A Ladder to Heaven, Part II

News: Commentary
by Luke OHara  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  September 14, 2022   

Martyrdom in 17th-century Japan

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Read Part I here

On July 22, 1620, English corsairs on the barque Elizabeth seized a Japanese junk headed for Japan carrying two friars disguised as Spanish merchants: Augustinian Fr. Pedro de Zúñiga and Dominican Fr. Luís de Flores. Soon, the two were imprisoned in the Dutch trading post at Hirado, north of Nagasaki. The Dutchmen and their English cohorts strove to prove to the authorities that their prisoners were Catholic priests. If successful, they would see the two burned alive and keep the ship as their prize to boot.

The Augustinian Martyrs of Japan

The Dutchmen decided to wrench the truth out of their prisoners with torture. They bound Fray Pedro to an X-shaped "St. Andrew's cross" and poured a flood of water onto his face and down his throat so he could hardly catch his breath. During this type of torture, blood vessels in a victim's neck would often burst as he struggled to breathe.

Once Fr. Zúñiga's belly was swollen with water, his torturers beat on it to force it back out; as he vomited the mess out, bloody water seeped out through his pores.

Jacques Specx, the Dutchmen's boss, then demanded the friar confess his true identity, and this failing, ordered more water poured. They repeated this procedure again and again, emptying a full hogshead of water onto Fr. Zúñiga's face and down his throat before resignedly sending the tortured priest back to his cell in defeat.

Father Flores was next. Elderly and frail, he looked like a corpse by the time his torture was over. Nevertheless, neither man had given in, for they knew the lives of Captain Joachim Hirayama and his crew were hanging in the balance.

In November, Hasegawa Gonroku, governor of Nagasaki, visited Hirado to clear up the problem of the imprisoned friars and the sequestered ship. Along with Matsura Takanobu, the local daimyo, he held four hearings wherein the Dutch merchant pirates piled on the charge that their prisoners were the vanguard of Spanish conquest, agents sent by the very king who had subdued the Philippines and many other lands.

Will Adams, the famous Englishman turned samurai, and Richard Cocks, his compatriot in Hirado, had kept that same bug of suspicion buzzing in Tokugawa Ieyasu's ear as long as he lived — a bug now raging in the mind of the Shogun Hidetada, Ieyasu's son.

Gonroku, therefore, had to tread as if on eggs as he pretended to disbelieve the ever-more-convincing proof that the prisoners were indeed priests. Witnesses from Nagasaki who knew Fr. Zúñiga were brought in, one of them a blind man who swore he recognized the friar's voice.

Richard Cocks, head of the English trading post in Hirado, had earlier said he wanted his own head cut off if the man before him was not in fact Fr. Zúñiga. Ignoring the mounting evidence could wind up being Gonroku's self-inflicted death sentence.

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He had priests brought in from the prison in Omura: Jesuit Fr. Carlo Spinola, Dominican Fr. Francisco de Morales and Franciscan Fr. Pedro de Ávila — pallid men (and future martyrs) who looked like walking corpses with hair and beards grown wild and fingernails curling beyond their fingertips. They barely had the strength to stand when called upon, yet all answered with discretion, neither lying nor admitting that they knew Fr. Pedro to be a priest as they tried to preserve the lives of Capt. Hirayama and his crew — and perhaps Gonroku's life as well.

Depiction of the Great Martyrdom

But things had gone too far; to go on denying the obvious could only lead to scandal. The priests concurred, and thus, on Dec. 7, the feast of St. Ambrose, Fr. Zúñiga donned his Augustinian habit, shaved his tonsure and declared himself a priest, insisting the mariners he had sailed with were ignorant of the fact.

Gonroku duly proceeded to Edo to report this news to the shogun. Infuriated, Hidetada ordered the priests and Capt. Hirayama roasted by a "slow fire" and all the ship's crew beheaded.

James Murdoch writes that all religious held in prison, along with their hosts, were also to be burnt alive, and the wives and children of the latter beheaded, "as well as the wives and children of the martyrs immolated three years before." All the latter would be accomplished in the Great Martyrdom of 1622.

Just outside of Nagasaki lay a plain between two mountains stretching from the town to the sea. Nishi-zaka, also known as Martyrs' Hill, overlooked the scene.

Léon Pagès writes:

A stockade enclosed the place of execution. Three large stakes of two palms' diameter were destined for the confessors who were to be burnt alive; the wood and the fascines lay 25 palms, or 12 feet, distant. ... Opposite the stakes, a long table, arrayed with pegs, would receive the heads of the 12 condemned to decapitation.

The firewood was set at a distance to prolong the martyrs' agonies. The condemned arrived to find a sea of Christians spread across the plain: Nagasaki's faithful, numbering 30- or 60- or even 130 thousand — various sources differ — raising their voices to Heaven in prayer and song.

Children's choirs were intoning "Magnificat"; "Laudate, Pueri"; "Laudate Dominum"; "Omnes Gentes" — songs that would not cease until all was accomplished. The martyrs knelt to pray once inside the execution ground, and then the 12 sailors were quickly beheaded. Seeing their heads lined up on the table, Fr. Zúñiga called them flowers of paradise.

Before being tied to their stakes, the two priests blessed the crowd. 

The three knelt and recited the Creed. Then, before being tied to their stakes, the two priests blessed the crowd. Captain Hirayama, finding his stake unsteady, stamped the dirt around it, firming up the vessel he would ride to Heaven. He then preached to the crowd, telling them the Son of Man came to heal mankind of the infirmities they suffered because of sin.


(L to R) Fr. Pedro de Zúñiga and Dominican

Fr. Luís de Flores

He went on: "The fathers you see, O Japanese people, are come from the ends of the earth, sent by the Lord Jesus to work your salvation — to reap the divine fruits of redemption and to make you worship the true God instead of idols of stone and wood."

Meanwhile, the executioners were beating him to shut him up — but to no avail. What terror could they inflict, he asked them, when they were about to burn him alive? Captain Hirayama proclaimed to all Nagasaki that the bloody scene before their eyes was in fact a ladder to Heaven.

The fire was lit. To keep the flames from blazing too freely, the wood was doused with water to produce a "slow fire," as that was the torture the shogun prescribed.

It took 45 minutes of roasting to wrench the souls out of those three images of God standing firm against the ruler's odium fidei. 

First, Fr. Luís de Flores, the eldest, bowed his head in death, and then Joachim Hirayama — the captain who had dared to bring Christ to his beloved land — followed him up that ladder to eternal life. Fr. Pedro de Zúñiga held on the longest, enduring hellish agonies for the sake of his former flock, whose dream of his return to them was being immolated before their eyes.

Yet they knew that in that fiery hell their precious pastor's soul was climbing straight to Heaven.


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