On a brisk, February morning in the Year of Our Lord 1597, 26 haggard men and boys were marched up a steep slope called Nishizaka toward a terrace of land that overlooked Nagasaki Bay. There they would find a row of crosses laid out on the ground awaiting them.
The scene might have looked restful to the condemned men and boys as they surveyed those crosses, for this was the end of a 28-days' winter marathon. With their left ears mutilated and their hands trussed up tight behind their backs, they had been herded like cattle half the length of Japan to spend their last night on earth shivering in bitter cold, huddled in open boats moored offshore of Togitsu, a fishing village north of Nagasaki.
Now, as they stood atop Nishizaka, gasping perhaps for breath, there was just one question, voiced by the youngest first: "Which cross is mine?"
Louis Ibaraki, 12 years old, ran to the cross pointed out to him and fell to earth to hug it: here was the vessel that would carry him heavenward to meet his Lord.
It had all started when a Mexico-bound Manila galleon named San Felipe limped into Urado Bay, battered and blown off course by a typhoon. San Felipe was laden with Chinese silks and other luxuries, her cargo worth a fortune, and the ruler of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, was sorely in need of funds to finance his war in Korea.
As Urado Bay was blocked by underwater sand bars, the ship's pilot wanted to take her westward to Nagasaki, but the daimyo of Urado convinced the wearied passengers that he could safely tug her into port, and their demands won the day.
Reluctantly the pilot watched as the daimyo's men tugged his heavy-laden ship over two sand bars; the first merely scraped San Felipe's keel, but the second broke her back. Seawater flooded into the cloven ship as crateful after crateful of her precious cargo poured out onto the bay, and now San Felipe was a shipwreck, her cargo forfeit by Japanese law.
Gleefully the daimyo reported his jackpot to Hideyoshi, who immediately arranged for the cargo's transfer to his storehouses; the daimyo he rewarded with 5,000 silver bars.
The exasperated captain dispatched an embassy of two Franciscan friars and two of his crewmen to Hideyoshi's capital to save his cargo, but such an embassy could be embarrassing for the tyrant: He had already claimed the cargo for himself.
He therefore engineered an interrogation of the ship's pilot at the hands of a clever underling: Hideyoshi's man construed a "confession" that the friars were the vanguards of Spanish conquest; this gave the ruler an excuse to explode with rage and, in his fury, order the round-up and crucifixion of all Franciscans in his captive realm. In the event, his zealous men netted six Franciscans, three Jesuits and 15 Catholic laymen. (Two more martyrs would be added to their number later on.)
Hideyoshi ordered their ears and noses cut off; next they were to be paraded around the cities of Kyoto, Osaka and Sakai in carts, and thereafter marched 800 kilometers to Nagasaki, there to be crucified. A sympathetic official in Kyoto intervened: Only their left earlobes were cut off, but the rest of the sentence would be carried out in full.
The martyrs started their death-march on Jan. 10, 1597. The youngest three were 12, 13 and 14, and the oldest 64. Twelve-year-old Louis Ibaraki laughed when they clipped his ear and thereafter marched along jauntily toward Nagasaki. On their wintry road to Calvary, Thomas Kozaki, 14, wrote to his mother, "You should not worry about me and my father Michael" — his father was marching with him to be crucified — "I hope to see you both very soon, there in paradise."
On Feb. 5, 1597, after that bitterly frosty night at Togitsu, the martyrs were marshaled to their feet at dawn and marched double-time toward Nishizaka — a 12-kilometer marathon — as the local Christians lined the roadside in silent reverence. Br. Paul Miki preached all along the way, just as he had been doing all the length of their march: He was said to be the greatest preacher in Japan.
Upon their crosses, the 26 awaited the coup de grâce that would end their Japanese-style crucifixions: twin spear-thrusts from below, into their left and right flanks and upward through their hearts and out their shoulders.
At the start of their journey, while being paraded in oxcarts around the capital, the three youngest boys had brightly sung the Our Father and the Hail Mary as their just-clipped ears poured blood; now, raised on their crosses, the three sang a Psalm — "Praise the Lord, O ye children, praise ye His Holy Name."
When the soldiers unsheathed their spears, the crucified martyrs and the crowd blanketing the mountainside all started shouting in unison, "Jesus! Mary!" This holy cry resounded again and again until every last martyr's heart was pierced — resounding among the hills of Nagasaki and across the bay, where ships from halfway 'round the world lay tethered to their moorings, their crewmen watching transfixed by the spectacle above as if it was their holy Faith whose heart was being pierced.
Cheerful despite his mutilated ear, the wintry marathon, that final night of misery and even his sentence of death, 12-year-old Louis Ibaraki had long been prepared for this moment. He alone among the 26 was there entirely by personal choice, for Terazawa Hanzaburo, the sheriff in charge of the execution, had tried to save the boy's life, offering to make him his page. Louis asked if he could then go on being a Christian, and on hearing "No," his answer was swift and clear: He chose eternal life over a mere mortal one.
A faith implicit in his immortal words, prayed before the soldiers gouged their spears into his sides and up through his 12-year-old heart: "Paradise! Paradise!" he shouted, struggling toward Heaven, "Jesus! Mary!"