Japanese Martyrs: 23 Franciscans Suffered for Being Christians

Japanese Martyrs: 23 Franciscans Suffered for Being Christians

On February 6, Christians remember the first Japanese martyrs—26 Franciscans and Jesuits crucified at Nagasaki in 1597. This year their feast day fell on Sunday, so they were not commemorated liturgically, but their witness is a heroic one. 

Honored often as Saint Paul Miki and Companions

Although in the larger Church, they are honored under the name of one of the Jesuits as Saint Paul Miki and Companions, 23 of these martyrs were Franciscans. As you can see from the Japanese painting, six were Franciscan friar missionaries, headed by the Spaniard, Peter Baptist. Besides three other friars from Spain, the group included a native Mexican friar, Felipe de Jesus, and a native of India, Gonsalvo Garcia. The other Franciscans were 17 native Japanese Secular Franciscans, including two young boys (ages 12 and 13).

Japanese martyrs church Nagasaki Japan 700pxlsThe church of the Japanese martyrs in Nagasaki, Japan, was built in 1879.

Franciscans remember these martyrs as Saint Peter Baptist and Companions

The wider Church singles out Paul Miki, who as a Jesuit in training, was the “highest ranking,” ecclesiastically speaking, of the native Japanese, but in the Franciscan family we honor them under the name of Saints Peter Baptist and companions.

Pursuing strategic inculturation

These Franciscans and Jesuits all suffered for being Christians. Jesuits had been in Japan longer—since Francis Xavier arrived in 1549—and generally pursued a strategy of strategic inculturation, trying to reach out first to the more educated Japanese. Then, only four years previously, some Franciscan friars of the Discalced Reform had also arrived in Japan in 1593 from the Philippines. The group was headed by Peter Baptist Blasquez, a native of Avila, Spain, who had first worked as a missionary in Mexico for three years before going to the Philippines in 1584.

Ministering to marginalized of Japanese society

These friars immediately began ministering to lepers and other marginalized people at the bottom of Japanese society. Both of these strategies—the Jesuit and the Franciscan—were effective in drawing large numbers of people to become Christian. By the late 1500s there were perhaps 300,000 Catholics in the country.

The unusual story of Philip of Jesus

Philip of Jesus, the Mexican friar, had an unusual story. He entered the Discalced Franciscan friars in Mexico as a young man; however, he left the Order after a few months, going to the Philippines where he became a merchant. There he again determined to devote his life to God and rejoined the Order in 1590. After some years of formation, he was ready to be ordained and left the Philippines on a Spanish ship bound for Mexico. But the ship was driven off course, landing in Japan in July 1596; unfortunately, the ship was also found to be carrying soldiers and cannon, heightening fears among the Japanese rulers that foreigners were planning to invade their country. This soon precipitated the arrest of the missionaries.

Japanese martyrs St Philip of Jesus 700pxls Saint Philip of Jesus (Museo Nacional del Virreinato, Tepotzotlan, Mexico)

Large-scale persecutions drove Christians underground

The deaths of these martyrs were the first in a series of large-scale persecutions that lasted till 1640, killing missionaries and thousands of native Japanese and driving the few remaining Christians in Japan underground for more than 200 years. The hidden Christians emerged after the opening of Japan to Westerners in the mid-nineteenth century; full freedom of religious expression was granted in 1871 allowing the Christian message to spread once more. Franciscan missionaries returned to Japan at the turn of the twentieth century.

Japanese martyrs monument Nagasaki Japan 700pxlsThe impressive bronze sculpture monument in Nagasaki honoring the 26 martyrs was created by Japanese artist Yasutake Funakoshi between 1958 and 1962. The museum attached was opened shortly thereafter.

Saint Francis encourages those who bring the Gospel to others

Today, let us remember the encouragement of Saint Francis to his brothers and sisters who bring the Gospel to others:

All of them, wherever they may be, should remember that they gave themselves and abandoned their bodies to the Lord Jesus Christ. And for love of him, they must make themselves vulnerable to their enemies, because the Lord says, “Whoever loses his life for my sake will save it . . . and blessed are those who suffer persecution for the sake of justice, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs.” (Earlier Rule, 16.10–12)

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Main image: 17th-century Japanese depiction of the execution of the martyrs of Nagasaki

Dominic Monti

Written by : Dominic Monti

Dominic V. Monti, OFM, is a Franciscan Friar of Holy Name Province (USA) and currently professor of Franciscan Research in the Franciscan Institute of St. Bonaventure University. A native of nearby Bradford, PA, he was educated at St. Bonaventure (BA); after joining the Order, he attended the Catholic University of America (STB), Union Theological Seminary, NY (STM), and the Divinity School of the University of Chicago (PhD). He devoted the greater part of his ministry to teaching the History of Christianity, in particular the history of the Franciscan movement. He has contributed two volumes to the Works of St. Bonaventure series and is author of Francis & His Brothers, a popular history of the Friars Minor. He is spiritual assistant to a federation of Poor Clares and the Franciscan Secular Institute, the Missionaries of the Kingship of Christ.