The Japanese Martyrs for Christ

Martyrs of Japan and, indeed, all Christians martyrs, pray for us.

The Christian martyrs of Nagasaki are depicted by an unknown 17th-century Japanese artist.
The Christian martyrs of Nagasaki are depicted by an unknown 17th-century Japanese artist. (photo: Public Domain)

The Western Church has certainly had its hands full over the past 2,000 years what with being thrown to the lions, and beating back Muslim military invasions on multiple occasions. Of course, we had to contend with the horrors of atheistic communism and atheistic fascism and other forms of atheistic authoritarianism as well. But, the truth is those who represent the Power of Good have always, and in all places, been the targets of the self-loathing violence that comes from those who are dedicated to the Void.

However, as many Christians and all atheists are unaware, Catholics in the East also suffered terribly. I outlined a fraction of these persecutions in a previous article on Buddhist violence against Christians. In that article, I described four massacres of Japanese Christians:

  • The 26 Catholic Martyrs of Japan (Feb. 5, 1597) were crucified by the open-minded Buddhists in that country in Nagasaki.
  • The 205 Catholic Martyrs of Japan (1617-1632) died over a period of 15 years, 205 missionaries and native Christians were executed for their faith.
  • The 188 Martyrs of Japan (1603-1639) were lay people and religious priests who were killed because they believed in the Prince of Peace. They were beatified on Nov. 24, 2008, by Pope Benedict XVI.
  • The 16 Martyrs of Japan (1633–1637) were a group of missionaries from the Philippine Province of the Dominican Order who were slaughtered for refusing to deny Christ.

However, these aren’t the only anti-Christian, Christianophobic attacks in Japan.

Many Japanese had converted to Christianity due to the ministrations of St. Francis Xavier in 1549. By the time the persecutions had begun, perhaps as many as 300,000 souls had converted.

In 1597, the pagan Japanese (i.e., Buddhist/Shinto) authorities began to fear the rising number of peasants, samurai and nobility who had converted to Christ and decided that killing Christians was the best option available to them. The same thing is happening to Catholics in India due to the machinations of violent Hindu nationalist scaremongers.


St. Paul Miki

Every Feb. 6, we celebrate St. Paul Miki and his Martyred Companions. “Paulo,” as he was known to his friends, was a Jesuit seminarian―one of the Twenty-Six Martyrs of Japan.

He was born into a wealthy family and educated by the Jesuits in Azuchi (Kyoto) and Takatsuki (Osaka.) He became a Jesuit and was highly successful in preaching to his fellow Japanese, thus converting a great multitude to the Church. However, the head pagan―daimyō Toyotomi Hideyoshi―was having none of it. We see this pattern forming everywhere where the Void reigns in benighted hearts.

Miki was arrested along with 25 of his companions including 16 Japanese laymen―four of whom were boys―and forced to march 600 miles from Kyoto to Nagasaki. They had their ears cut off to further humiliate them.

Along the march, they sang the Te Deum. On Feb. 5, 1597, in Nagasaki, these holy men and boys were crucified but instead of nails, the peaceful, inoffensive Buddhists and Shintos affixed tight, heavy metal bands to their throats, hands and feet, immobilizing them to their crosses. They also had two long spears inserted under their rib cages, one on each side, and thrusted upward. The pain was immeasurable and was designed to keep the martyrs alive for many days.

Miki preached his last sermon from that cross, his most glorious pulpit, and forgave his persecutors exhorting them to become Christians. The following is an eyewitness account of St. Paul Miki’s martyrdom:

The crosses were set in place. Father Pasio and Father Rodriguez took turns encouraging the victims. Their steadfast behavior was wonderful to see.
The Father Bursar stood motionless, his eyes turned heavenward. Brother Martin gave thanks to God’s goodness by singing psalms. Again and again he repeated: “Into your hands, Lord, I entrust my life.” Brother Francis Branco also thanked God in a loud voice. Brother Gonsalvo in a very loud voice kept saying the Our Father and Hail Mary.
Our brother, Paul Miki, saw himself standing now in the noblest pulpit he had ever filled. To his “congregation” he began by proclaiming himself a Japanese and a Jesuit. He was dying for the Gospel he preached. He gave thanks to God for this wonderful blessing and he ended his “sermon” with these words: “As I come to this supreme moment of my life, I am sure none of you would suppose I want to deceive you. And so I tell you plainly: there is no way to be saved except the Christian way. My religion teaches me to pardon my enemies and all who have offended me. I do gladly pardon the Emperor and all who have sought my death. I beg them to seek baptism and be Christians themselves.”
Then he looked at his comrades and began to encourage them in their final struggle. Joy glowed in all their faces, and in Louis’ most of all. When a Christian in the crowd cried out to him that he would soon be in heaven, his hands, his whole body strained upward with such joy that every eye was fixed on him.
Anthony, hanging at Louis’ side, looked toward heaven and called upon the holy names—“Jesus, Mary!” He began to sing a psalm: “Praise the Lord, you children!” (He learned it in catechism class in Nagasaki. They take care there to teach the children some psalms to help them learn their catechism.)
Others kept repeating “Jesus, Mary!” Their faces were serene. Some of them even took to urging the people standing by to live worthy Christian lives. In these and other ways they showed their readiness to die.Then, according to Japanese custom, the four executioners began to unsheathe their spears. At this dreadful sight, all the Christians cried out, “Jesus, Mary!” And the storm of anguished weeping then rose to batter the very skies. The executioners killed them one by one. One thrust of the spear, then a second blow. It was over in a very short time. 
(From an account of the martyrdom of Saint Paul Miki and his companions, by a contemporary writer. Cap. 14, 109-110: Acta Sanctorum Febr. 1, 1769)

Pope Pius IX canonized them in 1862.


Other Persecutions

Starting in 1627, suspected Christians were forced to step on fumie ― images of the Madonna and Child. Those who refused to do so were killed or exiled. When it became apparent to the Buddhists and Shinto leaders that Christians were made of sterner stuff, the authorities attacked the foreign missionaries who ministered to the Christians there. They developed some of the worst tortures known to mankind — some so violent and degrading that I hesitate to describe them herein.

Again, the faith of Christians made them superior to their frightened persecutors. The Christianophobic authorities had no other choice than to close their ports to all foreigners in 1638. Catholic missionaries were allowed to re-enter Japan in 1865 only after American Commodore Matthew Perry led his four ships into Tokyo Bay seeking to re-establish regular trade and discourse between Japan and the Western world on July 8, 1853.

Recall however, that only 50 years later, Japan fought the Russo–Japanese War in Manchuria and the Korean Peninsula. Immediately afterward, Japan launched an aggressive putsch to colonialize all of Asia (1910-1945). All resistance was ruthlessly crushed, especially in Korea. In September 1940, Japan signed the Tripartite Pact with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. This treaty assured the signers that the other two powers would come to their aid if they were attacked by another country. On Dec. 7, 1941, Japan launched an unprovoked assault on Pearl Harbor. Throughout all of this time, Christians were horribly persecuted throughout the Japanese Empire.

Many of our persecutors for whom we pray are now dead. We remain. We will always remain. God assures us that not even the Gates of Hell will vanquish us (Matthew 16:18).

Martyrs of Japan and, indeed, all Christians martyrs, pray for us.