On this date in 1597, 26 Christians were crucified at Nagasaki’s Tateyama (“Hill of Wheat”) as Japan began to close itself against western interference.
The 26 martyrs — five Europeans of Spanish extraction, one from Portuguese India, and 20 local converts — had been marched hundreds of kilometers over a period of weeks as a warning to the populace, before they were raised up on crosses and lanced to death. They could have had their liberty at the price of renouncing Catholicism; a 12-year-old altar boy among them reputedly answered such an offer on this day with the words, “Sir, it would be better if you yourself became a Christian and could go to heaven where I am going. Sir, which is my cross?”
Martyrs always cut heroic figures. The backdrop of these deaths, however, was a struggle over power and resources in Europe’s colonial age that was far from black-and-white.
European missionaries began their contact with Japan in the waning stages of Japan’s protracted civil wars. They did not scruple to interfere, winning converts with plum trade concessions like saltpeter.
At the same time, Spanish and Portuguese interests were contending with one another for overseas trade, as the European naval powers carved the world into colonies. To greatly simplify a conflict that would continue to unfold well into the 17th century, this day’s martyrdom was suffered by Spanish-backed Franciscans pressing into Portuguese territory in a proxy contest for access conducted by their respective secular authorities.
Portugal, in essence, got there first — and Japan was (disputably) within that seafaring realm’s official sphere of influence. Since legal recognition followed facts on the ground rather than the other way around, Spain sponsored mendicant orders like the Franciscans to make its own inroads.
The late-arriving group was less attuned to the local political climate. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who had unified Japan and quelled civil strife, had pronounced an edict of expulsion against Christians ten years prior. It had not been enforced — but the ruler was sensitive to a slide back into civil war and watched the progress of cleric-aided colonization elsewhere in Asia warily. The Portuguese Jesuits took care:
The Jesuits knew that, even though Hideyoshi’s tolerance of Christian propaganda was “in direct proportion to the profits he hoped to gain from the Iberian traders,” their continuous mission would be granted as long as they acted submissively toward him and did not “touch the nerve” of the dictator. … Yet, this deliberate attitude was not shared by the Franciscans, who had just arrived in the country and took Hideyoshi’s acceptance “at its face value and promptly exploited it to the utmost, celebrating Mass openly and behaving generally as if they were in Rome.” The martyrdom at Nagasaki in 1597 was a fatal consequence of this …
When a merchant rashly boasted of Spain’s dominions and claimed that priests and trading ships preceded conquest, the crackdown caught up the martyrs (three of them were Japanese Jesuits seized mistakenly).
This incident did not close Japan against the outside world — that still lay 40 years to the future — but it was a sure step along the path. Intermittent, but more frequent, persecutions of Christians followed in the coming years, driving Japanese Catholics underground, a minuscule and secretive syncretic remnant now in ironic danger of disappearing without the cohesive pressure of persecution.
They have a museum in Nagasaki, a city which today remains a (relative) stronghold of the tiny Japanese Christian population.