Sunday, February 5, 2012

In Memory of the 26 Martyrs

It was 415 years ago today, on February 5, 1597, that 26 Christians in Japan were crucified on Nishizaki Hill in Nagasaki. This column is written in memory of those men (and boys) who suffered such cruel deaths.
Christianity was first introduced in Japan by Francis Xavier and two fellow Jesuits, who landed on the southernmost island of Kyushu in 1549. Over the next few decades Christianity spread rapidly in southwestern Japan—so much so that it came to be considered a threat by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, better known as Taikosama, the absolute ruler of Japan from 1585 until his death in 1598.
By the 1580s there were some 250,000 Christians in Japan. That was still fewer than 2% of the population, but perhaps a fear of the “foreign” nature of Christianity and its possible link to Western imperialism motivated Hideyoshi to issue a decree that banned Christianity and expelled all missionaries in 1587. Because that decree proved to be ineffective, the crucifixions of 1597 were a sign that government opposition to Christianity was going to become more severe, which it did.
The 26 martyrs included six Franciscan missionaries, three Japanese Jesuits, and seventeen Japanese laymen including three boys (ages 12, 13, and 14). Twenty-four of them were arrested in Kyoto. Beginning on January 9 they were forced to walk, sometimes barefoot through the snow, to Nagasaki, arriving there on the day they were crucified.

The 26 martyrs were canonized (made saints of the Roman Catholic Church) in 1862, and on the 100th anniversary of that occasion the Twenty-Six Martyrs Monument was constructed in 1962 on Nishizaki Hill. (The picture below shows that monument, which I have visited several times.) Shortly thereafter, a museum was built adjacent to the monument and both remain popular tourist attractions in Nagasaki City. 
There is little indication that Hideyoshi acted as he did for religious reasons. It was almost completely for political reasons and out of the fear that his rule might be threatened. 
Religious persecution is carried out far more often for political purposes than because of religious belief. And the same is true for violence done in the name of religion.
Religion is often denounced because of its link to violence—the Crusades are a perennial example. But violence done primarily because of religious belief is small, indeed, compared to that done because of political power and the desire to maintain or extend that power.
In the 1930s the militarists in Japan increasingly used Shinto, the traditional religion in Japan, in order to stir up feelings of Japanese exceptionalism. Greater emphasis was placed on February 11 as the anniversary of the “founding” of Japan in 660 B.C. by the first Emperor, a direct descendant of the sun goddess. On February 11, 1940, showy ceremonies throughout Japan celebrated the 2600th anniversary of the nation’s mythical beginning.
Soon after the end of WWII, the 2/11 holiday was abolished. But then in 1966 it was re-established as National Foundation Day, in spite of considerable opposition that has continued until the present. Many Christians throughout Japan protest that holiday and in its place celebrate February 11 as “Protecting Religious Freedom Day.” So on this coming Saturday, gatherings emphasizing that theme will be held in many cities across Japan.
Protecting religious freedom continues to be important in this country, too. And, like in Japan, it is primarily the freedom of the minority religions (or the minority who do not embrace a religion) that needs to be protected most actively.


  1. This memorial is one of the highlights of visiting Nagasaki. I was not really aware of what had happened before visiting the city for other reasons (also very worthwhile). This city accentuates so much of Japan, one must visit for at least a full day and take it all in.

  2. Melvin Bradshaw was a my fellow Baptist missionary (and a friend) in Japan for many years. He gave me permission to post the following comments sent by e-mail:

    "I am reading Condoleezza Rice's 'Extraordinary Ordinary People.' It is another of those 'makes you think' books.

    "When you and I were preparing to become missionaries to Japan our own nation was in the throes of terrible unChristian practices related to racial prejudice. I remember doing what I could on a one to one basis to treat blacks in a Christian manner I was doing little in my preaching or practice to right the wrongs of racial injustice.

    "I was interim pastor of Kyoto Baptist Church when four black girls at Church in Birmingham, Alabama (the headquarters of SBC WMU!) were killed by a bomb thrown by white (Christian?) people.

    "A young Japanese student asked me how this could happen in America. I told him that it was done by prejudiced people. I reminded him of the prejudice in Japan against 'burakumin' and Koreans. I will never forget his reply, 'But Japan has never been called a Christian nation.'

    "I wrote a letter to the editor of 'The Alabama Baptist' and asked how he had not written about about that when the worldwide news publications were full of reports about it. His answer was to blame it on 'outsiders.' He reminded me that I must not forget who supported us as missionaries. I answered him by telling him not to use me as a cover for his conscience."

  3. Ernest Hollaway, another former Baptist missionary to Japan, sent the following comments by e-mail:

    "Leroy, I am glad you introduced this topic because most Americans do not know of this event.

    "A young lady here in Nashville produced a film on the martyrs for the Catholic network, EWTN. Her mother was Japanese and her father was an American. She does not speak any Japanese and so she has some interesting stories to tell of her experiences when she went to Japan to film this story. . . .

    "The title of the series is 'Let Me Walk This Path' with the subtitle 'Faith and Martyrdom in Japan.' After spending most of the time on the Nagasaki martyrs, it ends with the beatification of 188 Japanese martyrs in 2008."

  4. Bob Hanson, another friend we first knew in Japan, also commented by e-mail:

    "Thanks again Leroy. I visited this place more than once. We worked with a Catholic Parish and the Mayor of Nagasaki and some of the small villages in Okinawa. The mayor was Christian and elected by a collaboration of Buddhist and Christian Cho’s [neighborhoods]. That was around the time either he or an elected prefecture official got shot by the right wing nuts for being against building up the military.

    "Spent quite a bit of time on the island. Your message today brought back a flood of memories, thanks. Blessings on the memories of those killed way back then and since for their life in faith."

  5. A Thinking Friend in Arizona also sent the following comments by e-mail:

    "An amazing but sad moment in Japan and in world history. It seems like every culture has its own dramatic and ugly struggle for religious freedom. I was surprised that you credit the struggle in Japan to political motivation, but the more one thinks about it, the more sense it makes."

  6. Thanks, Leroy, for this peace on the martyrs. As you know, I'm planning on spending some time in Japan this summer, so you've given me a place to put on my list to visit.

    I find myself wondering whether the "political" and the "religious" can be as distinct as you seem to suggest. So much of the religious violence in history has been more or less spontaneous by different peoples rubbing elbows in some geo-political situation. And, of course, human beings are fairly quick to kill to protect current structures of rule and domination. Hm...I just don't know.