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The Japanese Martyrs Are Crucified near Nagasaki: February 6, 1597

This text comes from our book, All Ye Lands.

Around the year 1540, a Portuguese ship, driven by a storm, landed on an island lying south of Kyushu. This was the first contact Europeans had with “The Land of the Rising Sun.” Soon Portuguese merchants were trading with the Japanese.

In 1549, the Portuguese brought the Spanish Jesuit, St. Francis Xavier, to Japan. By his preaching and his holiness, as well as by many miracles, Francis Xavier won hundreds of Japanese to the Catholic Faith. He enthusiastically praised the spiritual understanding of the Japanese people and their openness to the Christian Faith. When Francis Xavier set out for China in 1551, other Jesuits came to Japan to carry on his missionary work. By 1587, there were about 200,000 Catholics in Japan.

Topographical map of all the Japanese Islands with color scale keyed to elevation
Topographical map of all the Japanese Islands with color scale keyed to elevation

By 1590, a Japanese feudal lord named Toyotomi Hideyoshi unified all of Japan under his power. Though at first Hideyoshi did not object to the Christians, he began to fear that Catholic priests were working to prepare Japan for conquest by Portugal or Spain. Hideyoshi feared, too, that his rivals, the samurai lords, would use the Christians against him. Hideyoshi thus began to persecute the Christians. He banished Christian missionaries from Japan and then made being a Christian a crime punishable by death.

Hideyoshi’s wrath broke out against 20 Japanese Christians along with six Franciscan missionaries, who were arrested. Among these were the Japanese Jesuits, Paul Miki, James Kisai, and John de Goto. All 26 were crucified on a hill near Nagasaki on February 6, 1597. As he hung from the cross, Paul Miki preached to the crowds, inviting them to love Christ. All 26 men are today saints of the Catholic Church, known as the “Japanese Martyrs.”

The desire of the Japanese government to keep Japan pure from outside influences led to further persecutions of Christians from the 1600s until the middle of the 1800s. Thousands of Christians died rather than deny their Faith. Yet, despite all the persecution against Christians, the Church in Japan was not destroyed. When Catholic missionaries entered Japan in 1865, they found about 20,000 Japanese Christians who still practiced the Faith in secret.

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