Roman Catholic Missions — April 9, 2010 at 9:56 pm



In the first year of the Kan'ei era(1624), Matsukura Bungonokami Shigemasa built Shimabara Castle, taking seven years to complete. It was a magnificent castle which had arranged a five-layer castle tower in the core, and had arranged the large and small towers at the key points and which adopted the style of the Azuchi Momoyama period.

The new Lord of Arima exhibited like cruelty towards those whose only offense was a belief in Christianity. He soon gained the reputation of being the most successful extortioner of recantations that Japan had yet seen. His son, Matsukura Shigetsugu, who succeeded him in 1630, imitated his father’s virulence against the Christians, but was not so skillful a ruler. He was dissolute and luxurious, so that he exacted from the people heavier taxes than had before been known. It is said that even his own soldiers were so financially burdened that they had to engage in menial labour in order to provide themselves with the necessities of life. Koeckebacker in the letter already quoted said:

“As the present Lord, who resides in Yedo, feels also inclined to follow in the footsteps of his father and forces the farmers to pay more taxes than they are able to do, in such a manner that they languish from hunger, taking only some roots and vegetables for nourishment, the people resolved not to bear any longer the vexations, and to die one single death instead of the many slow deaths to which they were subjected. Some of the principal amongst them have killed with their own hands their wives and children in order not to view any longer the disdain and infamy to which their relatives were subjected.”

General launching his troops to attack the castle of Nagashino in 1575, by Yoshitoshi

Evidently everything was ready for revolt if leaders could be found. There is said to have been preserved among the Christians the following prophecy left by one of the missionaries who had been driven from Amakusa about 161.

“When five times five years have passed, a remarkable youth will appear. Without study he shall of himself know all things, and he shall be famous throughout the land. Then shall the clouds of the east and west shine with a ruddy glow, wisteria flowers shall blossom from the trunks of dead trees. Multitudes shall bear the cross on their helmets, white flags shall float over sea and river, mountain and plain. Then shall come the time for Jesus to be honored.”

People believed in him because they thought he was the fulfillment of St. Francis Xavier\’s \”prophecy\” that there would be \”the Son of God\” born in Shimabara and he supposedly did miracles.”

The son of former Konishi clan retainer Masuda Jinbei (益田甚兵衛?), Shiro was born in modern-day Kami-Amakusa, Kumamoto and touted by the leaders of the Shimabara Uprising as the "Fourth Son of Heaven," foretold by the Jesuit missionary, Saint Francis Xavier, to be destined to lead the Christianization of Japan. The charismatic 15-year-old was known to his followers as "heaven's messenger." Miraculous powers were attributed to him.

In 1637, strange appearances in the sky and unusual blossoms in the gardens seemed to coincide with the signs foretold by this prophecy. Neither was there lacking a person that was thought to answer to the description of the promised deliverer. His name was Masuda Shiro, the son of one of the Christian warriors that had left the province of Higo at the time of the persecution under Kato Kiyomasa. The boy had been brought up in Nagasaki, and it is probable that what he learned there from the missionaries and other foreigners enabled him to astonish the people of Amakusa by a display of wisdom. It was asserted that he could walk upon the sea, make birds fly down from sky to light on his hand, cause stags to issue from a sea-shell, and perform many other miracles.

Five of the former retainers of Konishi are mentioned as leaders of the movement in Amakusa. They began by holding meetings in which they spoke to the peasants concerning this young man who had come to inaugurate a movement that would result in the firm establishment of Christianity in Japan, China, and India. They promised that those who became his first followers would be given high honor and office in the new kingdom soon to be set up, while all who opposed him would miserably perish.

In the months of November and December, 1637, the agitation gradually assumed a more violent character. In several villages the peasants attacked the public granaries and took possession of the rice that had been collected by the tax-gatherers. By the end of the year five or six thousand men were in arms, the larger part of them besiegiung the castle of Tomeoka. Terasawa’s lieutenant, Miyake Tobei, who had received early warning of the danger, sent to Kusatsu asking for reinforcements. Fifteen hundred men, who attempted to come to his aid, were intercepted by the insurgents and defeated in three successive engagements. A portion of them, however, managed to enter the castle, where they also succeeded in repelling an assault made January 7, 1638, by the insurgents.

In this assault the rebels of Amakusa were assisted by some from Shimabara, for Shiro and his advisers had extended their agitation to that peninsula. News that the peasants were holding meetings reached the officials who surprised a company of farmers and arrested two of their leaders. As it was supposed that these last would be immediately put to death, their associates came together to perform funeral rites. When and officer attempted to interfere with them, he was torn to pieces by the angry people. This was on the eleventh of December. Word of what had happened was a once sent to other villages. In these, too, the people arose, killing officers and destroying temples. On the twelfth of December, a part of the city of Shimabara was burned, and the insurgents then laid siege to its castle.

Itakura Shigemasa (板倉重昌?) (1588-February 14, 1638) was a Japanese daimyo of the early Edo period. The lord of Fukōzu han in Mikawa Province, he was a personal aide to Tokugawa Ieyasu. Son of the Kyoto Shoshidai Itakura Katsushige, and younger brother of Itakura Shigemune (successor to Katsushige as Shoshidai). Born in Mikawa, he was styled Naizen no Kami (内膳正), and together with Matsudaira Masatsuna and Akimoto Yasutomo, he served as Tokugawa Ieyasu's personal aide (kinju shuttōnin 近習出頭人). In the Osaka Winter Campaign, he acted as negotiator with the Toyotomi.

When intelligence of these events reached the central government, there was great fear lest the insurrection might become general throughout the land. The Shogun’s brother was sent to Sendai that he might be on the watch for any indications of trouble in that region. Other officials were sent to Nagasaki, while Itakura Shigemasa was ordered to put down the insurrection in Amakusa and Shimabara by the help of troops collected from neighboring daimiates.

As there was little reason to hope that in the absence of artillery the castles of Tomeoka and Shimabara could be taken, Masuda decided to occupy and repair an old deserted castle at Hara, twenty miles from the city of Shimabara. This was situated on a high bluff whose cliffs on three sides descended for a hundred feet perpendicularly to the sea, while the fourth side was partly protected by a swamp. Two deep moats across the narrow ridge of land that led to the bluff formed an important part of its defense. Japanese accounts of the struggle say that twenty thousand men, together with seventeen thousand women and children, gathered in the castle. Dr. Reiss thinks that the whole number could hardly have reached twenty thousand. He supposes that thirty-seven thousand included all that in Shimabara and Amakusa took part in the uprising. All in the castle worked vigorously at strengthening its defenses. The movement was now professedly Christian. On the battlements were placed wooden crosses, while flags were marked with the same symbol. The warriors encouraged one another by shouting out the names of Jesus, Mary, and St. James. A letter that at a later date was shot into the camp of the besiegers said:

“For the sake of our people we have now resorted to this castle. No doubt you will think that we have done this for the sake of seizing lands and acquiring houses; but such is by no means the case. It is simply because, as you know, Christianity is not tolerated as a distinct sect. Frequent prohibitions have been published by the Shogun that have greatly distressed us. Some there are among us that consider the hope of future life as of the highest importance. For these there is no escape Since they will not change their religion, they incur various kinds of severe punishments, being cruelly subjected to shame and extreme suffering until at last, for their devotion to the Lord of Heaven, they are tortured to death. Others, and among them some men of strong will, have been moved by solicitude for their sensitive bodies and through dread of torture have, while hiding their grief, obeyed the ewill of the Shogun and recanted. While things were in this state, all the people have been moved in an unaccountable and miraculous manner to unite in an uprising. Should we continue to live as hitherto with these laws unrepealed, we must suffer all sorts of fearful punishments. As our bodies are weak and sensitive to pain, we might be led to sin against the infinite Lord of Heaven, and from solicitude for our brief lives incur the loss of what we most value. These things fill us with unbearable grief. Hence we have taken this action. It is not the result of a corrupt doctrine.”

Toda Ujikane (戸田氏鉄?) (1576-March 21, 1655) was a Japanese daimyo of the Azuchi-Momoyama Period through Edo period. He was the vice-commander of the shogunate forces during the Shimabara Rebellion (1637–1638).

Itakura, who had at his disposal a force of over twenty-six thousand men, made an attack upon the castle. The result was a complete failure. None of the insurgents were slain while Itakura lost six hundred men. A second assault made on the fourteenth of the month was even more disastrous. Though only ninety of the defenders were injured, the attacking force suffered a loss of about five thousand. As Itakura himself was among the slain, Matsudaira Izu no Kami was sent to take his place. It was now seen that these so-called “farmers” possessed much military skill as well as bravery. To overcome them an army of over one hundred thousand warriors was collected. Matsudaira received orders not to allow a single Christian, whether man, woman, or child, to escape. At the same time he was told not to waste unnecessarily the lives of his own soldiers. He therefore determined that for a while he would make no assault on the castle, but would guard its approaches so as to keep the rebels from escaping or obtaining supplies of food. Artificial hills were constructed from which cannon sent frequent shots into the castle, while other cannon were placed on junks that they might fire upon it from the sea. These last accomplished so little that Koeckebacker, the head of the Dutch factory, was “advised” and afterwards commanded to send ships with heavy artillery for taking part in the bombardment. A few years before this, Koeckebacker had made such engagements with the Japanese that he know thought he could not avoid compliance with these orders. He had already sent six cannon, as well as some powder, and, after managing to hurry off two of his three vessels to Formosa, he went with the other, a ship with twenty guns, to help in the reduction of Hara. In fifteen days the Dutch fired four hundred and twenty-six shots. Though Koeckebacker says that the conditions were such as prevented his guns from accomplishing very much, the Japanese were surprised at the accuracy of aim, and the insurgents were compelled to dig cellars in which to take refuge from the cannon-balls. Suddenly the Dutch were told that they might withdraw, the reason given to Koeckebacker being that Matsudaira had pity for them on account of the inconvenience they were occasioned by having their homeward voyage delayed. A more probable reason is that some of the daimyos considered it derogatory to their honor that the aid of foreigners should be thought necessary for suppressing the revolt of a few farmers. Koeckebacker says that the insurgents had shot a letter into the camp of the besiegers asking why, when there were so many brave soldiers in Japan, they had to seek help from the Hollanders.

The rebels had reason to fear treachery. After Itakura’s first attack, one of their number, named Yamada, sent word to the besiegers that he and eight hundred others were not real Christians, but had been compelled by popular opinion to take part in the uprising. He therefore proposed a plan by which the besiegers could gain entrance to the castle promising that in the resulting confusion he would either assassinate Masuda or deliver him into their hands. This plot was discovered, the family of Yamada was put to death, and he was placed in confinement to await the time when the leaders should inflict upon him such punishment as his treachery deserved. When the castle was finally taken, he was found and set free, he being the only person within the fort whose life was spared.

Matsudaira hoped that as the sufferings of hunger began to be felt by those in the castle, others would be found to desert a cause whose helplessness was every day becoming more evident. Notwithstanding that he had been ordered to slay all the Christians, he had a letter shot into the castle promising to those who would surrender themselves that they should have full pardon, if they were not Christians or if they were willing to recant. The letter fell into the hands of the leaders, who at once sent back a reply, saying that, since all in the castle were ready to die for the sake of God, nothing would induce them to give up their faith or to surrender.

The insurgents sustained their courage by religious exercises and by songs of faith or defiance. Once of the latter has been preserved :

“While powder and shot remain, continue to chase the besieging army that is blown away before us like the drifting sand. Hear the dull thud of the enemy’s guns : ‘Don! Don!’ Our arms give back the reply : ‘By the blessing of God the Father, I will cut off your heads!”

A vigorous sortie failed to obtain the provisions that were so much needed. Evidently there could be but one end to such an unequal conflict. The final assault began at noon, April 11, 1638. The insurgents fought desperately until the last. In the absence of ammunition they used stones, billets of wood, kitchen utensils, anything and everything that could be shot from their rude cannon or otherwise employed as a weapon. It was not until the next morning that the besiegers succeeded in taking the castle. They did their best to carry out the grim order for the destruction of old and young. Only one hundred and nine were taken prisoners and they were put to death a few days later. The bodies of the slain were thrown into the sea, but previously the heads had been severed in order that they might be exposed in Nagasaki as a ghastly spectacle to warn all men of the punishment due to rebels. A journal was kept by the Dutch in Hirado says that they numbered seventeen thousand.d The insurgents were not the only ones punished for the outbreak. Matsukura, whose tyranny had been one of its causes, was ordered to commit hara-kiri. From Terasawa were taken away parts of his territory and revenues. He soon after became insane and took his own life.

This revolt led the Government to put forth all its efforts for the suppression of Christianity. The feudal lords sought more energetically than before to apprehend any believers that might be in their territories. The news of the extermination of those who had fought at Hara in the names of Christ and Mary so disheartened others who had before been numbered among the Christians that they had little courage to meet the new trials to which they were exposed. Nearly all who remained in the country made at least a pretense of returning to the old religions. Yet from time to time, believers were discovered. In 1639, Father Pedro Cassoui, a Japanese Jesuit, was put to death in the fosse; and Father Porro, an Italian Jesuit, was burned alive with all the inhabitants of the village where he was found. A Japanese manuscript says that in Nagasaki ten per cent. Of the Christians detected were retained in prison to be utilized as witnesses in future trials, ten per cent. Were assigned (probably as slaves) to informers, and the rest were executed.

Special officers called Kirishitan bugyo were appointed to seek out Christians, and various plans were adopted for the detection of those that concealed their faith. One of the most effective devices was that known as efumi (picture-trampling). It is not certain when this was introduced. References to it are found as early as 1658. Suspected persons were ordered to tread upon a cross or upon a picture of Christ. Those shrinking from the act of irreverence were recognized as followers of the proscribed religion. In1669, a copper tablet with a representation of Christ was substituted in Nagasaki for the picture. Similar ones were afterwards used in other places. Thunberg, who came to Japan in 1775, says that once a year in Nagasaki, the inspectors assembled the inhabitants of each ward, calling them by name and making them step on the image. Infant children were brought by the mothers and held in such a way that their feet touched the tablet. Thus they were taught from their earliest days to despise and hate the religion that it symbolized. Four days were occupied in this ceremony, and then the plate was carried to the neighboring villages. Thunberg denies, as others have done, the assertion that the Dutch merchants were obliged to trample on the picture and that they were willing to do it rather than lose their trade.

Carl Peter Thunberg

In time the Christians adopted various subterfuges for avoiding the tests or for reconciling their consciences to an outward observance of the ceremonies. It is said that in some place the Christians, after trampling on the picture, would wash their feet and then drink the water, returning thanks that they had been permitted to touch the sacred emblem.

One result of the Shimabara Revolt was that the Portuguese, being suspected of having encouraged it, were forbidden to come any more to Japan. In 1639, orders were given that, if a Portuguese ship should come, it must be destroyed and all persons on board be immediately beheaded. Notice was given to the Dutch and Chinese that their ships would be confiscated if any Christian teachers were found upon them. The Dutch were also ordered to give information if they knew of missionaries being brought by the vessels of any other nation.

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