The Rev. Frank
The Martyrs of Japan
Today, we remember the Martyrs of Japan. It is a feast day in remembrance of the first 26 Christians killed in a persecution, which drove Christianity in Japan underground for nearly 300 years.
By the end of the 1500s, there were an estimated 300,000 baptized Christians in Japan. Rivalry among religious orders and the colonial politics of Spain and Portugal caused Japanese rulers to see Christianity as nothing more than a tool in Europe’s desire to colonize Japan. In 1597, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, absolute ruler of Japan sentenced 24 Christians to die. They would be marched to Nagasaki, center of Japanese Christianity. There were six European missionaries together with some of their converts who would serve as a warning to all Japanese Christians. They were to be placed on crosses and then speared to death.
On the march to Nagasaki, two Christians tried openly to encourage the condemned men. They too were sentenced to death, bringing the total to 26.
The youngest of the group was only 12 years old, Louis Ibaraki. He was an endearing boy who kept singing and laughing when they cut off one of his ears, then all through the long march to Nagasaki and on the cross too. Father Francis Blanco wrote on the eve of execution, “We have little Louis with us and he is so full of courage and in such high spirits that it astonishes everybody.”
That same night, thirteen-year-old Thomas Kozaki, who was to die with his father, wrote a farewell letter to his mother:
Each of the martyrs had a custom made cross and the boys arrived at the site looking for the smaller ones, meant for them. Each of the condemned men literally embraced their crosses before lying out on them. Most of them were over two meters high, with two cross-pieces and a prop where the victim would sit astride.
One by one the prisoners were fixed to the poles. No nails were used. Hands and feet and neck were kept in position with iron rings and a rope around the waist kept the victim tightly bound to the cross. For Fr. Peter Bautista, iron rings would not be enough. "Nail them down, brother," he asked the executioner, stretching out his hands.
Fixing Paul Miki to the cross proved to be unexpectedly difficult. The Japanese Jesuit was too short and his feet would not reach the lower rings. Under the pressure of time, the executioner had to do without the rings, and strapped Miki`s chest to the cross with a piece of linen. When he stepped on the martyr to tighten up the knot, a missionary standing in the crowd could not help himself. "Let him do his job, Father - the martyr said assaugingly - it does not really hurt."
Once the martyrs had been tied to the crosses, all twenty-six were lifted simultaneously and dropped into the ground with a thump.
The sentence of death has been attached to the shaft of a lance. Paul Miki can see it from his cross:
Paul was still the same composed man he always was, in full control of himself, always alert to the smallest details. His instincts as a preacher made him take a cue from the last sentence for a final profession of faith. He straightened himself on the cross, looked at the crowds and said in a loud voice: " All of you who are here, please, listen to me. "
One could feel the weight of silence on the hill. The same manly, vigorous voice thundered again:
Witnesses tell us that some of the guards kept edging nearer to Paul's cross, spellbound by his words. Paul saw them. He also saw Terazawa and the executioners. For all of them he had a final message:
Paul fell silent. His task as a preacher had been completed. His martyrdom gave the lie to those bent on tarnishing his reputation. He died a Christian, a Jesuit, a Japanese—proof that one could adhere to the samurai's code of honor even though faithful to Christ to the extreme of death itself. He then turned to, his companions, the ones nearer to him exchanged a few words with them and greeted a friend he could identify among the crowd. And then lifting up his heart to heaven: “Lord into thy hands I commend my spirit. Come to meet me ye Saints of God. . .”
The executioners worked their way along the line of crosses, quickly killing each man in turn, in many cases silencing voices still praising God in song.
In a letter to his superior, Father Francis Calderon, a Jesuit missionary, wrote, “Although thirty-seven days have passed since they were crucified, we still have before our eyes . . . this holy display of the martyrs’ bodies, still on their crosses.” Father Calderon added:
In 1598 an envoy from the Philippines was permitted by Hideyoshi to gather the last remains of the martyrs and their crosses. The Christians planted a tree in each of the holes in the ground left by the crosses, and in the center they built a big cross. Each year, pilgrims made their way to Nishizaka Hill, which they began calling Martyrs’ Hill. The plan to exterminate Christianity had backfired. That horrible instrument of execution, the cross, was bringing others to faith in Christ.
This situation continued until 1619, when the general persecution of Tokugawa Ieyasu was a1ready in full swing. The executioner cut down the martyrs' trees. More than 650 Christians and missionaries were put to death on the same hill of Nishizaka and its surroundings. By 1630, the Christian Church in Japan had been driven completely underground.
But the Church did not die in Nagasaki. The Christian message was passed from parents to Children by way of mouth. Christianity remained underground, passed along this way for 276 years. When Christianity was no longer persecuted the church resumed public ministry already claiming thousands whose faith had been handed down through the generations.
It is that same faith in our risen Lord we join with them in proclaiming today. May we also be faithful witnesses to Christ in our own time and place.
 This sermon relies heavily on, often quoting directly from, the work Diego R. Yuki, S.J. did for 26 martyrs museum. His work may be found in its entirety at http://pweb.sophia.ac.jp/%7Ed-mccoy/xavier/yuki/yuki01.html Though the sermon was given by the Rev. Frank Logue, it relies of Deigo Yuki's scholarship and writing. I am indebted to him for providing the story of these courageous Christians to the world.
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