The Christian Century in Japan

William DeBiase, OFM Features

Feb. 6 marks the remembrance of countless Japanese martyrs, the first of which were six Franciscan friars, three Jesuits and 17 Japanese lay people, most of whom were Franciscan Third Order members. William DeBiase, OFM, who served in Japan for 28 years, reflects on this solemn day in the Church.

The so-called “Christian Century” in the history of Japan extended from 1547 to 1633. During that epoch, the Church took roots in Japan. It was a time of great success; it was a time of persecution. It was a time of recognition; it was a time of banishment. It was a time of great charity; it was a time of political pettiness. Most of all, it was a time of heroes of the faith.

Christianity arrived in Japan on Aug. 15, 1547, when St. Francis Xavier landed in Kagoshima, a port city at the southern tip of the island of Kyushu. 

From their arrival, the missionaries were protected by shogun (feudal lord) Ashikaga Yoshiteru. They could preach freely until his assassination in 1565. His successor was not as friendly. He banished all missionaries. For some reason, this edict was never put into force. Despite the banishment, Jesuits continued to preach and baptize, and the church continued to grow. This was due, in no small part, to the fact that many of the daimyos were Christian and permitted the missionaries freedom. The church flourished. The number of Christians in 1590 was somewhere in the neighborhood of 250,000 — sources give a range of between 200,000 and 300,000. There were probably more Catholics in Japan in 1590 than there are now.

In 1593, Franciscans arrived in Japan and settled in Kyoto. The leader of the Franciscans was St. Peter Baptist. Fr. Peter came officially not as a missionary but as an ambassador from the governor of the Philippines. In a very short time, they had a vibrant parish — Our Lady of the Angels — and a hospital. It should be mentioned that the work of the Franciscans in Kyoto is a story in itself. 

Trouble Arises
I said that the history did not follow a straight line. In 1587, the shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi issued an edict forbidding Christianity and ordered all missionaries to leave Japan. This ban was never put into action for two primary reasons: Hideyoshi wanted to increase trade with Portugal and Spain and saw the missionaries as a means of accomplishing this; at that time, there were certain Buddist monks infringing on Hideyoshi’s territory, and he thought that missionaries would be a good buffer against them. 

Even in the good times, there was always some sort of cloud hovering over the work of the missionaries. It was a very precarious existence dependent on the whims of the shogun. Those whims were reinforced by many of his advisors who were adamantly anti-missionary.

The cloud became darker and finally burst. In November 1596, a Spanish galleon going from the Philippines to Mexico was shipwrecked off the coast of Japan. This in itself was not important.

However, when questioned, the captain of the vessel very imprudently told the shogun that missionaries arrived, and then soldiers. This ignited the shoguns suspicious nature. He knew what had happened in the Philippines and did not want the same to happen in Japan. The anti-missionary agitation of some of his advisors, this remark and his suspicious and rather treacherous nature all came together. The ban of 1587 was put into effect and, with the help of his advisors, he drew up a list of those who were to be martyred. Three Jesuits were brought to Kyoto from Osaka and imprisoned with Franciscans.

The Franciscans and the Jesuits were brought back to Osaka where their ears were cut. In December 1596, they began a via crucis to Nagasaki, arriving on Feb. 4. The following day, six Franciscan European missionaries, 17 laypeople — mostly catechists from Kyoto, three Jesuits, the most famous being Paul Miki — were crucified. Among the 17 laypeople were three children, including St. Luis Ibaraki who was only 12.

DeBiase_William21More Persecution
The martyrs of Nagasaki were the first but not the last. Beginning in 1603 and continuing until 1639, many gave their lives for the faith. It is really impossible to tell how many, but there are certainly many thousands. The ground of Japan, however, has been well watered by the blood of martyrs. Among these, the 26 martyrs of Nagasaki hold an honored place.

— Fr. William currently resides at Juniper Friary in Philadelphia, where he serves at St. Francis Inn. He is also a member of the Province’s Ministry of the Word and regularly updates his blog, “Franciscan.”