February 6: The Martyrs of Japan, 1597

Welcome to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog! We invite you to read about this commemoration, use the collect and lessons in prayer, whether individually or in corporate worship, then tell us what you think. For more information about this project, click here.

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Painting in Church of the Holy Martyrs of Japan, Japan, Missouri

About this commemoration

The introduction of Christianity into Japan in the sixteenth century, first by the Jesuits under Francis Xavier, and then by the Franciscans, has left exciting records of heroism and self-sacrifice in the annals of Christian missionary endeavor. It has been estimated that by the end of that century there were about 300,000 baptized believers in Japan.

Unfortunately, these initial successes were compromised by rivalries among the religious orders; and the interplay of colonial politics, both within Japan and between Japan and the Spanish and Portuguese, aroused suspicion about western intentions of conquest. After a half century of ambiguous support by some of the powerful Tokugawa shoguns, the Christian enterprise suffered cruel persecution and suppression.

The first victims were six Franciscan friars and twenty of their converts who were crucified at Nagasaki, February 5, 1597. By 1630, what was left of Christianity in Japan was driven underground. Yet it is remarkable that two hundred and fifty years later there were found many men and women, without priests, who had preserved through the generations a vestige of Christian faith.


I    O God our Father, who art the source of strength to all thy saints, and who didst bring the holy martyrs of Japan through the suffering of the cross to the joys of life eternal: Grant that we, being encouraged by their example, may hold fast the faith that we profess, even unto death; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
II    O God our Father, source of strength to all your saints, you brought the holy martyrs of Japan through the suffering of the cross to the joys of eternal life: Grant that we, encouraged by their example, may hold fast the faith we profess, even to death itself; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


Lamentations 3:46–48,52–59

Galatians 2:19–20

Mark 8:34–38

Psalm 16:5–11

Preface of Holy Week

Text from Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

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15 thoughts on “February 6: The Martyrs of Japan, 1597

  1. My daughter-in-law is from Osaka, Japan. She has heard stories from her mother and father of the bombs dropped on Nagasaki during World War II and the terrible destruction that caused—-deaths and radiation.
    I have always struggled with the martyrs of Japan and the meaning it must have for Japanese people.
    Certainly the Franciscans deserve to be honored but it is more complicated now with more history involved. (And then there are friends I have whose parents lived in the concentration camps here in America. And many of them are/were Christians.) Nothing is often as it seems.

    • The Japanese attacked us first. If you insist on going around whacking hornets’ nests, you can expect to get stung. Lay Hiroshima/Nagasaki against the Bataan Death March, the Rape of Nanking, etc.

      [Editor’s note: Please note that all comments must be accompanied by first and last name; next time we need your full name.]

  2. This is important for Japanese Christianity as a whole. It is worth the time and energy. It is important for American Episcopalians to understand the preservation of Christianity among the Japanese by lay people.
    This is one of my enthusiasms. knew a Japanese priest at Notre Dame who wrote his doctoral dissertation about all this. I think the bio does a very good job.

  3. The artwork accompanying these entries on line has been quite wonderful. Will there be a companion volume in print for those of us who would like to have copies of the art?

  4. “They were martyred. But what a martyrdom! I had long read about martyrdom in the lives of the saints–how the souls of the martyrs had gone home to Heaven, how they had been filled with glory in Paradise, how the angels had blown trumpets. This was the splendid martyrdom I had often seen in my dreams. But the martyrdom of the Japanese Christians I now describe to you was no such glorious thing. What a miserable and painful business it was! The rain falls unceasingly on the sea. And the sea which killed them surges on uncannily–in silence.” (Shusaku Endo, from Silence)

  5. Instead of “ambiguous” in the following, shouldn’t the word be “ambivalent”? (“After a half century of ambiguous support by some of the powerful Tokugawa shoguns,…”)

  6. This is a very compact write-up, with two short paragraphs on the general historical context (which is much appreciated, and in my case absolutely essential!) and the third paragraph about the martyrdom, with its generalization about the suppression of Christianity in Japan. I don’t know the story, beyond what I read here, but why they were martyred, and by whom, and some indication of what in fact WAS left of Christianity some 30 years later, would all be wecomed additional information, however brief. General comment on WHO these persons were, if that’s in any way possible, would be of interest to me, too.

  7. The OT and Gospel readings seem fine for the commemoration but the Psalm doesn’t correlate as an appropriate response, and I have an observation and suggestion about the NT lesson.

    Lamentations expresses well both the faith of the one praying this lament, and the very real experience of devastation and destruction. Psalm 16:5-11, in stark contrast, does not touch any need, any threat, or any strife. In this context it seems out of place, as if in denial. That’s not the fault of the psalm itself (which was composed for a different kind of use), but is the result of pairing it with this OT lesson, and this commemoration. There are plenty of psalms that express hope, trust, faith and praise while not ignoring the presence of danger and, in many cases, the threat of death. I would urge the use of one of those psalms in place of this one.

    Regarding the Galatians reading (vv. 19-20), its focus on “law” and living in the flesh doesn’t fit a commemoration of 20 crucified martyrs who didn’t meet their deaths through the law, and whose life in the flesh was taken away so that they could no longer “now live in the flesh.” Granted, (a) they do (and did) “live to God,” (b) they were “crucified with Christ,” (c) Christ does live in them by faith (eschatologically speaking), and (d) Christ did indeed love them and give himself for them. But this is not an election (4 fitting phrases, versus 2 that don’t fit). The reading as a whole should be a good choice for the commemoration.

    As an alternative I would offer as an alternate NT selection: Revelation 7:9-17, which is concerned in a special way with martyrs. (According to RH Charles’ commentary those “robed in white” are specifically martyrs.) I append the suggested verses for consideration, and below it the presently appointed two verse reading from Galatians.

    9 After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.
    10 They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
    11 And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God,
    12 singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
    13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?”
    14 I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
    15 For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
    16 They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat;
    17 for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

    This is the presently appointed reading:Galatians 2:19–20:

    19 For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ;
    20 and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

  8. It might be added to the commentary that the bones of the original martyrs were eventually translated back to Macao (the center of the Asian mission in the 16th & 17th centuries) and are tastefully enshrined in a remarkable modern crypt built under the ruins of the old cathedral in Macao. It is a place of pilgrimage and the still-standing facade of the cathedral remains the logo of the city and island of Macao.

  9. I wish we had more detail about what was found in about 1850, and whether those manifesting vestiges of Christianity were incorporated into Christian churches, but perhaps that belongs in a history, rather than in a note about the 16th century martyrs.

  10. The moving iconic artwork comes from a church here in Missouri. The town’s name is pronounced with a long first A, as in “Jay-pan” (accent on the first syllable). The name was altered during the Forties on the theory that no one would connect this little Missouri town to the “enemy” — at least, that’s what I was told in the Fifties. Similarly, the St. Louis street named Berlin was changed to Pershing Ave. for General “Blackjack” Pershing, a Missouri boy.

  11. This is all so interesting to me; I had never heard about this history, the martyrs of Japan, or any of this. And all the comments people have made add more bits of information about the story. I would like to follow up by reading from the literature on this subject.

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