The 52 Martyrs of Kyōto

Itakura Katsushige
Itakura Katsushige
Shōgun Tokugawa Hidetada
Shōgun Tokugawa Hidetada
          Behold a heart-wrenching martyrdom in which whole families were burned together—including mothers with their infant children—just to satisfy the almighty Shōgun Hidetada’s ire.
            In October of 1619, Hidetada was passing through Fushimi after a visit to Kyōto, the Imperial capital, when he heard that there were a great many Christians being held in Kyōto’s jail. The volatile Shōgun exploded into rage and ordered them all burned alive immediately, regardless of age, gender, or station. They were to be crucified and burned on their crosses as a mise-shime:  a lesson to recalcitrant believers.
            Itakura Katsushige, Kyōto’s Shogunal Governor, was a decent man—the most moderate man on earth, one account tells us[1]—but he dare not contravene the Shōgun’s orders, not even to “defer the execution of a lady of the first quality who was about to give birth.”[2] He had allowed the faithful Catholics to return to their homes, but now they were rounded up to be loaded onto eleven wagons and paraded through the streets of Kyōto, the men, the boys, and the girls in the foremost and hindmost wagons, and the women, many with babies at their breast or in their arms in the others.[3] History records that
             A crier led the cortege and proclaimed the death sentence: “The Shōgun … wills and commands that all these people be burned alive as Christians.” And the martyrs confirmed the crier’s words, saying, “This is true; we die for Jesus. Hurrah for Jesus!”[4]
            Twenty-seven crosses had been erected along the river called Kamo-gawa, on the outskirts of Kyōto, awaiting these sacrificial victims. Among the martyrs were Johane Hashimoto Tahioye and his wife, christened Tecla, along with their six beautiful children. On the Shōgun Hidetada’s orders, all the children must of course be burned along with their mothers. The martyrs were clamped to the crosses—the mothers with babies in their arms in the center, and the others back to back, in pairs. Historian Leon Pages lists more names: “Magdalena … had her two-year-old daughter Regina in her arms; Maria had Monica, her daughter, four years old; and Marta, her son Benito, two years old,” and on and on, including “little Marta, eight years old and blind.” And Tecla, mother of five, with four-year-old Lucia in her arms, two more of her children tied to her own cross with her, and the other two on crosses to her right and left.[5]
            The firewood was lit; as the Shōgun’s inferno erupted around the martyrs, their voices rose above the roar of the flames, calling the name of Jesus. Mothers with little ones in their arms caressed their babies’ faces to soothe their pain, as if to ward off the horror of the flames.
            Tecla’s daughter Catherine cried, “Mother, I can’t see.”
            “Call to Jesus and Mary,” her mother answered.[6]
            Richard Cocks, an English Protestant who witnessed this holocaust, wrote:
“I saw fifty-five martyred at Miyako, at one time when I was there, because they wold not forsake their Christian Faith, & amongst them were little Children of five or sixe yeeres old burned in their mothers armes, Crying out, Jesus recive their soules.”
            Historian Léon Pagès wrote that a comet “and supernatural fires” in the sky marked this martyrdom. Fact or no, no-one of faith can doubt that Christ Himself was there among the martyrs, the Conqueror of Death claiming victory amidst those hellish earthly flames.
Copyright 2015 by Luke O’Hara

[1] Pierre François Xavier de Charlevoix, Histoire de l’établissement, des progrès et de ladécadence du christianisme dans l’empire duJapon, Vol. 2, p. 187.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Léon Pagès, Histoire de la religion chrétienne au Japon depuis 1598 jusqu’à 1651, p. 413.

[4] Ibid, my translation.

[5] Ibid, my translation.

[6] Ibid.