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.
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).
(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.
(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.
(A reproduction of Shiro’s battle-flag, flying at a memorial Mass on the sacred earth where Hara Castle stood.)
Text and Photos Copyright 2007 by Luke O’Hara