The Twenty-Six Martyrs of Nagasaki

The Martyrs of Nagasaki. Artist: Wolfgang Kilian, Augsburg, 1628

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Saint Francis Xavier’s praises still ring true.


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

(First published in Our Sunday Visitor.)

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