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Rev. Alban Butler (1711–73). Volume I: January. The Lives of the Saints. 1866.

February 5

The Martyrs of Japan

        See the triumph of the martyrs of Japan, by F. Trigault, from the year 1612 to 1620, the history of Japan, by F. Crasset, to the year 1658, and that by the learned F. Charlevoix in nine volumes: also the life of F. Spinola, &c.

THE EMPIRE of Japan, so called from one of the islands of which it is composed, was discovered by certain Portuguese merchants, about the year 1541. It is generally divided into several little kingdoms, all which obey one sovereign emperor. The capital cities are Meaco and Jedo. The manners of this people are the reverse of ours in many things. Their characteristic is pride, and an extravagant love of honour. They adore idols of grotesque shapes, by which they represent certain famous wicked ancestors: the chiefest are Amida and Xacha. Their priests are called Bonzas, and all obey the Jaco, or high priest. St. Francis Xavier arrived in Japan in 1549, baptized great numbers, and whole provinces received the faith. The great kings of Arima, Bungo, and Omura, sent a solemn embassy of obedience to Pope Gregory XIII. in 1582: and in 1587 there were in Japan above two hundred thousand Christians, and among these several kings, princes, and bonzas, but in 1588, Cambacundono, the haughty emperor, having usurped the honours of a deity, commanded all the Jesuits to leave his dominions within six months: however, many remained there disguised. In 1592, the persecution was renewed, and several Japanese converts received the crown of martyrdom. The emperor Tagcosama, one of the proudest and most vicious of men, was worked up into rage and jealousy by a suspicion suggested by certain European merchants desirous of the monopoly of this trade, that the view of the missionaries in preaching the Christian faith was to facilitate the conquest of their country by the Portuguese or Spaniards. Three Jesuits and six Franciscans were crucified on a hill near Nangasaqui in 1597. The latter were partly Spaniards and partly Indians, and had at their head F. Peter Baptist, commissary of his Order, a native of Avilla, in Spain. As to the Jesuits, one was Paul Michi, a noble Japanese and an eminent preacher, at that time thirty-three years old. The other two, John Gotto, and James Kisai, were admitted into the Society in prison a little before they suffered. Several Japanese converts suffered with them. The martyrs were twenty-six in number, and among them were three boys who used to serve the friars at mass; two of them were fifteen years of age, and the third only twelve, yet each showed great joy and constancy in their sufferings. Of these martyrs, twenty-four had been brought to Meaco, where only a part of their left ears was cut off, by a mitigation of the sentence which had commanded the amputation of their noses and both ears. They were conducted through many towns and public places, their cheeks stained with blood, for a terror to others. When the twenty-six soldiers of Christ were arrived at the place of execution near Nangasaqui, they were allowed to make their confession to two Jesuits of the convent, in that town, and being fastened to crosses by cords and chains, about their arms and legs, and an iron collar about their necks, were raised into the air, the foot of each cross falling into a hole prepared for it in the ground. The crosses were planted in a row, about four feet asunder, and each martyr had an executioner near him with a spear ready to pierce his side; for such is the Japanese manner of crucifixion. As soon as all the crosses were planted, the executioners lifted up their lances, and at a signal given, all pierced the martyrs almost in the same instant; upon which they expired and went to receive the reward of their sufferings. Their blood and garments were procured by Christians, and miracles were wrought by them. Urban VIII. ranked them among the martyrs, and they are honoured on the 5th of February, the day of their triumph. The rest of the missionaries were put on board a vessel, and carried out of the dominions, except twenty-eight priests, who staid behind in disguise. Tagcosama dying, ordered his body should not be burned, as was the custom in Japan, but preserved enshrined in his palace of Fuximi, that he might be worshipped among the gods under the title of the new god of war. The most stately temple in the empire was built to him, and his body deposited in it.
  The Jesuits returned soon after, and though the missionaries were only a hundred in number, they converted, in 1599, forty thousand, and in 1600, above thirty thousand, and built fifty churches; for the people were highly scandalized to see him worshipped as a god, whom they had remembered a most covetous, proud, and vicious tyrant. But in 1602, Cubosama renewed the bloody persecution, and many Japanese converts were beheaded, crucified, or burned. In 1614, new cruelties were exercised to overcome their constancy, as by bruising their feet between certain pieces of wood, cutting off or squeezing their limbs one after another, applying red-hot irons or slow fires, flaying off the skin of the fingers, putting burning coals to their hands, tearing off the flesh with pincers, or thrusting reeds into all parts of their bodies, and turning them about to tear their flesh, till they should say they would forsake their faith: all which, innumerable persons, even children, bore with invincible constancy till death. In 1616, Xogun succeeding his father Cubosama in the empire, surpassed him in cruelty. The most illustrious of these religious heroes was F. Charles Spinola. He was of a noble Genoese family and entered the Society at Nola, whilst his uncle cardinal Spinola was bishop of that city. Out of zeal and a desire of martyrdom, he begged to be sent on the Japanese mission. He arrived there in 1602; laboured many years in that mission, gained many to Christ, by his mildness, and lived in great austerity, for his usual food was only a little rice and herbs. He suffered four years a most cruel imprisonment, during which, in burning fevers, he was not able to obtain of his keepers a drop of cold water out of meals: yet he wrote from his dungeon: “Father, how sweet and delightful is it to suffer for Jesus Christ! I have learned this better by experience than I am able to express, especially since we are in these dungeons where we fast continually. The strength of my body fails me, but my joy increases as I see death draw nearer. O what a happiness for me, if next Easter I shall sing the heavenly Alleluia in the company of the blessed!” In a long letter to his cousin Maximilian Spinola, he said: “O, if you had tasted the delights with which God fills the souls of those who serve him, and suffer for him, how would you contemn all that the world can promise! I now begin to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, since for his love I am in prison, where I suffer much. But I assure you, that when I am fainting with hunger, God hath fortified me by his sweet consolations, so that I have looked upon myself as well recompensed for his service. And though I were yet to pass many years in prison, the time would appear short, through the extreme desire which I feel of suffering for him, who even here so well repays our labours. Besides other sickness I have been afflicted with a continual fever a hundred days without any remedies or proper nourishment. All this time my heart was so full of joy, that it seemed to me too narrow to contain it. I have never felt any equal to it, and I thought myself at the gates of paradise.” His joy was excessive at the news that he was condemned to be burnt alive, and he never ceased to thank God for so great a mercy, of which he owned himself unworthy. He was conducted from his last prison at Omura to Nangasaqui, where fifty martyrs suffered together on a hill within sight of that city, nine Jesuits, four Franciscans, and six Dominicans, the rest seculars: twenty-five were burned, the rest beheaded. The twenty-five stakes were fixed all in a row, and the martyrs tied to them. Fire was set to the end of the pile of wood twenty-five feet from the martyrs, and gradually approached them, two hours before it reached them. F. Spinola stood unmoved, with his eyes lifted up towards heaven, till the cords which tied him being burnt, he fell into the flames, and was consumed on the 2nd of September, in 1622, being fifty-eight years old. Many others, especially Jesuits, suffered variously, being either burnt at slow fires, crucified, beheaded, or thrown into a burning mountain, or hung with their heads downward in pits, which cruel torment usually put an end to their lives in three or four days. In 1639, the Portuguese and all other Europeans, except the Dutch, were forbidden to enter Japan, even for trade: the very ambassadors which the Portuguese sent thither were beheaded. In 1642, five Jesuits landed secretly in Japan, but were soon discovered, and after cruel tortures were hung in pits till they expired. Thus hath Japan encouraged the church militant, and filled the triumphant with glorious martyrs: though only the first mentioned have as yet been publicly declared such by the holy See, who are mentioned in the new edition of the Roman Martyrology published by Benedict XIV. in 1749.  2