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Martyrdom in the Land of the Cherry Blossom


Of the estimated 200,000 Japanese Christians martyred in Japan prior to the eighteenth century, the Church records the names of but three thousand.

Christianity in the Land of the Samurai

Missionary efforts in the Japanese islands began in 1549 with the arrival of Jesuit Father Francis Xavier. The future saint expressed his admiration for the Japanese Christian converts in a letter dated 1552. “I saw how delighted they were at our success. They showed great zeal in furthering the Faith themselves, urging the pagans they had won over to receive baptism.” The first Catholic church was consecrated in 1576, in Kyoto, Japan’s former capital.

Thanks largely to the evangelizing efforts of the Jesuits, Christianity spread steadily and without hindrance until 1587. By this time the Christian population in Japan had grown to almost 200,000. In 1587, the shogun and de facto ruler of the country, Taicosama, slighted by the refusal of two Christian women to become his concubines, began to be purge Christians from the civil service and army. The Jesuits were forbidden to undertake further missionary activity, and a third of the existing 240 Catholic places of worship were burned.

Taicosama’s decision to launch the persecution of Japanese Catholics was also prompted by the hostile intentions of the bonzes (Buddhist priests), who were extremely influential, particularly in the provinces. In this, the English and Dutch traders, who began arriving in Japan in the early 1600s, also played an inglorious part. Seeking lucrative trade concessions from the authorities, they joined in the persecution of the Japanese Church by helping the persecutors to locate Christian hiding places. They advised the Japanese authorities that the surest way of identifying Catholic missionaries in a crowd of foreigners was to order a suspected person to trample a cross underfoot. As Protestants (who rejected “popish practices,” including reverence for the Sign of Christ’s Passion), the proposers of this idea had no difficulty in submitting to the test.

The year 1587 marked the first of a series of persecutions aimed at exterminating the Church in Japan. One of the centers of Christianity in sixteenth century Japan was Nagasaki. And so, long before the atomic bombing of 1945 assured Nagasaki a tragic place in world history, the city had already made history as the theatre of Japanese Christian martyrdom. In 1597, the shogun Hideyoshi had twenty-six Japanese Catholics crucified on the hillside overlooking the city. These included laypeople, Franciscan and Jesuit missionaries, and one of Japan’s first native-born Jesuits, Father Paul Miki. Among those accompanying him in this imitation of Christ’s passion were twelve- and thirteen- year-old children.

The next wave of persecutions began in 1614. Shogun Daifusama ordered the destruction of all remaining churches in Japan. Missionaries, along with members of high-ranking Japanese families who had converted to Christianity, were sentenced to exile. The persecution of Catholic Christians in Japan would continue unabated throughout the century. In September of 1622, twenty-five Christians, including nine Jesuits, six Dominicans, and four Franciscans, were burned at the stake after being forced to witness the beheading of thirty other fellow Christians. An English trader, Richard Cocks, who was in Japan at the time, saw “fifty-five Christians tortured to death during an execution [in Kyoto]. Among these were five- and six-year-old children, burning at the stake in their mothers’ arms and shouting, ‘Jesus, receive our souls.’”

The Church records the names of but three thousand of the estimated 200,000 Japanese Christians martyred in Japan prior to the eighteenth century. The fact that the last of the missionaries had died out by the mid-seventeenth century made the matter of recording this period of Japan’s martyrology the more difficult.

The heroism of faith transcends hatred

The persecution of the Church in Japan was characterized by its thoroughness and peculiar brand of cruelty. The persecutors devised elaborate tortures to extract acts of apostasy (the denial of Christ) from Christians. Burning at the stake and crucifixion were not the only methods used. It was commonplace to place victims in poisonous steam pits for twelve hours or more at a time. The Augustinian priest, Bartolome Gutierrez, was one of many who were subjected to such torture. His torment lasted almost a year, from December 1631 to September 1632. To prolong the suffering of this missionary, who steadfastly refused to renounce Christ, the authorities would call on doctors to treat his burns, before resuming the torture. On September 3, 1632, Fr. Bartolome’s agony came to an end. He gave up his soul at the stake. Pope Pius IX would beatify him, along with twelve other Japanese martyrs, in 1867.

“I think we will never find a nation equal to that of the Japanese,” observed St. Francis Xavier on commencing his missionary work in Japan. These words were more than borne out during the long period of persecution of the Church in Japan. Eyewitnesses commented on the extraordinary courage and zeal for martyrdom shown by these Japanese witnesses to the Faith. Among those crucified in Nagasaki in 1597 was thirteen-year-old Thomas Kosaki. Before his death, he wrote a farewell letter to his mother. “By the grace of Our Lord,” he wrote, “I pen this letter to you, dear mother. According to the sentence, all of us are to be crucified along with the padres in Nagasaki. We are twenty-six in all. Please do not worry about father and me, for we will be waiting for you in paradise. If you cannot find a padre to administer the last rites for you, remember to be contrite for your sins and keep faith. Remember also the innumerable blessings that flow from Jesus Christ. Since everything in this world will soon pass, take care not to lose the glory of heaven, even if you are forced to become a beggar. No matter what people may say to you, bear it all with patience and love to the end. Please pray for us all. Above all, I beg you: always immerse your heart in contrition for sins. May God protect you!” The author of these words, along with his twenty-five companions, was canonized in 1862 by Pope Pius IX. The Universal Church now celebrates July 6 as the Feast of the Martyrs of Nagasaki.

The history of Christian martyrdom in Japan records other dramatic tales. Who does not remember the moving story of the life of Chilon Chilonides in Sienkiewicz’s novel Quo Vadis? The one who had been a traitor became a martyr for Christ. Father Ferrara was a seventeenth century Jesuit missionary in Japan. In 1634, unable to endure the brutal tortures inflicted on him, he apostatized by trampling on the cross. In the following years, he witnessed the martyrdoms of subsequent Jesuit missionaries who had come to Japan to save souls, including his own.

In 1634, the Japanese authorities appointed the Jesuit apostate as judge in the trial of five recently arrested Jesuit missionaries. Besought by Ferrara to renounce their faith, Father Rubini replied on behalf of all the defendants, “Tell that to the cowards whom you wish to dishonor. We trust we will have courage enough to die like Christians and priests.”

These words struck Ferrara like thunderbolt; he took flight. In 1652, divine providence brought the eighty-year-old Ferrara before the judge at Nagasaki. Ordered to reveal his identity, he replied, “I am one who has sinned against the King of Heaven and Earth. I betrayed Him out of fear of death. I am a Christian. I am a Jesuit.” For this, he was lowered into a scalding pit for sixty hours. This time he endured to the end.

Waiting for “Someone from Rome”

“The generous sacrifice of our twenty-six martyrs is bearing surprising fruit,” wrote a missionary, who witnessed the martyrdom of the Christians in Nagasaki in 1597. “Christians, both newly converted and those mature in faith, have had their faith and hope in eternal salvation confirmed. They have resolved to give their life to Christ. Those same pagans who witnessed the martyrdoms were struck by the joy of the crucified martyrs and by the courage with which they met their deaths.”

This heroism of faith transcending the barbarity and hatred of the persecutors was not the last glorious page of the history of the Church of Japan. The Church continued to endure. After the brutal persecution of the seventeenth century it went underground — a Church without priests and, except for baptism, without sacraments. Yet this, along with oral teaching, proved sufficient. Sustained by prayer, the surviving Japanese Christians waited for “someone from Rome.” His authenticity would be confirmed by an image of “Mariasama” — the Mother of God. The Japanese Church languished in the catacombs for almost 200 years.

The nation’s period of isolation from the world came to an end in the early 1860s. Missionaries returned. (This time Protestants also joined the mission.) It was widely assumed that missionary work would have to start again from scratch. Nobody believed that, after the death in the mid-seventeenth century of the last priest in Japan, Christianity could have survived in the land.

In 1865, a French Catholic missionary, Father Petitjean, built a small chapel in Nagasaki. For many days no one, apart from himself, entered the chapel. Then one morning, three Japanese women knelt down beside him. They asked him, “Do you have a pope?” On hearing that he had, they asked another question. “Do you pray to the Blessed Virgin?” When he replied that he did, they posed still another question: “Are you married?” On hearing that he was not, they said, “Well then, you are Christian like us.” Someone from Rome had arrived at last.

It turned out that in Nagasaki and surroundings about 2500 Christians had survived into the mid-nineteenth century. Nationwide, the Christian (Catholic) population numbered around 50,000. So moved was Pope Pius IX by the ability of the Church in Japan to survive savage persecution and a lack of priests (Christians in Communist Russia had to get by without priests for a mere seventy years!) that he declared March 17 a feast day of the Church of Japan — the Feast of the Finding of the Christians.

Grzegorz Kucharczyk (translated by Alicja Kozlowska).

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The article was published with the permission from "Love One Another!" in June 2016.




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