The Eight Martyrs of Arima Proclaimed the Name of Jesus to the End
“Behold the faith of Arima’s Christians. For the honor and glory of the Lord and as a testimony to our faith we now die, knowing that there is no salvation other than through Jesus Christ.”
In 1613, the castle-town of Arima in southwestern Japan held a remarkable procession on the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, one surely witnessed in breathless silence by all the host of Heaven.
Arima was the seat of a fervently Catholic domain whose fervor was fueled and stoked by her stalwart confraternities. Now, in 1613, that fervor was needed more than ever, for Arima Naozumi, Arima’s feudal lord, had expelled all Catholic clergy from his domain as a sop to the lord of all Japan, Tokugawa Ieyasu, who was bent on expunging the Faith from his domains — and Arima was in his sights. Ieyasu ordered Naozumi to purge his forefathers’ faith from Arima or lose his lordship of it and all the perks he was accustomed to.
Arima Naozumi, christened “Miguel,” was a third-generation Catholic. In 1612, Ieyasu had given him lordship over Arima after Naozumi connived with his illicit wife to depose his father and procure his execution. The wife, a ward of Ieyasu’s who despised Christ, had been the ruler’s ‘gift’ shoved down Naozumi’s throat in a deal signed with his own apostasy and sealed with divorce from his licit, Catholic wife, who now lived imprisoned in a hut somewhere in a mountain wood.
As if to numb his conscience, Naozumi had already slaughtered his little half-brothers, pious Catholics, ages 6 and 8 — like Herod, he feared these innocents as rivals to his rule.
Now, though, Naozumi had Ieyasu’s own hound at his heels — Hasegawa Sahioye, Governor of Nagasaki — who was threatening to denounce him if he didn’t force apostasy on eight of his prominent Catholic samurai or produce some blackened corpses as real proof of his fealty.
Thus, on Sept. 30, Naozumi called the eight into his mountaintop castle to show them Hasegawa’s threatening letters and plead for some merely-symbolic sign of apostasy — he didn’t care, he assured them, what they went on believing in their hearts. All eight demurred.
On Oct. 1 he called them in one by one and begged their cooperation: his domain was at stake, not to mention their own lives and those of their families. He reminded them that St. Peter had denied Christ three times and yet had been forgiven.
Five of them gave in, agreeing to invoke Amida Buddha with a Buddhist chant.
Yet three stood firm: Adrian Takahashi Mondo, Leo Taketomi Kan’emon, and Leo Hayashida Sukuemon.
Naozumi sent to Nagasaki for instructions. Hasegawa’s answer came back on Oct. 5: burn them alive, along with their wives and children. That afternoon, eight were taken to a house where they would be imprisoned awaiting death: Adrian Takahashi with his wife Joanna; Leo Taketomi with his son Paulo; and Leo Hayashida with his wife Marta, their 18-year-old daughter Magdalena (a consecrated virgin), and their son Diego, 11 years old. (Leo Taketomi’s wife, Monica, and their 9-year-old daughter were excluded, despite their pleas to join the martyrs.)
That night the Catholics of Arima began to gather in their thousands, surrounding the prison with rosaries and candles in hand. To Naozumi, looking down from his fortress on high, it must have been an unsettling scene, as if that infinite array of stars that God had shown Abraham were turned topsy-turvy, shining up at him with indomitable faith.
By the morning of Oct. 7, the crowd had grown to 20,000 souls or more.
Oct. 7, 1613, the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary — the eight appointed martyrs marched out into the sunshine bedecked in the kimono of the Confraternity of the Rosary, flanked by Marians with lit candle in one hand and rosary in the other. They headed for the shore of the Ariakè Sea, where a wooden structure awaited them. The crowd of 20,000 marched along, carrying their rosaries.
At one point they had to cross muddy ground. A certain man offered to ferry young Diego across on his back. The boy refused, saying, “Christ Our Lord didn’t ride on horseback or in a palanquin to the torture of the Cross.” He then assured the man of his hope in “certain and secure rest.” Unable to restrain his tears, the man picked up the boy and carried him.
At the execution-ground stood a house of sorts with eight wooden columns in the center surrounded by branches and kindling. A stockade ringed its perimeter.
Leo Taketomi climbed onto a pile of firewood to address the thousands awaiting the holocaust. Many of his words were drowned out by the noise of the crowd, but his speech went something like this:
“Behold the faith of Arima’s Christians: for the honor and glory of the Lord and as a testimony to our faith we now die, knowing that there is no salvation other than through Jesus Christ, and that this present life is of little account. All of you also know this, as you have come here with such fervor. My brethren, my parting hope is that you preserve your faith unshaken to the very end, not sparing your own lives.”
Leo stepped down; the Eight were tied to their stakes; the firewood was lit. As a storm of flames erupted around the martyrs, the chief of a confraternity held up a picture of Christ’s scourging to strengthen them. The crowd sang the Credo, the Our Father, and the Ave Maria as the fire raged.
Diego’s ropes were the first to burn away: he ran to his mother, shouting three times, “Zézusu! Maria!”
“Look up at Heaven, my son,” she said, and the boy fell dead. Next, his sister Magdalena found her arms free of the burning ropes: she reached down to pick up some flaming embers and held them above her head as if to venerate the fire that would send her home. At this, the gasping crowd made the sign of the cross. Finally, Leo Hayashida boomed the name of Jesus through the flames; his shout shook the crowd as a whirlwind of fire devoured all the holy martyrs.
To send them home.
Luke O’Hara became a Catholic in Japan. His articles and books about Japan’s martyrs can be found at his website, kirishtan.com.