Next Monday, 6th February, is the Memorial of St. Paul Miki (d. 1597) and his companions, the Martyrs of Japan. The first Christian apostle of Japan was St. Francis Xavier, who landed in 1549; when he left a few years later, Christians numbered almost 2000. Nearly 50 years afterwards, they were much more numerous, but the Japanese ruler incensed by this increase and by the boasting of a Spanish sea-captain, embarked on a policy of persecution. This extended according to Japanese custom to the dependents of the victims too. There were twenty-six martyrs in all in this first wave. Miki was Japanese, of an aristocratic family, a Jesuit priest and a notable preacher. Two others were Jesuit lay brothers and six Franciscans, of whom four were Spanish, one Mexican and one from Bombay. The other 17 were all Japanese layfolk, except one Korean; these included catechists, interpreters, a soldier, a physician and three young boys. The martyrs had part of their left ears cut off and were displayed in various towns to terrify others. They were crucified near Nagasaki, being bound or chained to crosses on the ground. Each martyr was then dispatched by a separate executioner, who stood by the cross with a lance at the ready. After their death, their clothes and their blood were treasured. They were canonised in 1862. Other Japanese martyrs, hundreds in number, suffered in the 17th century, including St. Lorenzo Ruiz, Patron of the Philippines.
In 2016, Martin Scorsese released a film called Silence about the story of Portuguese Jesuit missionaries in 17th century Japan. Although the film is based on a fictional novel by the Japanese author Shusaku Endo, many of the events and people depicted in “Silence” are real. The film does not sugarcoat the brutal nature of this chapter of Jesuit history. It is a movie well worth watching, even if theologically problematic. You can read more about it and watch video clips and interviews here.