Martyrs In Japan


1. Introduction Of Christianity Into Japan, Rise Of Persecution The First Martyrs

THE Order of Friars-Preachers, founded by the great patriarch, S. Dominic, is essentially a missionary Order. Its spirit is at once monastic and apostolic, forming a link between the ancient contemplative Orders and the modem active Congregations. The object of S. Dominic in his foundation was to form an Order of teachers and preachers who, living under a rule obliging them to all the distinctive observances of monastic life, might impart to the Church the fruits of their contemplation.

In the early part of the fourteenth century Benedict XII., a Cistercian monk, filled the Chair of S. Peter. Certain members of his Order petitioned the Pontiff to change the constitutions of the Friars-Preachers, representing that the severity of their rule unfitted them for the laborious duties of the apostolic life. The General Chapter of the Order, then assembled in Valentia, considered what answer to these complaints would most influence the mind of the Pope and save the Order from the threatened disaster. It was proposed to compute the number of martyrs the friars had given to the Church during one century, from 1234 to 1334. The number amounted to 13,370. This argument was conclusive, and the rule remained inviolate.

S. Dominic himself was unable, as he ardently desired, to preach to the heathen and to shed his blood for the faith, but in the persons of his children he has evangelized the world ; in every nation his apostolic voice has gone forth, in every land his white scapular has been dyed with the blood of martyrdom. By establishing the " Order of Truth " he has carried the light of faith to nations sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death.

The heroic men who formed the Province of the Rosary in the Philippine Islands, had drunk deeply of the true spirit of their Order, and from their number were chosen the missionaries who shed their blood in Japan, and whose labours and sufferings are briefly recorded in these pages. Their lives supply a sufficient answer to complaints such as those addressed to Benedict XI I. by the Cistercians. They united perfectly the monastic and the apostolic spirit. The grace to perform the one was drawn from a rigid observance of the other. One isolated missionary, overwhelmed with active duties, besides the austerities of his rule, divided his day chorally, and recited his office as though he were in community. When two were together, they recited the midnight office, and observed the rule of conventual life. The conversion of thousands who became saints and martyrs was the consequence.

A " History of the Japanese Missions " has already appeared in English, but no information is given of the share taken in the work by the Dominican Fathers. This is surprising when we consider the universal spread of the Rosary Confraternity throughout the Christian part of the empire, and the prominent position of the friars from A.D. 1 60 1 till the destruction of the missions. Pius IX. chose the feast of S. Catherine of Siena for granting permission to proceed to the Beatification of July, 1867, because ** so many women of invincible courage among the Japanese martyrs had followed her in the paths of virtue " by being Tertiaries of S. Dominic. It is to be regretted that the gifted authoress of the " History of the Missions of Japan " was not aware of these facts.

In many points of view the Japanese are an extraordinary people. They had reached a high degree of civilization centuries before the Romans set foot in Britain, and if they had been converted to Christianity at an early date, they might have escaped that state of decay they fell into for centuries, the result of the corruptions of idolatry, and the apathy produced by isolation from their fellow-men. The ecclesiastical history of the Japanese brings out their good and bad qualities in strong relief. The natural virtues of the people attracted them to the Church, and those virtues, elevated by grace, presented the finest examples of genuine Christian character. The dread of foreign influence induced the government to extirpate the Faith by fire and sword.

The collection of islands which, grouped under one government, form the empire of Japan, lie east of the mainland of Asia, and were discovered by the Portuguese in the fifteenth century. The government until the recent changes was despotic, and the line of the emperors, or Mikados as they were called, is extremely ancient, reaching back to at least five hundred years before the Christian era. But at the end of the twelfth century, or nearly a.d. 1300, changes were introduced which are thus described by Father L. C. Casartelli, in an article of great interest inside, but the coast slopes off gently towards the sea, forming an advantageous position for a harbour, which is generally much frequented by native as well as Chinese and European vessels. Nagasaki, as the reader will presently see, has justly received the name of the Holy City, the City of the Martyrs.

Very soon after the discovery of the empire by the Portuguese, missionaries sailed from Goa for the various islands of eastern Asia, and in i53o> we are told, a Dominican father endeavoured to reach Japan, but was killed on the way by the inhabitants of the island of Loo-Choo.

Almighty God had reserved the work of sowing the first seeds of gospel truth in Japan to the great apostle of the Society of Jesus, S. Francis Xavier. The career of this marvellous man, the faithful imitator of the first apostles, the glory and wonder of the Church in the sixteenth century, is too well known to need more than a passing mention. But it was impossible to pass over in silence the work of one who, Pius IX. has declared, merits to be called the apostle of Japan, while at the same time to enter into the details of his life would lead us from our immediate subject. It will be sufficient, then, to remind the reader that S. Francis was one of the first companions and one of the greatest children whom God gave to His servant the illustrious S. Ignatius. Chosen of the natives. For a considerable period they were left unmolested by the government, but under Taiko-Sama this favourable state of affairs altered.

" Taiko-Sama (literally ' Lord Taiko ' ) was in reality the Prime Minister, Commander-in-Chief, and Vice-regent, known in Japanese history as Hideyoshi. He was not emperor, and never obtained even the exalted title of Shogan, but was content with the lower one of Kwambahu, though his power was none the less absolute."

The persecution which he began has been attributed to different causes, the hatred the bonzes entertained towards Christianity, the natural jealousy in so exclusive a people of a foreign religion, all no doubt encouraged and increased by the devil. " But whatever dislike to Christianity had been growing up in his mind was fanned into a flame by the firmness and constancy of certain Christian maidens who refused to yield to his lustful passions and preferred death to sin."

The first edict was published in 1587, banishing all foreign religious teachers from Japan under pain of death. Nagasaki was the only exception, for, as many Europeans resided there, priests were allowed to remain for their sake, though forbidden to leave the town. Still they managed secretly to continue their apostolic journeys into the different provinces of the empire, and baptised sixty-five thousand adults, besides multitudes of children. In the year 1593 they were joined by some fathers of the Seraphic Order of S. Francis of Assisi, who immediately began to evangelize the people and to reap an abundant harvest of souls.

Shortly afterwards, however, an unfortunate event took place, which excited the anger of Taiko-Sama against the Spaniards and Portuguese, and resulted in the outbreak of a persecution which never really ended till every missionary had been either put to death or driven from the country. A Spanish vessel, laden with valuable merchandise from the Philippine Islands, was thrown by a tempest on the coast of Japan, and the crew being saved, certain persons represented to the emperor that this was only the first step of a preconcerted plan, by which it was intended to subject the whole empire to the Spanish yoke. Taiko-Sama believed these reports, and in consequence issued edicts commanding the immediate massacre of all the Christians in every part of the empire. This command was not fully carried out. The princes ruling over the various provinces of the empire frequently assumed a great deal of independence in their own government, and in this instance they modified the cruel command of their feudal lord. The governor of Macao also petitioned that the punishment might be confined to those strangers who had entered Japan from the Philippine Islands, and whom the emperor had been informed were emissaries of the Spanish government According to this modified edict of persecution, the fathers of the Society of Jesus who had come from Macao were released on condition of immediately withdrawing from the country, but the Franciscan missionaries were thrown into prison and sentenced to be crucified. The governor of Nagasaki had imprisoned three Japanese who had entered the Society of Jesus, and these also, together with seventeen natives, members of the Third Order of S. Francis, were included in the same sentence. Twenty-six crosses were planted on a hill near the city of Nagasaki on the 5th of February, 1597, and the , martyrs bravely suffered to the last, without one of them failing in the trial. They were the protomartyrs of Japan, the first of a long catalogue of heroic Christians who sacrificed their lives for Christ. Their names were first enrolled in the list of the beatified by Urban VIII. in 1629, and in our own day they were solemnly canonized by Pope Pius IX., on the 8th of June, 1862, in the presence of a vast concourse of bishops from every part of the world.