A Lenten Sacrifice in Shimabara

In his hatred for Christ, the Shogun Iemitsu acted as if he were possessed — and the Christians of Japan felt his wrath.

Banner of 17th-century Japanese Catholic leader Amakusa Shiro
Banner of 17th-century Japanese Catholic leader Amakusa Shiro (photo: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Paulo Uchibori sat fixed like leaden ballast, straining to see beyond the horror before him and glimpse Eternity, for nothing else would stanch the pain. Ignacio, his 5-year-old son, was hanging from the torturers’ ropes naked, mutilated, blue with the frigid wind and sea — being dangled above the waves until they saw fit to sink him into the deep. Ignacio had to die, for he, like his father, was an unflinching Christian, a terror to the lord of Arima, who had sold his soul to the Shogun Iemitsu. 

Matsukura Shigemasa had once been sympathetic to the Catholics in his domain. After all, the three previous lords of Arima had themselves been Catholics, and although the last one, Arima Naozumi, had apostatized, the land was filled with staunchly-Catholic laity, many of them veteran samurai. Thus, when the Shogun moved Shigemasa into Arima in 1616, he and his own corps of samurai maintained a tacit truce with the locals. He even took a liking to Father Pietro Paolo Navarro, the Italian Jesuit captured in Arima after celebrating Christmas Mass in 1621. Shigemasa had such respect for Father Navarro that he merely put him under house arrest, gave him freedom to celebrate Mass and hear confessions, and invited him often to Shimabara Castle to hear him out on the Catholic Faith. After their final meeting, Shigemasa escorted that priest of the forbidden law outside, knelt, and bowed his head to the earth to show the man of Christ his deep respect, for he would soon have to burn him alive — this was the Shogun Hidetada’s law. 

Such sympathy was long extinct by 1627. In January, Shigemasa returned from the shogunal court intent on destroying Christendom in his domain, for the Shogun Iemitsu, Hidetada’s successor, hated Christ as if he were possessed. Thus, Shigemasa’s own life hung on the barest thread should he not quench his lord and master’s bloodlust. 

His ally in bloodletting was his headman, Taga Mondo, who had developed exquisite tortures while his master was away. He would not merely beat Christians with clubs — he stripped them naked, tied them hand and foot to an upright rack of sorts, and burnt them with torches — but first, he branded their faces with red-hot iron, searing three Chinese characters spelling KIRI-SHI-TAN (“Christian”) into their cheeks and forehead. Since these cruelties were not producing the apostasies he desired, he started singeing the flesh off their fingers with red-hot tongs and then cutting the exposed bones away — but only bit by bit, so as to prolong the torture. Finally, he left the Christians tied to their racks and exposed to public derision and the winter cold until nightfall, when they would be shut up indoors so as not to die prematurely and spoil Mondo’s horror show — for he took his traveling circus to all the towns of Arima to scare her Christians out of their faith, collecting new victims along the way.

Notable among these was Maria Piriz (or Perez), 88 years old and blind. When they brought the branding-iron close to her face, she pulled away, unaware of what this meant — but when her daughter told her she was being branded as a Christian, she held still, proud to be given this badge of honor.   

All this was but a prelude to Matsukura Shigemasa’s Lenten holocaust. His prison was brimming with unshakable Catholics, with Paulo Uchibori, former Arima samurai and lay Catholic leader, chief among them. On the First Sunday of Lent, 1627, 35 prisoners were led outside, each with a noose around the neck in the hands of an executioner. Maria Piriz had been so crippled by torture that she could barely move, but for this Lenten holocaust she found the strength to march out to her martyrdom like a healthy young girl.

They were taken to the moat and lined up in two rows. Fifteen would have their fingers cut off, more or fewer at the torturers’ discretion, with the others forced to watch.

Paulo’s three sons were the first called to the cutting-board. Antonio, 18, bravely spread out his fingers to offer up that sacrifice, as did his elder brother, Baltasar. When 5-year-old Ignacio stepped up to take his turn, the executioner sliced off the index finger of his right hand. Raising the hand to his face, the child calmly watched the blood spurt out as if beholding a beautiful rose. Next, the other index finger — Ignacio raised his left hand and beheld that wound and its jetting blood without a flinch. Unable to bear this sight, many onlookers fled the scene — perhaps, like the Gerasenes, overwhelmed by Christ’s power over evil. 

When the cutting was done, the 20 were stripped of their upper garments and all taken out to sea; the 15 in two boats and the 20 in another were forced to watch. The torturers stripped the 15 naked and tied ropes to their hands and feet. They would suspend the victims, one at a time, between the boats, dunking them and pulling them out time and again to demand apostasy until, vanquished, they tied a stone around the victim’s neck for the death-plunge into the deep. In the midst of this torture, Antonio, shivering with the February cold, shouted, “Thanks be to God for such a singular mercy!” Little Ignacio they suspended above the waves for a full hour before finally sinking him to the bottom. All the while, Paulo watched in silence. 

The killing done, the 20 were taken back ashore to find signs sewn on their garments forbidding anyone to give them shelter. Next, with a blunt knife the torturers cut the three middle fingers, bit by bit, off each of the Christians’ hands and branded their faces in three places — but four for Paulo — and set them loose as public horrors to anyone daring to embrace Christ.

That night Paulo fell unconscious for loss of blood and, coming to, reported that he had seen his three beloved sons. Juan Kihachi, unconscious for an hour, told the others that he had been taken up to a place too rich and beautiful to describe with words

Public horrors they might have seemed to any cowed apostate, but to Arima’s dauntless Catholics they were Christ’s Passion incarnate treading the very soil under their feet. This fact soon dawned on Matsukura Shigemasa, who ordered the heroes rounded up and brought back to his prison.

Morning dawned on the Second Sunday of Lent. A scar-faced volcano named Unzen beckoned from afar as a holy procession headed out of Shimabara Castle to start the long climb to its smoldering peak — its boiling, sulfurous pools caustic enough to burn off one’s skin. They call it “Unzen Hell.”

After their climb, the condemned Christians sang Laudate Dominum Omnes Gentes, recited the Creed, and prayed. Paulo Uchibori then preached Christ to his persecutors, explaining that he and his companions were happy to die for the Creator and Redeemer of the world. Next they knelt, prayed the Confiteor, and sang Laudate again. Finally, Paulo sang Nunc Dimittis as they approached the so-called “Mouth of Hell” where all were to die.

As the executioners stripped them bare, Paulo urged all to have no fear, but to trust in God and Our Lady. Nooses would be used to dunk the Christians, like meat, into the boiling hell. Luis Shinzaburo, ordered to jump in on his own, made the sign of the cross, said the names of Jesus and Mary, and leapt. Paulo warned the others that Christians must not commit suicide, and the dunking began. Plunged into the murky, boiling hell, each Christian would sink and reappear to gasp, “Jesus! Mary!” and sink again helplessly, perhaps to bob up and pray again, and again — until only smoking bubbles appeared.

They saved Paulo till last, he who clung to that banned religion so tenaciously, he who was so intent on fanning its flames into a fire fit to light all the world. They would tie a noose to Paulo’s feet and dunk him head-first.

Plunging him in, they pulled him out quickly to plunge him in again — and again and again, until finally they dangled him, well-boiled, above the seething hell, just as they had dangled his youngest son. 

 “Praised be the Blessed Sacrament!” he proclaimed.

That Christian samurai had won — his vanquished torturers sunk him to the depths of that hell to join his brethren in faith.

Imagine the reunion in that place too rich and beautiful to be described with words. 

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