Saint Paul Miki and Companions
The Martyrs of Japan
Feast day: February 6
When St. Francis Xavier arrived in Japan with the intention of converting the emperor, and thus the people of Japan to Christianity, he couldn’t have landed at a worse time. It was 1549, and Japan was still embroiled in the bloody Sengoku, or Warring States period. Earthquakes and famines had brought untold suffering to the peasant class, which was further exacerbated by taxes and debts. Farmers armed themselves and revolted against their Feudal lords, or daimyo, in protest. Unrest seeped through the social ranks as economic troubles compounded, leading to the Onin War (1467-1477), which further deteriorated the power of the Ashikaga shogunate. As the central authority faltered, the daimyo of powerful clans fought for control, plunging the nation into an era of unending military conflict, social turmoil, and unpredictable politics. Castles were besieged, provinces were captured, and clever underlings overthrew their masters.
The first Europeans, the Portuguese, arrived in 1543 by accident due to a storm that swept them off course from Thailand. The Japanese were not impressed. They viewed the European traders as crude, unhygienic, illiterate, lacking in self-control, and were horrified by their habit of eating with their fingers. However, Japanese lords began befriending the foreign traders for several reasons, including keen interest in their light, matchlock equipped wooden rifles, European grade gunpowder, and sailing vessel structure. The traders on the other hand were intrigued by Japan’s complex but sophisticated Feudal culture, and their natural wealth of precious metals. The Portuguese discovered that they could profit from acting as intermediary traders between Japan and China, who were not on good terms at the time. The Nanban (“southern barbarian”) trade period began, bringing not just traders but missionaries, to the land of the rising sun.
Meanwhile, one man from an obscure background rose to power in central Japan. The powerful Oda Nobunaga had nearly succeeded in finally uniting Japan, which held the promise of stability, when he was betrayed in 1582 by one of his own generals. The general, Mitsuhide, forced Nobunaga to commit ritual suicide after turning on him to exact revenge for an earlier wrong against his family. Nobunaga’s allies rushed to avenge his death and establish themselves as his successor. Toyotomi Hideyoshi was successful and a few years of tentative and fragile peace followed, but conflict continued to brew beneath the surface. In the background Christianity began to spread, being especially popular among the lower classes.
In 1587 Hideyoshi, holding the rank of chief advisor to the Emperor, declared that all foreigners (especially missionaries) had to leave Japan. Hideyoshi had originally been welcoming to the missionaries and their new religion. However, over the years different missionary orders had been coming into conflict with one another, as well as the pre-established religions that had been the spiritual soul of the nation for almost 1,000 years. Converts were given new Christian names and encouraged to adjust to the Western way of life, including wearing Western clothing, which furthered Hideyoshi’s suspicions that the missionaries were Western agents trying to corrupt Japanese culture and traditions. With the number of converts rapidly expanding and organizing, he recognized the threat of divided loyalties and issued the decree.
While some Japanese Christians fled to other countries, the decree was almost completely ignored by the missionaries. They continued to convert the receptive population, and by 1588 had recruited an additional 65,000 Japanese Christians, even declaring Japan a separate diocese and establishing a bishop’s residence at Funai. In December of 1596, the captain of a Spanish vessel was driven off course by a storm, and ended up in an area of the coast forbidden to foreigners. Japanese authorities seized his ship, the San Felipe. In an effort to get his ship and cargo returned to him he appealed to Hideyoshi, in the process telling him that the missionaries had actually been sent to prepare Japan for European conquest, confirming Hideyoshi’s worst suspicions about the foreigners.
Quick to action, Hideyoshi personally seized control of Nagasaki, the trading port city, and the first martyrdom of Nagasaki occurred on February 5th, 1597. Three Japanese Jesuits, six Franciscans, and sixteen Japanese (and one Korean) Christians were killed by crucifixion. Among the Japanese Jesuits was a renowned nobleman turned preacher, Paul Miki. The group was secured to raised crosses outside of the city and publicly executed with lances. It would be the first of many Japanese martyrdoms for the faith.
However, the missionaries were not deterred by the warning and continued to convert devoted citizens, despite the growing threat of persecution. By 1614 there were an estimated 300,000 Christians in Japan. Thousands would be executed for their professions of the forbidden faith, many reportedly singing Te Deum as they died, while others still practiced in secret. After the failed Shimabara Rebellion, European traders and Western Catholics were completely expelled from Japan by the Tokugawa Shogunate, and Christianity went underground. Priests caught sneaking into the country were executed. When Japan finally opened its doors to the outside world in 1865, thousands came out of hiding and asked the newly arrived traders for statues of Jesus and Mary, some still speaking bits of Portuguese and Latin their ancestors had been taught 200 years before.