On November 24, another 188 of them were proclaimed blessed, all of them killed for the faith. The mystery of Christianity in the Land of the Rising Sun, repeatedly persecuted but always reborn, even from the harshest trials

by Sandro Magister

ROMA, November 26, 2008 – A samurai carrying the cross is not a conventional image. But there were some of these among the 188 Japanese martyrs of the seventeenth century who were proclaimed blessed two days ago in Nagasaki. There were noblemen, priests – four of them – and one religious. But most of them were ordinary Christians: farmers, women, young people under the age of twenty, even small children, entire families. All of them were killed for refusing to renounce the Christian faith.

The beatification of "Fr. Peter Kibe and his 187 companions" – as the title of the ceremony put it – was the first ever celebrated in Japan. The new blesseds joined 42 Japanese saints and 395 blesseds, all of them martyrs, elevated to the honors of the altar beginning with Pius IX.

The new blesseds were martyred between 1603 and 1639. At the time, there were about 300,000 Catholics in Japan, evangelized first by the Jesuits, with St. Francis Xavier, and then also by the Franciscans.

The initial flowering of Christianity was followed by terrible persecutions. Many people were killed, with an unprecedented cruelty that did not spare women and children. In addition to the killings, the Catholic community was decimated by the apostasy of those who abjured the faith out of fear. But it was not annihilated. Part of it went underground, and kept the faith alive by transmitting it from parents to children for two centuries, even without bishops, priests, and sacraments. It is recounted that on Good Friday in 1865, ten thousand of these "kakure kirisitan," hidden Christians, emerged from the villages and presented themselves in Nagasaki to the astonished missionaries who had just recently regained access to Japan.

As it had been three centuries before, in the beginning of the twentieth century Nagasaki again became the city with the strongest Catholic presence in Japan. On the eve of the second world war, two out of three Japanese Catholics lived in Nagasaki. But in 1945 came a terrible new extermination. This time it was not from persecution, but from the atomic bomb dropped on their city.

Today, there are just over half a million Catholics in Japan. They are a small proportion in relation to a population of 126 million. But they are respected and influential, thanks in part to an extensive network of schools and universities. And if to those of Japanese birth are added the immigrants from other Asian countries, the number of Catholics doubles, and exceeds one million.

"But I do not believe that the criterion of statistics is the best for judging the value of a Church," said Cardinal Peter Seichi Shirayanagi, archbishop emeritus of Tokyo, in an interview with "Asia News" on the eve of the beatification of the 188 martyrs.

The difficulty that Catholicism has in spreading not only in Japan, but in all of Asia, is a problem that has long troubled the Church.

The Jesuits, for example, were convinced that after the second world war Japan was fertile soil for a great missionary expansion. For this reason, they sent some of their most talented people to the country. The current superior general of the Society of Jesus, Adolfo Nicolás, 71, lived in the Far East beginning in 1964, mainly in Tokyo, as a professor of theology at Sophia University, as the provincial of the Jesuits in Japan, and most recently, from 2004-2007, as the moderator of the Jesuit conference of East Asia and Oceania. In addition to Spanish, Italian, English, and French, he speaks Japanese fluently. Fr. Pedro Arrupe, superior general of the Jesuits from 1965-1983, also spent many years in Japan. And so did Fr. Giuseppe Pittau, who was interim director of the Society.

The beatification of the 188 martyrs has in any case brought the attention of all of Japan back to the presence in its midst of the "little flock" that is the Catholic Church. Their martyrdom for faith in Christ has become known to a much wider public. And it is a story that in many ways recalls the acts of the martyrs of the first Christian centuries, in imperial Rome.

"Semen est sanguis christianorum," the blood of the martyrs is fruitful seed, Tertullian wrote at the beginning of the third century. Here is how a missionary of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, Fr. Mark Tardiff, connected the martyrdom of the 188 new Japanese blesseds to that of the martyrs of early Christianity, in a commentary written for "Asia News":

Like the martyrs of the first centuries

by Mark Tardiff

The stories of the Japanese martyrs beatified on November 24 take us back nearly 400 years, but reading their stories takes us back to the Acts of the Martyrs of the early Church.

The samurai Zaisho Shichiemon was baptized on July 22, 1608. He took the name of Leo, that of the great pope who had halted the barbarian invasions. But his story much more closely resembles the life of Saint Justin, the second century philosopher who, after discovering the Truth in Christ, would not renounce him, and died as a martyr. Hangou Mitsuhisa, the feudal lord under whom Zaisho served, had prohibited his men from becoming Christians. The priest whom Zaisho asked to baptize him reminded him of this, telling him that he could be punished or even killed. "I know," he replied, "but I have understood that salvation lies in the teaching of Jesus, and no one can separate me from Him."

As in the case of many martyrs, this was not only a mental conviction, but a mystical relationship. One day, Zaisho told a friend, "I don't know how this happened, but I now find myself thinking about God constantly." He was arrested and ordered to renounce his faith. He answered, "I would obey in any other matter, but I cannot accept any order that is opposed to my eternal salvation." On the morning of November 17, 1608, four months after his baptism, he was executed in the street in front of his house.

St. Francis Xavier reached Japan in 1549 and began the preaching of Christ in the land of the rising sun. Within sixty years the Shogun (the military ruler of Japan) unleashed a persecution of the young Church which rivalled in fury that of the Emperor Diocletian at the beginning of the fourth century. Women and children were caught up in the maelstrom, and their stories remind us of St. Perpetua, St. Felicity, and St. Agnes.

On December 9, 1603, Agnes Takeda watched as her husband was beheaded, and then reverently picked up his head and held it to her chest. The chronicler tells us that, at the sight, not only the crowd but even the executioners were moved to tears. The separation of the devoted couple was brief, because Agnes was martyred later the same day.

In 1619 Tecla Hashimoto, pregnant with her fourth child, was tied to a cross together with her three year old daughter and the wood piled around them was set afire. As the flames rose around them, her thirteen year old daughter, tied to a nearby cross, cried out, “Mom, I can’t see anything any more!” Her mother answered, “Don’t worry. In a little while you will see everything clearly.”

Peter Kibe, whose name is mentioned in the liturgical title of this martyrs’ group, had a story as adventuresome as that of St. Cyprian. Already a seminarian, he was exiled with the missionaries to Macao in 1614. His burning desire was to become a priest and return to his people, so he left Macao by ship in 1618 and went as far as Goa in India. From there he set out alone, crossing the present Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, and Jordan to arrive in the Holy Land. After a visit to the holy sites, he continued on, reaching Rome in 1620. After being ordained a priest, he set out on the return journey, which was complicated by the fact that in the meantime the Shogun had declared the country closed to all but a few strictly controlled contacts with the Dutch.

Peter managed to re-enter Japan in 1630, though, beginning a life as a fugitive priest ministering to the Christians in hiding. In 1633, hearing that the missionary Fr. Fereira had apostatized, he came down from the mountains and sought him out. “Father,” he said, “let us go together to the station of the military police. After you take back your apostasy, let us die together.” Fr. Fereira refused, and after that Fr. Peter moved his center of activities to the northeast region of Honshu, the main island of Japan. The military police finally caught up with him in 1639, and he was taken to Edo (present Tokyo), where he was subjected to cruel tortures and, when he refused to renounce his faith, he was killed.

The power of Christ was shown forth in the Japanese martyrs of the seventeenth century as clearly as it was in the Christians of the first centuries. There is the same clear eyed awareness of their choice, the same unflinching conviction in the face of demands to renounce their faith, the same unbowed and even joyful spirit in the face of cruel suffering, the same more than human strength that witnessed to Another who suffered in them. Torments and death could not overcome them; they were killed and they conquered.

The Samurai with the Cross. From the Acts of the Martyrs of Japan