The Nagasaki Martyrs


The Nagasaki Martyrs
by James Hitchcock
July 15, 1999

St. Francis Xavier, a Jesuit and the greatest missionary in the history of the Catholic Church, arrived in Japan in l549, intent on converting it. He had some success in his few years there, and other missionaries took up where he left off. They succeeded in establishing a vibrant if small Catholic community.
For a time the Japanese rulers showed a certain friendliness towards the missionaries, primarily because the rulers valued trade with European merchants. But in l596 certain political changes caused a backlash against the Christians in which Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the actual ruler of Japan (not the emperor), outlawed Christianity and ordered the arrest of recalcitrant believers.

Eventually a total of twenty-six men, nineteen of them Japanese, some priests, others laymen, were arrested and sent on a forced march to the city of Nagasaki. Along the way they were periodically tortured, their treatment designed to intimidate other Christians.

Early in l597 the band of martyrs were crucified on a hill near Nagasaki, tied or chained to crosses, then pierced with lances. All of them, including two boys, remained joyfully faithful to the end. One of them, a Jesuit brother named Paul Miki, never ceased to preach fervently to the crowds, even as he hung on the cross.

As always with martyrs, this persecution had the opposite affect from what its perpetrators intended. It inspired the remaining Christians and attracted new converts, the site of the execution was venerated as a sacred place, and Nagasaki came to be the chief center Japanese Christianity.

For a time the persecution abated, but in the l620’s the government expelled all foreigners from the country except for a small group of Dutch traders. As part of this attempt to expunge all European influence, the practice of Christianity was forbidden, and there were yet more martyrs.

More than two centuries passed, and this inspiring story was forgotten in the West except by a few people. But when Japan once again opened itself to Westerners in the l850’s, French priests established a church in Nagasaki.

To their amazement, they were visited one day by a Japanese man who was a Christian and who asked the priests three questions: whether they venerated Mary the Mother of God, whether they were married, and whether they followed the pope in Rome. When the answers proved satisfactory, a whole community of “hidden Christians” began with great joy to practice their faith openly.

The survival of Japanese Catholicism is one of the most moving stories in the entire history of the Church. For over two centuries the people had no priests but lived the faith as best they could, in secret, not daring to keep written materials but handing down their beliefs by word of mouth.

Recently I had the privilege of visiting the Shrine of the Twenty-Six Martyrs in Nagasaki, crowned by a huge sculpture of the martyrs, all in a row, their hands open in prayer or in blessing.There is a separate statue of St. Paul Miki which wonderfully captures the power of his faith. I also visited the church where the “hidden Christians” first manifested themselves, a replica of the original, which was destroyed by the American atomic bomb in l945.

Japan today is of course a highly advanced industrial nation, and it has the same kinds of cultural diseases which affect all such countries, not least our own. Catholicism has never claimed more than a tiny fraction of the Japanese people and, as in the West, there has been a diminution of religious practice in the past few decades.

Although Europe was the center of the Catholic faith in the seventeenth century, it was in the missionary countries that the most heroic Catholics of the time were found, the Japanese story paralleled by the equally moving saga of the North American Martyrs a few decades later.

It is hardly fanciful to suspect that our own faith, tepid though it is in many ways, is sustained by the immense graces won by these amazing spiritual forebearers.


I always get misty-eyed when I read about the Japanese Catholics. I don’t know WHY you posted this here, but I’m glad you did. I didn’t realize there was a special shrine to those original Japanese martyrs, and now I feel I must visit it.

Those Japanese Catholics, and those who kept the faith for 200 years without formal instruction or Mass, are a reminder to all of us of the power of God and the Church. God does not abandon the faithful. Period. There is no conceivable reason that those people would have held to the faith, except for God’s grace and love. We may live in dark times, but never, ever forget the darkness that those people lived in for generations, and still live in, and they held 100% to the faith. They are models for all of us :smiley:


I was able to visit the Shrine in Nagasaki. It’s really amazing! However, just to let you know, traveling in Japan is rather expensive and my Japanese was rather poor making things interesting:) Everything worked out though. God bless and Japanese martyrs please pray for us!


Well I didn’t know where to put it, since it’s not recent news nor owuld I just consider it some ‘water cooler’ material. I remembered people did post topics here that didn’t were more for informative value than dealing with questions, and ‘historical controversy’ mentioned in the description of this section was as close as it could get. So…

Also I found this article rather insightful, since I recently watched an anime series (animated show from Japan) called ‘Samurai Champloo’ a fun mix of hip hop style/ancient Samurai show, although it did deal with serious content. The story followed a young Japanese girl searching for her father who she believed abandoned her and her mother for some foreign western religion. She gets the aid of two wandering samurai, one a decent noble warrior, and the other a kind of criminal. Throughout their escapades, they encounter many of the things spoken of in the article, Christian sects, being conned and under persecution and almost face crucifixion themselves under a set of hilarious circumstances, until she finds her father hiding in Nagasaki all the while being followed by the Koji Government that wishes to get rid of her father and all other Christians.

Perhaps this does belong in the Watercooler section, guess I’ll leave that up to the administrators.


I’m also very moved by The Nagsaka Christains since I saw a movie a few years ago on EWTN. I remember a large Church was built in Nagasaki by Father Kolbe. This Church was destroyed by the nuclear bombing of that City in 1945.
I remember an interview with a survivor.
Even though many of his faithful Catholic Friends died including family members. He was not bitter at all. In fact he accepted their deaths as atonement for the sins of his fellow countrymen
I have never seen such faith.


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