Beatification awaits ‘samurai of Christ’

This seems to be the season for Japanese Catholicism. Martin Scorsese’s film, “Silence,” on 16th-century Jesuit missionaries who abjured their faith has aroused curiosity about attempts to take the Gospel to Japan. Shusaku Endo, author of the novel on which the film is based, once said that people can feel closer to moral failures than to heroic martyrs. But it should not be forgotten that there were those who remained Catholic despite cruel pressure.

Takayama Ukon was one of these. Known as “the samurai of Christ,” he will be beatified in Osaka, Japan, on Feb. 7. He has been recognized as a martyr although he did not die an abrupt and violent death.

Early life

Takayama converted to Catholicism when he was 12 in 1564 along with his father. He took Justo (Justin) as his Christian name, although he is known as Ukon — a title for an office he held. The Takayama family lived near Osaka as feudal lords with land, serfs and the right to have a militia. Takayama trained as a samurai, took part in battles, and a man died after fighting a duel with him. This led him to reflect on the contrast between his beliefs and his militancy, and he abandoned violence.

He favored the activities of the Jesuit missionaries who, following on the pioneering work of St. Francis Xavier, had converted him and his father. As a result, many of his serfs became Catholic.

He had fought for the military commander Toyotomi Hideyoshi who initially allowed the missionaries to operate. But after reuniting the country that had been divided by civil war, Hideyoshi saw the Christians as divisive and feared their Iberian patrons might invade Japan as they had the Philippines. As regent under the emperor, Hideyoshi banned the Jesuits and placed restrictions on Christians; from 1614 on, his successor, Tokugawa, persecuted all Christians.


Takayama Ukon stayed true to his faith even though it meant he lost his status as a feudal lord, his power and property, and put his life in peril. His former subjects now became his companions, and he went into internal exile.

Eventually he was expelled to Manila along with some 300 other Catholics. He arrived in the Spanish colony in November 1614.

He was greeted as a hero as well as a saint, and there were suggestions that the Spaniards could attempt to overturn the hostile Japanese government, but he did not encourage this. He died three months after his arrival, and a statue of him in samurai robes, with topknot, holding a sword pointed downward in a sheath embossed with Christ crucified, stands in Manila.

His beatification, just over 400 years after his death, is based on the assessment that his death resulted from a prolonged martyrdom.

Breaking the ban

The 1614 ban on foreigners continued until the American naval commander Matthew Perry forced the Japanese to end it after 1853. Before that, the Japanese allowed contact only with Chinese and Dutch merchants whose sole interest was trade.

But a priest born in Palermo, Spain, Giovanni Battista Sidotti, attempted to break the ban. His remains have recently been discovered and provide an insight into what happened to Catholics in Japan after the era of Blessed Takayama.

Japanese Martyrs
A selection of the scores of martyrs who gave their life for the Faith in Japan:

Sidotti sailed from Rome for Japan via Manila in the early 1700s. He arrived in Japan dressed as a samurai but was swiftly identified as a Westerner and arrested. He was interrogated by renowned Confucian scholar Arai Hakuseki, an adviser to the ruler who admired Sidotti’s learning. Arai recommended that, rather than killing Sidotti for breaking the ban against missionaries, he be allowed to return home through China. However, it was decided that he be imprisoned but treated mildly. Then it was learned that Sidotti had converted the aged couple who were his custodians, and all three were assigned to imprisonment in deep holes where, in 1714, they died from privations. Sidotti was 46.

There is a commemorative plaque at what used to be the prison for Christians in Tokyo. Adjacent is the site for construction of a new building where three graves were discovered in 2014. In 2016, it was announced that forensic tests by Japanese scientists had shown that one of the sets of bones was of a European of about 5 feet, 7 inches tall. It is accepted that the site of the graves of him and his custodians had been located. Father Mario Canducci, a Franciscan missionary in Japan, claims Sidotti deserves canonization.

Catholicism in Japan

In a total population of 127 million, there are about half a million Catholics in Japan now, some of them returned migrants from places such as Latin America and Vietnam, and many of them foreigners. Since the Second Vatican Council replaced Latin in the Mass with Japanese, the Church has become less defensive and more involved in society’s social problems, such as welcoming refugees and foreign workers.

The Catholic education system ranges from primary schools to universities of which the most renowned is the Jesuit-run Sophia University in Tokyo. Its graduates include the Japanese ambassador to the Vatican, Catholic economist Yoshio Matthew Nakamura. The former prime minister and present finance minister, Francis Taro Aso, is also a Catholic whose first name, Francis, was given in honor of St. Francis Xavier.

‘A song of love’

Previously, groups of Japanese martyrs, including many religious, have been beatified, but Takayama Ukon is the first to be beatified individually. Bishop Isao Kikuchi of the Diocese of Niigata, Japan, said, “In Japan people live lives full of compromises. Takayama, who renounced privileges and wealth for the Faith, is a model for all.”

The Church in Japan began actively pursuing Takayama’s canonization cause within the last four years. In a 2014 letter announcing the cause, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Japan said after his death, Takayama “was given a national funeral and was buried in the Philippines. Immediately after his death his reputation as a martyr spread, and the investigation for his canonization began. At that time it was difficult to collect data in Japan, so the process could not be continued. Now, however, the Church of Japan, in cooperation with the Church of the Philippines, is actively pursuing the cause of Ukon’s canonization.”

It was announced by the Vatican Jan. 22, 2016, that Pope Francis had signed the decree recognizing Takayama’s martyrdom, saying he was “killed in hatred of the Faith in 1615.”

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“Local bishops had initially prepared the cause hoping that his heroic virtues could be recognized,” Father Mario Bianchin, regional superior of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions in Japan, told AsiaNews. “However, it was very difficult to complete the application for the lack of sources and original documents. About a year ago, we were told that it was decided to choose martyrdom” as a way to see him acknowledged.

Father Bianchin continued, saying Takayama was “very well-known at the time because of [his] political weight. We could say that he was high up among the local nobility. However, he paid a high price for his baptism. As the chronicles of the time indicate, his life was a song of love and faith to the Christian proclamation.”

Desmond O’Grady writes from Rome.