A Winter Offering: The 53 Martyrs of Yonezawa

In January 1629, with hands bound and rosaries around their necks, this group of Catholic faithful were beheaded in Yonezawa, Japan.

Anonymous, “The Christian Martyrs of Japan,” 17th century
Anonymous, “The Christian Martyrs of Japan,” 17th century (photo: Public Domain)

Looking down from Heaven on frosty Yonezawa in the winter of 1629, one would have seen blooms of crimson spreading upon the white-blanketed earth below, for her mantle of virgin snow was being baptized with Christian blood.

Although Yonezawa, in north-central Japan, was home to many Catholics, it seems to have escaped shogunal scrutiny for some years. Perhaps because its ruler, Uesugi Kagekatsu, was a redoubtable warrior, the Shogun Hidetada ignored his tolerance of Christians in his domain. Kagekatsu ruled Yonezawa until his death in 1623, the very year that Tokugawa Iemitsu succeeded to the shogunate. 

Iemitsu had a demonic taste for personally observing the torture of Christians. Perhaps this taste rubbed off on Kagekatsu’s heir, Sadakatsu, for in 1628, while paying homage to Iemitsu in Edo (now Tokyo), Sadakatsu sent orders back home to register all Catholics in his domain and order them to apostatize.  

Ishida Shuuri, the head sheriff in Yonezawa and a decent man with no taste for injustice, reported back to Sadakatsu that there were no Christians in his domain. Shuuri’s immediate underling, however, jealous of his position, reported to Sadakatsu that Yonezawa was in fact rife with Catholics.

On Dec. 22, 1628, Sadakatsu sent down orders to Shuuri to put to death all Catholics unwilling to apostatize.

“There are 3,000,” Shuuri replied. This quashed Sadakatsu’s enthusiasm for murder for a time — he would be exterminating too many of his vassals and sacrificing considerable tax income and manpower. 

But Sadakatsu had the twisted Shogun Iemitsu breathing down his neck. He needed a sop. 

Prominent among Yonezawa’s Catholics was Amagasu Yemon, christened Luís, a veteran samurai. Sadakatsu ordered Yemon and all his family to apostatize on pain of death. 

Shuuri counted Yemon a good friend; to save his friend, he wrote up a summary of the Ten Commandments as best he could recall them, enhancing them, as he saw it, with one final commandment enjoining samurai loyalty, and presented this memorial to Sadakatsu. He then asked him to consider how a people so steeped in virtue could possibly be a threat to the state. This staved off the inevitable for a space of days; Yemon’s friends were overjoyed at the thought that he and his family would after all be spared.

Overjoyed until a friend of Yemon’s elder son, Tayemon, came from Sadakatsu’s castle to break the news to him that all of the family were to be executed. Tayemon was in his sickbed with fever, but at this news, he cried out that he was healed, jumped out of bed, and mounted a horse to gallop off and tell his father. Yemon ordered coffins prepared at once for all his family.

On Jan. 11, 1629, two samurai arrived at Yemon’s house to notify him, with Shuuri’s apologies, that he and his family were to die the next morning. Yemon thanked them and promised that all would be ready to leave at a moment’s notice when called.

As Yemon and his two sons were themselves samurai, they surrendered their paired swords, the long katana and the shorter wakizashi, to be delivered to Shuuri, promising that their matchlock guns and lances would be delivered on the morrow. It was the height of humility for a samurai to give up his swords.  

Yemon immediately set things in order — all would wear their finest apparel. They would make a grand procession to the execution ground, for they were celebrating the holiday of their lives. Yemon then offered to pay his servants and send them off to freedom; all refused, insisting they wanted to die for Christ along with their master. The servants of Yemon’s sons, Tayemon and Ichibyoe, did the same. 

With all the family and servants gathered at Yemon’s house, they spent the night in prayer. The next day, two hours before dawn, two of Shuuri’s officers arrived to start the proceedings. Yemon greeted them at the door and took them upstairs, where they found the entire household on their knees dressed in festal garb, the men and boys with hands tied behind their backs and rosaries around their necks and the ladies, hands untied, with rosaries in their hands. Two 12-year-old boys serving as pages would lead the procession, one carrying a pike on high with a picture of Our Lady fixed to its point and the other bearing a blessed candle.

Before leaving, the martyrs commended themselves to Our Lady’s protection and rose from their knees to file out onto the snowy street to begin their march. With Our Lady's image on high, the two boys in front were followed by another servant, and then the women carrying their rosaries. Among these, 17-year-old Tecla, Ichibyoe’s wife, carried their infant daughter in her arms, perhaps with her rosary laced through her fingers, while Dominica, Tayemon’s young wife, walked ahead of her alone, clutching her rosary in silent anguish, I suspect, for her own infant daughter was nestled in the arms of her handmaid, Maria, to their rear. Perhaps she hadn’t the heart to coo to her child as she carried her off to be beheaded. 

At a distance behind the women, Yemon’s sons led the men. Each had his hands bound behind his back and a rosary round his neck, with Yemon last. As people lined the street watching them in awed silence, two men joined them along the way, Christian faithful going to their deaths in peace.

By the time they arrived at the execution ground, the sun was full risen, emblazoning a sharp contrast between the pristine blanket of white spread out under Heaven and the crimson blooms that soon began to spread with each new slash of a sword — but first, all knelt in prayer around the Blessed Virgin’s image held on high.

The women and girls, the vanguard, were beheaded first, followed by the men, and Yemon last. The two boys who had led the procession were denied martyrdom despite their protests, and sent home in tears.  

More martyrdoms would follow in Yonezawa that day — 53 Christian souls ascended to their Maker through the chill, crystal air of that January morning to nestle, finally, in his waiting, loving arms.

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