In the mid-16th century, Japan was a mishmash of feudal domains unfettered by any central authority. Civil war was common, with peace to be had only intermittently or in remote outposts of calm. One such outpost, at least for a time, was the little domain of Arima, ensconced on a peninsula southeast of Nagasaki.
On the Feast of the Assumption of 1549, St. Francis Xavier arrived in Japan with two fellow Jesuits and three lay helpers to sow the Gospel seeds that would soon sprout throughout that fertile land. In 1562, those seeds reached Arima and bore fruit in abundance.
Arima's port of Kuchinotsu became the seat of the Church in Japan, with Fr. Cosme de Torres, S.J., in charge. His successor baptized the daimyō of Arima, and this man's heir, Harunobu, would become the mainstay of the Church in Japan, harboring clergy and protecting the faithful even at risk of his life. He built churches all over his little peninsula, and children in his towns and villages got a Jesuit education, learning catechesis through Bible stories set to Japanese melodies that they happily sang in the streets.
If only Harunobu's heir, Naozumi, had been made of such metal. Instead, he betrayed his father to the de facto shōgun, Ieyasu, who beheaded Harunobu in 1612. Naozumi then apostatized, taking over Arima on condition that he expunge from her the very faith that he had from his childhood espoused.
Although Arima was far from Ieyasu's capital, Naozumi had the ruler's own hound at his heels: Hasegawa Sahiōye, governor of nearby Nagasaki — Ieyasu's toady and a Hell-driven enemy of Christ. Hasegawa threatened Naozumi with the shōgun's own hellfire if he did not produce some hard evidence of his work to purge Arima of Christians.
The cowed Naozumi called in his eight top samurai, all Catholics, and pleaded with them to renounce Christ, if only on paper, to save his skin. He reminded them that even St. Peter had thrice denied Him and yet had been forgiven. Hearing this artful pleading, five of the men agreed to the stratagem. Three, however, refused to budge: Leo Taketomi, Adrian Takahashi and Leo Hayashida.
Naozumi ordered them burnt along with their wives and children. The spineless princeling postponed the execution of his orders, though, until the three stalwarts were well out of his castle and headed home. All of them being samurai, they and their families were escorted unbound to prison, where the members of each family were locked up together: Adrian Takahashi with his wife Joanna; Leo Taketomi with his son Paulo; and Leo Hayashida with his wife Marta, his 18-year-old daughter Magdalena, and his son Diego, 11 years old.
Twenty thousand Christians surrounded their prison, singing prayers and keeping vigil — at which they stayed for three days and nights on end. On the morning of Sunday, Oct. 7, 1613 — the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary — the condemned were led out of their cells. All were wearing the kimono of the Guild of St. Mary, and all but the youngest — the boy Diego — had their arms bound in cruciform position. Diego asked the guards to bind him too, but they demurred, perhaps ashamed of their duty.
En route to their deaths, each of the martyrs was flanked left and right by a Marian with a lit candle in one hand and a Rosary in the other; as they marched, they sang the Rosary. Coming to a river, the martyrs were ferried across, after which they had to traverse muddy ground. A certain man offered to carry Diego on his back, but the boy said, "Our Lord Jesus didn't ride a horse up Calvary," and he tromped into the mud on his own two feet.
At last, they reached the beach where their death-cage stood, built within sight of Naozumi's mountaintop castle. He was probably watching from up there, awed by the masses crowding the landscape below — faithful from all over Arima, the Christian bastion of Japan.
Leo Taketomi climbed onto a pile of firewood and addressed the thousands awaiting the holocaust, but many of his words were drowned out by the noise of the crowd. His few audible words went something like this: "Behold the faith of Arima's Christians: for the glory of the Lord and as a testimony to our faith we now die. My brethren, my hope is that you shall preserve your faith unshaken to the very end."
Leo stepped down; the eight were tied to their stakes; the firewood was lit. As a storm of flames erupted around the martyrs, the chief of the Guild of St. Mary held up a picture of the scourging of Christ to strengthen them. The crowd sang the Creed, the Our Father and the Ave Maria as the holy ones endured the flames.
Diego's ropes were the first to burn away: he ran to his mother's stake shouting, "Zézusu! Maria!" and fell. Next, his sister, Magdalena, found her arms free of the burning ropes: she reached down to pick up a flaming branch and held it above her head, seemingly worshiping the fire that would send her to Heaven as she held up her head with her other hand.
At this, the gasping crowd made the sign of the cross. Finally, Leo Hayashida boomed the name of Jesus out of the midst of the flames; his shout shook the crowd as a whirlwind of fire devoured him and his companions.
When that victory shout reached the ears of the apostate lord of Arima, the wretch must have felt as if those flames were in his own stomach. Meanwhile, down on the killing ground, those thousands of his Christian subjects, fallen to their knees, were praying for the souls of the martyrs — and perhaps for the soul of their wretched earthly lord cowering in his fortress on high.
This holocaust was but a prelude to the litany of sufferings that Arima was bound to endure: a testimony to eternal life forged in the cauldron of the world's slithering temptations.