The Martyrs of Yonezawa

The Christian expansion in Japan ended in mass-executions and unimaginable suffering for the brave Japanese that decided to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. Here is a story about the 53 martyrs of Yonezawa and their inevitable destiny with the executioners' sword.

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During the research for my book “The Yonezawa Matchlock – Mighty gun of the Uesugi Samurai”, I stumbled over a story that captivated me. It played out in Yonezawa during the 17th century, and for me as a Westerner, it struck a nerve deep within.
The brutal prosecution of Catholics in Japan, which took place mostly during the 17 century, is a chapter of Japanese history that to this day still sends shockwaves throughout the Christian world. The prosecution of Catholics was not something new and unique to Japan. The Romans took great pride and joy in torturing and killing the followers of this, at the time, a new religion. Also, the conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Europe produced countless victims. Henry VIIIs treatment of the Vatican and its clergy is a well-known part of English history. With the latter example being a case study of religious prosecution in its purest form, the Roman example and what transpired in Japan would have more to do with politics and protection of the state against a movement that was perceived to pose a significant threat to the local rulers of the time.

The Catholic mission in Japan started 1549 with the arrival of the Jesuit monk Francis Xavier. Even if his mission in Japan only lasted about two years, he managed to plant a seed that within 50 years would place the Catholic Church on a collision course with the rulers of Japan. The history how this new religion, after a slow start, began to spread is well-known by now. The impact was greatest in the South with several of the great Daimyo in Kyushu being baptized and adopting Christian names. If this was caused by religious beliefs or simply a desire to promote trade with the Portuguese and later the Spanish, is still the object of heated debate. What is without a doubt is that the religion brought from the West, created a foothold amongst many of the natives. According to the Vatican, more than 300000 people would be converted to Christianity in a relatively short period of time, in the latter part of the 16th and early 17th century.

The first unifier of Japan, Oda Nobunaga, seems to have welcomed this new religion. There are even stories telling of Nobunaga himself being baptised. But if that was the case, it had nothing to do with religion and all to do with strategy. In Nobunaga’s eyes, the Catholic Church looked to be a perfect counter against the Buddhist religion, with whom Nobunaga had fought long and bloody wars in order to control. At the time, this would have been seen as a blessing by the Jesuit’s, but with the benefit of hindsight, it would spell disaster for the priests and their religion. In 1582, Oda Nobunaga was killed by one of his close retainers, clearing the path for Toyotomi Hideyoshi to take centre stage. His relationship with the foreign religion seems to have followed in the footsteps of his predecessor. However, with time Hideyoshi’s feelings towards the Catholic Church changed for the worse. With the number of converts on the rise as well as the growing power vested by the Portuguese in and around of Nagasaki, Hideyoshi began to see a clear and present threat to his position as ruler over Japan. He had just defeated the last remnants of domestic religious fanaticism, the Ikko-Ikki, and had no wishes to create a similar situation on his watch. So in 1587, he banned the Church and ordered all priests to leave the county. As expected this created panic and disbelief amongst the clergy and many followed Hideyoshi’s command and left Japan. But a number of the most zealous priests stayed and continued their mission.

In the beginning of the 1590s, Franciscans monks from Spain started to arrive in Japan. They saw Hideyoshi as a great protector and friend of the Church. Hideyoshi even allowed the Franciscan monks to build churches at several locations in Japan. But within a few years, this protection turned in to terror. On the 5th of February 1597, twenty-six Christians were brought to Nagasaki. Amongst them were six Franciscan missionaries, three Japanese Jesuit’s and seventeen local laymen. In front of a growing number of onlookers, they were all bound to individual crosses and crucified. As a final punishment, all of the condemned men were run through with a long yari.

The twenty-six Martyrs of Japan! On the 5th of February 1597, twenty-six Christians were executed by crucifixtion at Nagasaki. They were all beatified in 1627. The same group were then declared canonized saints in 1862 by Pope Pius IX.

The 26 Martyrs of Nagasaki proved to be the beginning of the end for the Catholic Church in Japan. The true persecution would, however, be initiated by Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1613. As the last of the great unifiers, he had no patience for foreign interference of any kind. After the Siege of Osaka in 1614-15, where high numbers of Catholic converts fought against Ieyasu, the reign of terror began. This is also where my story about Yonezawa kicks off. As I mentioned at the beginning of the text, I had travelled to Yonezawa in order to further my knowledge about this area and also to complete the research of my book. While on location I was given some pamphlets from the local tourism board. At the very bottom of a list of historical sites recommended for tourists, was a small picture depicting Jesus nailed to a cross. The text under the picture stopped me dead in my tracks: “Hokusanbara Christian Martyrdom Site. Up until that moment, I must confess that my knowledge about the persecution of Christians in Japan was slim to none. I had always thought that this was something that mostly took place on Kyushu with a few isolated outbreaks in other areas. During my many trips all over Japan, I had come in contact with mere whispers of the hidden Catholic converts. I remember taking a picture of the back of a lantern in Kanazawa, depicting the Virgin Mary.

This image of the Virgin Marie was cut into the back of a large stone lantern which is still standing in a small tea garden in Kanazawa. By the looks of the wear around this image, it might actually have been partly buried as a way to further secure the worshippers.

I also recollected a visit to a garden in Kyoto where the stones, according to the guide, had been arranged in the shape of a cross. During my first visit to Himeji Castle, I was told, that there was a single roof tile adorned with a cross instead of a kamon. I must admit that I didn´t buy into all these “secret” signs confirming the presence of Kakure Kirishitan or hidden Christians. But the more I have studied this topic, the more I have come to realise that the Catholic religion managed to permeate many levels of the Japanese society, from top to bottom.

This stone arrangement is found in a small garden in the north of Kyoto. I have added a black cross to the picture in order to highlight the placement of the six stones. It´s only visible when you stand at the very end of the path that surrounds this dry landscape.

So smack in the middle of my feverish research of the Uesugi samurai and the Yonezawa matchlock, I had somewhat inadvertently stumbled over a piece of local history that probably went unnoticed by most people in the West and quite possibly also in Japan.
In 1601 the Uesugi clan was moved to Yonezawa from Aizu as a punishment for siding against Tokugawa Ieyasu during the battle of Sekigahara. This meant a massive drop in income from 1.2 million koku down to 300,000 koku. The daimyo back then was Uesugi Kagekatsu, an adopted stepson of the great warlord Uesugi Kenshin. At Kagekatsu’s side during these turbulent years was his top adviser Naoe Kanetsugu. Together they managed to keep the family alive and focus on rebuilding the town of Yonezawa. The Uesugi also fought on the side of Tokugawa Ieyasu during the winter-campaign of Osaka in 1614.
Up until this time, there seems to have been no significant problems between the Yonezawa authorities and the growing population of Christians. Shortly after the relocation to Yonezawa in 1601, Christianity was on the rise in the domain. In 1610 Amakasu Uemon, a high ranking Uesugi official was visiting Edo together with his lord Uesugi Kagekatsu. During this visit, Uemon was baptised and give the name Luis. After his return to Yonezawa he enlisted the help of two of his sons. They started a catechism class that quickly attracted attention from the locals. In a short span of time, Uemon and his two sons, by now also baptised, had a growing number of followers. The word about Uemon spread even after 1613 when Ieyasu had banned the Catholic Church. However, at that time, there seems to have been no active persecution being initiated by Uesugi Kagekatsu.
By the 1620s an estimated 3000 converts were living in Yonezawa. Following the strict laws against Christianity, these coverts had to be increasingly careful how and where they displayed their faith. But again, the authorities in Yonezawa, seems to have allowed them practising their religion somewhat undisturbed. This was to change soon after the death of Uesugi Kagekatsu in April of 1623. He was replaced by his nineteen-year-old son, Uesugi Sadakatsu. The shogunate in Edo was always wary of young heirs taking over the reign of a domain. Kagekatsu had been the Uesugi daimyo for almost 45 years. To make the transition between father and son as smooth as possible, at least in the eyes of the shogunate, Yonezawa came under increased surveillance. The question of Christian converts was elevated to the top of the agenda. The young lord soon felt the pressure from Edo and was forced to act.

In January of 1629 a group of armed samurai broke into the house of Amakasu Uemon and arrested him and his sons. A total of 53 Christians was rounded up and put on trial. The outcome was clear from the start. On the 12th of January 1619, all of the accused were brought to a place at the outskirts of town. Already waiting was a group of skilled swordsmen from the clan. An increasing number of spectators were gathering around the execution grounds to witness this horrific event. As the first Christian was awaiting his imminent execution, the officer in charge turned towards the crowd and ordered them all to kneel down. – These people are not common criminals. They are holy people. Respect them! Shortly after that, all 53 of the condemned Christians were beheaded.
That the authorities in Yonezawa decided to use the sword and not burn or crucify them are interesting for many reasons. Especially taking into account that the 53 executed people was considered to be Christian leaders. The normal faith of accused ringleaders at other locations in Japan, were often much more horrific, as death by the sword was deemed quite human. Most victims were either burned alive or crucified. Death by boiling, drowning or scorching were however also quite common methods of execution during the 17th century. The imagination seemed to be endless amongst the Japanese when it came to killing these religious rebels. Shortly after the mass execution in Yonezawa, a Jesuit by the name of Nicholas Keian Fukunaga was the first Christian to suffer the punishment of “the gallow and the pit”. He was tied up and hanged upside down from “a gallow”. The head and upper torso was lowered into a pit filled with excrements and garbage. Before the side of the hole was sealed up with boards, a small incision was made on the neck or head of the condemned man. That way he could experience the blood slowly being drained from his body while waiting to die.

This is a graphic picture that illustrate the basic method used by the Japanese authorities to torture and execute suspected Christians. In reality, the convicted man or woman, would be lowered even further down the pit than depicted in this print, and the sides would be boarded up in order to enhance the feeling of anxiety and terror.

That the Yonezawa authorities in a way “spared” their victims from these gruesome methods of execution, might further point to the fact that they did not view Christians in the same hostile ways as the shogunate. As a result of the mass execution in 1629, the remaining Christians in Yonezawa went into hiding until the Meiji Restoration, when laws prohibiting religious prosecution were initiated. In 2008, Amakasu Uemon and the other 52 martyrs were beatified by the Vatican. Today remains about 300 Christians in Yonezawa, some of them most likely descendants of the hidden Christians that survived the terror during the Edo Period.

As I mentioned earlier in this text, you can visit the Hokusanbara Christian Martyrdom Site which is located to the north of Yonezawa Station operated by the Shinkansen.
Yonezawa offers many interesting sites for tourists to visit. With the story of the 53 Martyrs of Yonezawa fresh in mind, I think this specific place is well worth a visit.
I can also recommend Martin Scorsese’s movie from 2016, Silence, based on the 1966 novel of the same name written by Shusaku Endo. It depicts the fate of two Jesuit priests that travelled to Japan on a mission to find their missing mentor and to spread the word of God.


The Yonezawa Matchlock – Mighty gun of the Uesugi SamuraiThis text was researched and written by Jan Pettersson ©, historian and author of the book “The Yonezawa Matchlock – Mighty gun of the Uesugi Samurai”, currently available at Lulu.com and Amazon.

You can read a full review of the book here

Jan Pettersson has travelled all over Japan and published many articles in Scandinavian travel-magazines about his journeys and also held several international lectures on the topic of the Japanese matchlock. Jan is also a member and contributor to The Samurai Arms & Armour Forum

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