After two centuries of intolerance, not dead

Here is a corner of history I did not know. At the risk of sounding like a shallow novelist, I wonder if anyone has ever done an historical novel in praise of those who died. At the risk of seeming like a lazy schoolboy, allow me to reprint the whole article here:

Japanese Martyrs

There is not in the whole history of the Church a single people who can offer to the admiration of the Christian world annals as glorious, and a martyrology as lengthy, as those of the people of Japan. In January, 1552, St. Francis Xavier had remarked the proselytizing spirit of the early neophytes. “I saw them”, he wrote, “rejoicing in our successes, manifesting an ardent zeal to spread the faith and to win over to baptism the pagans they conquered.” He foresaw the obstacles that would block the progress of the faith in certain provinces, the absolutism of this or that daimyo, a class at that time very independent of the Mikado and in revolt against his supreme authority. As a matter of fact, in the province of Hirado, where he made a hundred converts, and where six years after him, 600 pagans were baptized in three days, a Christian woman (the proto-martyr) was beheaded for praying before a cross. In 1561 the daimyo forced the Christians to abjure their faith, “but they preferred to abandon all their possessions and live in the Bungo, poor with Christ, rather than rich without Him”, wrote a missionary, 11 October, 1562. When, under the Shogunate of Yoshiaki, Ota Nobunaga, supported by Wada Koresama, a Christian, had subdued the greater part of the provinces and had restored monarchical unity, there came to pass what St. Francis Xavier had hoped for. At Miyako (the modern Kiyoto) the faith was recognized and a church built 15 Aug., 1576. Then the faith continued to spread without notable opposition, as the daimyos followed the lead of the Mikado (Ogimachi, 1558-1586) and Ota Nobunaga. The toleration or favor of the central authority brought about everywhere the extension of the Christian religion, and only a few isolated cases of martyrdom are known (Le Catholicisme au Japon, I, 173).

It was not until 1587, when there were 200,000 Christians in Japan, that an edict of persecution, or rather of prescription, was passed to the surprise of everyone, at the instigation of a bigoted bonze, Nichijoshonin, zealous for the religion of his race. Twenty-six residences and 140 churches were destroyed; the missionaries were condemned to exile, but were clever enough to hide or scatter. They never doubted the constancy of their converts; they assisted them in secret and in ten years there were 100,000 other converts in Japan. We read of two martyrdoms, one at Takata, the other at Notsuhara; but very many Christians were dispossessed of their goods and reduced to poverty. The first bloody persecution dates from 1597. It is attributed to two causes: (1) Four years earlier some Castilian religious had come from the Philippines and, in spite of the decisions of the Holy See, had joined themselves to the 130 Jesuits who, on account of the delicate situation created by the edict were acting with great caution. In spite of every charitable advice given them, these men set to work in a very indiscreet manner, and violated the terms of the edict even in the capital itself; (2) a Castilian vessel cast by the storm on the coast of Japan was confiscated under the laws then in vigour. Some artillery was found on board, and Japanese susceptibilities were further excited by the lying tales of the pilot, so that the idea went abroad that the Castilians were thinking of annexing the country. A list of all the Christians in Miyado and Osaka was made out, and on 5 Feb., 1597, 26 Christians, among whom were 6 Fransciscan missionaries, were crucified at Nagasaki. Among the 20 native Christians there was one, a child of 13, and another of 12 years. “The astonishing fruit of the generous sacrifice of our 26 martyrs” (wrote a Jesuit missionary) “is that the Christians, recent converts and those of maturer faith, have been confirmed in the faith and hope of eternal salvation; they have firmly resolved to lay down their lives for the name of Christ. The very pagans who assisted at the martyrdom were struck at seeing the joy of the blessed ones as they suffered on their crosses and the courage with which they met death”.

Ten years before this another missionary had foreseen and predicted that “from the courage of the Japanese, aided by the grace of God, it is to be expected that persecution will inaugurate a race for martyrdom“. True it is that the national and religious customs of the people predisposed them to lay down their lives with singular fatalism; certain of their established usages, religious suicide, hara-kiri, had developed a contempt for death; but if grace does not destroy nature it exalts it, and their fervent charity and love for Christ led the Japanese neophytes to scourgings that the missionaries had to restrain. When this love for Christ had grown strong in the midst of suffering freely chosen, it became easier for the faithful to give the Saviour that greatest proof of love by laying down their lives in a cruel death for His name’s sake. “The fifty crosses, ordered for the holy mountain of Nagasaki, multiplied ten or a hundred fold, would not have sufficed” (wrote one missionary) “for all the faithful who longed for martyrdom“. Associations (Kumi) were formed under the patronage of the Blessed Virgin with the object of preparing the members by prayer and scourgings even to blood, to be ready to lay down their lives for the faith. After the persecution of 1597, there were isolated cases of martyrdom until 1614, in all about 70. The reigns of Ieyasu, who is better known in Christian annals by the name of Daifu Sama, and of his successors Hidetada and Iemitziu, were the more disastrous. We are not concerned now with the causes of that persecution, which lasted half a century with some brief intervals of peace. According to Mr. Ernest Satow (quoted by Thurston in “The Month”, March, 1905, “Japan and Christianity”): “As the Jesuit missionaries conducted themselves with great tact, it is by no means improbable that they might have continued to make converts year by year until the great part of the nation had been brought over to the Catholic religion, had it not been for the rivalry of the missionaries of other orders.” These were the Castilian religious; and hence the fear of seeing Spain spread its conquests from the Philippines to Japan. Furthermore the zeal of certain religious Franciscans and Dominicans was wanting in prudence, and led to the persecution.

Year by year after 1614 the number of martyrdoms was 55, 15, 25, 62, 88, 15, 20. The year 1622 was particularly fruitful in Christian heroes. The Japanese martyrology counts 128 with name, Christian name and place of execution. Before this the four religious orders, Dominicans, Franciscans, Augustinians and Jesuits, had had their martyrs, but on 10 Sept., 1622, 9 Jesuits, 6 Dominicans, 4 Franciscans, and 6 lay Christians were put to death at the stake after witnessing the beheading of about 30 of the faithful. From December until the end of September, 1624, there were 285 martyrs. The English captain, Richard Cocks (Calendar of State Papers: Colonial East Indies, 1617-1621, p. 357) “saw 55 martyred at Miako at one time. . .and among them little children 5 or 6 years old burned in their mother’s arms, crying out: ‘Jesus receive our souls’. Many more are in prison who look hourly when they shall die, for very few turn pagans“. We cannot go into the details of these horrible slaughters, the skilful tortures of Mount Unaen, the refined cruelty of the trench. After 1627 death grew more and more terrible for the Christians; in 1627, 123 died, during the years that followed, 65, 79, and 198. Persecution went on unceasingly as long as there were missionaries, and the last of whom we learn were 5 Jesuits and 3 seculars, who suffered the torture of the trench from 25 to 31 March, 1643. The list of martyrs we know of (name, Christian name, and place of execution) has 1648 names. If we add to this group the groups we learn of from the missionaries, or later from the Dutch travellers between 1649 and 1660, the total goes to 3125, and this does not include Christians who were banished, whose property was confiscated, or who died in poverty. A Japanese judge, Arai Hakuseki, bore witness about 1710, that at the close of the reign of Iemitzu (1650) “it was ordered that the converts should all lean on their own staff”. At that time an immense number, from 200,000 to 300,000 perished. Without counting the members of Third Orders and Congregations, the Jesuits had, according to the martyrology (Delplace, II, 181-195; 263-275), 55 martyrs, the Franciscans 36, the Dominicans 38, the Augustinians 20. Pius IX and Leo XIII declared worthy of public cult 36 Jesuit martyrs, 25 Franciscans, 21 Dominicans, 5 Augustinians and 107 lay victims. After 1632 it ceased to be possible to obtain reliable data or information which would lead to canonical beatification. When in 1854, Commodore Perry forced an entry to Japan, it was learned that the Christian faith, after two centuries of intolerance, was not dead. In 1865, priests of the foreign Missions found 20,000 Christians practising their religion in secret at Kiushu. Religious liberty was not granted them by Japanese law until 1873. Up to that time in 20 provinces, 3404 had suffered for the faith in exile or in prison; 660 of these had died, and 1981 returned to their homes. In 1858, 112 Christians, among whom were two chief-baptizers, were put to death by torture. One missionary calculates that in all 1200 died for the faith.


PAGES, “Histoire de la religion chretienne au Japon” (Paris, 1869); VALENTYN, “Beschryving” (Dordrecht, 1716; MONTANUS, “Gezantschappen, Japan” (Amsterdam, 1669); DELPLACE, “Le Catholicisme au Japon”, I, 1540-1593; II, 1593-1640 (Brussels, 1910); “Katholische Missionen” (Freiburg, 1894). See also works referred to in text.


  1. Comment by kmai:

    For historical fiction of that time period, you could try reading Shunsaku Endo’s (a Japanese Catholic writer) “Silence”. I haven’t read it, so I can’t comment on it.

    • Comment by wedge:

      Silence is by far one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read, one of the few books that has ever made me cry (on a public bus no less). Martin Scorsese is apparently adapting it into a film as well.

      • Comment by Fabio P.Barbieri:

        MARTIN SCORSESE? Say it ain’t so! The author of the stupidest movie about Jesus Christ in the history of the movie artform? He’ll probably turn all the martyrs into PC supporters of gay marriage, or Boston hoodlums, or both.

      • Comment by curtjester:

        Agree, “Silence” is one powerful novel involving Japanese Martyrs. Powerful and sad. Reminds me in some ways of Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory.

  2. Comment by bear545:

    The history of the Japanese Catholics, and particularly those in Nagasaki, gets stranger. On August 9, 1945, many Catholics were gathered in Urakami Cathedral as a priest began to say Mass. I have heard it said, but I cannot find the reference today, that the bishop of the diocese had prayed for peace, and had apparently offered himself and his congregation as a sacrifice, that their lives would end the bloodiest war in human history, a ‘take us and let others live’ gesture or prayer. As is well known, the B-29 Boxcar could not drop its bomb on its first two targets, as both were obscured by clouds. It proceeded to Nagasaki, its third target, where the visibility was good. Some say the bombadier dropped his payload off target, others say he was aiming for a noticeable building in the city and was thus close. Whatever the intention, the bomb was dropped directly over the twin spires of Urakami Cathedral.

    The bomb killed about 2/3 of Nagasaki’s Catholic population, including everyone in the Cathedral, more than all the previous persecutions combined. However, their death, and the destruction of Nagasaki as a whole, convinced the Japanese at last of the futility of carryong on the war, and it ended within days.

  3. Comment by Joi_the_Artist:

    I’ve read “Silence. It was heart-breaking, but beautiful. Highly recommended.

  4. Comment by Fabio P.Barbieri:

    There is a famous manga, whose name, alas, I forget, about the famous Christian Samurai who wandered with a small child. It has been translated into English and I read it back in the nineties.

  5. Comment by joetexx:

    Years ago I read a brief reminiscence by Endo; possibly an interview.  He described as a young man viewing a memorial to his martyred ancestors and wondering desperately if he could ever stand up for the faith as they did.I’ve always wanted to take a look at his fiction but have never done so.

    Here are a couple of reviews:

    The story of the introduction of Catholicism to Korea is fascinating in that originally it was completely an affair of scholars and intellectuals. A group of them got hold of some translated Jesuit apologetic tracts and argued themselves into the Catholic Church (in the ’60’s a hippie commune in the California woods decided to devote themselves to metaphysical studies and did the same thing). The Koreans organized a prayer group and even began devotions to Mary, but realized that they needed legitimate priests so they got in touch with the Jesuits in China. Eventually a number of them were martyred.
    I think Jeff Culbreath wrote about this online; I’ll have to look it up.

    • Comment by Fabio P.Barbieri:

      in the ’60′s a hippie commune in the California woods decided to devote themselves to metaphysical studies and did the same thing
      MOAR PLIZZZZZ!! Places, names, references?

      • Comment by joetexx:

        I would have to dig into my memories to answer that one!

        At first I was thinking of Maclin Horton, an Alabama Catholic who was definitely involved in the ’60’s counterculture, but I don’t think he ever got out of Dixie. He was involved in the print and later online Caelum et Terra community and still maintains an interesting blog. 

        The statement was in passing, in a book about the ’60’s generally, and was made in the first person by a man who had actually been a member of the commune. I have a vague feeling I may have read it while researching the history of LSD; perhaps in Acid Dreams or Storming Heaven. Heinz Pagels, the Berkeley physicist, spent some time in a commune and I associate him with the same memory; he may have been in the same book. I did some reading in the history of Esalen, the counterculture think tank, but this was probably years latter.

        That is about the best I can do for now, but I’ll think on it some more and get back to you.

      • Comment by joetexx:


        It is possible that this is the same commune; though the focus is on a woman who converted along with others in her commune due to Roe v Wade.

        It is about the same time frame, but the person I remember reading about was definitely male.

        The present day descendent is the St Martin de Porres Lay Dominicans in New Hope KY.  

        Again  I am not sure these are exactly the same people.

  6. Comment by Sean the Sorcerer:

    Interesting stuff; it almost sounds like something out of science fiction. In fact, weren’t the Jesuits in those days much like Bene Gesserit Missionaria Protectiva? Weren’t they the tip of the spear of the Holy Roman Empire? From the point of view of the Japanese emperors, to allow such “religious engineers” to operate freely in their territory was to open the door to invasion by a vast foreign power. So yes, their methods were cruel, but I’m certain that there’s another side to this story!

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      Of course. The other side is Satan’s side.

      • Comment by Sean the Sorcerer:

        How is one to argue with such logic?

        • Comment by John C Wright:

          How else is one to reply to such folly? You liken the missionary work in Japan to a make believe group of space witches who deliberately invented a synthetic religion for political gain.

          Yes, the tyrants were frightened, as tyrants always are, and used bloody tortures to stamp out the horrible foreign element called Christianity. Herod also feared a little baby, and ordered the slaughter of every child under two years in town. Do you need to hear his side of the story also?

    • Comment by joetexx:

      The Japanese emperors were figureheads. It was the shoguns, especially Iesayu, the first Tokugawa shogun, who persecuted the Christians.

      Iesayu had emerged victorious in a series of civil wars and had seen the failure of  his friend Hideyoshi, the previous shogun, to conquer Korea. He thought only isolation and strict internal unity could bring peace to Japan. The Christians, like the Dutch and Portuguese traders, were  an intolerable intrusion into this closed system.

      The Jesuits were fronting for the Vatican and the Spanish crown, not the Empire. After 1555, the Empire and Spain were separate though both were ruled by branches of the Hapsburgs.

      Evil and cruel though it was, I do understand why he suppressed the Christians, just as I understand why Marcus Aurelius persecuted them, and Shih Huang Ti the Confucian scholars -these later two much less successfully than the Japanese.  

      It is noteworthy that China, cosmopolitan for centuries, had no problem accepting Catholic and later Protestant missionaries. When the Jesuits left China it was pressure from Rome, not their Chinese hosts, that drove them out. The ‘Hidden Kingdoms’ of Japan and Korea, in contrast, positively had to suppress the Christians to stay Hidden.

      The Japanese Christians BTW did not remain passive victims. They rose in rebellion and fought their own civil war; the final Christian army was not defeated until 1637.

      James Clavell’s novel Shogun, and the great TV movie made from it in the ’70’s, cover the beginning  of this struggle – it starred Richard Chamberlin.

      Trick question for young American women back then-

      Q: Would you be willing to be a geisha?

      A: Sure, if the guy looked like Richard Chamberlin!

  7. Comment by KokoroGnosis:

    An interesting tidbit is that while the vast majority of torii follow a rather standard doorway sort of lay out, there are a few three legged torii scattered about. I guess the theory is that they were the Japanese equivalent to the ichthus, with the three legs denoting the Trinity and serving as a covert symbol of Christianity during the times when it was banned.

  8. Comment by lotdw:

    For a shorter version of Silence, read Endo’s short story “Unzen” from his book Stained Glass Elegies.

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