The Word Among Us

February 2011 Issue

A Samurai’s Noble Death

The Witness of St. Paul Miki

By: Patricia Mitchell

A Samurai’s Noble Death: The Witness of St. Paul Miki by Patricia Mitchell

Paul Miki saw sparkling Nagasaki harbor coming into view. The six-hundred-mile trek from the Japanese capital of Kyoto through the cold and snow was nearly over. It had taken almost one month.

Along the road, villagers jeered at him and the others who had been sentenced to die for their Christian beliefs. “Fools,” they shouted, “Renounce your faith.” Miki, who loved to preach, urged the people to believe in Jesus, the Savior who died for their sins. Not all were insulting the prisoners, however. Fellow believers encouraged and prayed for them, giving them the strength and courage to continue on.

Miki thought how odd it was that he was to die before his ordination as a priest. Now thirty-three years old, he had been a Jesuit brother in training for eleven years. His eloquent and fervent preaching had led to many conversions. Yet he would never celebrate Mass, never raise the consecrated Host in his own hands.

Flourishing Faith. His thoughts often turned to his family. Miki had been born and raised near Kyoto in comfortable surroundings, the son of a brave samurai. A fellow Jesuit, Francis Xavier, had come to Japan forty-eight years earlier, in 1549, and his message of a loving God had won over hundreds of thousands of Japanese. Miki’s parents converted in 1568, when Paul was four. They nurtured his faith and sent him to Jesuit schools; he never doubted his vocation to the priesthood.

The seeds planted by Xavier flourished, but only when it suited the reigning ruler. The military leader Oda Nobunaga allowed the missionaries to preach because he wanted to challenge the power of the Buddhist monks and he was interested in foreign trade. But the next ruler, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, became nervous as more and more Japanese turned to Christ.

Christianity was a religion of foreigners, very different from Buddhism or the native Shintoism, which enshrined numerous minor gods. Japan feared conquest by the West. So Hideyoshi worried: What if these foreign missionaries came not to bring their God but their soldiers?

Blessed Are the Persecuted. In the fall of 1596, a Spanish ship crashed into the coast of Japan. While Japanese officials confiscated its cargo, an arrogant remark by the ship’s captain was interpreted to mean that missionaries intended to help Spain conquer Japan. Hideyoshi quickly ordered the arrest of several priests and laymen who had come from the Spanish Philippines to evangelize. He was convinced that a public bloodbath would put an end to this religion of the West. Although a native, Miki was among those who would serve as Hideyoshi’s warning.

On the day after Christmas in 1596, police came to the Jesuit residence in Osaka, and took Miki and two other novices. In prison, they were joined by six Franciscans and fifteen members of the Franciscan third order.

A week later, the prisoners were led into the Kyoto public square, where the sentence was pronounced: death by crucifixion. Miki’s heart soared. What an honor to imitate his Lord! Each man then stood by Hideyoshi’s samurai as a portion of his left ear was cut off. It was Miki’s turn, and searing pain shot through his head—the first blood to be spilled for Christ.

Then the forced march to Nagasaki began.

The Road to the Cross. Under a feudal lord, Nagasaki had become a Christian town, with Jesuits running schools, churches, and homes for the poor. As the caravan entered, thousands of Christians lined the streets. For the twenty-six prisoners (two more had been added to the group), it was like coming home! If Hideyoshi had intended the crucifixions to scare people away from Christianity, his plan was having the opposite effect.

On the morning of February 5, Miki and the others were led up Nishizaka Hill. One side of the road, where common criminals were executed, was covered with human remains; the other was covered with new, green wheat. The government official in charge of the executions had decided to give the martyrs a more decent killing field, and the wheat would be a carpet for their crosses.

Lying on the ground were twenty-six crosses, each one tailor-made for one of the martyrs. Seeing them, the prisoners began singing the TeDeum, the church’s traditional hymn of thanksgiving. Three youngsters in the group—thirteen-year-olds Thomas Kozaki and Anthony Deynan, and twelve-year-old Louis Ibaraki—raced ahead to find the crosses that fit their small frames. One by one, on their knees, the martyrs embraced their crosses—their way to perfection.

Soldiers tied them on with metal bands and ropes. Then the crosses were lifted and slid into holes in the ground—twenty-six stretching in a row from the bay to the road. The martyrs raised their eyes to heaven and sang, “Praise the Lord, ye children of the Lord.”

The Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus of the Mass echoed down the hill. One of the prisoners chanted, “Jesus, Mary. Jesus, Mary.” The crowds of Christians joined in. Then, one by one, the martyrs were given a chance to renounce Christ in exchange for their lives. Each one loudly answered, “No.”

Song of a Samurai. Planted in front of Miki’s cross was the death sentence Hideyoshi had pronounced: “As these men came from the Philippines under the guise of ambassadors, and chose to stay in Kyoto preaching the Christian law which I have severely forbidden all these years, I come to decree that they be put to death, together with the Japanese that have accepted that law.”

Fastened to his cross, Paul Miki gave his defense and final address in the form of a samurai farewell song:

I did not come from the Philippines. I am a Japanese by birth, and a brother of the Society of Jesus. I have committed no crime. The only reason I am condemned to die is that I have taught the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. I am happy to die for such a cause and accept death as a great gift from my Lord. At this critical time, when you can rest assured that I will not try to deceive you, I want to stress and make it unmistakably clear that man can find no way to salvation other than the Christian way.

The Christian law commands that we forgive our enemies and those who have wronged us. I must therefore say here that I forgive Hideyoshi and all who took part in my death. I do not hate Hideyoshi, I would rather have him and all the Japanese become Christians.

The guards listened, spellbound. Miki had shown he could remain a faithful Japanese, adhere to the samurai code of honor, and still give glory to Christ. Looking to heaven, he said, “Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit. Come to meet me, you saints of God.”

While embracing his culture and showing a warrior’s courage, he had gone beyond the samurai need to save face and avenge personal wrongs. By preaching love of enemies as his fare-well, Paul Miki showed himself a faithful samurai of the greatest Lord of all.

The Legacy of Resurrection Hill. Two samurai guards stood at the foot of each of the crosses at either end of the line of prisoners. In one moment, each soldier plunged his steel-tipped bamboo spear into the victim’s breast, crossing over each other’s spear in the process. A guttural yell, a sudden thrust, the gush of blood. And it was over.

When the gruesome deed was done, the Christians in the crowd pressed toward the crosses, soaking pieces of cloth in the martyrs’ blood and tearing their clothing for relics. Only with difficulty did the guards manage to keep them away.

A month later, a Jesuit missionary in Nagasaki wrote his superior that even in death, the martyrs were still bearing witness to Christ:

These deaths have been a special gift of divine Providence to this church. Up to now our persecutor had not gone to the extreme of shedding Christian blood. Our teaching therefore had been mostly theoretical, without the corroborating evidence of dying for our Christian faith. But now, seeing by experience these remarkable and most extraordinary deaths, it is beyond belief how much our new Christians have been strengthened, how much encouragement they have received to do the same themselves.

Today, some four hundred years after their deaths, the twenty-six martyrs of Nagasaki continue to inspire people. They are canonized saints now, and the place where they died is a pilgrimage destination, with a church, museum, and bronze monument. Pope John Paul II visited the site in 1981 and named it “Resurrection Hill.”

On the eve of his execution, thirteen-year-old Thomas Kozaki, who was to die with his father, wrote a farewell letter to his mother. Full of simple yet steadfast faith, the power of this letter, like the power of his cross, has not diminished over the years:

Dear Mother: Dad and I are going to heaven. There we shall await you. Do not be discouraged even if all the priests are killed. Bear all sorrow for our Lord and do not forget you are now on the true road to heaven. You must not put my smaller brothers in pagan families. Educate them yourself. These are the dying wishes of father and son. Goodbye, Mother dear. Goodbye.

Patricia Mitchell is editor of The Word Among Us Press.