On February 5, 1597, by order of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the regent and de facto military ruler of Japan, 26 Christians were crucified in the port town of Nagasaki. Six Franciscan missionaries (from Spain, Mexico, and India), three Japanese Jesuits, and seventeen Japanese laymen comprised the group, known as the First Martyrs of Japan and commemorated liturgically as St. Paul Miki and companions.
What historians have called the “Christian century” in Japan began with the arrival of St. Francis Xavier’s Jesuit missionary expedition in 1549. By the time Xavier left Japan in 1552, he had made perhaps three thousand Japanese converts. The Jesuits found the greatest success in those parts of Japan where they converted the feudal lord (daimyo). By 1582, there were about 150,000 Japanese Catholics. The Jesuits, whose material support came from the Portuguese trading presence in Japan, would be joined in 1593 by Franciscans from Spain. The Franciscan effort focused less on Japan’s feudal elites and more on the poor and the sick. Although lamentable rivalries between the two orders sometimes hindered missionaries’ success, the number of Japanese Christians grew to about 300,000 in 1614 (out of a population of 15 to 20 million).
Meanwhile, trouble was brewing, because Christianity had come to a Japan that was in the midst of political and military turmoil. The most powerful daimyo were in the process of creating a new centralized dictatorship amid the decline and fall of the Ashikaga shogunate. Disunity meant vulnerability to western imperialism, and the warlords who reunified Japan can hardly be blamed for seeing the missionaries as agents of the Spanish and Portuguese crowns. Despite missionaries’ assertions of independence from foreign politics and commerce, a backlash began in 1587. Regent Hideyoshi issued a sweeping anti-Christian edict that year, ordering all missionaries to leave the islands on pain of death, all missionary property to be confiscated, and all Japanese converts to recant. Oddly enough, these edicts went almost completely unenforced, but Christians were on warning. A decade later, a heavy-laden galleon, guided by a loud-mouthed pilot, ran aground on a Japanese island. The pilot’s bravado sparked rumors of a planned Spanish invasion involving missionary collusion, and Hideyoshi responded by ordering the 1597 crucifixions. The regent strategically chose to make an example at Nagasaki, one of the great centers of Japanese Catholicism.
Among those 26 First Martyrs was a promising Jesuit seminarian named Paulo Miki, who would have become the first native-born Japanese priest. Miki’s vocation was the fruit of a Christian upbringing and the long-term Jesuit efforts to raise up a Japanese priesthood. (As it turned out, the first native Japanese priests would not be ordained until 1601.) From his cross, Miki preached a “sermon” that ended in 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.
The Japanese soldiers dispatched each martyr with a spear thrust and left the bodies hanging for nine months.
Nevertheless, this was not to be the end of the missions. Hideyoshi died the next year, and the Church in Japan grew at an astounding rate, sometimes reaching 25,000 baptisms in a year. Tokugawa Ieyasu, the new military dictator who founded the long-lived Tokugawa shogunate (1600-1868) permitted this growth for much of his reign, even though he issued low-level anti-Christian edicts starting in 1601.
The great persecution of Japanese Catholics came with Ieyasu’s 1614 anti-Christian edict, which gave the following justification for banning Christianity:
The Christian band have come to Japan not only sending their merchant vessels to exchange commodities, but also long to disseminate an evil law, to overthrow right doctrine, so they may change the government of the country, and obtain possession of the land. Japan is the country of the gods and Buddha…. The principles of benevolence and right doing are held to be of prime importance…. Quickly cast out the evil law and spread our true Law more and more.
Historian Samuel Hugh Moffett, among others, has noted the deliberate opposition here between Christianity and the three great religions of Japan: “Buddhism, Shinto (‘the gods’), and Confucianism (‘benevolence and right doing’).” Another scholar, Neil S. Fujita, has suggested that these three comprised a strong native religion of “Japanism,” which Christianity could not either accommodate or ultimately supplant. The missionaries themselves saw Buddhist monks as chief among their detractors, and advisors to the shoguns busily promoted the stabilizing influence of Confucianism. In any event, the next few decades of persecution were devastating, and the Christian flock was cut in half by a combination of apostasy and martyrdom.
Out of this tragic end to Japan’s Christian century, there arose the remarkable phenomenon of clandestine Catholic communities. For over two hundred years, the “hidden Christians” (Kakure Kirishitan) survived underground, without priests and without contact with the wider Church. During the time of the missions, a perpetual shortage of priests led missionaries to train a lay Japanese leadership for service as preachers, catechists, visitors of the poor and sick, and even occasional ministers of baptism. Thus, as Japanese Catholics lost their priests in the persecution, they fell back on that well-developed lay leadership.
The structure and degree of catechesis in these communities varied a great deal by locality, but most remained faithful to a core set of beliefs and practices, especially baptism. They prayed the Our Father in Japanese and the Hail Mary in broken Latin. To avoid detection, they used devotional objects—such as statues of Madonna and child—that could be easily taken for Buddhist ones.
In 1865, after Japan had reopened itself to western influence, a newly arrived French priest named Fr. Bernard-Thadée Petitjean was overjoyed to find a large Christian community in Nagasaki. Japanese law only allowed him to minister to foreigners, but the hidden Christians came to him secretly, saying, “The heart of all of us here is the same as yours.” Through the centuries, they had handed down criteria for recognizing the Church when it reappeared: the priests would be celibate, and they would obey “the great chief of the Kingdom of Rome.” Despite the non-Christian elements that had slipped into hidden Christian practice and belief in some areas, the reuniting Christians had preserved much of the faith intact, from the celebration of Christian feast days (especially Christmas, the Lenten season, and Easter) to the rudiments of Trinitarian theology. Two to three thousand Christians from the Nagasaki area soon officially reunited themselves to the Catholic Church, and their numbers would swell as hidden Christians around the islands revealed themselves.
As we celebrate the heroic example of the Japanese martyrs and of the hidden Christians, we can also take Japan’s Catholic history as a cautionary tale. We are sometimes tempted to quote Tertullian (“the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”) and thus dismiss the terrible effects of anti-Christian state action. The great Japanese persecutions halved the body of the faithful. When the hidden Christians were rediscovered in the nineteenth century, about half of them chose not to reunite with the Catholic Church. This was not the first time that persecution had led to large-scale apostasy and schism. The last major Roman persecution, under Emperor Diocletian in the early fourth century, showed that many Christians were too weak to face death, even for Christ. After Christians received official toleration, the Donatists went into schism over questions of how to treat repentant apostates. When King Henry VIII began his sixteenth-century schism in England, only one bishop, St. John Fisher, remained steadfast against him. In short, the persecution of Christians works, and we cannot presume that we ourselves would go joyfully to our deaths. Nor ought we let ourselves become complacent about the plight of suffering Christians worldwide in our own day. For, as beautiful as is the story of the hidden Christians, what might have been the history of a Japan wherein these Catholics never had to hide? All that said, let us pray today that the blood of the First Japanese Martyrs may be the seed of a vigorous, growing Church in Japan!