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


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Under the Fallen Cherry-Blossoms, Buried History


            In the Japanese village of Minami Arima, every spring at cherry-blossom time, two mortal foes march their little armies up the castle road.  One is a leathery old samurai in armor and the other a pony-tailed teenager in a flowery red cape, with his face painted up like a geisha’s.  The man is the Shogun’s general; the boy is Amakusa Shiro.  At road’s end their armies will have mock combat, eliciting laughs from the crowd.


            Beyond the cherry trees, overlooking the sea, stands a very different Amakusa Shiro:  a stout young man in prayer with two swords in his belt.  This statue is truer to history, more like the young samurai who stood here awaiting the holocaust in that horrific cherry-blossom spring of 1638.  Here thirty-seven thousand souls would offer up their starving flesh, writing their testament in blood into this sacred soil.  Here was Hara Castle, the grave of the Shimabara Rebellion, the dying gasp of old Catholic Japan.


            The Shimabara Peninsula had boasted seventy Catholic churches in her prime, and the nearby Amakusa Islands had been staunchly Catholic too; but since 1612 the Shoguns had been tightening the vise and all faithful Catholics now faced death by torture.  The current Shogun, Iemitsu, demanded Christ’s extinction.  Iemitsu was a sadist, a pederast, a drunkard, a tyrant and a paranoiac, and he feared Christ as a demon would.


            To top this off, the lords of Shimabara and Amakusa were practicing tax-extortion.  There had been three years of drought and starvation, but these two profligates demanded exorbitant payments from their peasants, or else.  Some defaulters were tied up in coats made of straw and set alight.  One sheriff seized a farmer’s wife—nine months pregnant—stripped her and put her into a cage in an icy stream to make her husband pay up.  She and her baby died in the cage.


            Then there was the torture of another tax-defaulter’s only daughter, a beautiful virgin.  The sheriff stripped her naked and burnt her artfully with torches; enraged, her father killed him.  Perhaps this sheriff’s atrocity was the spark for the Shimabara Peninsula’s explosion into rebellion.  Thousands attacked their cruel master’s fortress in the town of Shimabara, brandishing a banner that proclaimed:  We were timely born to die for the Faith.


            It did seem like the end of time:  there were burning, vermilion skies, and flowers blooming out of season.  And down in Amakusa there was a prodigy.  Fifteen-year-old Shiro was the son of an old Catholic samurai named Jinbei.  Jinbei and his cronies had concocted a phony prophecy by a mythical missionary of old that “foretold” Shiro’s coming to liberate the downtrodden Christians; and then they acclaimed the boy as their prophesied redeemer in a public ceremony.


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


            On Christmas Day the Shogun learned of the rebellion and commissioned a general, Itakura Shigemasa, to go down south to Shimabara and wipe out the despised Catholics.  His army—thrown together with units from various feudal clans—didn’t wait for his orders but attacked as soon as they had arrived at Hara Castle, expecting an easy victory:  the Christian marksmen atop the castle walls mauled them.  Enlightened, they withdrew to lick their wounds and prepare themselves for real warfare.


            Reinforcements came, but the rebels repulsed Itakura’s second, bigger assault.  Now he had to save his honor:  he ordered an all-out attack on Japanese New Year’s Day (Feb. 14, 1638).  Many contingents fought bravely, but the determined rebels exhausted them, and when Itakura tried to rally his army for a last, grand effort, all the mustered units refused to budge.  Now Itakura must save face:  grimly leading only his own little band of vassals, he charged the fortress.  A hail of bullets killed the men on his left and right, but he made it to the wall and died trying to scale it alone, shot through the chest.


            Now a new, veteran general—Matsudaira—arrived with orders from the Shogun to stand clear and starve the Christians out.  He surrounded the fortress with over 125,000 men and backed them up with cannon-fire from both the government camp and a 20-gun Dutch merchantman anchored offshore.


            That winter was severe, and inside Hara Castle the cold and hunger did its work:  what had been a triumphal juggernaut transformed into a purgatory.  By March they had run out of rice and some were eating the empty sacks; nor was there any more drinking-water or firewood, nor gunpowder.  The Shogun’s vise was pinching their Christian kingdom and their very bellies, while cannonballs came screaming in to crunch flesh and bone.  One went through Shiro’s sleeve and killed four or five of his companions.


            Matsudaira masterfully played his hand once he had tightened the vise.  He tempted the Christians with promises:  rice and homes and land and tax-relief, if only they would leave their fortress and abandon the Faith.  These tempting lies dropped out of the sky, delivered as letters wrapped around arrows shot over the castle walls.  Some nonbelievers, dragged into the rebellion against their will, did defect, but the Christian stalwarts shot testimonies back to the besiegers:  they wanted only to worship Christ; that denied them, they would just have to die, they declared.  Letting them live as Christians, of course, was not an option, for the Shogun, trapped in his private darkness, viewed the Faith with terror.


            By spring the rebels were desperate.  In a sudden night-sortie in early April they tried to rob food and ammo from the government camp, but were repulsed with heavy losses: the Christians had made the mistake of setting fire to enemy tents and thus illuminated themselves, perfect targets for massed musketry.  After the raiders’ retreat into the fortress, the government troops cut open the stomachs of Christian dead and found they had been eating only leaves.


            The Shogun’s hour had finally arrived.  On the Eleventh of April, 1638, his horde swarmed over the outermost wall of Hara Castle, having first sent down a rain of fire-arrows.  The wasted defenders fought with anything at hand—empty guns, cooking-pots—while their Christian kingdom burned all around them.  The innermost wall, the wall of the citadel at the mountaintop, was stormed on the morning of the Twelfth, and the fighting ended at noon, when the last rebel combatant was dead.  Those taken prisoner—the elderly, the ill, mothers and their children—they beheaded, without exception.  “Even the little girls,” one observer lamented.


            The Shogun’s army ringed the burnt-out Hara Castle with 10,860 impaled Christian heads; they sent 3,300 more to Nagasaki as a lesson to that town’s surviving Catholics.  As a warning to the Portuguese there—who had brought the Catholic Faith to Japan—they stuck four heads, including Shiro’s, onto stakes at the foot of the bridge to the island where the Portuguese were now confined.  Soon the Portuguese would be banned from Japan entirely, and all Japanese required to appear before a magistrate annually and tread on a Christian sacred image to prove their loyalty to the Shogun.


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


            Perhaps the Shogun really won.


Copyright © 2005, 2013 by Luke O’Hara


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