An April Holocaust

News: Commentary
by Luke O'Hara  •  •  April 19, 2020   

The Shimabara Rebellion: dying gasp of old Catholic Japan

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In the Japanese village of Minami Arima, every spring at cherry-blossom time, two mortal foes march their little armies up the castle road. One is a leathery old samurai in battle armor and the other a pony-tailed teenager in a flowery red cape with his face painted up like a geisha's. The man is the shogun's general; the boy is the rebels' leader, Amakusa Shiro. At road's end, atop the mountain, their armies will have mock combat, eliciting laughs from the crowd as cherry-blossom petals flutter to earth among them.

Beyond the cherry trees, overlooking the sea, stands a very different Amakusa Shiro: a stout young man in prayer with two swords in his belt. This statue is truer to history, more like the 15-year-old samurai who stood here awaiting the holocaust in that horrific cherry-blossom spring of 1638. Here, 37 thousand Christian souls would offer up their starving flesh, writing their testament in blood into this sacred soil. Here stood Hara Castle, the grave of the Shimabara Rebellion, the dying gasp of old Catholic Japan.


Amakusa Shiro sculpture at Hara Castle (Luke O'Hara)

In the reign of the Catholic daimyo Arima Harunobu, the Shimabara Peninsula had been the Christian bulwark of Japan. This land, then called Arima, had boasted 70 Catholic churches in her prime, and the nearby Amakusa Islands had been staunchly Catholic too.

Reign of Terror

In 1612, however, the Tokugawa shoguns' vise began to close. Arima Harunobu was executed that year, and by Amakusa Shiro's day, all faithful Catholics faced death by torture.

The current shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu, demanded Christ's extinction. Iemitsu was a sadist, a pederast, a drunkard, a tyrant and a paranoiac, and he feared Christ as a demon would.

Under Iemitsu's aegis, the lords of Shimabara and Amakusa were not only suppressing the Faith, they were also practicing tax extortion. Despite a three years' drought having starved the land, these two profligates demanded exorbitant tax payments from their captive subjects, or else. Some defaulters were tied up in coats made of straw and their coats set alight. One sheriff seized a farmer's wife — nine months pregnant — stripped her, and put her into a cage in an icy stream to make her husband pay up. She and her baby died in the cage.

Then there was the torture of another tax defaulter's only daughter, a beautiful virgin. The sheriff stripped her naked and burnt her artfully with torches. Enraged, her father killed him. Perhaps this was the spark for the Shimabara Peninsula's explosion into rebellion. Thousands attacked their cruel master's fortress in the town of Shimabara, brandishing a banner that proclaimed: "We were timely born to die for the Faith."

It did seem like the end of time: There were burning, vermilion skies, and flowers were blooming out of season. And down in Amakusa there was a teenage prodigy. Fifteen-year-old Shiro was the son of an old Catholic samurai named Masuda Jinbei. Jinbei and his cronies concocted a phony prophecy by a mythical missionary of old that "foretold" Shiro's coming to liberate the downtrodden Christians; then, in a public ceremony, they acclaimed the boy as their prophesied redeemer.

Catholics Fight Their Oppressors

Thus was the rebellion seeded. After the explosion in Shimabara, closet-Christians in nearby Amakusa flocked to Amakusa Shiro's flag to wage war on their despotic feudal lord's minions, the armed thugs who policed their religion and robbed them blind.

The Catholic stalwarts shot testimonies back to the besiegers: They wanted only to worship Christ.

The boy-general's army of reborn Catholics swelled with ever more recruits as it swept from east to west across Amakusa's three main islands, driving its oppressors before it. These fled to their commander's mountaintop fortress at Tomioka, an islet dangling from the archipelago's northwestern corner, scrambling for refuge.

Meanwhile, entire villages throughout the Shimabara Peninsula were vowing in writing to obey Shiro to the death. After three unsuccessful assaults on the fortress at Tomioka, Shiro decided not to squander his forces but instead took his army across the Hayasaki Strait to Shimabara. There they would join their brethren in arms, and all would barricade themselves, along with all their households, inside the disused fortress called Hara-no-jo, or Hara Castle, in the south of the peninsula.

On Christmas Day of 1637, Shogun Iemitsu learned of the rebellion and commissioned Itakura Shigemasa, an aristocrat with little experience of war, to muster troops under the shogunal seal, march them to distant Shimabara and there wipe out the despised Catholics.

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Itakura's army — thrown together with units from various feudal clans — didn't wait for his orders but attacked as soon as they had arrived at Hara Castle, expecting an easy victory. The Christian marksmen atop the castle walls mauled them. Enlightened, the invaders withdrew to lick their wounds and prepare themselves for real warfare.

Reinforcements came, but the rebels repulsed Itakura's second, bigger assault. Now he had to save his honor: He ordered an all-out attack on Japanese New Year's Day (Feb. 14, 1638). Many contingents fought bravely, but the determined rebels exhausted them, and when Itakura tried to rally his army for a last, grand effort, all the mustered units refused to budge.

Now Itakura had to save face: Grimly leading only his own little band of vassals, he charged the fortress. A hail of bullets killed the men on his left and right, but he made it to the wall and died trying to scale it alone, shot through the chest.

Next a new, veteran general — Matsudaira Nobutsuna — arrived with orders from the shogun to stand clear and starve the Christians out. He surrounded the fortress with over 125,000 men and backed them up with cannon-fire from both the government camp and a 20-gun Dutch merchantman anchored offshore.

Cold Winter, Fierce Hunger, Wicked Temptation

That winter was severe, and inside Hara Castle, the cold and hunger did its work: What had been a triumphal juggernaut transformed into a purgatory. By March the rebels had run out of rice and some were eating the empty sacks; they were also short of drinking-water, firewood and gunpowder. The Shogun's vise was pinching their Christian kingdom and their very bellies while cannonballs came screaming in to crunch flesh and bone. One went through Shiro's sleeve and killed four or five of his companions.

In Japan's Catholic heyday, at least 70 churches dotted the Shimabara Peninsula. Today there are only three.

Matsudaira masterfully played his hand once he had tightened the vise. He tempted the Christians with promises — rice and homes and land and tax-relief, if only they would leave their fortress and abandon the Faith. These tempting lies dropped out of the sky, delivered as letters wrapped around arrows shot over the castle walls.

Some nonbelievers, dragged into the rebellion against their will, did defect, but the Catholic stalwarts shot testimonies back to the besiegers: They wanted only to worship Christ. That denied them, they would just have to die, they declared. Letting them live as Christians, of course, was not an option, for the wretched shogun, trapped in his private darkness, viewed the Faith with terror.

By spring the rebels were desperate. In a sudden night-sortie in early April they tried to rob food and ammo from the government camp, but were repulsed with heavy losses: The Christians had made the mistake of setting fire to enemy tents and thus illuminated themselves, perfect targets for massed musketry. After the raiders' retreat into the fortress, the government troops cut open the stomachs of rebel dead and found they had been eating only leaves.

Ruins of Hara Castle (David Krigbaum)

'Even the Little Girls' Beheaded

The shogun's hour had finally arrived. On the eleventh of April 1638, his horde swarmed over the outermost wall of Hara Castle, having first sent down a rain of fire arrows. The wasted defenders fought with anything at hand — empty guns, cooking pots — while their Christian kingdom burned all around them.

The innermost wall, the wall of the citadel at the mountaintop, was stormed on the morning of the twelfth, and the fighting ended at noon, when the last rebel combatant was dead. Those taken prisoner — the elderly, the ill, mothers and their children — they beheaded, without exception. "Even the little girls," one observer lamented.

The shogun's army ringed the burnt-out Hara Castle with 10,860 impaled Christian heads. They sent 3,300 more to Nagasaki as a lesson to that town's underground Catholics.

As a warning to the Portuguese there — who had brought the Catholic Faith to Japan — they stuck four heads, including Shiro's, onto stakes at the foot of the bridge to the man-made island where the Portuguese were now confined. Soon the Portuguese would be banned from Japan entirely, and all Japanese were required to appear before a magistrate annually and tread on a Christian sacred image to prove their loyalty to the shogun.

In the wake of the rebellion, barely a soul remained in the south of the Shimabara Peninsula: All but the rare deserter had died at the hands of the shogun's army. In order to have the land tilled, therefore, the shogunate repopulated the peninsula by forcibly removing peasants from the islands of Shikoku and Honshu and installing them willy-nilly in the ghost towns of Shimabara.

Martyrs a Reminder of Our 'April Affliction'

In Japan's Catholic heyday, at least 70 churches dotted the Shimabara Peninsula. Today there are only three — a sad testament to the successful expunging of the Faith from a fervently Catholic land. Sadder still, the slaughter of those 37,000 who believed themselves "timely born to die for the Faith" goes unnoticed by the Church at large, for they died as rebels fighting against — not praying for — their persecutors.

Yet this view ignores the countless martyred children — martyrs because they, unlike so many of the adults, had not chosen to rebel, but had been scooped up by their parents and rushed to Minami Arima and through the gates of Hara Castle, there to await the holocaust through months of bitter cold, terror and starvation. These little ones the shogun's horde executed solely for the crime of being Christian — even the little girls.

In this strange April of our own affliction, let us remember the souls of Hara Castle's little martyrs.

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

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