Martyrs of Japan
The 1500s was a time of incredible change. The world was expanding rapidly, people were interacting for the first time, and European powers were beginning to trade with places they’d never known of before. East Asia, South Asia, the Americas: There was a whole new world out there.
During time, Francis Xavier, one of the first Jesuits, and some others set off for Japan. It was, at that time, fertile mission field. The people of Japan were receptive to Christianity, and the Shogunate welcomed them.
The Christian Missionaries were welcomed for a couple of reasons. The Shogunate appreciated the trade benefits that the missionaries brought; allowing the missionaries into the country greased the skids a bit for trade with Spain and Portugal, which was something they wanted. Additionally, the missionaries and the church provided a check on the Buddhist monks.
When we think of Buddhists these days, we tend to think of people like the Dali Lama, or perhaps a middle-aged hippy Uncle with a soul patch who treks off to California occasionally to “find himself.” In reality, they can be quite a force to be reckoned with. Even today in Myanmar, there are always roughly the same number of Buddhist monks as there are men in the Army, and the two provide a check on each other, not just morally, but in force. In past uprisings and unrest, it has been the monks that have lead the protests, and in some cases, brutal violence. The Shogun was more than happy to let in someone who would help check and reduce their power.
Eventually, though, the Shogun started worrying about Imperialism, and he wasn't wrong. The Spanish especially did tend to send Christian Missionaries into countries partially to undermine the power of the “pagan” governments so that they could come in and take control as the rightful Christian rulers. Eventually, the Shogunate found a trade ship with some arms on it, which was not kindly received. They reacted, well… poorly. They cracked down on Christians, culminating in a battle where 30, 000 Christians faced off against 100,000 Samurai. Though there was a great cost to the government, the Christians were crushed.
Japan sealed their borders, and effectively cut off in the early 1600s, and they would not open for more than 200 years.
The thing is, there were still many, many Christians in Japan. And those Christians needed priests. And Jesus called us to preach the Gospel in all parts of the world.
And so priests snuck in and were smuggled in to provide sacramental ministry to the Christians who were in Japan. Both those martyred at the beginning of the genocide and those who were caught during it faced horrific fates.
On February 5th, 1597, twenty-six Christians were crucified in Nagasaki. They were the first of thousands to be killed. Wives and children of those who were martyred were also ordered to be killed.
A ships captain who helped sneak two priests into the country who was himself Christian was caught and sentenced to be burned. He preached on the scaffold before his execution and was ordered to stop. He asked what greater pain they could inflict on him than they were already, and he continued to preach even as he burned. His body and those of his officers who met the same fate were left for days where they were. Christians tried to come and venerate the bodies and take relics, and they were beaten severely.
Christians were crucified. They were hung upside down into cesspits with slits cut into their foreheads to relieve the pressure in their heads. They were tied naked to stakes as the tide came in, left to either drown or freeze to death. Many went to their death singing hymns of praise, on their way to paradise.
Priest captured would be put where they could hear and see their flock captured with them. If they did not recant and apostasize, their flock would be tortured and executed in front of them until they did. Rather than torture and inflict pain, Christians were made to bear the suffering of others, taking on responsibility for the suffering and death of those they loved, a story as old as Christianity itself.
The whole nation was divided into groups of three families. If one family was found to be Christian and they were not turned in by one of the two families they were paired with, all three families would be tortured and killed.
There has perhaps at no point since the death of Christ, including during the Diocletian persecutions or the persecution of Nero, been a time when Christians were more literally forced to take up their cross and follow. When we pray that God regard not our sins but the faith of the church, this is the faith to which we can only hope to attain.
This faith in a good and loving God, and incarnate God, a God awash in love in the person of Jesus is all the more remarkable for allowing itself to be proclaimed in the face of forces that can only be described as satanic.
A comparable analogue today would be if priests were sneaking into Nineveh in territory controlled by the Islamic State and were ministering to the Christians there. The threat they would be under is similar, and the need for Christian witness would be similar. That is the gravity of the situation in which these Christians found themselves.
And yet, the faith continued. The light of Christ was not extinguished. When Japan opened its borders nearly 200 years after sealing itself off, families were found that had crosses and crucifixes carved into the back of their Buddha statues.
And though there are nearly three times as many Catholics today in Philly as in Japan. More Catholics in Philly than there are Christians of any stripe in Japan. There are still Christians in Japan. Even those forces of Darkness could not be overcome by the forces of Christ.
Though the teachings were imperfect, having been handed down for generations without access to training or clergy, the faith continued, the traditions were passed down, and the church did not fail.
The Persecution in Japan was the most successful, and it forced nearly all Christians to take up their cross and follow, but even in the face of that success, Christianity endured.
We will never be asked to take up our cross like the martyrs of Japan. We’ll never be asked to suffer in the same way they did. But we can draw our inspiration from them, we can remember their witness during our own difficulty, we can be brave enough to share the Gospel with those we encounter. We can strive to witness as they did. And by doing so, we can honor the sacrifices they made while tied to stakes, awash in seawater, amidst the flames, hanging in cesspits, and bearing the suffering of others.
May we have even a portion of the bravery and faith those brave men and women had, to give up our lives, take up our crosses, and follow the risen Christ.