Two weeks ago I joined a group of Japanese Christians for a walk around Kyoto, following in the footsteps of the 26 martyrs.
Normally in English, we talk about the “Nagasaki Martyrs”, but their story begins here in Kyoto. In the late 16th century, Japan was on the verge of being a Christian country. Jesuit missionaries from Portugal, including Francisco Xavier, had gained the trust and respect of many daimyo. The first church established in the Heian capital, Kyoto, was in Fushimi Minamihamacho, about a mile and a half from where I’m sitting as I write. (There’s an elementary school on the site today.)
Later, a major church was built nearer the center of Kyoto, and called Nanbanji. Foreigners at the time were called nanban, “Southern barbarians”, and -ji is the standard suffix for a temple. Nanbanji was built in the shape of a cross, with each arm of the cross holding a hospital for leprosy sufferers. Things were going very well. There were churches, schools, seminaries. About half a million Japanese either professed faith or were vassals of a lord who did. (Which, in a group-based feudal society, comes to exactly the same thing.)
After the Jesuits, Franciscan missionaries arrived from Spain, which was, to put it bluntly, a pity. The Jesuits had come with an approach, exemplified by Xavier and Matteo Ricci in China, of sympathetic accommodation to the culture and religion, grudging respect for the language, and sensitivity to the politics. The Franciscans, on the other hand, came in all guns blazing, often literally. Unfortunately this all happened just at the time that Japan’s de facto ruler, Nobunaga, was getting aggro from the Buddhist establishment about the spread of Christianity, and he had already told the missionaries to keep the noise down. The Jesuits had done so, and carried on their mission rather more quietly; the Franciscans did not. So now there was tension between different groups of missionaries, different factions in the government, and between missionaries and government, and soon the problem could not be glossed over any longer. Christianity was proscribed and Christians were persecuted.
Nanbanji was sacked, and the priests and lay Christians arrested, (although not those working in the hospital) and taken to a prison in Myomanjicho. From there they were marched nearly five hundred miles to Nagasaki to be crucified, although some died along the way.
What went wrong? The disunity between the missionary groups and the fractured witness? The difference in approach? Or was it Nobunaga’s political insecurity, responding to what he perceived to be a threat to the balance and established order? Did he worry about the effect of many daimyo uniting under the banner of a foreign religion? Probably all of those things.
In the persecution that followed, many other Christians were held at the prison in Fushimi Minamihamacho, sited coincidentally near Kyoto’s first church, and then beheaded and thrown into the Uji river.
I sometimes think of them as I travel across the bridge which separates my district, Mukaijima (“that island over there”), from the rest of Kyoto: the promise of that first church, and the cost of the Gospel.