Twenty-six men and boys were martyred, on account of the christian faith, in a spectacular fashion, in Nagasaki on the 5th of February 1597. Most were japanese, but there were spaniards, a mexican and an asian indian. Nagasaki is, and has been, the center of christianity in Japan. Nagasaki has become inseparable from martyrdom. It is the entrance gate of christianity.
In the generation after Francis Xavier, christianity became a significant factor in the country. Many converts were made, the feudal aristocrats often had their populace convert. There was fervor and zeal in the new faith, but not without bad behavior and impolitic action.
The shogun, and the power behind the emperor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi turned against christianity. Several reasons gave him cause: the destruction of buddhist and shinto art and architecture, which was japanese cultural patrimony, criminal behavior of certain christian merchants, possible imperial desires of Spain and other europeans, the dissension between spainards and portuguese, the franciscans and the jesuits, and the greater dissension between these former and the dutch and english heretics, and in contradiction, a possible christian hegemony. Hideyoshi was a champion commander, and there had been generations of internecine war; he wanted a centralisation of power in his own hands. With the buddhist monks, the bonzes, also having political, military and economic power, which, had become, weakened; he did not want a greater threat in the christians. In Hideyoshi’s childhood there were no christians (catholics), now there were, perhaps many more than, 300,000.
These early japanese christians were romanced with the Cross. They were evangelised with the Passion, and knew well of the early martyrs, and the rewards of heaven. With understanding of buddhist resignation and samurai honor and toughness, they had a stoic appreciation. Cruel irony found crucifixion (haritsuke) a novel and effectively, vicious form of torture and execution. They were to be paraded from Kyoto (literally, the capital then), after mutilation and constant abuse, over a thousand kilometers to their deaths. They were to be tied to a cross and speared by lances. If they renounced christianity, they would live. All the countryside would know of their degradation and fate. Yet, this did not end the faith in Japan. These martyrs engaged their deaths so bravely, that, they caused others to be ardently steadfast.
One of the martyrs, Paul Miki had been a jesuit for eleven years. He was an enthusiastic preacher, but not yet ordained. He exhorted crowds along the way and on the cross. Hideyoshi, as the english, feared and hated the jesuits. Miki made the appeal, that, the accusations against him (and the others) were false. They had no ulterior motives, they were merely faithful christians, and he, Miki, was not a foreign agent from the Philippines, but a nipponese as they were. His and all their deaths were unflinching and unwavering. This did not end christianity. It would be along time before the first man would either betray, or, disgrace himself and, the faith under pressure.
These martyrs are not well known in english speaking america, but in latin america, where there was contemporaneous evangelisation, and where one was born, their story, and their images were known. In 1862 they were placed on the universal calendar, first as Sts. Peter Baptist and Twenty-Five Companions on the 5th of February, and later as Sts. Paul Miki and his Companions on the 6th.
Nagasaki remained a center of both the faith and of martyrdom throughout the centuries. The last spectacular execution of innocents occurred on the 9th of August 1945. One dirty atomic bomb detonated over the cathedral, its radiation is still killing, far beyond the initial incineration. There is a memorial building, attached to a church dedicated to St. Philip of Jesus, the martyr from Mexico, and the first to die. It commemorates the 100th year of the canonisations. On the outside of the building there is a bronze, by Angelico Funakoshi, of the 26 in line. There is a Peace Park in Nagasaki to beg for the end of nuclear terror.