Japan: Peeps at History - John Finnemore

The Story of the Christian Martyrs

After the death of Hideyoshi the Christians were left in peace for some time. Ieyasu was at first too busy founding his government to pay much attention to them, but it was not likely that he felt very friendly towards them, for a number of Christian Daimyos were among his bitterest enemies. In 1606 he showed his dislike of this new faith by issuing an edict forbidding that any more converts should be made, and that the new teaching must be given up. Little notice, however, was taken of this edict, above all in the Christian city of Nagasaki, where a magnificent procession marched through the streets in honour of Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Order of Jesuits.

Ieyasu was angry when he heard of this, and began to act more severely towards the native Christians about his own Court. It is certain that he entertained the idea of his old master Hideyoshi, and believed that the coming of the foreign teachers was a menace to the peace of the empire and the safety of Japan. But it was not until 1614 that the storm broke. Ieyasu now made up his mind that the Christian faith should be destroyed in Japan: he issued an edict that all priests should be sent out of the country, that all churches should be pulled down, and that all native Christians should be compelled to renounce their faith. These edicts remained in force and were posted on the public notice-boards until 1868.

A terrible persecution of the Christians was now set on foot. Those who would not give up the faith were hunted down and put to death with the most dreadful cruelty. Rewards were offered to all who should inform against Christians, the rewards rising as high as 300 pieces of silver offered to those who discovered that a Christian, having given up his faith, had returned to it once more.

After the death of Ieyasu, in 1616, the persecutors, urged on by his son, redoubled their fury. One writer says: "We read of Christians being executed in a barbarous manner in the sight of each other, of their being hurled from the tops of precipices, of their being burned alive, of their being torn asunder by oxen, of their being tied up in rice-bags, which were heaped together, and of the pile thus formed being set on fire. Others were tortured before death by the insertion of sharp spikes under the nails of the hands and feet, while some poor wretches, by a refinement of horrid cruelty, were shut up in cages and there left to starve with food before their eyes."

A special body of men was appointed by the Japanese Government for this work of searching out Christians and forcing them to renounce their faith, and year by year the work went steadily on. There was much work to be done, for the heroism of the Japanese martyrs was beyond all praise. They suffered by hundreds and by thousands. They were burned to death, beaten to death by clubs, crucified, and beheaded. If a priest was found hidden in a house the whole family suffered death; if the parents did not inform against children or children against parents, all went to a common fate. Still the converts clung to the new faith, clung all the closer for the terrible scenes which were enacted before their eyes. They crept by night to the places where the ashes of their friends still smouldered, and sought the charred fragments to preserve as treasured relics. The authorities discovered this, and ordered that the bodies should be completely consumed and the ashes flung into the sea.

[Illustration] from Peeps at History - Japan by John Finnemore


The most furious assault of these persecutors was made upon the Christian city of Nagasaki. A Governor was sent there with strict orders to put down the Christians, and he went about the task in a terrible manner. The streets of the city were closed at night by gates, and each street was under the charge of a headman who was responsible for those who lived in the houses under his care. In this way, when the gates were closed, each street was in the nature of a prison in which every occupant could be closely examined. Beside the headman of the street, each set of five houses was in the charge of an overseer, who was expected to know the name and business of every person in the houses over which he watched. Thus, between headman and overseer, the Governor could gain full information with regard to a person suspected of being a Christian.

The Governor took the city street by street and house by house, and examined every citizen. Those who were not Christians, or who were willing to give up their faith, he left alone. But the Christians who stood by their faith were handed over at once to the torturers. A favourite method of torture with this Governor was to send his prisoners to a spot where boiling springs bubbled from the earth. Here their backs were slashed open with knife or sword, and the boiling water poured on the raw flesh. But he had other tortures at his command, far more dreadful, and some too horrible to be described, and by means of these he broke the spirit of many people. It is said that in 1626 there were forty thousand Christians in Nagasaki, and in 1627 there was not left one who avowed his faith. The cruel Governor had put to death or terrified into recantation or driven to flight the whole of them, and he gloried in his feat.

But though Nagasaki was swept clear of the faith, the districts around were full of fugitives from the persecution. Before long the officers of the Government were in hot pursuit, and the villages were searched and the Christians dragged to the stake or the beheading-ground in great numbers. Yet, as we shall see, the ruin of the Christian church was not complete, and the faith was not entirely destroyed.

A new form of torture now came into use, the "Torment of the Fosse." A martyr was hung in a pit by a rope fastened about the feet. The torture was described as dreadful beyond anything yet known, owing to the pressure of blood upon the brain. A European eye-witness of the persecutions conversed with some who had undergone this torture and, recanting, had been drawn up from the pit and released. They declared to him that "neither the pain caused by burning with fire, nor that caused by any other form of torture, deserves to be compared with the agony produced in this way." It was an agony, too, which was terribly drawn out. The martyrs by fire perished swiftly: in the "Torment of the Fosse" men lived eight or nine days, and one heroic martyr, a young girl, lived fifteen days and then died without making the signal which would have brought her instant release.

Presently there arose that infamous method of trial known as trampling on the Cross. In order to save time in putting questions, the inquisitors placed a crucifix on the ground and ordered that the members of every household should trample upon it. Those who were unwilling to do so were at once seized as Christians. The youngest children were not free from this test. Babies who could not walk were carried by their mothers and their tiny feet were set upon the cross.

This frightful persecution lasted for the greater part of the seventeenth century, until the Japanese authorities were satisfied that the Christian faith had been stamped out of the country. But they were wrong. More than two hundred years passed by, and once more Christian teachers made their way into Japan. How great was the surprise and delight of the new-comers when, in 1865, they discovered several Christian communities in the villages around Nagasaki! These Christians had a few books, but were without priests or teachers of any kind. Yet they had kept their faith alive, generation after generation, handing down certain prayers and the rite of baptism from father to son.

But if Christianity had survived, so had the edicts, and a new one was posted in 1868. It ran thus: "The evil sect called Christian is strictly prohibited. Suspicious persons should be reported to the proper officers, and rewards will be given." At the same time a number of the Christians around Nagasaki were seized and exiled to distant provinces. But the flames of persecution were now no more than a feeble flicker. European Powers protested against this insult to the Christian religion, and after a short time the edicts were withdrawn. In 1872 the native Christians were allowed to return to their homes, and persecution for religious belief was ended for ever in Japan.