The Christian samurai

Today I learned that Japanese feudal lord Takayama Ukon (1552-1615), who had his lands confiscated and was exiled due to his Catholic faith, is set to become the first Japanese person to be individually beatified (that’s one step away from being declared a saint).

In fact, there was no small amount of interest in Christianity among feudal lords in Japan before 1614, when the shogun decided the religion was a threat, banned it, and sealed off the entire country to foreigners.  (Those Japanese Catholics who weren’t martyred or exiled were able to survive underground, practicing their faith in secret and passing it from generation to generation for over 200 years until the country was opened to the world again and they were reunited with the Church.)

One of the most fascinating stories from this period occurred straddling the 1614 divide.  Just a year before the shogun banned Christianity, feudal lord Date Masamune, who was also interested in the religion, sent one of his samurai, Hasekura Tsunenaga, on a mission to Rome to meet the Pope and request missionaries to be sent to his domain.  It was one of Japan’s first diplomatic missions to Europe.

Hasekura set sail on what would become a seven-year voyage in which he visited Mexico, Spain and Rome.  Along the way, he himself and many of the samurai in his 180-man crew converted to Catholicism.  They were granted an audience with Pope Paul V, and Hasekura hand-delivered a gilded letter from his lord.  However, during the time it had taken the mission to reach Rome, Christianity had been banned in Japan.

The Pope was forced to conclude that this was not a good time to send missionaries to Japan.  The mission tried to wait things out, but to no avail.  Some of the samurai chose to stay behind in Mexico and put down roots rather than face persecution back in Japan.  But Hasekura returned and converted his family and servants to Catholicism, for which several of them would be martyred.

To a Catholic, it’s easy to see the romance and adventure in this story.  Interestingly, Japanese retellings often fall flat, concluding that “after many difficult trials, Hasekura’s mission failed, and he was forgotten by history.”  Once, while discussing this episode with a coworker, I tried to explain to her that martyrdom is a heroic and happy ending, but I’m not sure she believed me.  At any rate, the Japanese have a different sense of what makes a story than the West, something I may write about in a future post.

For now, suffice to say that Catholicism has a surprising and colorful history in Japan.  I wonder if we will discover more saints here in the years to come.


One comment on “The Christian samurai

  1. […] topics you can find on this blog:  St. Francis Xavier’s appreciation of the Japanese; the Keicho Mission; the Hidden […]


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