The Martyrs of Japan, The Anchor, December 12, 2008

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
Putting Into the Deep
December 12, 2008

No Catholics of any country have suffered more for their faith in Christ than the Japanese. Now, nearly 400 years after they endured the most systematically brutal persecution in the Church’s history — worse even than what the early Christians suffered at the hands of the Roman empire — the amazing story of their heroic faith is finally beginning to get the attention it deserves.

On November 24, in a Nagasaki baseball stadium, 188 Japanese martyrs from the early 17th century were beatified by Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, the former prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints. They joined 42 other Japanese saints and 395 beati, all of them martyrs. All 615 represent, however, just a small fraction of the estimated 35,000 Japanese Christians who were killed for the Catholic faith between 1597 and 1639.

This high figure is all the more staggering when we recall that the Catholic faith had only been brought to Japan in 1549 by St. Francis Xavier and, at its height, there were only about 300,000 Japanese Catholics in all. Not only, therefore, was there a stunningly rapid quantitative growth in Nipponese Catholicism, but an even more impressive qualitative maturation, that so many so soon would freely give their lives for love of Christ who had given his life in love of them.

Their story is now coming to light thanks, in large degree, to Pope John Paul II. During his pilgrimage to Japan in 1981, he stopped at the shrine to St. Paul Miki and his 26 companions in Nagasaki. These 27 martyrs were canonized by Pope Pius IX in 1862. They were followed by 205 who were beatified in 1867, and another 16 declared blessed in 1981. When John Paul II stood before the hill where St. Paul Miki and others were crucified, he expressed a firm hope that the stories of “the others who followed them” would be more thoroughly documented so that the Church could bring them to the attention of the whole people of God.

These newly-beatified 188, who will be referred to in the Church’s liturgy as “Blessed Peter Kibe and Companions,” are the first fruits of the set of detailed hagiological work that John Paul II launched.

Among them we find 183 lay people, four priests and one religious. There were 30 converted Samurai warriors as well as farmers, artisans, civil servants, teachers, painters, writers, freed slaves, pregnant women and children as young as three. They died in 16 different groups spread throughout the country between 1603-1639. They were executed in the most sadistic ways imaginable, in order to try to frighten them, and other Christians, into apostasizing. They were crucified, decapitated, flayed alive, dismembered, stoned, poisoned with hellish toxins, impaled, forcibly drowned or abandoned in ocean depths, boiled in oil, burned alive, tossed into an active volcano, or — what was considered the most painful of all — hung by the ankles in a pit with weights hanging from one’s upper jaw, so that for three days they would be both excruciatingly distended and gradually asphyxiated.

The Christians were killed, fundamentally, because they would not give total obedience to the civil rulers, who demanded, out of fear, that they give up their allegiance to the Christian God.

One such example involved the samurai Zaisho Shichiemon, whose daimyo prohibited his subjects from becoming Christian under pain of death. When Zaisho asked a priest to baptize him, the priest warned him of the consequences. The samurai responded that he knew the risks, “but I have understood that salvation lies in the teaching of Jesus and no one can separate me from him.” He was arrested and commanded by his feudal lord to abjure his faith. “I would obey in any other matter,” he replied, “but I cannot accept any order that is opposed to my eternal salvation.” He said that he “was ready to die rather than stop being a Christian.” When they came for him in his home, he laid down his sword, crossed the street, fell to his knees, pressed an image of the Jesus’ crucifixion to his heart with one hand and prayed the rosary with the other, and was beheaded, fewer than four months after his baptism.

Beheading, of course, was a relatively merciful, quick and “painless” way to be executed. It was reserved for given to people who were revered, like the samurai, but it was not extended to the members of their families. When another samurai, Simon Takeda, was decapitated, his wife, Agnes, picked up her beloved husband’s head and held it tenderly to her breast. Such a gesture, the chroniclers tell us, moved even the executioners to tears. But the tears did not last long. Later in the day Agnes and her baby were crucified, alongside Simon’s mother, Joan, who died on the Cross preaching about the love of God.

Another mother, Tecla Hashimoto, pregnant with her seventh child, was crucified together with her three year-old daughter, Luisa. A pile of wood at the bottom of their joint cross was set on fire to increase their agony, as her other children were suffering the same fate nearby. “Lord Jesus,” she prayed aloud, “receive these children.” When her eldest daughter cried out that she could no longer see her on account of the flames engulfing them, Tecla answered joyfully, “Don’t worry! In a little while you will see everything clearly.”

Such accounts of the martyrdom of children are the most moving of all. After watching his father be beheaded, five year-old Peter Hatori ran over to his father’s lifeless body, removed his kimono, knelt down, joined his hands in prayer and presented his uncovered neck to the executioners. They were so stunned by the boy’s actions that they misfired on their intended lethal blow, instead cutting through the boy’s shoulder and sending him to the ground. Without complaining about what must have been enormous pain, Peter just lifted himself up on his knees and continued praying. He extended his neck once again and was killed, while calling on the names of Jesus and Mary.

How did such holy audacity ever become so routine among even the youngest generations of Japanese Catholics? It was because, from the beginning, they knew the cost of discipleship and never sought to water it down. Christ called them to love as he had loved them, and so they were willing to be crucified just as Christ was. They believed in his promises, not just that if others hated him they would hate them as well but also that if the lost their lives for his sake they would gain them anew forever.

It was also because priests would explicitly prepare parents, and parents their children, for martyrdom.

That preparation began with prayer. Kids learned that when they made the Sign of the Cross, they were expressing their unity with Christ on the Cross and preparing themselves to pick up their crosses and follow him first to death and then to resurrection. They understood that the Eucharist was not just a liturgical rite, but a true participation in Christ’s passion, death and resurrection. When they prayed the mysteries of the Rosary, they saw that before they could share in the glorious mysteries, they first needed to enter into the sorrowful ones.

The preparation extended to practical instruction as well. Mothers trained their kids how to be faithful at the supreme hour. They taught them how to uncover their necks, fold their hands and look to heaven, as well as what to pray when their own hour came. They breast-fed them the stories of the heroic deaths of the apostles, the early Christian martyrs, and the Japanese martyrs before of them, and inspired them to strive for similar greatness.

We live in an age rather scant on the Christian realism, courage and faith in which these Japanese Christians excelled. That is one of the reasons why Pope John Paul II wanted more of their stories to be studied and propogated. It’s also one of the reasons why we will continue with the history of Japanese Catholicism next week.