Japan is a country which has a unique history associated with the evangelization of the Roman Catholic Faith and the martyrdom of its people. A few centuries ago, thousands of Catholics lived in Japan. The constancy and witness to Christ of the Catholic Japanese martyrs, is admirable and well suited to such a society which holds honor in such high repute. The Japanese ritualistic self sacrifice, so deeply engrained in their historical societies of the Ninjitsu and the Samurai warriors was, so to speak, perfected by the Catholic Japanese martyr who fearlessly met death with courage and with an altogether newly found joy and happiness in Our Lord Jesus Christ. It is a proven fact that the Japanese Catholics and martyrs were primarily upheld by the recitation of the most Holy Rosary.
Initially, when Saint Francis Xavier arrived at Kagoshima on August 15, 1549, therefore, arriving on the solemnity of the Assumption of Our Lady, the Jesuits did not find much opposition to their plans. Their freedom was owed, in major part, to the Japanese Shogun’s loss of power over the feudal regions. This situation prepared for the evangelizing Jesuit team a seemingly unhindered way. Japanese Buddhists did not accept the new strange European Faith, a few though realized the importance of having Jesus Christ within their lives. The devotion which particularly struck them, was the recitation of the most Holy Rosary. The Rosary prayer was at the time translated into their language. The prayer style of repetition, known as ‘mantras,’ is central to Buddhism. The Holy Rosary, with the repetitive Hail Mary was welcomed. Indeed, this devotion would sustain the Faith of the Baptized, during the future persecutions. In 1582, a new Shogun (Toyoyomi Hideyoshi) reminded the Christians of the early Diocletan suppressions and Catholic persecution, for Catholics were sought and martyred throughout Japan. Churches and missionaries were all destroyed. On February 5, 1597, twenty-six Catholics, including the religious Franciscans and Jesuits, were crucified at the City of Nagasaki.
In 1607, the Dominicans landed in Japan and founded Holy Rosary confraternities all over the country. The societies grew and were successful, unfortunately Dutch Calvanists and English Protestants calumniated this work to the Emperor and raised his suspicions towards the Dominicans. The calumniation was that the Rosary confraternities, were a ploy set by the Catholic Spanish to takeover the country. In 1614, an Imperial edict was passed banning Catholicism from Japan. The Rosary martyrs met death with the Holy Rosary beads around their necks. In 1637, in Azima, 37,000 Catholics were martyred for the Faith. In 1638, Japan threatened the rest of the world that any foreigner landing on its shores, arrived at his own risk. An office for religious inquisition termed ‘shuman aratame yaku,’ was established in 1640, and forced the Japanese citizens to, once yearly, trample under foot the holy cross or a Catholic holy picture and register themselves at a state approved Buddhic temple.
In 1858, Japan signed a treaty with France, ending its hostility to the West and Christianity. On March 17, 1865, a Catholic mission was inaugurated in Nagasaki. Fifteen Japanese Catholics entered the mission; the priests were dubious that these were truly Catholics for they believed that the Faith was wiped out from Japan during the years of persecution. The Japanese though explained that they kept the Rosary confraternities in secret and upheld the two sacraments lay people can administer; baptism and marriage. Amazed at the knowledge that thousands (50,000) of Japanese Catholics had survived for so long, Father Petitjean M.E.P. was shown the ancient Rosary translations and two hundred year old Rosaries. ‘Kakure Kirishitan’ or ‘Hidden Catholics’ explained how two years previously, a Protestant mission was set up in Nagasaki, but on discovering that the reverend was not devoted to Our Lady, was not celibate and was not faithful to the Roman Pontiff, they believed he was a Christian imposter. As the Blessed Mother preserved the Japanese Catholics during such times of persecution, a feast was instituted in commemoration of this ‘miracle.’ March 17 is reserved for the Feast of ‘Beata Maria Virgo de inventione Catholicorum.’
Unfortunately, the persecutions against Catholics restarted in 1867. Roughly 40,000 Catholics from the City of Urukami, in the vicinity of Nagasaki, were exiled and forced into labor camps, many died. Finally, religious liberty in Japan was reinstated in 1873. Due to the Japanese military shipbuilding factories of ‘Mitsubishi,’ in 1945, the United States of America chose Nagasaki as one of the Japanese targets for dropping the atom bomb. Coincidentally, apart from the military factories, the region had the highest population of Roman Catholics. The Catholic Cathedral of Nagasaki, was dead spot on ground zero. The Cathedral, the people inside and another 70,000 people were instantly vaporized. August 9, would witness the death of more Catholics, than ever before in Japan.
In a book written by Father Paul Glynn, titled ‘A Song for Nagasaki,’ a quotation of a certain Mr Nagai reveals that: “At midnight that night our Cathedral suddenly burst into flames and was consumed. At exactly the same time in the Imperial Palace, His Majesty the Emperor made known his sacred decision to end the war. On August 15, the Imperial Rescript, which put an end to the fighting, was formally promulgated and the whole world saw the light of peace. August 15 is also the great Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. It is significant, I believe, that Urakami Cathedral was dedicated to her … Was not Nagasaki the chosen victim, the lamb without blemish, slain as a whole-burnt offering on an altar of sacrifice, atoning for the sins of all nations during the Second World War?”(1) Once again, as occurred many times previously in history, Catholics were martyrs and the Japanese Catholic sacrifice, sealed the end of Japan’s six-year war against the West. Japan’s defeat was declared and August 15 was celebrated as VJ-Day, Victory-in-Japan Day. As the Japanese Emperor would later say: “…a new and most cruel bomb… Should we continue to fight, it would not only result in the ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation but would lead also to the total extinction of human civilization.”(2)
The Urukami Cathedral of Nagasaki was dedicated to Our Lady. In this place the Faithful Japanese, the beloved of the Lord were sacrificed. Partially surviving the atomic blast, an equivalent force of 70,000 tonnes of TNT, is a wooden statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Following the end of the Second World War a monk named Kaemon Noguchi, whilst searching in the rubble of the cathedral, found the head of the Statue of Our Lady, which was originally placed close to the altar. The monk returned the scorched head of Our Lady’s Statue to Nagasaki in 1975. In 2005, a chapel in Nagasaki was completed to enshrine the wooden head of the Statue of the Virgin Mary of the vaporized Urukami Cathedral.