The story of the introduction of Christianity to Japan is quite different from its introduction in Europe or the Americas, because the culture of the Japanese is quite different from those of the West. There were two religions in Japan from the sixth century to the sixteenth century: Shinto and Buddhism. Shinto is the nationalist religion; it is for Japanese only and is not an evangelical faith, meaning it does not seek converts. It is animistic in nature, with different kami or spirits inhabiting trees and rocks and animals, etc. It is nationalistic in that its leader is the Emperor, who is descended from Amaterasu, the sun-goddess. Shinto has been the religion of Japan since 400 B.C.E. Buddhism was introduced from Korea in 552 C.E., and it spread rapidly. The Japanese have combined Shinto and Buddhism, creating a syncretic faith unique to Japan and the Ryukyu Islands.
The first Christian missionaries arrived in the Japanese Islands not long after the first Westerners. Three Portuguese sailors were traveling on a Chinese junk, which was driven off its course by a storm. After drifting about for some days, it finally arrived on the shores of Tanegashima, a small island off the coast of Kyushu, the main Japanese island. The Portuguese were well accepted, and soon they set-up trade with the Japanese. One day, a Japanese named Yajiro found asylum on a Portuguese ship. Yajiro was on the run, trying to escape punishment for his crimes. The Portuguese told him that he would have to go to Malacca, India, and confess his sins to a Jesuit missionary named Francis Xavier. Yajiro did so and his encounter with Francis Xavier created a desire in the heart of the priest to witness to the Japanese people. Father Xavier arrived in Kagoshima, in the southern part of Kyushu, on August 15, 1549, and was given permission to preach by Lord Satsuma, ruler of the province. Lord Satsuma wasn’t interested in Christianity, but he did want Portuguese ships to stop in Kagoshima with their European goods, but the Portuguese passed Kagoshima for Hirado, a rival port. Francis Xavier began to preach, but the Buddhist priests complained to Lord Satsuma that he wasn’t content to merely preach but was attacking their religion. This, combined with Satsuma’s disappointment in the lack of ships visiting Kagoshima caused Lord Satsuma to issue an edict in 1550 forbidding the adoption of Christianity. The edict carried a penalty of death. More Jesuit missionaries arrived with the Portuguese traders, and they continued to preach throughout Japan, gathering converts and building churches. In forty-five years there were more than 300,000 Christians in Japan, and this was happening even though the faith was forbidden in some areas. The Jesuits continued to attach the faiths of Shintoism and Buddhism, and this created a lot of trouble for them.
Hideyoshi, the emperor of Japan, was open to letting the Jesuits work throughout his island nation, but the complaints of the Shinto and Buddhist priests, plus the evil actions of Portuguese traders, created a situation in which Hideyoshi turned against Christianity and asked the Vice Provincial of the Jesuit Order the following five questions, demanding an immediate answer:
1. Why and by what authority were he and his fellow workers
converting Hideyoshi’s subjects to Christianity?
2. Why had they induced their converts to overthrow Shinto and
3. Why did they persecute the Shinto and Buddhist priests?
4. Why did the Christians and Portuguese eat animals useful to
humans, such as cows and oxen?
5. Why did the Vice-Provincial allow the Portuguese merchants to buy Japanese and make slaves of them in India?
The Vice-Provincial’s answers did not placate Hideyoshi and he began to wonder if the foreigners were threatening the new unity he was creating in Japan. Hideyoshi allowed the Jesuits to remain, under some restrictions. He then allowed some Franciscans to enter Japan with the distinct understanding that they would not evangelize. This did not work at all; I guess the Franciscans misunderstood the understanding. The Franciscans were soon running around preaching and building churches and fighting with the Jesuits; they even seized a Jesuit church in Nagasaki (reminds me of the Donatists and catholics of Northern Africa in the fifth century!). Hideyoshi became very angry that the Franciscans had violated their agreement and was planning to deport them. He was also planning an invasion of Korea, so he really didn’t want to bother with these troublesome missionaries. Hideyoshi spoke with the pilot of a Spanish ship that was stranded on the coast of Japan, and he had heard of their colonies around the world. He asked the pilot how the Spanish had managed to hold sway over so much of the world, and the pilot told him: “Our kings begin by sending into the countries they wish to conquer missionaries who induce the people to embrace our religion, and when they have made considerable progress, troops are sent who combine with the new Christians, and then our kings have not much trouble in accomplishing the rest.” A statement which does contain some truth, but was hardly helpful for the Christian missionaries.
Hideyoshi was furious and threatened to put all missionaries to death, but some influential Japanese, some of whom were not Christians, intervened and only three Jesuits were executed, but no mercy was shown to the Franciscans. Their ears and noses were cut off, and they were led through the streets of Kyoto, Sakai, and Osaka in carts. They were sent to be crucified in Nagasaki. Terazawa Hazaburo, brother of the governor of Nagasaki, was in charge of the execution. Twenty-six crosses were on the ground at Nishizaka Hill, waiting for the condemned. They were fastened to the crosses by iron rings around their hands, feet, and neck and a rope around the waist. The sentence of death, read to the martyrs, stated As these men came from the Philippines under the guise of ambassadors, and chose to stay in Miyako preaching the Christian law, which I have severely forbidden all these years, I come to decree that they be put to death, together with the Japanese that have accepted that law. According to an account written by the Rev. Diego R. Yuki, a Japanese Jesuit priest, one of the martyrs, Paul Miki, responded: "All of you who are here, please, listen to me. I did not come from the Philippines, I am a Japanese by birth, and a brother of the Society of Jesus. I have committed no crime, and the only reason why I am put to death is that I have been teaching the doctrine of Our Lord Jesus Christ. I am very happy to die for such a cause, and see my death as a great blessing from the Lord. At this critical time, when, you can rest assured that I will not try to deceive you, I want to stress and make it unmistakably clear that man can find no way to salvation other than the Christian way." He saw Terazawa and the executioners and said to them, "The Christian law commands that we forgive our enemies and those who have wronged us. I must therefore say here that I forgive Taikosama. I would rather have all the Japanese become Christians." The executioners moved down the line, stabbing the martyrs with lances. According to Padre Yuki: The Portuguese and the Japanese Christians attending the executions could not be kept in check any longer. Breaking through the guard, they pressed forward to the crosses and started soaking pieces of cloth in the martyrs blood gathering lumps of the earth sanctified by them, tearing up their habits and kimonos for holy relics. The guards kept on beating them. pulling them away. The blood of the wounded mixed with that of the martyrs. Order was finally established, and Terazawa positioned guards all around the hill, with strict orders not to allow anybody near the crosses. After completing his task Terazawa withdrew from the hill. Many could notice that even the tough soldier was crying.
The twenty-six martyrs were:
1. ST. FRANCIS, a carpenter from Kyoto.
2. ST. COSMAS TAKEYA, a sword-maker from Owari.
3. ST. PETER SUKEJIRO, a young man from Kyoto.
4. ST. MICHAEL KOZAKI, a native of Ise, 46 yeas old and a bow maker.
5. ST. JAMES KISAI, a Jesuit lay brother, Sixty-four years of age.
6. ST. PAUL MIKI, had been born in Tsunokuni district, the son of a brave soldier, Miki Handayu. The best preacher in the country he fell silent when the executioner's blow shattered his heart. He was only thirty years of age.
7. ST PAUL IBARAKI, born in Owari, of a samurai family.
8. ST. JOHN OF GOTO, a portrait of innocence and joy, a short life of 19 yeas fully used in the service of God.
9. ST. LOUIS IBARAKI, the youngest of the group, only 12 years old.
10. ST. ANTHONY, born Nagasaki of a Chinese father and Japanese mother.
11. ST. PETER BAPTIST. Superior of the Franciscan Mission in Japan, former ambassador from Spain, a father to the poor lepers, a captain of martyrs.
12. ST. MARTIN OF THE ASCENSION, born in Guipuzcoa, Spain. He was 30 years old.
13. ST. PHILIP OF JESUS, a Mexican, 24 years old.
14. ST. GONZALO GARCIA, 40 years, born in India of a Portuguese father and an Indian mother. He is the patron saint of Bombay.
15. ST. FRANCIS BLANCO, was born in Monterey (Galacia, Spain) and came to Japan with St. Martin of the Ascension.
16. ST. FRANCIS OF ST MICHAEL, 53, born in La Parrilla (Valladolid, Spain). He died in silence, just as he had lived.
17. ST. MATTHIAS. We know nothing about his age, place of birth or date of baptism, only his name and the reason why he joined the martyrs. The soldiers were looking for another Matthias who could not be found. Our saint offered himself and the soldiers gladly accepted him. God accepted him too.
18. ST. LEO KARASUMARU, from Owaru, younger brother of St. Paul Ibaraki. A zealous catechist and a man of prayer, he was a leading figure among the lay martyrs.
19. ST. BONAVENTURE. Baptized as an infant, he soon lost his mother, and his stepmother sent him to a Buddhist monastery. One day he found out about his baptism, and came to visit the Franciscan convent in Kyoto, his place of birth, eager to have further information. here he found again his peace of soul. On his way to the cross he prayed for his father's faith and the conversion of his stepmother.
20. ST. THOMAS KOZAKI. With the rugged manners of a country boy, this fourteen year old had a beautiful heart, much like the Pearls of his native Ise. He was straightforward, unhesitant and totally committed in his service to God.
21. ST.JOACHIM SAKAKIBARA, 40 year old, a native of Osaka. A man of very strong character, he excelled for his kindness and readiness to serve, a fitting preparation for the martyrs' crown.
22. ST FRANCIS. Born in Kyoto, 48 years old. He was a physician and a zealous preacher.
23. ST THOMAS DANGI. A druggist, with an extremely violent disposition, he mellowed with God's help into a kindhearted catechist.
24. ST. JOHN KINUYA, 28 years old, from Kyoto. A silk weaver and trader, he had recently been baptized and moved his shop next to the convent.
25. ST. GABRIEL, a native of Ise, 19 years old, another young life ungrudgingly offered to God. He worked as a catechist.
26. ST. PAUL SUZUKI, 49 years old, from Owari. His cross was at the end of the row and his voice, all fire and zeal, could be heard un impeded. He was in charge of St Joseph's Hospital in Kyoto.
The Christians of Japan continued to be persecuted, and Japan eventually isolated itself from the rest of the world, not to open up again until the nineteenth century. The Church existed underground in Nagasaki for over two hundred years, without bishops, priests or deacons, but under the guidance and protection of the Holy Spirit. There are now many missionaries in Japan, and there is an Anglican Church (Nippon Sei Ko Kai) which has been there since the nineteenth century, but Christianity is still a minority religion. But those who are Japanese Christians remember the tremendous witness of the 26 martyrs of Japan, whom we remember today. May we all be as faithful and brave as they.
O God our Father, source of strength to all your saints, you brought the holy martyrs of Japan through the suffering of the cross to the joys of eternal life: Grant that we, encouraged by their example, may hold fast the faith we profess, even to death itself; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.