How 26 Men and Boys Conquered a King

St. Paul Miki and his companions rejoiced at the news that they were to die for Christ.

“Today is Easter Sunday for me! The Lord has shown me such mercy!”
—Brother Paul Miki, marching to his crucifixion

On the morning of February 5, 1597, twenty-six crosses lined the brow of Nishizaka, the western slope of the mountain overlooking Nagasaki Bay. Below, the mountainside was blanketed with Christians awaiting the spearmen’s coups de grâce. Perhaps, amid the muffled sounds of weeping, they heard the mournful creaking of the ships in the harbor—that gateway to the West that had spawned this most Catholic of Asian cities. But above all else, they heard a preacher’s voice ringing out atop the slope.  

“All of you here, please hear what I have to say,” he sang out.

The preacher was a short Japanese man, 33 years old. Back in Kyoto, the imperial capital, Brother Paul Miki had rejoiced at the news that he was to die for Christ. He had even thanked the Franciscan friars who seemed to have started the whole thing. For, according to the death sentence emblazoned on a placard set in front of the crosses, it was their evangelical labors in the capital for which all had to pay with their lives. Now, from atop this striking semblance of Calvary, Brother Miki could preach the sermon of his life, a confutation of the lies on that placard bearing the words of the ruler of Japan:

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I will execute these persons because they came from Luzon to teach the Christian doctrine, which I forbade, and have stayed long in Japan, building churches and behaving disrespectfully. 

Brother Miki declared:

I am not from Luzon, but am obviously Japanese, and I am a brother of the Society of Jesus. I have committed no crime; I die simply for having preached the doctrine of my Lord Jesus Christ. 

Preached he had indeed, all the length of the martyrs’ 27-day via crucis from Kyoto, 600 miles away. Brother Paul Miki was counted the best preacher in Japan, and here atop Nishizaka he had a historic pulpit, perched above all Nagasaki and her busy harbor. The words preached and psalms sung on Nishizaka would thus ring across the seas to reach every last corner of the Catholic world.  

“I rejoice to die for this cause,” Brother Miki proclaimed. 

I consider it a great blessing granted me by God. Finding myself now at this hour, you can well believe that I tell no lie. I assure you, then, that there is no way to salvation other than the Christian path.

It had been a consummately straight and narrow path for the 26 martyrs. They had been paraded for nearly a month in brutal winter cold through towns, villages, and countryside as a mise-shime, an example to appall “good” Japanese at the prospect of embracing Christ. The youngest, Luis Ibaraki, was eleven or twelve; the oldest was 64. 

They had spent their last night on earth shivering in three open boats moored in Omura Bay because the soldiers in charge of them feared a Christian uprising so close to Nagasaki and would not take them ashore and into shelter. Roused at dawn, the Twenty-Six had been force-marched, hands bound tight behind their backs, all the long road to Nishizaka, a grueling marathon to death. Still, Paul Miki preached Christ to all the grief-stricken faithful lining the roadside of God’s own Catholic treasure of Nagasaki.

From that pulpit of his cross, Brother Paul Miki went on: 

Since the Christian doctrine teaches us to forgive our enemies and those who harm us, I forgive the Taikō and all these taking part in my execution. I feel no enmity for the Taikō but earnestly hope that he and all Japanese become Christians.

The bespoken “Taikō” was Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a ruthless if brilliant warlord who had subdued all Japan to his will. The words of Paul Miki’s speech were handed down to us by Fr. Luís Fróis, a Portuguese Jesuit chronicler who rendered Hideyoshi’s title as “king” to indicate his absolute authority. Another historian calls him “l’Empereur,” either by error or analogy—for Hideyoshi was neither emperor nor king, having risen from obscurity by military genius and sly politicking to win titles of honor from the imperial house.  

That placard emblazoned with Hideyoshi’s death sentence had first appeared on January 3, 1597, in Kyoto, at the start of the martyrs’ via crucis. It had been held aloft by a soldier leading a parade of oxcarts carrying the condemned Catholic men and boys through the city’s streets—a parade intended to shame the prisoners and scandalize the Christian Faith. 

This spectacle, however, aroused sympathy and wonder rather than derision: wonder because of the joy and high spirits displayed by those condemned to die, and sympathy, especially for the youngest—three boys who rode in their oxcart singing the Hail Mary and the Our Father to an audience stunned with admiration. 

All the prisoners were bleeding from their left ears, whose lobes had been cut off at a crossroads in Upper Kyoto at the start of this parade. Hideyoshi had ordered that their ears and noses be sliced off, but the local governor, a decent man, mollified the sentence, hoping to see them merely exiled—a hope not shared by these fervent Christians with their eyes set on Heaven. 

Hideyoshi’s charge of their “behaving disrespectfully” was perhaps a reference to the Franciscans’ shamelessly caring for lepers and the poor, their greatest point of pride. Or it may have been their preaching and wearing of religious garb in public. The Jesuits had forgone both practices since Hideyoshi’s tantrum of July 25, 1587, the Feast of St. James, when he officially banned the Catholic “religion of love and union” but afterward winked at the Jesuits’ continued presence as long as they wore ordinary Japanese garb and ministered to their flocks discreetly. 

Hideyoshi needed the Jesuits’ help as intermediaries with the Portuguese traders of Macao, who had exclusive access to the Canton silk market and sold their wares at Nagasaki. Fine Chinese silks were the hottest commodity in Japan, enriching the canny buyer and preening his vanity. And vanity and greed were hallmarks of Hideyoshi’s mental landscape. 

Enter the San Felipe, an old Manila galleon grossly overloaded with fine silks and other rich cargo. A typhoon had caught her enroute to Acapulco in New Spain, wrenching away her rudder, breaking her mainmast, and carrying her captive to Japan to dump her offshore of Tosa in Shikoku. The local daimyō, feigning help, purposely towed the battered giant into his harbor and onto a sand bar, breaking San Felipe’s back. Now she was a shipwreck and her rich cargo forfeit by Japanese law. Hideyoshi, overjoyed at the news of this boon, confiscated the cargo for his coffers; his confiscator on the scene even took all the gold coins in the shipwreck-victims’ pockets.  

The Spanish captain, Matías de Landecho, was aghast, as Hideyoshi had twice received ambassadors from Manila—Franciscan friars—within the past four years. One of these, Fr. Pedro Bautista, was aboard the galleon when that port came into sight and assured Landecho that all was well with the “king” and that they were under his protection. He would later be crucified in Nagasaki. 

Myriad reasons are adduced to justify Hideyoshi’s murderous orders. One in particular stands out: while questioning San Felipe’s pilot, Francisco de Olandia, Hideyoshi’s confiscator on the scene extracted a seeming admission that Spanish friars went to Japan to soften up the country for invasion by suborning the natives. This purportedly filled Hideyoshi with fear of Spanish aggression. Yet, in 1591, Hideyoshi had, in fact, demanded that the Philippines acknowledge him as suzerain and start sending him payments of tribute—and with only 200 Spanish soldiers on hand, Manila feared an invasion from Hideyoshi, who could muster hordes of crack troops at will.

So, why did Hideyoshi crucify those 26 men and boys? 

Fr. Pedro Bautista, soon to be martyred, explained it with a clarity chiseled in granite: “His greed devoured and engulfed everything.” 

Perhaps, then, Hideyoshi’s death sentence was just a smoke screen to mask his petty greed. But behold the glory that came of it, the dazzling display atop Nishizaka that dispersed the tyrant’s smoke.

The three children sang a Psalm, “Praise the Lord, ye children: praise ye the name of the Lord” from their crosses while the Te Deum and “Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus” rang out over Nagasaki from other crosses until the spearmen began their grisly work. These, in two pairs, started at both ends of the row of crosses and drove their spearheads up into each martyr’s left and right flanks, through the heart and out the shoulders in an “X,” working toward the center of the line. All the while, each martyr sang out the names of Jesus and Mary until his voice was stilled. 

Before this slaughter, the boy Luis had been gazing at the sky and struggling on his cross as if trying to climb heavenward, shouting, “Paraíso, Paraíso!” 

Paradise, that is: where he now hears your prayers.

[Image: The Martyrs of Nagasaki (1597), engraving by Wolfgang Kilian, Augsburg (1581-1663)]

Author

  • Luke O'Hara

    Luke O’Hara lived 23 years in Japan, where his interest in the martyrs drew him into Holy Mother Church. His articles and books can be found at his websites, kirishtan.com and lukeohara.com.

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