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. 

THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE NATIONAL CATHOLIC REGISTER.

Two Sixths of August, 333 Years Apart

Mother and child with food ration of rice-balls (o-musubi) the morning after the Nagasaki bombing, one mile from Ground Zero. Photo by Yōsuke Yamahata, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

          Seventy-seven years ago, on August 6, 1945, B-29 Superfortress number 82 dropped an enriched-uranium bomb called Little Boy over its designated bull’s eye, the T-shaped Aioi Bridge in downtown Hiroshima. The pilot, Colonel Paul Tibbets, plunged her into a dive to pick up speed and turned to get as far as possible from the bomb before it exploded. Forty-three seconds after the weapon’s release, its shock wave hit the Superfortress, which “cracked and crinkled from the blast,” although it had sped eleven and a half miles distant by then. That blast smashed the city below like a titanic anvil dropped from the heavens while the bomb’s flash incinerated man and beast indiscriminately. Richard Rhodes writes:

People exposed within half a mile of the Little Boy fireball … were seared to bundles of smoking black char in a fraction of a second as their internal organs boiled away. … The small black bundles now stuck to the streets and bridges and sidewalks of Hiroshima numbered in the thousands.

Three hundred thirty-three years before that bombing of August 6, 1945, Tokugawa Ieyasu set in motion the genocide of Japan’s Catholics by the smash of his seal on a ban on the Catholic Faith in all shogunal domains. Mark this: the ban, that death-warrant for the faithful, was sealed on the 6th day of the 8th month of the old Japanese lunar calendar in the year 1612. The late Yakichi Kataoka, eminent historian and martyrologist, regarded that day in A.D. 1612 as the true start of the Tokugawa persecution rather than the more commonly accepted Christian Expulsion Edict of 1614 as its beginning. Given the horrors inflicted on the Catholics of Arima in conjunction with the edict of 8/6/1612 (by Japanese reckoning), this author must agree with Dr. Kataoka.

The legacy of the Hiroshima bombing is eerily reminiscent of the legacy of the Tokugawa shogunate’s protracted war on Catholicism, waged with countless  martyrdoms spread across two and a half centuries of Tokugawa rule. At the mention of those “internal organs boiled away,” the martyrdom of Fr. Peter Kasui Kibe springs to mind, while the “bundles of smoking black char” could describe the remains of countless priests and other faithful burnt to cinders by the Tokugawa terror, often by the slowest means possible. Additionally, the bombardment, starving-out and final extermination of Hara Castle’s 37,000 Christians by fire and sword offers a panoramic snapshot in miniature of the Empire-wide persecution of the Body of Christ under the Tokugawas.

Arai Hakuseki, whom Britannica lauds as “one of the greatest historians of Japan,” calculated in 1705 that two to three hundred thousand Kirishitan had been martyred by that writing. Most European chroniclers of the persecution give much lower numbers, but they had little (if any) access to accurate information from within much of the Empire after 1620 or earlier. Indeed, the frenzy of the persecution in the little domain of Arima alone suggests large numbers of anonymous martyrs, especially if one considers those starved by ruthless taxation or hounded out of their homes to scrape out a living in the wild.

That persecution went on into the Meiji Period, after the so-called opening of Japan—her door actually only slightly ajar with a security chain stopping anything wider than the tip of a nose from getting in. Thus, modern weapons, modern manufacturing, even foreign languages poured in, but not that dreaded religion that made clear nonsense of the “gods” created out of rocks, trees, monkeys and the like until Western diplomatic pressure forced the door open wider.

Meanwhile, with those modern weapons, Japan sank a Russian fleet, annexed Korea (where they forbade the speaking of Korean), rampaged into China (300,000 unarmed Chinese murdered in Nanking alone, not to mention the gang-rapes and the discarded, bayonetted victims), bombed Pearl Harbor, enslaved the Philippines, drove the Bataan Death March, invaded Singapore and cut off the city’s water supply to parch its populace into submission; starved, tortured and executed prisoners of war against all international law; and on and on and on.

And to top it all off, the Japanese army was training women and girls to thwart any invasions of foreign troops by mass suicide-charges with sharpened-bamboo spears. And the smaller schoolboys were being trained to blow up foreign tanks by rolling under the oncoming armor and pulling the detonator on suicide bombs strapped to their chests.

So the Atom Bomb, once proven at Trinity in July of 1945, was the obvious choice to stop the madness. But then, mysteriously, came Nagasaki.

The target designated for Fat Man — a plutonium bomb, unlike Little Boy with its charge of U-235 — was the Kokura Arsenal, at least by Man’s planning. Superfortress number 77, nicknamed Bockscar, was to drop its weapon over that “massive collection of war industries” on the northeast corner of Kyushu on the morning of 9 August, but before reaching Kokura, Bockscar wasted fuel circling over Yakushima Island for almost an hour awaiting a rendezvous plane that never showed up. On top of that, the reserve fuel tank was inaccessible because of a stuck valve.

Once over Kokura, the pilot, Major Charles Sweeney, and his bombardier found the city blanketed in smoke and cloud too thick to spot any hint of their aiming-point. They made three passes over Kokura to no avail, and with fuel dwindling, Major Sweeney turned southwest towards Nagasaki, the secondary target, whence he could reach Okinawa for an emergency landing.    

About twenty minutes later, Bockscar reached the west coast of Kyushu to find Nagasaki also blanketed in cloud; but a hole opened in that blanket just long enough to give the bombardier a glimpse of Nagasaki’s stadium, and he let Fat Man drop. Forty-three seconds passed before the Apocalypse flashed in the face of Urakami Cathedral, incinerating all at the eleven o’clock Mass.

Urakami Cathedral after the Bomb, date unknown. Photo by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Priceless Nagasaki, with her Catholic roots dug centuries deep, exploded into pulverized ash and white-hot flame as students and teachers at her university saw the ceilings collapsing onto their heads and windows exploding into glass shrapnel, while factories became smoking heaps of twisted steel. Only the mountains surrounding Urakami stopped the blast and fireball from reducing the whole city to cinders, just as Mount Hijiyama in Hiroshima had shielded a stretch of the city behind its shadow.

Hiroshima had housed the military headquarters of western Japan, set to direct war within that sphere to the last drop of blood in case of invasion and national fracture. In Nagasaki were the Mitsubishi Steel and Arms Works and the Mitsubishi-Urakami Torpedo Works in addition to a shipyard and a major port, among whose laborers were Korean slaves and Western prisoners of war.  

 

Some hours before the Apocalypse, as Major Sweeney was aiming for Japan, plowing his bomber through stormy skies at 17,000 feet above the Pacific, St. Elmo’s fire had shrouded his ship in unearthly light. William Laurence, watching from an escort plane, wrote,

           The whirling giant propellers had somehow become great luminous discs of blue flame. The same luminous blue flame appeared on the plexiglass windows in the nose of the ship, and on the tips of the giant wings it looked as though we were riding the whirlwind through space on a chariot of blue fire.

That same blue fire had appeared atop the masts of the Mexico-bound galleon San Felipe in 1596 as a typhoon drove her relentlessly toward Japan, where the ruler’s greed for the rich cargo in her wrecked hull would drive him to crucify the 26 Martyrs of Nagasaki. Their crosses stood atop a slope called Nishi-zaka, from which Urakami would have been in plain view. A great red brick cathedral would stand on a hilltop at Urakami three and a half centuries later, overlooking Nagasaki’s stadium.

That cathedral, Urakami Cathedral, was dedicated to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. Her feast day is December 8th.

Japanese naval aircraft bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Hawaii time, plunging America into war with Japan. In Japan, though, it was December 8th when those bombs came whistling down on America.

The Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ first reached Japan in the hands of St. Francis Xavier with his landing at Kagoshima on August 15, 1549, the Feast of the Assumption. Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender to the Allied powers in a radio broadcast to his broken nation on August 15, 1945, another Feast of the Assumption.

Somewhere in the great vault of Heaven, countless thousands of martyrs from both sides of that abysmal horror must be singing God’s praises as their hearts weep along with Heaven’s Queen.

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

AN EDITED VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE NATIONAL CATHOLIC REGISTER.

Another Fourth of July

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:

https://www.churchmilitant.com/news/article/another-fourth-of-july-part-i

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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, kirishtan.com.

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

 

 

Serpents under Heel

Statue of Mary crushing the Serpent’s head at l’Eglise de Broye les Pesmes. Photo by Ericgandre, Wikimedia Commons

Exactly when or where the words escaped my lips I can’t recall—perhaps after a miraculous First Saturday rosary at a certain Nagasaki church. At any rate, I vowed to the Mother of God that I would pray Her rosary at every Catholic church in Nagasaki.

Nagasaki Prefecture, that is, not just the city. At the time I didn’t realize how much landscape that promise encompassed, nor how many churches—some prominent, some tucked away in hidden nooks, and others, historical gems, almost crumbling away. It would be an ongoing, step-by-step pilgrimage.

One step of which I’ll now recount.

In my guide book I had marked a swath of churches stretching westward toward Sasebo (of the Naval base) from my starting-point, Kawatana, a town perched atop the pate of Omura Bay. Kawatana lies just a few miles west of Higashi Sonogi, where the 26 Martyrs, on the penultimate day of their death-march, were herded to the shore and into three boats that would take them to Nagasaki and the crosses that awaited them there.

Before setting out, I prayed a crucial prayer to Jesus on my knees in my sardine-tin of an apartment:

Lord, give me victory over Satan.”

             Some hours later, I reached Kawatana but couldn’t find the church at first. Dumb luck—or “God-incidence”—won the day, though: passing a store, I was inspired to circle back and drop in. Turning left, there I found the church, set off on a rise above the street, beyond a stone wall.

The door was unlocked; I prayed my rosary in a pew and, done, took a little tour. To the right of the Altar stood the Blessed Virgin on a pedestal, in her eyes a look of triumph and her foot crushing the Serpent’s head, its tongue lolling out. I had been Catholic a few years but had never seen this depiction of Her up close, nor was aware that the same crushed Serpent, too small to make out with the naked eye, hung around my neck on the face of a small Miraculous Medal.

Next on my agenda: Funakoshi Catholic Church. I headed onward, westward, to find that my guide-book was of little help once I had ventured off the highway and into the suburb where the church supposedly stood.

I ended up ascending a narrowing, winding road past a score or two of houses on a hillside, no church in sight, until I found the road shrunken to a virtual footpath and myself plumb in the middle of a zoo—I must have made quite an exhibit for the visitors—and, backing out with difficulty, I wended my way back down. Luckily, I spotted a man in front of his house, who pointed out the driveway to the church, descending out of sight right next to his property. Squeezing my car into a leafy spot at the edge of the road, I headed down on foot.

A modest little church, the doors locked, opened perhaps only for Sunday Mass. I prayed my rosary on its front step and went back up to my car to find a curious present there beside my right front tire: a big, fat, brimstone-colored viper—a mamushi—coiled up and on the verge of death, its head smashed and mouth strangely twisted, and its forked tongue lolling out to one side.

Being an inveterate hiker, I had seen many mamushi in my day, but never one so big, nor ever one thus colored, as if it had come fresh-smelted from a furnace—or perhaps a Lake of Fire. I must have run over its head on pulling in.

The helpful man and his wife were now packing up their car, perhaps for a picnic, with their little son and daughter at play on the street. I pointed out the moribund viper for their safety’ sake, and the father, startled, said, “Mamushi?” Apparently not an everyday event in his neighborhood.     

Sadly, I can’t recall my itinerary of churches that followed immediately on Funakoshi, but it must have been about 36 hours later that I found myself heading north toward Sasebo in the wee hours of the night, very short on sleep and gulping coffee to keep myself awake.

A song from The Wizard of Oz came to me—I knew not why—and, buzzing on caffeine, I started doing jazz improvisations on its melody in my head while navigating the dark, narrow, twisty road before my straining eyes. What with the lack of sleep and the caffeine overdose, I thought myself quite the musical genius as I plunged onward toward Sasebo.

But first, one must get past Yokose-ura to reach the turnoff to Sasebo. That turnoff was easy to miss in the dark; somehow I found myself passing the same spots time and again, circling Yokose-ura as if I were invisibly tethered to it.

The first Japanese feudal lord to receive baptism, Omura Sumitada, had built the port of Yokose-ura and a church for the Jesuits in 1562; in fact, he was baptized there. Enemies of the new religion soon razed the place to cinders. That perhaps is why my car was tethered to that ghost of history, as if I were racing to nowhere on the inside of a centrifuge.

Meanwhile, my own seeming musical genius was wowing me as I played with that melody in my head, drilling my eyes at the onrushing pavement in the wee-hours darkness, trying to find that turnoff, when something—or someone—inspired me to blare out the words of that song:

Ding-dong, the witch is dead!

            And I hit my brakes with a Screech!—something in the road.

I backed up to get my headlights on it before getting out to inspect the thing: a black viper, coiled up dead, its head smashed and its mouth open in that same eerie twist, the forked tongue lolling out to one side.  

Now what was that prayer again?

Lord, give me victory over…

But,” you protest, “ya run over snakes all the time.”

Really? In more than two decades in Japan, I wore out four cars exploring nooks and crannies tucked away in far flung places, and what with all those journeyings, my tally of smashed snakes totals…

Three.

As for the third one…

There was to be a memorial Mass down in Shimabara on the grounds of what once was Hara Castle. That stretch of earth was my spiritual home; many an hour had I spent there, rosary in hand, alone with the silence of the 37,000 Christian souls buried in that sacred soil, victims of the Shogun Iemitsu’s demonic wrath. For his horde had put them to the edge of the sword in the cherry-blossom season of 1638, beheading “even the little girls,” as one soldier lamented.

I had never before attended one of these memorials and knew not what to expect, but having hightailed it down to the Hara Castle ruins from my home some hours away, I got there with only minutes to spare before Mass would begin, and I was in sin and desperate for a confessor—desperate to receive my Lord on that soil seeded with the blood of the 37,000. To my surprise, the grounds of the bygone citadel were swarming not only with faithful, but also with priests from all over Japan: there must be a familiar face among them.

Indeed, a solid Japanese priest: the pastor of Hondo Parish in Amakusa, that verdant archipelago off in the distance, just across the strait to the south. I ran to him with my plea and he led me out of the crowd, to the precipice overlooking that rare panorama, heard me and absolved me, and left in a rush to duck into a tent beside the makeshift stage that held the Altar. A moment later he emerged decked out for Mass: he was the main celebrant, but he had had time to hear my confession at the last minute; now there’s a priest.    

 

After Mass I left reluctantly, having a long drive home—but I was free of my sin and had received my Lord there on that soil ringing with the silent cries of the 37,000 slain and baptized with their Christian blood. The outer grounds were crowded with visitors as I wended my way down the drive most carefully; but I heard a Thump-thump! beneath my tires and stopped to investigate.

Behind my right rear tire, you guessed it: a fat viper coiled up, head smashed, mouth twisted, and that forked tongue lolling out to one side.

I stood there edified, staring down at the Biblical creature, the Sacrament confirmed.

Ding-dong: the Witch is dead.  

 

A version of this story first appeared in the National Catholic Register.

Why are we Slaughtering the Healers?

   
  “It is the little ones who heal us,” said Father Leonard, from out of the blue.  I had been confessing some now-forgotten sin when out came this treasure from the store-room of his heart.
      It came to me some days later that the face of God must have something in it of the face of a child.  This would explain why Jesus said, “In heaven their angels always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matt. 18.10)  That is, the faces of the angels’ appointed little ones, untainted as yet by actual sin, are so many little faces of God, so much like the face of the Infant Jesus.

         When the Pharisees asked the adult Jesus why He hung around with the likes of us, He answered, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” (Lk 5:31)  Our spiritual forefathers understood the preciousness of each human life, and thus the infinite value of healing.  How appalled they would have been to breathe the putrid ambience of our brave new world where slithery phrases like ‘freedom of choice’ and ‘women’s reproductive rights’ mean the wholesale murdering of babies in their mothers’ wombs, and—horror unspeakable—the slaughtering of babies while they are being born, and even after having emerged alive into our world:  murdered by the very ‘physicians’ who should be delivering those newborn healers into their mothers’ loving arms.

       How horrified our forebears would have been by the hissing sound of those three slithery words—‘Freedom of Choice’—that deny both freedom and choice to the little boys and girls being butchered by so-called physicians.  And how it must wrench the guardian angels to see their own tiny, Godlike charges torn out of the womb with steel pincers piece by piece, limb by limb, tiny hands and feet and torso, and, most wrenching of all, the tiny bleeding head with its tortured face of God frozen in eternal agony.  How bitterly the guardians must weep to see us slaughter their helpless little ones, those tiny healers, as if infanticide really were the merest expression of ‘women’s reproductive rights’.

         If only we could hear the angels gasp, or feel the rain of tears they shower over every butchered child, but perhaps we are too far gone, too ‘experienced’, too hardened of heart:  perhaps our calluses are long since grown too thick for us to hear or feel such holy pain.  We are so desperately in need of love, of innocence, of healing.

     How very sick indeed our world will be when we have finally slaughtered all the little ones.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright © 2020 by Luke O’Hara

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.

HPIM0050

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).

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(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.

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(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.

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

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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.)