Amakusa Shiro and the Holocaust at Shimabara

A stronghold of Christendom once flourished in Japan, with a peninsula called Shimabara at its head.

A statue of Amakusa Shiro, who led the Catholic Shimabara Rebellion, stands at the ruins of Hara Castle in Shimabara, Nagasaki, Japan.
A statue of Amakusa Shiro, who led the Catholic Shimabara Rebellion, stands at the ruins of Hara Castle in Shimabara, Nagasaki, Japan. (photo: Shutterstock)

That spring day must have dawned on Hara Castle like any other — sparrows chirping in the boughs above as soft waves lapped on the shore far below, and the doves thrumming their morning song as usual in the treetops beyond the thick stone walls. Most of the 37,000 souls inside those walls must have been prostrate with hunger, wondering if death were coming soon. Perhaps the music of the morning rendered their fear and hunger pangs less urgent, evoking dreams of the longed-for Paraíso — for such dreams might come in sleep or in the desperate languor of starvation.

But a storm of gunfire exploded the slumber: invaders blasting away at the starving Christians inside the demaru, the westernmost quadrant of the fortress — invaders well-fed and well-armed, their powder-flasks brimming full. Their targets could only die or run for cover, for they had long since used up all their gunpowder. This was the wakeup call to the starving holdouts trapped in their purgatory of a fortress — that these as-yet unexterminated Christians might finally taste their demon-haunted Shogun’s wrath.

A stronghold of Christendom once flourished in Japan, an expanse of lands spanning the Amakusa Sea and knit in common faith. A peninsula called Shimabara, crowned with a scar-faced volcano, formed its head, and a short sail southward, the thicketed islands of Amakusa filled out its form. Shimabara had harbored Catholics since at least 1562, and Amakusa since 1566 or earlier.  

Catholicism in Shimabara had been nurtured by Arima Harunobu, the feudal lord who, upon his conversion, became the strongest pillar of the Church in Japan. Amakusa’s Catholic identity had been forged under the aegis of a Catholic general, Augustine Konishi Yukinaga. 

Many Catholics fled to the region when, in 1587, the dictator Hideyoshi wreaked his first persecution on the Church. On February 5, 1597, he crucified the 26 Martyrs of Nagasaki in a fit of megalomania and died in a frenzy the following year, babbling incoherently and talking about crowning his little son King of Japan, a dream that never saw fruition.

After Hideyoshi’s death, the Church knew a few years of peace, but the shogun who succeeded him, Tokugawa Ieyasu, soon began another, harsher persecution. He beheaded Augustine Konishi in 1600 for having opposed his usurpation of absolute power in Japan, and in 1612, he beheaded Arima Harunobu, turning Shimabara into a testing-ground for the torture, mutilation and killing of stubbornly-faithful Catholics. By 1614, Ieyasu had clamped a nationwide ban on Christianity.

Within a generation, the Faith survived only underground, its public adherents tortured, mutilated and often executed in a grisly persecution driven by Iemitsu, the third Tokugawa Shogun. Iemitsu seemed to be possessed by demons, so obsessed was he with purging Christ from Japan. Anti-Christian lies and propaganda abounded, with shogunal decrees posted in every town and village offering rewards for informers on known missionaries and anyone daring to shelter them. Every household was responsible for reporting on all contiguous households, with all the neighborhood facing death should someone not comply. 

Meanwhile, Shimabara and Amakusa had become powder kegs awaiting only a spark. By autumn of 1637, three years of drought had withered the crops and brought famine, but the pagan feudal lords now running those domains (Matsukura Katsuie and Terazawa Katataka) piled on ever higher taxes regardless of the failed harvests, with no quarter given to their despised subjects. Since taxes were paid in kind, this often meant handing over most or all of one’s food crop to the tax police. It became commonplace to see corpses of the starved fallen by the roadside. And then there were the tortures.

Some tax defaulters were subjected to “the mino dance.” The victims, dressed in a poncho of straw (a mino) with hands tied behind them, would “dance” when the straw was set alight. Some defaulters would see their wives and children arrested and imprisoned or tortured until they paid up. 

In the town of Kuchinotsu at the heel of Shimabara, a farmer named Yozaemon asked for extra time to pay his tax debt of 30 sacks of rice. Rather than grant him any mercy, the tax collector, Tanaka Sōsuke, put his daughter-in-law, nine months pregnant, in a cage, lowered it into an icy river and kept her there for six days and nights. She finally gave birth in the river, where she died.

Another tax defaulter’s daughter, a beautiful virgin, was arrested, stripped naked, tied to a post and tortured with burning sticks. Her father, arriving on the scene, killed the sheriff in charge. In short order, 800 souls were on the march northward to Matsukura’s castle. They torched the jōka-machi, the district around the castle walls, and raided Matsukura’s armory. Now they were a military force to be reckoned with. 

The news sped across the strait to Amakusa, where the father of the murdered woman lived among his persecuted Christian neighbors. An old Catholic samurai named Masuda Jinbei was among these — he had served as personal secretary of Amakusa’s late Catholic lord, Augustine Konishi, and he had a 15-year-old son, a prodigy named Shiro. Jinbei and his brother-in-law “discovered” a phony prophecy they claimed had been left behind by a Catholic priest of old, a prophecy foretelling the appearance of an Amakusan redeemer destined to bring all Japan to Christ — and, of course, young Shiro fit the bill. 

For months there had been burning, vermilion skies and cherry trees blooming out of season, and a comet had blazed across the night sky. The wretched Shogun Iemitsu himself, though far away in Edo (now Tokyo), had withdrawn from public duties and was having Buddhist sutras read to ward off disaster. Perhaps he even reined in his demonic addiction to pederasty.

By the time he got wind of a Christian rebellion, an army of Amakusan men and women led by “Amakusa Shiro” was sweeping across the north coast of the islands, driving their oppressor’s forces before them. The astonished soldiers, so used to bullying these peasants, took refuge in the mountaintop castle at Tomioka, an islet dangling from an isthmus at the northwest corner of Amakusa, where they were laid siege to. 

Soon Shiro, seeing this as a waste of time and resources, took his army north across the strait to Shimabara, where they joined up with the locals. More than 37,000 souls took their lives and their resurgent hopes into Hara Castle, a disused hilltop fortress overlooking the Ariake Sea, and did their best to patch her up while awaiting the inevitable holocaust. 

Iemitsu, meanwhile, had appointed an aristocrat, Itakura Shigemasa, to process down the Imperial highway, collecting conscripted feudal forces along the way, and quell the rebellion. The appointed troops despised their commander, given his inexperience of war, and once they had encamped on the outskirts of Hara Castle, they launched a general assault on the presumed Christian rabble without throwing so much as a glance at Shigemasa. Their opponents, the hard-bitten Catholic samurai manning the outer wall, mauled the attackers with expertly-aimed gunfire. The shogun’s army withdrew to lick its wounds, and Shigemasa started preparations for real warfare. It was Jan. 24, 1638, the start of a bitter-cold, wintry hell. 

Reinforcements started trickling down into the peninsula as casualties piled up in the camps — not only from sniper-fire, but also from exposure to the winter cold. Meanwhile, Shigemasa was planning a general assault for Feb. 3. 

In the event, the attack proved a miserable failure. The various units closed in on the castle walls unresisted until at the last moment they were bombarded by torrents of stones, bullets and boiling oil. With casualties mounting, Shigemasa withdrew his forces. 

Soon he got a letter informing him that his command was to be handed over to Matsudaira Nobutsuna, who had, in his youth, served as a page to the Shogun Iemitsu. Shigemasa had to save face before Nobutsuna arrived — he ordered an attack to begin on Japanese New Year’s Day, Feb. 14, 1638. 

In every sector, the Christians mauled the shogun’s forces as before, and the various feudal contingents pulled back from Hara Castle’s wall. In vain, Shigemasa ordered them to return to the fight, finally taking spear in hand to charge the wall himself. He managed to reach the stonework, put one hand on the wall and raised a foot as if to climb it, and a bullet pierced his breast. His gravestone stands on the outskirts of the castle ruins.

Nobutsuna, conversely, didn’t risk another defeat. Instead, he laid siege to Hara Castle, encamping his men behind stout palisades and hunkering down to starve the Christians out. As ever more forces poured into his camp, he enlisted a Dutch merchantman to bombard Hara Castle from seaward and set up some of the Dutch cannon on his side of the fortress. Meanwhile, his engineers were digging a tunnel under the castle walls. Eventually they reached the Christians’ water reservoir and drained their supply. 

By April, the Christians were starved, parched and despairing of the strength even to stay on their feet for any length of time — the sentries stood guard lying on their sides. In early April, Shiro ordered a furtive night raid on the government camp to grab desperately-needed food supplies. Having ignited enemy tents as a distraction, the Christians made themselves perfect targets for gunfire in the firelight and retreated with heavy losses. The bellies of the slain, cut open, proved they were starving. Nobutsuna saw that his time was near. 

Come the day of the shogun’s wrath, 125,000 troops were ready for an early-morning onslaught set to begin at Nobutsuna’s word with a rain of fire-arrows. The Nabeshima clan, though, jumped the gun and stormed the wall of the demaru. At this, Nobutsuna loosed all his horde to the slaughter. The Christians fought back with anything at hand: empty guns, bamboo spears, even cooking-pots, while their Christian kingdom burned all around them. Still, the citadel, the core of the fortress, remained unconquered until noon of the second day of battle. 

Then the beheadings began — the dead, of course, and all the elderly and ill sheltering in the kara-bori — a deep, timber-roofed pit — and the children. “Even the little girls,” one soldier lamented. The heads, impaled, would ring Hara Castle’s smoldering ruins as a warning to would-be believers, a testament from the devil’s own shogun.

Yet they had not rebelled because they were Christians, one chronicler observed. It was the taxes, the torture, the lies, the oppression, the final straw.

Would that shoguns could learn.

Luke O’Hara became a Catholic in Japan. His articles and books about Japan’s martyrs can be found at his website,