A Ladder to Heaven, Part I

News: Commentary
by Luke OHara  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  August 30, 2022   

Persecution in 17th-century Japan

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In 1620, a group of Japanese Catholics pleaded for their pastor to be returned to Nagasaki in order to console them in their suffering.

Tokugawa Ieyasu

After the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu's expulsion of all Catholic clergy from Japan in 1614, Augustinian friar Pedro de Zúñiga stayed to minister to his flock in secret. Zúñiga survived due, in large part, to the connivance of Hasegawa Gonroku, the shogunal governor of Nagasaki. Gonroku had succeeded the former governor, his uncle Sahioye, in 1615, but, unlike his uncle, he had no taste for overseeing gory scenes of torture and bloodshed in the name of shogunal law.  

By 1619 though, finding himself increasingly compelled to shed the blood of Christians, Gonroku urged Fr. Zúñiga, whom he knew and respected, to leave for the Philippines. Gonroku feared that he would be forced by the shogun Hidetada to burn Zúñiga alive. The Augustinian vice provincial in Japan ordered the friar to take Gonroku's advice. With Gonroku's guarantee of safe passage out of Nagasaki, Fr. Zúñiga sailed for Manila via Macao.

The following year, two letters arrived in Manila from Fr. Zúñiga's former flock — one for the friar himself and another for the definitor of the Augustinians in the Philippines — requesting that Zúñiga return to them. In exchange for that favor, they offered to send the remains of the Augustinian martyr Hernando de San José. They had managed to retrieve his remains from the depths of Ōmura Bay, where the bodies of five martyrs had been sunk together on June 1, 1617.

 Augustinian Japanese martyrs

The letters arrived just as the Augustinian fathers of the Philippines were holding their provincial meeting in 1620.

Léon Pagès writes, "After having consulted one another on the fruits that might be expected if Fr. Zúñiga were sent [back to Nagasaki], they proposed to him the apparent advantages of this new voyage."

Fr. Zúñiga pointed out that, being so well known in Nagasaki, he would be seized immediately upon arrival, and although his inevitable suffering and martyrdom might redound to the greater glory of God, his former parishioners' desire of his pastorship would remain unfulfilled; nevertheless, he added, he would render obedience to his superiors, whatever they decided.

In the letter, Fr. Zúñiga's orphaned flock had promised to rendezvous with his ship and bring it to safe haven. Given that assurance, the Augustinian fathers felt compelled to grant those persecuted Christians that gift they so desired, and Fr. Zúñiga surrendered himself to the will of God. 

Meanwhile, among the local Dominicans, the aged and infirm Fr. Luís Flores had retired from active mission work in Nueva Segovia, Philippines, and settled into a life of prayer and contemplation. But the news of the Japanese persecution fired his spirit with a desire to join the Japan mission, which could bring him suffering, Pagès explains, and, perhaps, martyrdom.

Fr. Zúñiga surrendered himself to the will of God.

In early June 1620, Fr. Flores found himself in Fr. Zúñiga's company, along with two other Spaniards, headed for Japan aboard a junk captained by Joachim Hirayama, a staunch Japanese Catholic. They soon hit heavy seas and were forced to dump part of their cargo and put in at Macao. The suffering had already begun.  

The Elizabeth

On July 2, they set out again and, 20 days later, were within sight of Formosa when English pirates on the barque Elizabeth attacked, took them captive and commandeered their ship. The Elizabeth, captained by Edmund Lenmyes, had sailed out of Batavia (now Jakarta) in a merchant-pirate fleet of five vessels, three English and two Dutch, to prey upon Portuguese and Spanish shipping boats and sell their booty (as well as some trade goods) to the Japanese at Hirado.  

Captain Lenmyes soon figured out that two of his prisoners were "papist" priests, a fact discernible in their deportment. He locked them below in the hold without food or drink, jammed in among a heap of deerskins whose stench was insufferable. Their captors were afraid, apparently, of losing such valuable cargo as those two friars. If their priestly identities were proven, then the captured ship would, by the shogun law, become the pirates' prize, with her captain and crew condemned to death for transporting Catholic priests to Japan.

As the Dutch and English were cooperating in brigandage in the Eastern seas, the captured junk and its cargo became their common property. They sailed their prize to the Dutch trading post at Hirado with her passengers and crew imprisoned below, all chained together so closely that none could move without jostling the others.

At Hirado, the Dutch found three letters in their captives' luggage, one conferring the title of "Augustinian provincial vicar" on Fr. Zúñiga and two confirming Fr. Flores' authority among Dominicans in Japan, yet neither priest would acknowledge his identity for fear of thereby condemning Captain Hirayama and his Japanese crew to death.

Now the real suffering would begin.

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The priests were lowered into a dark pit, where they languished in filth and near-starvation for 13 days, squatting on the naked earth as vermin fed on them. This was but a prelude to their torture. The Dutchmen pulled them, crawling with vermin, out of the pit to strip them to the waist, tie their hands behind their backs and hoist them up to hang them by their wrists, with boxes full of gunpowder attached to their feet. They threatened to light the powder if the clerics didn't confess their identities.

The threats were of no avail; the priests remained steadfast. But the men would move on to more exquisite tortures in due time.

Eventually, thanks to the concerted pleading of the Spaniard Alvaro Muñoz, a friend of the English trading chief in Hirado, the fathers were moved into a small cell with a narrow window, a distinct improvement over the torture chambers they had grown used to. 

Now the real suffering would begin.

On Feb. 16, 1621, Gonroku left Nagasaki to head up to the shogun's court in Edo (Tokyo) and pay his New Year's respects. On the way, he stopped at Hirado, where he summoned the Dutch merchant-pirates to appear before him in audience and bring along the two prisoners in whom they placed such high hopes of lucre. Although the Dutchmen produced the documents they had found as proof that their prisoners were priests, the two friars denied the charge, and Gonroku rejected the proffered evidence as counterfeit, upbraiding the brigands for scheming to appropriate a Japanese merchant's ship and holding its passengers hostage without substantiating their charges. He even warned them that he might cut off trade with Holland entirely if they couldn't produce real proof. He sent the Dutchmen packing with a warning to look after their prisoners carefully until his return, assigning two of his own men to see that they did just that. 

Incidentally, as Gonroku knew Fr. Zúñiga quite well, he must have strained his acting skills to the limit, and his performance would have unexpected and unforgettable consequences — consequences that will play out in part II of this story. 

Luke O'Hara became a Catholic in Japan. His articles and books about Japan's martyrs can be found on his website, kirishtan.com.

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