This weekend, our Anglican calendar remembers the 26 Catholic martyrs of Japan as the first Martyrs of the Japanese Christians. These were a group of Catholics who were executed by crucifixion on February 5, 1597, in Nagasaki, Japan. The 26 martyrs were 6 Spanish Franciscans, 17 Japanese catechists and 3 Japanese Jesuits. Following these 26, another 393 Catholics were martyred over the 2 periods of persecutions in Japan. The Gospel was first brought to Japan by Francis Xavier. He had already started set up successful missions in Malacca, Ambon dan Ternate. On 15 August 1549, Francis Xavier landed at Kagoshima, a city in south-east Kyishi, where he introduced Christianity to Japan. In 1580, the port of Nagasaki given to the Jesuits, who developed the small fishing village into an international commercial port. Nagasaki became the core of Christianity in Japan. The ruler of Japan at that time was Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598), who was already hostile toward the Catholic missionaries. Later, he officially banished the Christianity in 1587. The next ruler, Tokugawa Ieyasu, banned Christianity and expelled the Catholic missionaries in 1614. After which, the Japanese Catholics went underground. The result was the formation of communities of Kakure Kirishitan (Hidden Christians) or Sempoku Kirishitan (Underground Christians). These Catholics remained underground for 250 years until the 19th century. A story of the martyrdom of a Christian samurai Leon Saisho Shichiemon in 1608 in the city of Satsuma. He was asked kill to himself by seppuku, to die with his honour. As he had accepted the Christian faith, he could no longer take his own life, he refused to do seppuku, he said: “I want to be crucified like Jesus! I know very well that seppuku is a sign of a fighter’s dignity. I’m not afraid of it. But as a Christian I cannot commit suicide …” Leon was subsequently beheaded on the morning of November 17, 1608. (Full Sail with the Wind of Grace: Peter Kibe and 187 martyrs, Don Bosco: Japan, 2008, p. 36) Today, in Nagasaki, a museum named “The Twenty-Six Martyrs Museum and Monument” was built on the spot of their martyrdom. In Matthew 24, Jesus warns us that in the last days, there will come false messiahs, violent wars, geological cataclysms, and persecution. His disciples would be universally hated. Some of His disciples would fall away from their commitment to Him, even betraying their fellow Christians. These 26 martyrs serve as a reminder that we need to be faithful despite persecutions that may come our way.
Rev. Dr Timothy Chong