Under the Fallen Blossoms, Buried History: Amakusa Shiro and the Fall of Hara Castle


WEBSITE:  Kirishtan.com


Under the Fallen Cherry-Blossoms, Buried History


            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 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 Amakusa Shiro.  At road’s end their armies will have mock combat, eliciting laughs from the crowd.


            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 young samurai who stood here awaiting the holocaust in that horrific cherry-blossom spring of 1638.  Here thirty-seven thousand souls would offer up their starving flesh, writing their testament in blood into this sacred soil.  Here was Hara Castle, the grave of the Shimabara Rebellion, the dying gasp of old Catholic Japan.


            The Shimabara Peninsula had boasted seventy Catholic churches in her prime, and the nearby Amakusa Islands had been staunchly Catholic too; but since 1612 the Shoguns had been tightening the vise and all faithful Catholics now faced death by torture.  The current Shogun, 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.


            To top this off, the lords of Shimabara and Amakusa were practicing tax-extortion.  There had been three years of drought and starvation, but these two profligates demanded exorbitant payments from their peasants, or else.  Some defaulters were tied up in coats made of straw and 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 sheriff’s atrocity was the spark for the Shimabara Peninsula’s explosion into rebellion.  Thousands attacked their cruel master’s fortress in the town of Shimabara, brandishing a banner 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 blooming out of season.  And down in Amakusa there was a prodigy.  Fifteen-year-old Shiro was the son of an old Catholic samurai named Jinbei.  Jinbei and his cronies had concocted a phony prophecy by a mythical missionary of old that “foretold” Shiro’s coming to liberate the downtrodden Christians; and then they acclaimed the boy as their prophesied redeemer in a public ceremony.


            Thus was the rebellion seeded.  After the explosion in Shimabara, closet-Christians in the nearby Amakusa Islands flocked to Shiro’s flag to wage war on their own oppressors; meanwhile, entire villages throughout the Shimabara Peninsula were vowing in writing to obey Shiro to the death.  After an unsuccessful attempt to take their despotic feudal lord’s fortress at Tomioka, Shiro’s Amakusan army sailed to Shimabara with him to join their Shimabaran brethren, and all barricaded themselves and their families inside the disused fortress called Hara Castle, in the south of the Peninsula.


            On Christmas Day the Shogun learned of the rebellion and commissioned a general, Itakura Shigemasa, to go down south to Shimabara and wipe out the despised Catholics.  His 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, they 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.  Now Itakura must 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.


            Now a new, veteran general—Matsudaira—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 they had run out of rice and some were eating the empty sacks; nor was there any more drinking-water or firewood, nor 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 Christian 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 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 Christian 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 surviving 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 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.


            Today only three Catholic churches can be found in the Peninsula, frequented by perhaps three dozen souls; but every spring at cherry-blossom time, the villagers of Minami Arima do remember the holocaust of the 37,000 with a Buddhist memorial service in the evening, and the next day with a parade, with Amakusa Shiro made up like a dainty geisha, and the Shogun’s general a proper man.


            Perhaps the Shogun really won.


Copyright © 2005, 2013 by Luke O’Hara


(Originally published, in an earlier version, in Our Sunday Visitor)



Saint Paul Miki and Companions


website:  Kirishtan.com

            The martyrdom of Saint Paul Miki and Companions, otherwise known as the Twenty-six Martyrs of Japan, is perhaps the fulcrum of Japanese Christian history.  Theirs was the martyrdom that laid bare the core of Japan’s ancient conflict with private conscience—that is, the sense that one’s own moral conviction overrides not only temporal social convention, but even the orders of an earthly superior, when that convention or those orders contravene the moral law.  Saint Paul tells us that that law is inscribed on every human heart, that it is universal.


            Here is a short rendition of the Martyrs’ story—a piece I published some years back.  Their feast is celebrated on the 6thof February in the Roman Catholic Church, but their martyrdom actually took place on February 5, 1597—Japan time.


The Twenty-six Martyrs


by Luke O’Hara


    Above a hilltop overlooking Nagasaki Bay floats a row of men and boys in bronze, frozen eternally in attitudes of joy. ‘Floats,’ I say, because they seem to hang suspended in mid-air along a wall of stone. These are the Twenty-six Martyrs of Japan. Most of them have their hands folded in prayer, and all their mouths are open in praise. Like a halo around each martyr’s head, words are inscribed behind him in bronze relief. These are the last words each was heard to say or sing before being pierced with spears from below; this is how Japanese crucifixions usually ended.


          The Twenty-six were crucified on this hill on the Fifth of February, 1597 because, according to Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the man who then ruled Japan, they were “foreigners … come from the Philippines” who had “built churches, preached their religion, and caused disorders.” In point of fact, most of the martyrs—twenty of them—were Japanese.


          The ‘disorders’ they had caused were as follows: they had built hospitals, orphanages and leprosaria for the poor and outcast, offered charity to the indigent, and labored tirelessly to spread the Gospel of Christ in a land whose people had been esteemed by Saint Francis Xavier as “the best who have yet been discovered.” As for their having “built churches,” Hideyoshi himself had given the Franciscans a plot of land on which to build.


          But a few of the Franciscans had indeed arrived recently from the Philippines.  They had come in a crippled Spanish galleon headed for Mexico that had been blown off course by a typhoon and had limped into Japan in dire need of repairs. When the battered San Felipe showed up at the port of Urado richly laden with Chinese silks and other treasured cargo, the local ruler contrived to tow the ship into port against the ship’s pilot’s wishes—ostensibly for repairs—and in the process broke her back on a sand bar, spilling much of her cargo into the bay. Now the San Felipe was a shipwreck, and now, by Japanese law, her cargo was forfeit.


          But Hideyoshi himself had promised his personal protection to Spanish ships only four years earlier. With this in mind the Spaniards sent a deputation to him to petition for return of the confiscated cargo, but by the time they arrived, the divvying-up of the spoils had already been decided. Now Hideyoshi had to save face. He contrived to ‘discover’ a Spanish plot to take over Japan by Catholic infiltration, and when he had produced some fishy evidence he flew into a rage and ordered the rounding-up of the Franciscans. In the end the round-up netted six Franciscans, three Jesuits and seventeen hapless Japanese laymen: the youngest twelve years old, another thirteen, and the oldest sixty-four.


          Hideyoshi ordered that their ears and noses be cut off and they be paraded around the cities of Osaka and Kyoto in carts and then marched to Nagasaki to be crucified, a journey of perhaps eight hundred kilometers; it would take them twenty-seven days. A sympathetic official mitigated the sentence; only their left ears were cut off.


          Along the route, Jesuit Brother Paul Miki distinguished himself for his constant preaching; Bishop Dom Pedro Martins called him the best preacher in Japan. The youngest, twelve-year-old Louis Ibaraki, traipsed along laughing, and reportedly laughed even when they cut off his ear. Four days before the end the boy was offered his life on condition that he renounce the Faith. His reply: “I do not want to live on that condition, for it is not reasonable to exchange a life that has no end for one that soon finishes.”[1] When the Twenty-six arrived at the execution-ground their crosses were there awaiting them. Louis asked “Which one is mine?” and then ran to embrace the one pointed out.


          The monument depicts in bronze how they died: Paul Miki, hands spread, was preaching to the thousands of Nagasaki Christians kneeling on the hillside below when the spears pierced his heart, and Louis’s last words shout out from the wall behind him:  “Paradise! Jesus! Mary!”


          Saint Francis Xavier’s praises still ring true.




     (The Twenty-six were canonized on June 8, 1862.)




(First published in Our Sunday Visitor.)


[1]Diego Yuuki, S.J., The Twenty-Six Martyrs of Nagasaki, p. 60.  (Enderle Book Co., Tokyo, 1998)


December 8th: Birth, death, Eternity


               December 8, 1941: a day that has lived in infamy for 71 years.  Americans remember Pearl Harbor on the 7thof December, but it was December 8th Japan Time when the Japanese Imperial Navy’s dive bombers hit Pearl Harbor.  December 8th also marks the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin in the Roman Catholic Church.
                Mere coincidence, one might imagine, but here’s another “coincidence”:  the Emperor’s surrender proclamation was broadcast to his astonished nation on August 15, 1945.  The 15th of August marks the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, which pegs the end of the earthly life of the Lord’s mother, who was soon to return to earth time and again to dazzle the upturn’d eyes of mortals in the form of countless apparitions warning mankind to believe in her Son’s reality and the direness of man’s addiction to sin, lest countless souls needlessly consign themselves to eternal fire—the pool of fire that is the second death. (See Revelation 20:14-15)
               So the front and back covers of that Book of Death that mankind knows as the Pacific War coincide with the conception of the Blessed Virgin (for conception is the start of full-fledged human life) and her departure from earthly life—which, for those who cling to Christ, is only the beginning of eternal bliss.  But all this must be merest coincidence.
               Just like the coincidence of Saint Francis Xavier’s arrival in Japan by dint of an irresistible wind that drove his ship straight to Kagoshima, the home town of his Japanese interpreter, an escapee from Japan who was now a convert to the Faith.  The ship’s captain had been determined to avoid Japan, but that almighty wind had had its way, and now there was nothing to do but land his passengers.
               And the date?  By the merest coincidence, the 15thof August 1549, the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin:  the birth of Christendom in Japan.
               Birth, death, Eternity.

Luke O’Hara, Kirishtan.com

The Yatsushiro Martyrs

December 8th and 9th, 1603:  Two Catholic samurai of Yatsushiro were beheaded for refusing to renounce Christ, and the following day all the remaining members of their immediate families were crucified for clinging to their convictions too.  The youngest of the crucified martyrs was seven-year-old Ludovico (his baptismal name).  On his mother’s instructions, he kept repeating the holy names of the Lord and the Blessed Virgin–Iézusu! Maria!–as he awaited the spear-thrust that would pierce his heart, gouging into him through his right kidney and out through his left shoulder.  His mother was hanging on the cross next to his own.
The little boy rode to Heaven on eagle’s wings; lifted, that is, by the Almighty Name.  Imagine that family reunion, once all had arrived at their eternal Home.

November 11, Saint Marina of Omura

     November the Eleventh marks the 378th anniversary of the martyrdom of Saint Marina of Omura, canonized by Pope John Paul II on October 18, 1987. I first learned of her story on seeing her statue in the courtyard of the Kako-machi Catholic Church in Omura, Nagasaki Prefecture, Japan—a lady in lay Dominican garb clutching a crucifix to her breast and standing atop a crown of flames that would send her straight to Heaven, her face aglow with faith and hope and love—and superhuman strength.

     She had dedicated her life and her virginity to Christ: a vow which was anathema to the Shogun up in Edo (modern-day Tokyo): Iemitsu, a sin-enslaved sadist who would prowl the streets of his capital at night in disguise, heavily guarded, looking for innocent victims to test the sharpness of his sword on. Of all his imagined enemies he feared Christ the most.

     Marina lived in Omura, a very long way from the capital but just a few hours’ ride on horseback from the port-town of Nagasaki, the Christian capital of Japan. Omura itself had been a Christian stronghold in former times. Indeed, Omura Sumitada, lord of Omura three generations past, had been Japan’s first-baptized Christian domainal lord, and his daughter had herself been baptized as ‘Marina’. Alas, a string of anti-Christian dictators had, since those days, put an end to the freedom of conscience that some parts of Japan had once known: in Saint Marina’s day, to profess Christ was death throughout Japan.

Her crimes were legion: she had manifested charity to the utmost, giving refuge in her home to hunted priests and persecuted Christians at the risk of her life. Thank God that Saint Marina—like so many Holy Martyrs before her—despised the pains of death: for in her eyes these were but the merest footsteps in her faultless climb to Heaven to meet her one true Lord.

Arrested, she was stripped naked and paraded through the whole domain of Omura to shame her; yet, as a virgin self-promised to Christ, she marched with perfect modesty. She was immolated by ‘slow fire’ on Nishi-zaka, the holy execution-ground overlooking Nagasaki Bay—the sacred soil that had held the crosses of the Twenty-Six Martyrs of Japan back in February of 1597. Many holy souls had followed their path to Heaven since that icy winter day thirty-seven years before; Marina of Omura would stand tall among them as a paragon of indomitable faith.

‘Slow fire’ meant that the firewood beneath her feet had been wetted to prolong her miseries and delay merciful death. Marina, however, did not amuse her torturers with displays of agony; instead she prayed for her persecutors and her fellow persecuted Christians: thus is she remembered in Omura as a Christian heroine of remarkable strength. Superhuman, supernatural strength, humility, and courage, let us say—as befits a faithful child of God.

Saint Marina of Omura, pray for us.


Luke O’Hara, Kirishtan.com

Praised Be the Most Blessed Sacrament


Luke O’Hara

see:  Kirishtan.com

1:55 PM  –  Public


The photo on this page is a bird’s-eye view of one of the sulfurous hot springs atop the Shimabara volcano where so many Christians–Kirish’tan, that is–were boiled by the local daimyo’s minions in order to procure their apostasy.   Here died many a Japanese Kirish’tan hero, among them Blessed Paulo Uchibori, whom the torturers hung upside down and dipped into the boiling sulfur-bath head-first.
They pulled him out, expecting him to renounce Christ, but to their astonishment, Paulo shouted a victory cry: “Praised Be the Most Blessed Sacrament!”
Again they dunked him, determined to boil away that strength of Spirit in him, but when they pulled up the rope again, the boiled Christian’s shout of faith resounded in redoubled strength:  “Praised Be the Most Blessed Sacrament!”
They plunged him in again, this time not to force a change of heart–for this was too plainly impossible–but to drown him in the boiling hell which would send him straight to Heaven.  Perhaps their consciences could no longer bear the sting of Truth burning in those words of his, those quintessential Kirish’tan words:  “Praised Be the Most Blessed Sacrament!”

May God grant that we all learn from his example–in this present age so steeped in lies–to not traduce the Truth:  our Faith.



Kirish’tan: Heaven’s Samurai A novel of Old Japan

      Saint Francis Xavier; Saint Paul Miki, Saint Luís Ibaraki and the other 26 Martyrs of Japan; Arima Harunobu, Konishi Yukinaga and Omura Sumitada, the Christian daimyo of Amakusa and Shimabara; the great warlords Shimazu Yoshihisa, Kato Kiyomasa, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu:  these characters live again in the pages of Kirish’tan:  Heaven’s Samurai.


     The novel is available at https://www.createspace.com/3650514


or go to my website:  Kirishtan.com
Use this code for a 10% discount:  WK65CU3H