Today is the Catholic Feast Day for the 26 Martyrs of Japan.
On August 15, 1549, St. Francis Xavier (later canonized by Gregory XV in 1622), Fr. Cosme de Torres, S.J. (a Jesuit priest), and Fr. John Fernandez arrived in Kagoshima, Japan, from Spain with hopes of bringing Catholicism to Japan. On September 29, St. Francis Xavier visited Shimazu Takahisa, the daimyo of Kagoshima, asking for permission to build the first Catholic mission in Japan. The daimyo agreed in hopes of creating a trade relationship with Europe.
A promising beginning to those missions—perhaps as many as 300,000 Christians by the end of the sixteenth century—met complications from competition between the missionary groups, political difficulty between Spain and Portugal, and factions within the government of Japan. Christianity was suppressed. By 1630, Christianity was driven underground.
The first Martyrs of Japan are commemorated on February 5 when, on that date in 1597, twenty-six missionaries and converts were killed by crucifixion. Two hundred and fifty years later, when Christian missionaries returned to Japan, they found a community of Japanese Christians that had survived underground.
The shogunate and imperial government at first supported the Catholic mission and the missionaries, thinking that they would reduce the power of the Buddhist monks, and help trade with Spain and Portugal; however, the shogunate was also wary of colonialism, seeing that in the Philippines the Spanish had taken power after converting the population (and other colonial powers had done the same elsewhere). The government increasingly saw Roman Catholicism as a threat, and started persecuting Christians; eventually, the Roman Catholic religion was banned and those who refused to abandon their faith were killed.
On February 5, 1597, twenty-six Christians – six European Franciscan missionaries, three Japanese Jesuits and seventeen Japanese laymen including three young boys – were executed by crucifixion in Nagasaki. These individuals were raised on crosses and then pierced through with spears.
Persecution continued sporadically, breaking out again in 1613 and 1630. On September 10, 1632, 55 Christians were martyred in Nagasaki in what became known as the Great Genna Martyrdom. At this time Roman Catholicism was officially outlawed. The Church remained without clergy and theological teaching disintegrated until the arrival of Western missionaries in the nineteenth century.
While there were many more martyrs, the first martyrs came to be especially revered, the most celebrated of which was Paul Miki. The Martyrs of Japan were canonized by the Roman Catholic Church on June 8, 1862 by Blessed Pius IX and are listed on the calendar as Sts. Paul Miki and his Companions, commemorated on February 6. Originally this feast day was listed as Sts. Peter Baptist and Twenty-Five Companions, Martyrs, and commemorated on February 5. Traditionalist Roman Catholics continue to venerate these martyrs on February 5 under that title.
Drawn from the oral histories of Japanese Catholic communities, Shusaku Endo's acclaimed novel "Silence" provides detailed accounts of the persecution of Christian communities and the suppression of the Church.
, a member of the Anglican Communion, added the martyrs to their calendar in 1959 to commemorate all the martyrs of Japan. The Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America added the commemoration to their calendars during the revision of their respective prayer books in late 1970’s. Some parts of the Anglican Communion and the ELCA commemorate the martyrs of Japan on February 5 and the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England commemorate them on February 6.
The Church of the Holy Japanese Martyrs (Civitavecchia, Italy) is a Catholic church that is dedicated to the 26 Martyrs of Nagasaki. It is decorated with the artwork of Japanese artist Luke Hasegawa.
* St. Antonio Dainan
* St. Bonaventura of Miyako
* St. Cosme Takeya
* St. Francisco Branco
* St. Francisco of Nagasaki
* St. Francisco of Saint Michael
* St. Gabriel de Duisco
* St. Gaius Francis
* St. Gundisalvus (Gonsalvo) Garcia
* St. Isabel Fernandez
* St. Ignatius Jorjes
* St. James Kisai
* St. Joaquin Saccachibara
* St. Juan Kisaka
* St. Juan Soan de Goto
* St. Leo Karasumaru
* St. Luis Ibaraki
* St. Martin of the Ascension
* St. Mathias of Miyako
* St. Miguel Kozaki
* St. Pablo Ibaraki
* St. Pablo Miki or St. Paul Miki -- born in Japan in 1562, he joined the Society of Jesus in 1580 and was the first Japanese member of any Catholic religious order. He died one year before his ordination to the Catholic priesthood. Miki's remaining ashes and bones are now located in Macau, China.
* St. Pablo Suzuki
* St. Pedro Bautista or St. Peter Baptist -- he was a Spanish Franciscan who had worked about ten years in the Philippines before coming to Japan. St. Peter was a companion of St. Paul Miki when Christianity was made illegal.
* St. Pedro Sukejiroo
* St. Philip of Jesus -- St. Philip was born in Mexico at an unknown date. Though unusually frivolous as a boy, he joined the Discalced Franciscans of the Province of St. Didacus, founded by St. Peter Baptista. After some months in the Order, Philip grew tired of monastic life, left the Franciscans in 1589, took up a mercantile career, and went to the Philippines where he led a life of pleasure. Later he desired to re-enter the Franciscans and was again admitted at Manila in 1590. At the time of his martyrdom, Philip was returning to his original monastery in Mexico to be ordained because the episcopal see of Manila was vacant at the time. He was aboard the San Felipe when it ran aground in Japan. In addition to being one of the martyrs of Japan, Philip is also regarded as the patron saint of Mexico City.
* St. Thomas Kozaki
* St. Thomas Xico