on Portuguese captains’ support for his mission in times of need.
And yet, when Fr. Peter Kibe arrived in Macao after traversing the globe just to become a priest and a Jesuit, he hit a dead end. No ship’s captain would dare carry a priest to Japan under the Tokugawa shogunate’s ban on Christ, for Macao’s economy depended on her merchants trading precious Chinese silks in Nagasaki. This surrender to Mammon would have invited fire and brimstone from St. Francis Xavier were he still in the flesh.
But down in Siam was a flourishing royal capital, Ayutthaya, replete with Japanese ronin swordsmen hired to protect the king, and the place was frequented by traders carrying spices to Japan. In February 1627, Fr. Kibe embarked in a lumbering Portuguese carrack for Malacca on the Malay Peninsula, intending to go northward to Ayutthaya from there and eventually catch a ride to Japan on a trading ship.
And the devil did his damnedest to stop him. As the Portuguese behemoth was nearing Malacca, four nimble Dutch pirate ships appeared and attacked her. Many aboard the carrack abandoned ship and swam for shore, including Fr. Kibe carrying his breviary and other necessities on his shoulders. All made shore, but they had to survive without food for three days, walking in pouring rain through territory rife with bandits, until they reached Malacca and safety. Fr. Kibe was just regaining his strength when a fever laid him low.
Once recovered, he boarded a ship for Siam. Now the weather turned so foul that the normally-short sail turned into a three-month slog, another ordeal, before he could disembark and hunker down among his countrymen in the guise of a sailor while looking for passage to Japan.
However, every Japan-bound ship’s captain demanded denials of Christian faith from all boarding passengers, given the horrors awaiting Catholics (and their accomplices) in Nagasaki. Such treachery was out of the question for Fr. Kibe, a samurai with the power to confect the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ out of simple bread and wine. After two years’ fruitless wait, he boarded a Manila-bound Spanish ship, sailing on the Feast of the Visitation of 1629.
To find Manila as inhospitable to Japan-bound priests as Macao had been. But there in Manila, Fr. Peter found a brother in intrepidity: Fr. Miguel Matsuda, a former schoolmate from Shiki in Amakusa. They bought a beat-up boat, limped it to an island in Manila Bay, and in great secrecy set to work patching it up with some Catholic sailors’ help. Then, as they awaited fair winds, termites feasted on their hidden prize, a fact discovered just days before they were set to sail. Undaunted, they patched her up with planking and put her out to sea. It was June of 1630, sixteen years since their exile from home.
They had fair sailing almost all the way to Kyushu — until a typhoon hit and smashed them onto an islet’s rocky shore, their ramshackle vessel destroyed but their lives preserved. The friendly islanders sheltered them and, when the typhoon had passed, sailed them to Bōnotsu, near Kagoshima. Perhaps it was Providence that landed them so close to the spot where St. Francis Xavier had landed 81 years before, carrying the Dayspring to Japan.
Both priests slipped into Nagasaki to serve the underground Christians, but Fr. Kibe soon headed for northeast Japan (Tōhoku), home to some 26,000 persecuted Catholics dispersed far and wide. There he found shelter at Mizusawa in the home of a Catholic samurai, Miyake Tōemon. It must have been good to finally have a place to lay his head.
Until, on 13 February 1639, a certain Chōzaburo reported him and his hosts to the shogun’s spies. Behold the Shogun Iemitsu: pederast, sadist, rumored leper. Iemitsu derived special pleasure from observing the torture of Catholic priests.
Along with four other priests captured in Tōhoku, Fr. Peter was taken to Edo, the shogunal capital. Two were burnt alive at Fuda-no-Tsuji, a crossroads (I know not their names), while Fr. Kibe and two other Jesuits — Frs. Giovanni Battista Porro and Martinho Shikimi — were imprisoned to await the former-Jesuit apostate Christovão Ferreira, now called Sawano Chuan, who was charged with persuading captured priests to follow his wide and easy path to destruction. Instead, Ferreira found his own eyes opened to Christ Crucified preached by a Jesuit willing to traverse the world braving mortal dangers to become a priest and come back just to die for Him.
After ten days’ fruitless browbeating, they subjected the three priests to the ‘wooden horse torture’ — with weights on their feet, they had to straddle, in great agony, a triangular wooden saddle like a sharp-peaked roof. When this failed to force their apostasies, they were subjected to “the pit.”
The victim, hands tied behind his back, would be tightly coiled in rope from the feet up to the chest, hung upside-down from a gallows, and lowered head-first into a hole six feet deep containing human waste or other filth and covered with a lid to trap the stench. The lid comprised two boards closed together; crescent cutouts in the center crimped 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 into the filth below his head.
François Caron, a Dutch eyewitness, wrote, “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.”
While the victim hung clamped in the dank, stinking hell of the pit, the torturers would twist his body back and forth to elicit maximum torment, urging him to chant to Buddha — a sign of apostasy — and thus gain his life and “freedom.”
In the throes of their torment, perhaps in delirium, Frs. Porro and Shikimi each emitted mumbled groans. The torturers pulled out the half-conscious priests, marking them as apostates, and sent them away for medical care. Both later denied having renounced Christ, but their protests were ignored.
Fr. Kibe, though, not only held firm, but kept blasting volleys of encouragement to two dojuku hanging in the pits beside him — preaching Christ, urging perseverance to the end.
This the shogun’s torturers could not abide. They pulled Fr. Peter out for special treatment, piling firewood on his naked belly and setting it alight. Still he held firm, even as his belly split open, even as his bowels came bursting out, for he, true Jesuit, true samurai, had conquered oceans and deserts and myriad perils to come back just for this: to testify that Christ alone is King.
Father Peter Kasui Kibe died unbroken on July 4, 1639, a cry of freedom to rouse all humankind.
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.
This story first appeared on ChurchMilitant.com in two parts under this title: Spiritual Independence on July Fourth, here: