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The Conce~t of Life and Death 1 t

The Concept of Life and Death in

Christian Martyrdom in Japan
Chizuo Shibata
The year 1997 marked the 400th anniversary of the 26 Christian martyrs in
Nagasaki. This has stimulated a renewed interest in the study of the Kirzshitan Era (the
first Christian era in Japan). Though this may be of interest especially to historians,
missiologists should not by any means overlook this period. For example, Alexandra
Valignano, Jesuit Visitor who was to represent in the East India Diocese of the Society of
Jesus (the Jesuit Order), had visited Japan three times, and exhibited unusual leadership
in mission strategy. All his activity calls for serious attention even today.
I am of the opinion that almost all mission problems extant in this country had
already come to the surface during his stay of more than two years each time he visited
Japan for the official inspection of Jesuit work. He already left Japan for good by the time
the Tokugawa Govenunent adopted the systematic continual persecution policy against
Christianity which was eventually carried out publicly in 1614, and forced almost all
missionaries and faithful Japanese out of Japan to Macao and Luzon in the Philippines.
But Visitor Valignano had already seen some symptoms of an impendmg disastrous
persecution period. For that reason he endeavored to initiate some preparatory training
for the Christians to meet the coming crises. From the rnissiological point of view I
believe that in his report Sumario de la cosas de Japon (Report of Inspection of Japan),
all mission issues and problems we face today were already dealt with by him.
His report is a priceless resource for getting a better understanding of the mission
history of Japan. We tend to think mainly of Europe and Reformation history when
talking about the church's work in the 16' and 17" centuries. It is, however, an amazing
fact that in those very centuries, in this Far East part of the world a most significant
Christian movement had been initiated which produced abundant fruit, a minimum of
400,000 converts, who were eventually almost all exterminated through heartlessly fierce
persecutions. Christian history books need to be revised to include an impartial
evaluation of that era. Of course, the mission enterprise of the Jesuits those days were
The Rev. Chizuo Shibata D.D., Litt.D., served as an ordained pastor of the Japan
Lutheran Church for more than 43 years as its president, 1974-1978, as professor at the
Tokyo Lutheran College and Seminary since 1978. Dr. Shibata has recently been
appointed by his church body to explore and develop mission among the Japanese in the
United States.
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undeniably an after effect of the Reformation Movement, and the conflicts between two
powers in the Iberian Peninsula were reflected in the mission history of that era as well.
Current study reveals the fact that the missionaries of that time seriously debated the
feasibility and propriety of a military conquest of this nation, which should then be
followed by evangelism among the colonized people just as had been done in other parts
of the world in the period of colonialism. At the same time, it should be pointed out that
those who accepted Christianity willingly, llke some feudalistic local lords, had secret
desires to become superior to other lords through procuring various weapons from the
missionaries, or by promoting trade through the mission society, which hct i oned as a
kind of trading agency for sustaining their mission work financially.
i n this respect, the mission strategy of that time is quite different from that of today,
and it may have seemed to them that there was no other way. For example, it took them
about two years to get a response to a specific letter to ask for authorization to implement
a mission policy. Valignano decided to ask the Pope not to permit any other societies to
get into mission work in Japan except the Jesuits, because of his fear that otherwise the
Japanese people might be misled to believe that even Christianity is a pantheistic faith
with many different groups and beliefs. But before he received the answer from the Pope,
who recognized the validity of his request, other societies llke the Franciscans or
Dominicans entered Japan from Luzon and brought the seeds of chaotic conflict among
the Christian groups in this country and thus contributed to the creation of a negative
attitude toward Christianity on the part of Japanese people.
Because of this and similar problems related to slow communication in those years,
each mission society had to work out its own self-support methods, whch inevitably
became mixed up with secular business and political powers. However, what is most
important historically is the fact that Japan and the Japanese people for the first time
encountered Christianity, and through this encounter the true nature and religious
characteristics of this people were revealed through the way they dealt with it. And on the
part of the Christian Japanese it was also the first time to come across an organizationally
well-ordered, established religion. Christianity took root deeply in the lives of the people.
Their enthusiastic but serious response was so different from the experiences those early
missionaries had had in various other places before coming to Japan.
Consequently, the Tokugawa Government had implemented a stem Exclusion Policy
(Raen) by which Christianity was systematically and continuously banned and
persecuted. In other words, Japan drastically changed political direction as she
encountered Christianity for the frrst time. This change had a very significant effect on
her life and culture. Another historic policy related to this anti-Christian policy was the
Religzous Registration Decree according to which all Japanese people were ordered to
register in a Buddhist temple nearest to their residence, as a member of that temple.
Undoubtedly this was carried out to find out who were the Christian believers.
This Religious Registration Decree succeeded in establishing a close tie between
family and temple (Danka and Danna-dera). This stem policy eventually but successfully
drove the surviving Christians to carry on their activities underground. This approach in
itself gave the populace a faulty impression and resulted generally in a deep-rooted
The Concept of Life and Death 13
negative attitude toward Christianity. The Danka-Danna-dera system contributed to
making rel~gious faith a matter of corporate belief (family-temple belief) rather than that
of each individual person. Japanese religions mainly are based on this religiously united
family belief which one may refer to as "traditional religion."
Consequently, many Japanese Christians had to make a serious choice: face
martyrdom or apostasy. It is at this point that it becomes clear that true religion and
commitment to it could not be considered without dealing with the problem of death.
That aspect of religion distinguishes it from ethics or philosophy. However, death by
martyrdom is not the same as death which comes naturally at the end of any person's life.
By contrast, martyrdom is the negation of apostasy. A martyr faces death of his or her
own will even when that death could be avoided. So the crucial factor is one's own
decision. Some may have an immovable will. Others may be faltering. But martyrdom
does not occur without a decision. A way of apostasy is usually offered in the time of any
persecution. The literature of Shusaku Endo, for example, was created from thls very
dilemma: choose martyrdom or apostasy! At any rate there is much to be gained from a
study of that era not only for historians, but also for pastors and evangelists for gaining a
better understanding of Japan and the Japanese people.
I. Martyrdom in Biblical Times
In analyzing martyrdom, what about the person who dies for the Christian faith,
while fighting with weapons? That cannot be called a true martyrdom. Consider a case in
pcint from Japanese hlstory, namely the Shmabara Revolt (1637-1638) during the
Tokugawa regime.
Today, scholars' opinions vary in their interpretation of this conflict. Was it a
farmers' revolt, or a religious (Christian) revolt? If we take the latter and call it a holy
war, those people killed in the battle cannot be called martyrs, since they fought with
weapons. This is the of f ~c i i position of the Roman Church, that is, 'knartyrdom" is the
death that comes when one remains loyal to the end for the sake of the holy teaching. The
true life is in the teaching. One does not lose the true life even when lulled for the sake of
the holy teaching. In that circumstance one does not have to fight with weapons to save
the true life.
In this sense, are there any examples of martyrdom in the Bible? To refer to Jeremiah
as a martyr is justifiable. Jeremiah, who had been persecuted for many years, was,
according to tradition, stoned to death by his fellow countrymen while exiled in Egypt.
However, the cases which are most similar to the martyrdoms which occurred in Japan
are found in the Apocrypha. For example, the martyrdoms of Eleazar, and also the seven
brothers with their mother, which are reported in the 6" and 7' chapters of Second
Maccabees. In both instances, these devout Jews refused to eat pork and out of deep
commitment to their religious principles willingly endured torture and cruel death. These
examples are similar to the notorious methods of persecution used in Japan, when
suspected Christians were compelled to step on the fumie (the image) of the Virgin Mary
in order to prove one's self to be non-Christian, or else suffer torture and death.
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If those martyrs had but simply laid aside their traditional way of life, few would
have accused them of being cowards. However, in reading I1 Maccabbees, many
Japanese are inevitably reminded of many stories related to the atrocious persecution that
broke out in the 16' and 17' centuries. There is something common in both cases: being
faithful without compromise, without violence, faithful unto death.
In the New Testament the classic example of Stephen comes to mind. His case is
sharply different fiom that of the Maccabbees. For his torturers he cried out a prayer,
"Lord, do not hold h s sin against them" (Acts 7:60). Stephen bore witness (marturia) to
his faith in Jesus Christ. This point is crucial. The English word "martyrdom" comes
from the Greek marturia which originally does not connote rhe same meaning as it is
used in English today. Its inherent meaning is to be a witness. Yet, it is easy to see how
the term "martyr" took on the meaning of a person who dies for his convictions.
In the New Testament Jesus often called his disciples his witnesses, and indeed, they
attested to his death and resurrection (Luke 24:48; Acts 1:8, etc.). They likewise referred
to themselves as witnesses (Acts 2:32; 3:15; 5:32). Faithful witnessing often led to
persecution, as was predicted in Matthew 10: 17-18. That passage became very important
for the Japanese Christians during the persecution period. They knew that faithiid
followers of Christ were called witnesses even before the term "Chnstian" became
popular (Acts 11:26). Dr. Arirnichi Ebisawa, one of the pioneer scholars of the
"Kirishitan" Era in the persecution periods, said in effect that since ancient times it is the
nature of faithful Christians to openly witness their
commitment to Christ.
In that sense the Japanese Christians in the persecution period followed the pattern
left by Christ's disciples, who understood also the Old Testament concepts of witness and
w~tnessing, "one who emphatically and repeatedly a f f ms a testimony." They
concentrated on proclaiming the Good News that Jesus dled for all, "so that those who
live should no longer to live for themselves, but for him who died for them and was
raised again. . . . Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone.
The new has come!" (2 Cor. 5:15-17).
11. An Assessment of the Persecution Era in the Early Christian Era in
To most Japanese people today, the word Junkyou, "Martyrdom," is unfamiliar, a
word from a distant past. Actually, they live in a society where legally martyrdom would
hardly take place. It is something they do not understand from personal experience.
Religious persecution may break out, but its perpetrators could be subject to legal
prosecution. However, we should not forget the history, not far distant from today, for
example that of Nazi Germany's or Japan's imperialism, when intentionally governments
closed their eyes to such violence which broke out and destroyed basic human rights and
freedom. Humankind still has an inherent weakness to repeat the same errors of the past.
However, even the history of the Kirishitan Jidai (persecution period) was not totally
tainted by brutal persecution stories. Nor can we place total blame for these persecutions
The Concept of Life and Death 15
on the society of that era, while implying that the churches were all immune and free
from mistakes or even corruption. This is what makes history complicated. This will
become clear in examining in greater detail the background of the martyrdom of the 26
saints in Nagasaki in 1597.
At first, 160 Christians were arrested, but an official, Mitsumari Ishida, a
sympathizer of the Christians, had reduced the number of apprehended persons down to
24. Most of them were arrested in Kyoto, and they had part of their ears cut off and were
forced to parade through the streets of Kyoto as a warning to the people of that city. Then
they were brought to Sakai, a commercial seaport. From there, they were forced to travel
on foot all the way down to Nagasaki, almost 500 miles in bitter winter weather. The
forced march took more than a month. En route, two others joined them of their own will.
So all together there were 26 believers, including 6 foreign missionaries.
They were executed immediately when they arrived in Nagasaki, on Nishisaka, a hill
overlooking the town. Their dead bodies were left on the crosses for many days as
described in a novel by Akira Yoshimura, a prominent writer in Japan today. This was
undoubtedly true martyrdom. Everybody would be impressed by their courageous
witness. But historically it is important to note that this martyrdom took place in the
regime of Hideyoshi, not in the regime of Ieyasu, the one who vigorously and
systematically applied the persecution policy against the Christians. It is not my intent to
detract from the heroic witness of those martyrs in Nagasaki, but it is necessary to point
out the fact that there was some attendant political conflict which had broken out between
Hideyoshi and the representatives of Spanish political expansionism as well as a related
contention between the Jesuits and the Franciscans.
It has to be noted that not a single Jesuit was among those martyred missionaries.
They were all Franciscans. Their mission started in Japan 40 years after the Jesuits. In
that sense they were still newcomers, and yet it was only they who met t h~s cruel death.
No doubt, related to the conflicting political and economic interests of Spain and Portugal
there was a kind of related conflict between the two mission bodies. Just ten years before
this martyrdom, in 1587, Hideyoshi had abruptly issued a decree, called Bateren-tsuiho-
Rei (Order of Expulsion) of all missionaries, demanding them all to depart Japan within
20 days. The ramifications of this decree are quite controversial. Even today scholars
disagree as to what might have been Hideoshi's true intent for the decree. However,
Alexandro Valignano, the Jesuit Visitor of the East Asia Diocese, had criticized Vice-
provincial Coelho's thoughtless action as a cause of Hideyoshi's sudden change in
attitude to the Christian mission. Coelho tried to please Hideyoshi by assuring him of
Portuguese anned ships for assisting him in the wars against the feudal lords in Kyushu
in his efforts to unify war- tom Japan, as well as his plan to invade Korea and China.
Such flattering remarks by a man in a higher position of a religious order naturally
revealed his proud attitude of superiority over against Japan and thereby created grounds
for suspicion on the part of Hideyoshi-especially about any possible ulterior motives
that might be woven into the Christian work being done in Japan at that time. This to me
appears to be a fair judgment.
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Although Hideyoshi did not strictly carry out this decree, it did undoubtedly give
impetus to his successor Ieyasu, who established the Tokugawa dynasty which lasted for
almost three centuries. He hated Christianity, and it was he who apenly started
persecutions. Thus Hideyoshi's decree was finally implemented in the Tokugawa regime.
It was this decree that eventually brought about a drastic turn in the former more tolerant
policies of the ruling warrior class. Now organized and continuous persecutions were
taking shape. In any given society also churches are not always immune to faults or to
making unwise judgments. This is a lesson that can be learned from the persecution era.
In 1614, Hideyoshi's expulsion order was finally carried out, and almost all missionaries
were forced to leave Japan for Macao and Luzon, while some remained secretly to
continue "caring for the sheep."
As a result of this coercive measure of the Tokugawa Regime, the history of Japan's
Christian churches entered a completely new chapter, the bitterly brutal persecution era,
called by Shusaku Endo "the third stage" of the kirishitan Jidai (Christian Era). The final
stage is known as the "Hidden Christian Era," the era when the Chst i ans did not have
professional leaders. Endo is one of the most prominent Christian writers in modem
Japan. His historical novel Chimmoku (Silence) has been translated into many other
languages and is widely read over the world. In his essay "In the Swamp of Japan" Endo
says that entering this third stage (1614) of the Kirishitan Jidai, Japanese Chnstians stood
at the cross-roads, faced with the dilemma to choose apostasy or martyrdom. This stage
ended with the Shirnabara revolt in 1637-1638. Many Christians who joined in this revolt
against the Tokugawa Regime were killed. On the surface, Christianity disappeared and
the last stage of the era started. Christian people who survived the persecutions had to
pretend to be non-Christians or Buddhists in order to keep up their faith secretly. They
are called Kakure-Kirishitan (Hidden Christians).
They were not formally organized, but isolated from one another without any
professional leaders.
III. Life and Death During the Persecutions
in attempting to estimate the number of Christian martyrs in early Japan, Professor
Kiichi Matsuda concludes that the number based on the research of Father Loures is quite
accurate, namely, 4045. However, Father Hubert Ci e s b one of the expert researchers in
the study of the Kiriskitan Jidai, reasons that the real number must be far greater. He
infers that more than 40,000 people were killed for the sake of the faith. If his calculation
is closer to the fact, this is a startling number. The total population of Japan in those years
was at most between 18 and 20 million. On the basis of this estimate, eight or nine people
out of every 100 Chnstians were martyred. Of course, scholars vary in their conclusions
on this point. But even in the reports of the persecutors, we read comments to the effect
that very few apostasized in spite of the severe interrogations and tortures that took place.
Those who did not apostasize were taken in groups, 50 or 60 each, to Shimabara Hot
Springs, where either boiling water was poured on them, or they would be thrown into
cauldrons of boiling water till their bones and flesh became separated and then
The Concept of Life and Death 17
disgracefully scattered. Various methods of torture and executions were devised, such as
burning them alive, or putting them into cages on the seashore, to be drowned or to suffer
slow death under a broiling sun. Sometimes fingernails and toenails were plucked; or
their lower limbs would be pierced through with pipes so they could be hung upside
down in open pits after a cross-shaped cut was made on the forehead so the person would
slowly bleed to death.
Then finally the notorious Fumi-e torture was devised. "Fumu" means to step on.
"E' means literally a picture. In this case the image of the Virgin Mary was meant. The
persecutors forced foreign missionaries to step on her image, and for each one who would
refuse, a Japanese Christian would be put to death. Thus both psychological and physical
tortures were applied. Who would not have been horrified by such cruel atrocities? But as
was reported, very few apostasized. It seemed that the persecutors did not know what to
do with this unflinching steadfastness of the believers. How could the believers so calmly
accept such inevitably cruel death?
Concerning this matter I recently interviewed a Catholic nun, Chizuko Kataoka,
president of the Nagasaki Junshin ("Pure Heart") Women's College. She expressed
disagreement with Shusaku Endo's understanding of martyrdom. It is well known that
Endo deals sympathetically with the matter of those who did apostasize by questioning
why God kept silent when the faithful were forced to face such a critical situation.
President Kataoka stated that Endo's emphasis might possibly mislead people to an
incorrect conclusion that the majority of Japanese Christians succumbed to the tortures. A
more positive evaluation is necessary for understanding the martyrdom of that era.
President Kataoka pointed out that the early Christians had received thorough preparatory
education which readied them for the eventuality of death by martyrdom.
Special guidebooks were prepared to help Christians mold their faith life outlook on
life and death. Thus they became prepared for the ultimate realities. Alexandra Valignano
brought to Japan the printing press, and for the fust time some books were printed and
circulated among the believers. In 1607, the Gopasshon no Kannen ("Ideas of Passion"),
followed by Supirituam Shugyo (Spiritual Training) were published and circulated. The
latter was based on "Spiritual Exercises" (1522) by Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556).
In 1896 Dr. Naojiro Murakami, a pioneer in the study of the early Kirishitan Era,
discovered in the Nagasaki Prefectural office a booklet which was titled Maruchiru no
Michi ("The Way to Martyrdom"). Dr. Arimich Ebisawa, another well-known research
scholar of that era, estimates that this booklet was published between 16 16 and 1623. In
159 1, Santosu Gosagyo ("The Works of the Saints"), a coIlection of stories about the
martyrs, was published. Thomas A. Kempis' Imitatio Christi was introduced to Japanese
Christians under the title of Contemptus Muncli ("Contempt for this World"). In this book
there are sentences of reminder that while we live in this world, we cannot live without
encountering nangi tentasan ("trials and temptations"), and in dying with "A"' we will
live eternally. "X" was used to denote Christ. According to the time categories set by
Shusaku Endo, these guide books were actually needed in the second stage of the
Kirishitan Era when the leaders of the churches began to anticipate times of severe
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persecution, or more likely in the third stage when the organized continuous persecution
broke out.
An outstanding work on this subject was written by Professor Yakichi Kataoka, the
father of college president Chizuko Kataoka. The title of h ~ s book is Nihon Kirishitan
Junnkyo-shi ("History of the Chnstian Persecution in Japan"). His work provides a better
understanding of the role the guidebooks played in helping Japanese Christians to
become strong in the faith, readied for the coming trials.
A sampling of excerpts from the guidebooks will provide insight into the way the
believers were trained. Gopasshon no Ka~lnen ("Ideas of Passion") is a textbook on
contemplating the Passion of Chnst from eight different angles. The second angle reveals
the real purpose of the book. It encourages adoption of the of suffering, patterned after
Christ, and that we should resolve to partake in His suffering (Romans 8). Already in the
first chapter of Maruchiru no Michi ("The Way to Martyrdom") it is stated that
perusegisan (persecution) is to be a part of the Chnstian's life as planned by Deus (God)
and that the ekerejia (Churches) do not become weakened because of persecution, but
rather strengthened. Prof. Ebisawa explains that we hear in this statement an echo of the
words of Tertullian, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of new believers." Santosu no
Gosagyo ("The Works of the Saints") served as a simpler introductory book, easier than
the Doctirina Kirishitan (the Catechism of the Roman Church) which had already been
translated into Japanese, but was too difficult for the commoners. Learning about the
heroic l~ves of the early martyrs helped the Japanese Christians learn more about the core
teachings of Christianity.
Conclusion: The Definition of Martyrdom
As stated earlier, death on the battlefield, fighting with weapons, is not included in
the concept of martyrdom. Then, just what is martyrdom? Father Cieslik, an edrtor of the
volumes concerning the persecution of Christians in Japan, published by the Iwami
Publishing House, gives this definition in the preface. He states that three factors are
indispensable: 1) Death by execution whether that be in prison, or by forced starvation, or
forced deportation into lonely exile: 2) Willingness to accept death through non-
res~stance to sebai (execution by official order). Those who dreaded to be killed by their
persecutors and fought back with weapons, or committed suicide, e.g., by harakiri were
not called martyrs: 3) Death for the sake of the Christian faith and life, caused by the
simple fact that they are Christians who advocated the Chnstian way of life.
Father Cieslik states that of these three, the second one is very difficult to accept. An
honorable suicide, harakiri, was highly praised by (j:Le warrior class in particular.
Consequently the Christian prohibition of suicide was considered to be cowardice and a
dishonor. But Christian warriors like Harunobu Arima, a provincial lord, or Motonobu
Kumagi, bravely observed the Christian principles. They were both ordered to do
harakiri but they asked others to kill them, saying the Christian teaching was the only
way to eternal salvat~on.
The Concept ofLife and Death 19
There were in fact some missionaries at that time who came to Japan with the hope
of becoming martyrs. A Dominican friar called attention to his own death when he was
burned on the cross, saying that it was a special grace given to him. A man named Petero
Kibe, a Chistian warrior, who went to Rome via India, Arabia, and Jerusalem, had a
burning desire to become a priest with the hope that he would later be martyred when he
returned to Japan. He was put to death by the persecutors by being hanged upside down
in a pit. The poet Goichi Matunaga, who researched his life, called Petero's death
"unregrettable self-perfection." To us, living some centuries later, his desire for such a
death seems rather an improper glorification of martyrdom.
Equal attention in the study of martyrdom must also be given to those who
apostasized. Martyrdom and apostasy are inseparably tied to each other. How can the two
be viewed theologically under the divine providence of God? This is an important
question to answer, a task that still needs thorough exploration for a proper understanhng
of human history in the light of God's salvation history in Jesus Christ.
In conclusion, I refer to Professor Yakichi Kataoka who stated that martyrdom
proved the firm faith and steadfast loyalty of those early Christians to Christ even unto
death. Consequently in Japan martyrdom itself came to be highly regarded and the
martyrs highly esteemed, but the martyrs themselves were indeed humble, asking for
God's help to see them through the death that confronted them (Nihon Kirishitan Junkyo-
shi, p. 250).
Because of the increasing incidence of persecution against Christians in many parts
of the world today, the subject of martyrdom that actually took place in the early history
of Japanese Christianity is a highly relevant subject that calls for serious attention to see
the ultimate purpose of human history in the light of God's salvation history in Chnst
20 Missio Apostolica
Alexandro Valignano, Sumario de las Cosas de Japon, translated into Japanese in Nihon
Yakichi Kataoka, Nihon Kirishitan Junkyo-shi (History of Japanese Martyrdoms).
Nihon Shiso-Taikei (Series of volumes re: Japanese Ideology), volume 25 "Kirishitan-
sho" and "Haiya-sho"-writings for and against Christianity.
Neil S. Fujita, Japan S Encounter with Christianity.
J.E. Moran, The Japanese and the Jesuits.
Koichi Shimisu, Kirishitan Kinsei-shi. ( A history of the prohibitions against Christianity).
Arimichi Ebina, Kirishitan Dan-atsu to Teikou (Persecution against Christians and their
Shusaku Endo, Nihon no Numa no Naka-de (In the swamp of Japan) Chimmoku
Akira Yoshimura, Harituke (Crucifixion)
Izuru Niimura, Kirishitan Bungaku-shu (Christian literary work during the First Christian
Leon Pages, Histoire de la Religion Chretienne au Japon depuzs 1598 jusqu'a 1651,
(Translated into Japanese Nihon Kirishitan Shumon-shi).
George Elison, Deus Destroyed.