In 1549 the Jesuit missionary, Francis Xavier, founded the church in Japan. The Jesuits were soon followed by the Franciscans. For forty years Christianity spread and flourished. Then in 1588 the Japanese ruler Hideyoshi, fearful of the changes introduced by Christianity and apprehensive of western intentions of conquest, began a severe persecution aimed at wiping out the Christian faith completely. The persecution included the families of the principal victims in accordance with Japanese custom. This persecution lasted nearly fifty years, and during that period thousands laid down their lives.
The first of these martyrs were twenty-six in number. Of these, one was a Japanese Jesuit priest and outstanding preacher (Paul Miki), two were Jesuit lay-brothers, and six were Franciscans (four of whom were Spanish, one from Mexico City and one from Bombay). The other seventeen were all laity (one a Korean and sixteen Japanese). Among the laity were catechists, interpreters, a physician and three boys in their teens.
Their martyrdoms took place near Nagasaki in 1597. They were tied or chained to crosses on the ground, had an iron collar put round their necks, and then their crosses were raised upright in a single row. Each victim had a separate executioner, who stood in front of the cross with a spear in his hand. It is said that while awaiting execution the martyrs preached or sang. Then at a given signal the spears were plunged into the martyrs.
These twenty-six were canonised in 1862 as the first martyrs of the Far East. But they are not the only martyrs for the faith in Japan: between 1617 and 1632 many more Japanese Christians were put to death because of their faith.
The teaching of Christianity in Japan was forbidden until the 1850s, and all foreigners were excluded from the country. In 1859 French missionaries were permitted to enter and were amazed to find that, 250 years later, there were small bands of Christians in communities throughout Japan, who, without priests or teachers, had kept the faith handed down by their forebears and baptised their children.
For Liturgical Use
In 1597 twenty-six Christians (some priests or monks, but mostly lay folk, including three altar boys) were put to death near Nagasaki as part of a persecution aimed at wiping out Christianity in Japan. Subsequently, many more Christian converts were put to death. The teaching of Christianity was proscribed until the middle of the nineteenth century. But when missionaries were allowed into Japan in the 1850s, they discovered that there were several thousand Christians, who, though without priests and teachers for over two hundred years, had preserved and practised the faith in secret.
From the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts. Malachi 1:11