Behold a heart-wrenching martyrdom in which whole families were immolated together — including mothers with infants in their arms — just to satisfy the mighty Shogun Hidetada's ire.
In October of 1619, Hidetada was on a visit to Kyōto, the Imperial capital, when he heard that there were a great many Christians being held in Kyōto's jail. The volatile shogun exploded into rage and ordered them all executed immediately, regardless of age, gender or station. They were to be crucified and burned on their crosses as a mise-shime — a lesson to recalcitrant believers.
Hidetada's father, Tokugawa Ieyasu — the first of the Tokugawa shoguns — had slapped a nationwide ban on the practice of Christianity in 1614, fearful perhaps of its grant of sovereignty to every human conscience. The son was now doubling down on his father's ban, doing his utmost to scare that proscribed faith out of the hearts of all Japan's believers lest the whole nation's heart should change, turn to the truth and see that all men are equal in the sight of God.
Ieyasu's forebear, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, had nailed his own lesson of fear and intolerance to 26 crosses raised atop a mountain slope overlooking Nagasaki Bay on Feb. 5, 1597.
He had crucified Br. Paul Miki, S.J., and his 25 brethren in faith on the charge that they had brought to Japan's shores a subversive foreign religion, a "religion of love and union" prejudicial to a martial culture whose ethos was grounded on self-abnegation and blind obedience to rigid rule from above.
In that world inherited by the present shogun, an overlord presumed the right to cut down his servants at his whim or command them to take their own lives; what horror to the tyrant, then, if every man should see himself as a temple housing Almighty God.
Thus was Hidetada's boiling rage most likely fueled by fear.
Itakura Katsushige, Kyōto's shogunal governor, was a decent man — "the most moderate man on earth," French historian Pierre de Charlevoix tells us — but he dare not contravene the shogun's orders, not even to "defer the execution of a lady of the first quality who was about to give birth."
Before the appalling orders arrived, Itakura had released the faithful Catholics languishing in Kyōto's prison, sending them home to house arrest, but now they were rounded up to be loaded onto 11 wagons and paraded through the streets of the capital — the men, the boys and the girls in the foremost and hindmost wagons, and the women, many with babies at their breast or in their arms, in the others.
Historian Léon Pagès records: "A crier led the procession, proclaiming the death sentence: 'The Shogun … wills and commands that all these people be burned alive as Christians.' And the martyrs confirmed the crier's words, saying, 'That's right, we're dying for Jesus. Hurrah for Jesus!'"
Twenty-seven crosses had been erected along the river called Kamo-gawa, on the outskirts of Kyōto, awaiting these sacrificial victims. Among the martyrs were Johane Hashimoto Tahioye and his wife, christened Magdalena, along with their six beautiful children. On the Shogun Hidetada's orders, all the children would of course be burned along with their mothers.
The martyrs were clamped to the crosses — the mothers with babies in their arms in the center, and the others back to back, in pairs.
Pagès lists more names: "Magdalena … had her two-year-old daughter Regina in her arms; Maria held Monica, her daughter, four years old; and Marta, her son Benito, two years old," and on and on, including "little Marta, eight years old and blind."
And Tecla, mother of five, with 4-year-old Lucia in her arms, two more of her children clamped to her own cross and the other two on crosses to her right and left.
The firewood was lit; as the shogun's willed inferno erupted around the martyrs, their voices rose above the roar of the flames, calling the name of Jesus. Mothers with little ones in their arms caressed their babies' faces to soothe their pain, or perhaps to ward off the horror of the flames.
Tecla's daughter Catherine cried, "Mother, I can't see."
"Call to Jesus and Mary," her mother answered.
Richard Cocks, an English Protestant who witnessed this holocaust, wrote: "I saw fifty-five [sic] martyred at Miyako, at one time when I was there, because they wold not forsake their Christian Faith, & amongst them were little Children of five or sixe yeeres old burned in their mothers armes, Crying out, Jesus recive their soules."
Pagès wrote that a comet "and supernatural fires" marked this martyrdom. A sign, no doubt, that Christ Himself was there among the martyrs, comforting His precious sheep in the fiery maelstrom: the Conqueror of Death claiming victory amidst those hellish flames.