An Untrumpeted Catholic Hero of Japan

The Anniversary of the Catholic Shimabara Rebellion

Yoshitoshi (1839–1892), “Amakusa Shirō”, from the series “Biographies of Valiant Drunken Tigers,” published in 1874
Yoshitoshi (1839–1892), “Amakusa Shirō”, from the series “Biographies of Valiant Drunken Tigers,” published in 1874 (photo: via Wikimedia Commons)

君子周而不比、小人比而不周。(“The superior man is catholic and not partisan. The mean man is partisan and not catholic.”) ─ Confucius, The Analects, 2.XIV

Ima rojo shiteiru mono wa, raise made tomo to naru.” (“Now, those who accompany me in being besieged in this castle, will be my friends unto the next world.”) ― Masuda Tokisada’s 'Death Poem.'


Here’s the story of Masuda Tokisada, a faithful Japanese boy warrior who gave up his life to fight religious persecution against Catholics. He led a huge army into battle and shed blood in order to stop oppression and unjust violence.

You sometimes meet confused Catholics and other crackpots who insist that Just War Theory isn’t “real” Catholicism. I once knew an inept publisher who claimed to be Catholic who insisted this and simultaneously insisted on her own personal right to vendetta and retribution, even to the point of spreading malicious gossip about her detractors. I stopped listening when she insisted that all of her enemies were “possessed by the devil.” Considering such a thing is by definition rare, it’s odd in the extreme that she had ever encountered more than one demoniac. It’s odder still that all of these possessed people were attacking her. She insisted that she was doing God’s work whenever she obsessively lashed out at anyone who dared to disagree with her. She was like the millions of others who insist that Christians aren’t really being persecuted anywhere or at anytime, ever. But the truth is, sometimes you need to send in the Marines to protect the innocent. Sometimes, indeed, you need to send in those people who give the Marines pause.

The Crusades are a perfect example of a just war, as is World War II. And, as you will see momentarily, so was Japan’s 17th-century Shimabara Rebellion―a wholly/holy Catholic affair.

On Aug. 15, 1549, Spanish priests St. Francis Xavier, Fr. Cosme de Torres and Fr. John Fernandez arrived in Kagoshima, Japan hoping to evangelize. On Sept. 29, St. Francis Xavier met with Shimazu Takahisa, the daimyo of Kagoshima, asking for permission to build the first Catholic mission in Japan.

The Japanese shogunate and imperial government initially seemed supportive of Christian missionaries hoping to grow rich from their trade with Spain and Portugal they presumed the clerics represented. However, both political entities saw the Christians as a tool to use against the rising power of the Buddhist monasteries could be. However, the bonhomie wouldn’t last long and the Christians were soon persecuted nearly to extinction. Soon, missionaries were expelled and Japanese converts were attacked. The most common way of dealing with the latter was to crucify and pierced them through with spears entering under the ribs and crossing through so that they exited below the opposite shoulder.

For a quick understanding of the persecution Christians withstood in Asia in general and in Japan in particular, I refer you to several earlier articles: here, here and here.


The Catholic Martyrs of Shimabara 

Masuda Tokisada (1612-38) was a 15-year commander-in-chief of the Shimabara rebels. He is more commonly known as Amakusa Shirō―the name of his final, decisive battle he was destined to lose. In 1600, in his push to bring all of Japan under his control, Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu hoped to destroy Christianity in his country. Most Christians went into hiding but 37,000 Catholics―men, women, children, elderly, invalids and other non-combatants―sought the safety of Hara Castle.

Shimabara was at one time, the ancestral lands of the noble Arima family, which had been Catholics for several generations. As a result of their Catholicism, the Arima were moved out in 1614 and replaced by the Matsukura family. That family’s head, Matsukura Shigemasa, hoped to ingratiate himself with the shogun and so heavily invested in various construction projects including the new Hara Castle and in a planned invasion of Philippines. As a result of this massive spending, Matsukura he placed a huge tax burden on his people all the while mercilessly persecuting Christians who were the vast majority of his lands. These policies were continued by Shigemasa's heir, Katsuie.

In the wake of the Matsukura clan's construction of a new castle at Shimabara, the Shogun forcibly raised taxes provoking the anger of local peasants and ronin (i.e., lordless samurai.)

In addition, religious persecution and forced Stalinist famine against the local Christians exacerbated their discontent. This led to open revolt in 1637. The Tokugawa Shogunate sent an army of over 125,000 soldiers to suppress the rebellion at Hara Castle which lasted for a year.

The inhabitants of the Amakusa Islands―about 120 islands throughout the East China Sea and Shiranui Sea―suffered the same persecution at the hands the Terasawa family. Ronin―masterless samurai―more often than not, Catholics, flocked to the area to protect the abused citizenry.

Masuda Tokisada, a charismatic 16-year-old boy, a samurai and the son of a samurai, was soon chosen as the rebels’ leader.

The shogun’s forces approached Nicolaes Couckebacker, a local Protestant Opperhoofd (Dutch: factory manager) of the Dutch factory (i.e., trading post) on Hirado, asking him to provide gunpowder and cannons in their siege of Hara Castle. The Dutch, having lost no love for the Japanese Catholics, were more than happy to bomb them into nonexistence. However, though they fired approximately 426 rounds in the space of 15 days, their superior fire power proved absolutely ineffective against the Catholic rebels holed-up in the castle.

During the ensuing battles, both sides experienced heavy losses but the Shogun’s losses were by far more palatable and disheartening. The shogun’s point man on the ground, Itakura Shigemasa, was killed in his zeal to destroy the Catholic troops. Matsudaira Nobutsuna, Itakura's replacement, soon arrived with even more shogunate troops. Regardless, the Catholic rebels held out for nearly a year. However, despite their many decisive victories, the rebels ran out of food, weapons and ammunition.

By April 1638, there were over 27,000 rebels (14,000 soldiers or various degrees of training and 13,000 noncombatants sheltering in the castle. They faced off against 125,800 shogunate soldiers. Desperate rebels mounted an assault against them on April 4 and were forced to withdraw. 

On April 12, 1638, troops under the command of the Kuroda clan of Hizen stormed Hara Castle and captured its outer defenses. The rebels continued to hold out and caused heavy casualties for three additional days. Unfortunately, they were finally routed on April 15.

All 27,000 rebels were crucified on the hill next to Hara Castle including leader Masuda Tokisada. His severed head was taken to Nagasaki for public display. Hara Castle was razed and burned. The bodies of the martyr were unceremoniously tossed into the debris and refused a proper burial. 

With the exception of smaller, periodic and localized peasant uprisings, the Shimabara Rebellion was the last large-scale armed clash in Japan until the 1860s.

The shogunate suspected that Catholic missionaries were involved in spreading the rebellion and Portuguese traders were driven out of the country. The Japanese policy of xenophobic seclusionism was made stricter by 1639 and the ban against Christianity was severally enforced. Christianity managed to survive in Japan only by going underground. 

On the Shimabara peninsula, most towns experienced a severe to total loss of population as a result of the rebellion. In order to maintain the rice fields and other crops, immigrants were forcibly brought from other areas across Japan to resettle the land. All inhabitants were required to register with local Buddhist temples. Their priests were required by law to vouch for their members' religious affiliation by the use of the fumi-e (Japanese: 踏み絵 fumi "stepping-on" + e "picture")―a painted or carved image of Jesus or Mary that the political and religious authorities of the Tokugawa shogunate of Japan required suspected Christians to step on to prove they had apostatized themselves.

Formal persecution of Christianity continued in Japan until the 1850s.

After the battle, all mentions of Masuda Tokisada and his Shimabara Rebellion were either expunged from Japanese history, largely ignored or fictionalized. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see current comic books in Japan depicting Masuda Tokisada as a demon. But, the truth is, he is a martyr of the Faith who fearlessly defended those who couldn’t help themselves.

Despite what Pax Christi and its unthinking liberal allies demand, sometimes, we need to respond to unjust violence and discrimination using force. It is not preferable. It is not an end in and of itself and it isn’t laudable but it is necessary. The strictures of Christian morality require us to protect those who cannot protect themselves. The difference between us and our enemies is that we are forbidden from hating or judging our enemies. Christ and the Faith is thus our key to victory.