Christianity was brought to Japan in 1549 by the Jesuit Francis Xavier, and the spread of the faith was remarkable. It has been estimated that by the end of the sixteenth century there were about 300,000 baptized believers in Japan. The successful spread of the Christian faith led to resentment and opposition on the part of some native Buddhists and Shintoists. The initial successes were also compromised by rivalries between the religious orders, and the interplay of colonial politics, both within Japan and between Japan and the Spanish and the Portuguese, raised suspicion about Western intentions of conquest, particularly on the part of the Spanish, with their nearby presence in the Philippines. After about a half century of ambiguous toleration by the Tokugawa shogunate, a persecution of Christians began.
The first victims of the persecution were twenty-six Christians: six European Franciscan missionaries, three Japanese Jesuits (including Paul Miki), and seventeen Japanese laity, three of whom were young boys. On February 5, 1597, they were executed at Nagasaki in a form of crucifixion by being elevated on crosses and then pierced with spears. Within a year, more than 130 churches had been burned. The persecution subsided for a time, but in 1613 it began again, and by 1630 what was left of Christianity in Japan had been driven underground. The faith was preserved, although the Kirishitan were without clergy until missionaries returned in the latter half of the nineteenth century.
The first victims of the persecution, the twenty-six martyrs of February 1597, were canonized by the Roman Catholic Church in 1862. In 1959, the Nippon Sei Ko Kai (the Holy Catholic Church of Japan), the Anglican Church in Japan, adopted this festival in its Calendar as a commemoration of all those who have given their lives for the Christian faith in Japan. The Martyrs of Japan are commemorated on this day in the calendars of the Roman Catholic Church, the Nippon Sei Ko Kai, the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, and the Book of Alternative Services (Anglican Church of Canada). They are commemorated on February 6 in the calendars of the Church of England and the Church in Wales.
prepared from Lesser Feasts and Fasts,
the New Book of Festivals and Commemorations, and other sources
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.
Readers wishing to learn more about the history of 16th and 17th century Japanese Christianity and the effects of the persecution even to the present day will find the novels of Shusaku Endo a challenging read, particularly The Samurai, with its story of the journey of a samurai and his companions from Japan to Mexico and thence to Spain and on to Rome in the late 16th century (based on an actual historical journey that also inspired the composition of the Mass for the Japanese Princes by Andrea Gabrieli for their visit to St Mark’s Basilica in Venice in 1585).