Japanese martyrs

There is no shortage of martyrs from the Church in Japan. And, few days ago, at the beginning of August, we marked the anniversary of the American bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, which had a very heavy toll on the nation in general, but upon the Church in particular, especially in Nagasaki. Today, the Church calendars give us a short list, and tomorrow we have another couple. Let’s have a look:

“In Kyoto in Japan, Blessed John of Saint Martha, priest of the Order of Friars Minor (OFM, Franciscan Fathers) and martyr, who while being led to be tortured preached to the people and sang the psalm ‘Praise the Lord, all you peoples (Psalm 116).’ In Kokura in Japan, the blessed martyrs Simon Bokusai Kyota, a catechist, and Magdalene, his wife, and Thomas Gengoro and Maria his wife, and James their son and yet a child, all of whom in fulfilment of the decree of the prefect Yetsundo were crucified heads-downward in hatred for the name of Christians.”

Roman Martyrology, 16th of August

“In Nagasaki in Japan, the holy martyrs James Kyuhei Gorobioye Tomonaga, priest of the Order of Preachers (Dominicans), and Michael Kurobioye, who under the supreme leader Tokugawa Yemitsu were condemned to death for Christ.”

Roman Martyrology, 17th of August

I’m not certain why I feel so intensely for the suffering Japanese Catholics; all I know about them is their origins in the mission of Saint Francis Xavier and his companions in the middle of the sixteenth century. These Jesuits made small impact on the Japanese, but successive waves of Jesuit visitors were able to build on the foundations of the first visits and the Catholics increased in number. As the Catholic Encyclopaedia article summarises, the Japanese overlords (daimyos), instigated by the monks of the local religion (bonzes), in the late sixteenth century and early seventeenth century were eager to eliminate this foreign religion. The greatest outrages you could imagine were inflicted upon these poor Japanese Catholics; only a sample of these can be seen in the martyrology entries above. Beheadings, crucifixions, scourgings, etc. As the article states, the pagans who witnessed the martyrdoms were surprised by the joy with which the Catholics endured the tortures and their courage at the moment of death.

Interestingly, when the American captain, Commodore Perry, arrived at Japan in 1853, he discovered Catholics who had retained their Christian faith in the absence of priests for some two hundred and fifty years. Thousands of them, still in the midst of persecution, for they only acquired religious liberty in 1873. It is an extraordinary story of faith surviving in spite of every opposition.