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.

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.

  • Deacon Ed Peitler

    Dr. Lu writes: “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?”

    Martyrdom is the ultimate sacrifice. Short of that rare occurrence in modern America, we are called to make different degrees of self-sacrifice out of love for God and others. It is this whole notion of living self-sacrificially that Catholics in America don’t get. That is why so many do not understand the action of the Mass which is that of a SACRIFICE. Because we are self-indulgent, rather than self-sacrificial in how we as Catholics live, we are ill prepared to defend what we don’t understand and do not live. Martyrdom? We need not worry about that since we have a lot of work to do to prepare for it. Catholics do not fast one hour before Communion or make sacrifices during Lent, and we’re concerned about their readiness to give up their life for what they believe? We have stopped following a Savior who gave his life as a sacrifice. How else could we explain the removal of crucifixes at Georgetown?

    • smokes

      “Modern-day Americans are rarely presented with a single, dramatic test of faith.”
      Every time we vote for a Democrat we flunk the test of Faith, sir.
      As for Japan, it’s facing a demographic crisis:
      1. The people won’t have babies…sound familiar?
      2. Japanese have an intrinsic dislike for Chines and Koreans…it’s mutual!
      3.The population is aging out of existence.
      4. The only place to get an acceptable infusion of young people is from the Catholic Philippines…so that’s where they’ll come from by the tens of millions in THIS century.

  • Mike Smith

    “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.”

    Or sit at the keyboard wanting to repost a well thought out article on Facebook but worrying about the backlash from his liberal, non-Catholic friends.

    The burden still seems so insignficant compared to what the Christians of Japan went through, but it feels so difficult in today’s society to deal with the seemingly endless pile of little things. Death by a thousand cuts, with no single one being fatal by itself.

  • tamsin

    I find myself thinking about Galileo, and imagining his reaction to his fate: “…but it moves!”

    Living in a sentimental culture in which marriage is said to revolve around sexual preference;

    Looking at the scientific evidence and seeing that marriage revolves around the commitment to a child, for the child to be cared for his biological parents, not as an object of love to be obtained, but as a subject, a child of God;

    I imagine going into house arrest muttering: “…but sex makes babies!”

    • smokes

      You’ll never leave the house alive with these ruminations.

    • Valentin

      And then they’ll say we don’t believe in this biology.

  • mpc

    Rachel, you ask:

    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?

    While these are good questions to ponder, unlike other countries, citizens in the United States can fulfill some of the obligations your questions raise by being active in politics, with efforts to ensure all of our laws are based on principles within the natural law. If one is not involved in getting the best candidate elected, it is an assent to evil, and washing of the hands, similar to Pontius Pilate.

    • smokes

      Voting for a Democrat is an assent to Evil.

  • poetcomic1

    It is estimated over 300,000 Japanese Christians were murdered. The inquisition in its heyday killed fewer people than the state of Texas does in a year. As Henry Kamen has proven, many fled the inquisition and were burned in effigy and listed as ‘killed’. Haven’t noticed the feudal Japanese used as ‘symbols of religious intolerance’ though.

  • Erin Pascal

    The times today are less compelling than in the past. In the past, people stand for what they believe in to the point of death. Today, even faced with few temptations and problems, people tend to give up. We have to put into mind that no matter what generation or what decade, we should choose to be defenders of the faith. Whether in greatness or in our own simple way.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Bl John Henry Newman makes a very important point in his Grammar of Assent. He gives the case of a child who believes “Lucern is food for cattle,” because his mother told him so.

    “he would not hesitate to say, did his years admit of it, that he would lay down his life in defence of his mother’s veracity. On the other hand, he would not make such a profession in the case of the propositions, “Lucern is food for cattle,” or “That lucern is medicago sativa is true;” and yet it is clear too, that, if he did in truth assent to these propositions, he would have to die for them also, rather than deny them, when it came to the point, unless he made up his mind to tell a falsehood.”

    In other words, willingness to die, rather than deny the truth is a general duty, not confined to religious truth.

  • John Knoss

    “……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.”
    As the parent of a ‘Sandra’ become ‘Sam’, I consider your comment to be a self seeking excuse toward self-righteousness.
    I cannot and will not condemn the child, a child given to be cared for and loved. I thank God every day for the gift of their being. Your attempt at self immolation over the issue of those individuals and their families dealing Gender Identification Dysphoria is cheap and unworthy.
    Have some compassion and pray for us. We never asked for this and deal with it as best we can and with the help of the Lord.

    • TheodoreSeeber

      The current attempt is to say that the Dysphoria is merely a phoria and not a Dys.

      I have a severe problem with the “love the child” when it is an attempt to hate the child. The child isn’t the delusion, the child is the body as they were born.

    • rrr

      Your child has a mental disorder. Love that child by helping them overcome that disorder not helping them to give into it.

    • Rachel Lu

      My text was deliberately worded in such a way as clearly not to discourage prayer or compassion for those who suffer from Gender Identification Dysphoria. (Of course, prayer and compassion for their families is also very appropriate.) But I do not think we should be cowed into claiming that men can be born in women’s bodies or vice-versa. Nor do I think we should offer “treatments” designed to intensify the dysphoria.

      • John Knoss

        If you recognise the term Gender Identification Dysphoria how can you set yourself up as ‘the least-anticipated arrival at countless family gatherings’ (if that’s not a deliberate invitation to seek ‘martyrdom’…) because you refuse to acknowledge them as they are? Are you then denying it exists? Who are you to judge them? Perhaps you could enlighten us as to whether GID does or does not exist.
        Please familiarise yourself with the outcomes of individuals who receive no ‘treatments’ in relation to this problem.
        I find myself learning daily the lesson of humility and accepting intolerance and disdain. I am also appreciating the lesson of seeing Christ in those who are outcast and disregarded because of the way our society views them.
        To those of you who cannot accept that this ‘cross’ exists can I humbly ask you to ‘walk a mile in my shoes’ and not only my shoes but of those who have to live with GID before glibly dismissing this as a mental disorder or a delusion. What would you ask for? That this cup pass you by?
        I’m done with this posting.

        • Rachel Lu

          I think most of us agree that this cross exists. Certainly I do. The question concerns the nature of the hardship. Are we dealing with 1) a group of people who intensely desire to be the opposite sex from the one they actually are, or 2) a group of people who somehow got born into the wrong sort of body? Obviously something is “misaligned” in people suffering from GID, but which is normative, the desire or the physiology?

          I think both you and your child will be happier if you can come to recognize that there are significant metaphysical and moral implications to supposing (2), and that people who are unwilling to accept this explanation for GID are not necessarily acting out of hatred or a desire to make your life harder. It’s reasonable to ask people to be considerate and understanding in hard situations, but it isn’t reasonable to ask them to modify their beliefs in any way necessary to support your child’s (possibly aberrant) self-understanding. In any case, you have my best wishes and prayers.

    • Valentin

      Look at a certain point some fatherly love has to be shown and your child should realize that they were made a ‘Sandra” for a reason whether it hurts someones feelings I don’t care the truth is the truth whether people like it or not.

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  • Mike Turner

    However, there must have been a sizable number of Japanese Christians during that 250 year period who avoided martyrdom while refusing to apostasize. Otherwise, Commodore Perry would not have met any Japanese Christians, would he? I mean, they weren’t new converts, were they? So some folks must have hunkered down in their bunkers to wait out the 250 years, right? And their commitment should certainly also merit our respect.

  • James Stagg

    I know this is a late comment, but there is a striking example of an American who distinctly looked death in the eye and chose it…..a most edifying story:


  • Lygeia

    I think life must have been very grim for the Japanese to have been so suicidal and for the martyrs to have suffered so terribly. There was nothing to look forward to except death.

    In the West, we have always had hope.

    • smokes

      Until we started murdering tens of millions of unborn babies to suit the gynarchy.

      It’s changed…everything…forever since 1973. American Woman is now a Dingbat.

  • Austin

    Dear Rachel Lu:

    I comment thusly on your article above: you have missed the point. My fully iterated response can be found at http://little-light-reign.blogspot.com

    Very truly yours in Christ,
    Austin Walsh
    blogging as Ben.Quivenit
    Light and Darkness

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