Lessons Drawn from the Japanese Martyrs

Christianity came to Japan in 1549. The Land of the Rising Sun must have been ready to hear the good news when St Francis Xavier first set foot on its shores. By the time he left, just two years later, there were three thousand Japanese Christians. Over the next forty years that number increased to two hundred thousand. That was when the persecution began.

The story of Japanese Christianity is grim. It is doubtful whether any group of Christians has faced such intense persecution over such a lengthy period. After seeing thousands of Christians tortured and executed over the course of about fifty years, even the Jesuits stopped sending missionaries to Japan. The torments inflicted on these courageous Christian communities have been movingly depicted by Shusaku Endo in his provocative novel, Silence. Himself a Japanese Christian, Endo drew on oral histories from Japanese Catholic communities, which are among relatively few sources of information about the fate of these Christians through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. One thing, however, is known. When Commodore Matthew Perry forced his way into Japan in 1853, he found around twenty thousand Japanese Christians still practicing their faith in secret. Through centuries of brutal persecution, and without any support from the West, the gates of Hell still had not prevailed against Japanese Christianity.

Silence is a work of tremendous power and subtlety, appropriate for the seasoned Christian. For pure triumphalist hagiography, however, it is hard to beat St. Alphonsus Liguori’s Victories of the Martyrs, which provides an account of the much-revered twenty-six martyrs who were crucified at Nagasaki in 1597. In its own way, this text too is likely to provoke discomfort. To the average Western reader, the Japanese thirst for martyrdom seems altogether excessive. We see women sewing festive garments in preparation for the happy day, as children beg permission to join their parents in attaining that glorious crown of death. A son shames his newly converted father into joining the martyrs instead of fleeing to a more protected region to practice his faith in secret. Reading these stories as a twenty-first century American, it is difficult not to think of kamikaze pilots and samurai warriors falling on their swords, and to wonder whether these martyrs might not be reflecting a characteristically Japanese fatalism and a  morbid fascination with death.

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I encourage my students to discuss these concerns when we read St. Alphonsus as part of our study of the virtue of courage. We use the Japanese martyrs as a lens through which to consider the claim (advanced by many great thinkers, from Aristotle to G.K. Chesterton) that courage entails a willingness to fall in battle. Clearly, the Japanese Christians are willing, but does their enthusiasm overflow into rashness? Is it fitting to run eagerly into the arms of martyrdom, potentially forsaking dependent children (or even encouraging them to participate)? The students worry, reasonably enough, that this kind of attitude might exhibit a vicious light-mindedness, and a failure to appreciate the significance of earthly goods and obligations. After all, a desire for martyrdom does not remit earthly debts, and sacrifice is not meaningful unless we understand the gravity of what is lost.

Even while acknowledging the seriousness of these worries, I ultimately suggest to the students that perhaps the Japanese attitude was suited to the grimness of the circumstances. For a seventeenth century Japanese Christian, practicing the faith meant living under a constant shadow of fear. An early and painful death was always a strong possibility, and apostasy and death were the only available escape routes. Emigration was impractical for these desperately impoverished peasants, and a less-hostile political climate was still centuries away. There was nothing a committed Christian could do to ease his companions’ burden, except to show them that death was not to be feared. This, then, was the witness that the Japanese martyrs offered, and the survival of Japanese Christianity is itself a powerful testament to the effectiveness of their strategy.

Among my students, this discussion typically ends with expressions of gratitude that modern-day Americans are unlikely to find themselves in such a desperate position. For an undergraduate ethics course, I am content to leave it at that, but in my private reflections, I am sometimes unsure. I have no taste for torture, and no desire for an early death; nevertheless, there is something enviable in the stark simplicity of the Japanese choice between apostasy and death. We moderns are more likely to find ourselves caught among fifty shades of grey.

Modern-day Americans are rarely presented with a single, dramatic test of faith. We are left to ponder subtle questions about focus and emphasis. When, and how loudly, are we obliged to articulate Catholic teaching? Under what circumstances does silence constitute assent? At what point does honest dealing turn into overzealous contrarianism? There are no easy answers to these questions, which only become harder as we proceed through life, taking on heavier responsibilities and building more bridges that we are loathe to burn.

Catholics today are seldom offered a quick and dramatic exit from the dispiriting realities of modern life. This means, among other things, that we must live with the temporal consequences of our choices (and watch our loved ones do the same), possibly for a good long while. We differ from the Japanese martyrs, too, in that attacks on our faith rarely come in the form of a full, frontal assault. No one will offer us the honor of being publicly executed in witness to our faith in the Resurrection. Far more likely, we will languish for decades in a windowless cubicle, eking out the only living left available to us after our refusal to celebrate committed homosexual love. Or, we may find ourselves the least-anticipated arrival at countless family gatherings because we refuse to agree that cousin Sam is truly cousin Sandra, and that hormone therapy has liberated him from the erroneous physiology of his birth. Modern tormentors tend to prefer the slow and agonizing spiritual death to the quick and painless physical one.

Thinking over the Christian martyrs in all of their awe-inspiring diversity, I sometimes find it fun to speculate: for which Christian principle would I prefer to die? Transubstantiation? The Trinitarian formula? It is easy to lose oneself in a kind of holy envy of generations past. Even St. Thomas More, though no stranger to tawdry political realities, was ultimately able to offer his life as a testament to the authority of Rome. We for our part are most likely to suffer over sex, since that is the place where the enemy has now concentrated his forces in the battle for souls. It is a thoroughly unedifying subject, even to those of us who understand the significance of this skirmish in the larger war over the normativity of nature. By comparison, a good, impassioned fight over Christology would be a breath of fresh air.

Like all good soldiers, however, we must accept the assignments given us, without complaining that we would prefer to be set in a different part of the battlefield. It is not our prerogative to choose the hill on which we would prefer to die. But we may rest assured that defending the integrity of the faith will never, in the long run, turn out to be a trivial effort. Like the Japanese martyrs before us, our witness may teach our children that it is our individual willingness to fall that ultimately makes our Church indestructible.

Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from a monument in Nagasaki, Japan, depicting 26 Christians, including two teenage boys, martyred in 1597.


  • Rachel Lu

    Rachel Lu, a Catholic convert, teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota where she lives with her husband and four boys. Dr. Lu earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Cornell University. Follow her on Twitter at rclu.

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