December 3rd: St. Francis Xavier and the Divine Wind That Brought Christ to Japan

Thus began the reign of Christ in Japan, carried on the wings of his own almighty wind.

Joaquín Sorolla, “St. Francis Xavier,” 1891 (photo: Public Domain)

Luke O’Hara Blogs August 17, 2022

There is only one God, the Creator of heaven and earth, and His Son Jesus Christ. He is not a foreign God. No, He is the God of all the world.” — Robert M. Flynn, S.J., The Martyrs of Tsuwano

Japan is a land of mystery and paradox — a bright, shining promise at first sight, but a puzzling perplexity on deeper study. St. Francis Xavier would find that out as he labored to plant Christ in the hearts of the Japanese.

On the feast of the Assumption of 1549, his pioneering mission to Japan landed at Kagoshima. Clearly the saint was moved by his early encounters there, for in his first report from Japan, he states:

The people whom we have met so far, are the best who have as yet been discovered, and it seems to me that we shall never find among heathens another race to equal the Japanese. … They are a people of very good will, very sociable and very desirous of knowledge; they are very fond of hearing about things of God, chiefly when they understand them.

“When they understand them” would prove to be a huge challenge at first, for Padre Francisco tells us, in his first weeks in Kagoshima:

Now we are like so many statues among them, for they speak and talk to us about many things, while we, not understanding the language, hold our peace. And now we have to be as little children learning the language.

And yet, his mission was clearly ordained of God, for although all hell’s furies seem to have conspired to stop his getting there, all things worked together for good in the end. The saint writes that he and his men had “set out from Malacca on the feast of St. John Baptist” and continues thus:

We sailed on board the ship of a heathen merchant … who promised the [Portuguese] Commandant at Malacca that he would carry us to Japan. By the goodness of God we had very favorable winds. However, as perfidy so often rules barbarians like him, our captain at one time changed his intention, and began to give up keeping to his course toward Japan, and loiter about the islands that came in the way, for the sake of wasting time.

Wasting time, that is, until the monsoon wind for Japan had quit its seasonal blow. To St. Francis Xavier’s horror and disgust, the captain and his crew depended utterly on the auguries of an idol graven on the prow of their ship, where they sacrificed birds to the thing to glean their sailing orders. This captain was in fact a Chinese pirate, his ship having been the only one in Malacca ready to sail for Japan on short notice — and St. Francis Xavier was determined to carry the Gospel there without delay. The Commandant of Malacca had secured the Jesuit mission’s safety by holding the captain’s wife hostage until his return, and off they went.

Enroute the balmy weather turned foul, and the captain saw one of his daughters fall overboard into a raging sea that swallowed her up; the idol later “told” him that she wouldn’t have died if one of the Catholic mission’s men had been killed instead. Tensions, thus, were high between the captain and his missionary passengers when he “learned” from the entrails of a bird that he would have no safe return to Malacca should he sail onward to Japan that year. He changed course for the Chinese port of Quanzhou.

But God Almighty overruled the idol. As the saint relates it, they were nearing that port …

… when on a sudden a boat puts out to us in a great hurry, telling us that the harbor is invested by pirates, and that it will be all over with us if we come any nearer. This bit of news frightened the captain, who moreover saw that the brigantines of the pirates were not more than four miles distant from us; and so, to avoid that immediate danger, he determined to shun that port.

Reluctantly the captain turned toward Japan, whereupon Providence took over in the form of a marvelous wind.

The word kamikaze, often translated ‘divine wind,’ is a landmark in Japan’s history, but it connotes diametrical opposites in the minds of Westerners and Japanese. At the mention of kamikaze, any Western student of history worth his salt will picture those suicide planes that came screaming down on Allied ships in the Pacific. To the ordinary Japanese, though, kamikaze conjures up chest-swelling visions of the seemingly heaven-sent typhoons that sank two Mongol invasion fleets attacking Japan in the 13th century — and thus the name, derived from kami (god, as in “the gods”) and kaze (wind).

But let me show you a truly Divine wind. Padre Francisco writes:

But now the wind was adverse to a return to Canton and favorable to sailing to Japan, and so we held our course thither against the will of the captain, the sailors and the devil himself. So by the guidance of God we came at last to this country, which we had so much longed for, on the very day of the feast of our Blessed Lady’s Assumption 1549. We could not make another port, and so we put into Kagoshima, which is the native place of Paul of the holy Faith. We were most kindly received there both by Paul’s relations and connections and also by the rest of the people of the place.

Thus, that wind blew the reluctant pirate’s ship, along with him, his crew and his passengers, straight to Kagoshima — the home town of the mission’s main guide and interpreter, disallowing any turning back toward China or even heading for another port of Japan. The pirate captain later died in Kagoshima — unconverted, to Padre Francisco’s regret — having done one great service to God, if against his own will.

“Paul of the holy Faith” was none other than Anjiro, a Japanese refugee from justice who had sailed to Malacca in 1547 after learning from a Portuguese ship’s captain of this priest, Padre Francisco, who could heal wounded souls. St. Francis Xavier sent Anjiro to Goa in Portuguese India to study the Faith and the Portuguese language, which he learned quickly. Arriving in Goa himself, the saint baptized Anjiro, christening him Paulo de Santa Fe. This man would do yeoman’s work for the mission through the countless perplexities facing them at every turn once they reached Japan.

The mission comprised three Spanish Jesuits: Padre Francisco himself, a Basque; Father Cosme de Torres, born in Valencia; and Brother Juan Fernández, from Córdoba. Their helpers were Paulo de Santa Fe (or Anjiro), from Kagoshima; João and Antonio, two other Japanese converts; Amador, from India; and a Chinese christened Manuel. Having made it to Japan in spite of all that man, nature and the Enemy could throw at them, they made dry land just in time to celebrate the glorious feast of the Assumption. Forty-five days later, Shimazu Takahisa, the Daimyo (or Duke) of Satsuma, gave them a warm reception at his palace on Sept. 29, the feast of St. Michael the Archangel, and granted them permission to spread the Faith in his domain.

Shimazu would soon scotch his seeming kindness and withdraw that permission when he saw that Portuguese trading ships were bypassing Kagoshima to trade at other ports and enrich other daimyos: he had expected St. Francis Xavier to command them to give him precedence. The mission thus moved on to greener pastures, notably Hirado, Ikitsuki and Yamaguchi, and conversions — which had been lagging — took off.

And in Yamaguchi, the Jesuits added one to their number, a remarkable blessing in strange disguise. While boldly preaching the Gospel in the streets of that metropolis, the capital of the sprawling Ōuchi domains, St. Francis Xavier found himself standing face to face with a most curious image and likeness of God. Blind in one eye and almost sightless in the other, a bald-headed man with a misshapen face and a biwa lute slung over his shoulder heard the Word of God from the mouth of this strange foreigner and kept coming back time and again, asking ever more questions until there was no doubt in his mind.

St. Francis Xavier baptized him as Lorenzo, the first Japanese Jesuit. Abandoning his old life as a wandering minstrel, Lorenzo would live out his days preaching brilliantly and fearlessly, daring any and every sort of affliction or danger to impede his spreading Christ’s love throughout his beloved land, and he is credited with bringing countless thousands of souls into the Kingdom of God, where the weak confound the strong.

And thus began the reign of Christ in Japan, carried thither on the wings of his own almighty wind.