The Martyrs of Japan
A large, distinctive, and inviting piece of art hangs in our refectory at Emery House, an image of the Last Supper in which the figures wear kimonos and dine on saké and sushi. It is a Japanese print in the mingei, or folk-art style, by the twentieth century Christian artist Sadao Watanabe. Watanabe used a technique called katazome, utilizing traditional mineral pigments in a medium of soybean milk printed on mulberry paper. Of his works, Watanabe once remarked, “I would most like to see them hanging where people ordinarily gather, because Jesus brought the gospel for the people.” Having lost his father at the age of ten, he began attending Church when a local Christian woman in his neighborhood took him under her wing. He was baptized at age seventeen.
Here is my sermon preached this morning at the Monastery in Cambridge. I knew before I went on our end of January “Away Week” that I was scheduled to preach on this Feast today, so I began thinking about how I should present it. Having served for some years in the former SSJE Japanese Province (1962-1975) I could draw on my experience of having lived in that country as a priest and monk. My first thoughts were about my memories of seeing the notice board prohibiting Christianity that hung for many years on the wall of one of our hallways here at the Monastery, and then seeing one of the same boards at St. Michael’s Monastery, Oyama, Japan, and hearing some of the story of the Martyrs from Japanese members of SSJE. There was also my own memory of actually visiting the site of the crucifixion of the 26 Martyrs in Nagasaki on one of my visits there. I also used “Google” to refresh my memory concerning some of the details of that event, plus having learned of some of the other martyrdoms while I lived in Japan. The last paragraph was inspired by the newspaper and TV reports of the recent deaths of the hostages in the Eastern Mediterranean. We certainly need to pray for a solution to that situation.
The Martyrs of Japan (1597- ca.1630)
Today is the Feast of the first martyrs in Japan, followed by others over a period of years.
Late in the 16th Century reports reached the Daimyo, Hideyoshi, and other leaders in Japan, that the Philippine Islands and other parts of Southeast Asia were being colonized by Spain and Portugal and other European countries through the influence of Jesuit, Franciscan and Dominican missionaries.
Christianity was introduced to the people of Japan in the 16th century, first by the Jesuits under the leadership of Francis Xavier, and then by the Franciscans. This was a complex time in Japanese history with rivalries between various religious groups; between Spain and Portugal in their intent to colonize Japan; and between the Japanese emperor and the feudal overlords, the shoguns. Christians became a target for persecution and martyrdom. By the mid-17th century, what was left of the church was driven underground for many, many years.
There are times when the path to which God calls us leads us into trouble or difficulty. Being faithful to that path, being obedient to that call, can prove to be very costly. We have only to recall Christ’s agony in Gethsemane to know that this was true for Jesus, and he assures us that it will also be true for many of those who choose to embrace and follow him on the Way.
We remember today a soldier named George who lived in Palestine at the beginning of the fourth century. He was killed, not in service to the emperor Diocletian but rather martyred as a soldier of Christ. He became known throughout the Eastern Church as “The Great Martyr.”