It is quite true that the enemy has never, and never will, prevail against the Church. He has, however, succeeded in wresting from her bosom many of her children, and in some cases, even whole nations. These great losses were brought about in many instances by the wars which divided nations, by the enactment of laws inimical to the interests of religion and of virtue, or by an unbridled love for the passing goods of this world.Pope Pius XI, Ecclessiam Dei (1923)
The story of Japan with regards to Christianity takes on a somber tone. Initially a country which had a thriving Christian community thanks to the efforts of St. Francis Xavier and his Jesuit companions, it was brutally wiped out during a 17th-century campaign of persecution under the Tokugawa shogunate. Among these casualties is one 17-year-old Amakusa Shiro, a samurai who was executed 383 years ago for leading the Shimabara Rebellion. His story is quite popular among Catholic young adults, especially those who have an interest in all things Japanese such as anime, and is filled with overtones of religion, social justice, and heroism especially in the face of an oppressive regime. Some have called on him to be named among the saints of the Church – or at the very least, a martyr, though I would say this acclamation is a bit disputable.
AMAKUSA SHIRO: HIS STORY
Note: The primary sources I referenced in this work include:
- Jake A. Farias, “The Desperate Rebels of Shimabara: The Economic and Political Persecutions And The Tradition of Peasant Revolt” (The Gettysburg Historical Journal, Volume 15, Article 7, 2016)
- Yukihiro Ohashi, “The Revolt Of Shimabara-Amakusa” (Bulletin of Portuguese-Japanese Studies, Vol 20, 2010)
- Nadia Kreeft, “Deus Resurrected – A fresh look at Christianity in the Shimabara-Amakusa rebellion of 1637” (2011)
In late 1637, the populace of the Shimabara Domain, home to a large Christian community, underwent severe oppression from their daimyo. Christianity was outlawed, and its daimyo led the charge with sadistic executions of believers on top of extorting villagers with unjust taxes, by force (and psychological intimidation) if necessary. The unstable conditions eventually paved the way to unrest, and eventually an uprising, with Amakusa Shiro, a charismatic adolescent boy of the samurai class, rallying the troops.
Not much is known about his early life, except that his parents, both members of the samurai class, were converts to the Catholic Faith. Sometime prior to the events of the uprising, he was hailed by supporters, many of them Catholic, as a pseudo-messiah, capable of healing sicknesses and walking on water. Enraged by the crimes being committed on his neighbors, he gathered an armada of more than 40,000 peasants from the area, under a banner hoisting an image of the Blessed Sacrament, heralded with the words in Portuguese, “Long live the Blessed Sacrament” – as if to imitate Emperor Constantine’s famous “In hoc signo vinces”. They took up headquarters at Hara Castle, holding out in the hopes of possible Portuguese assistance, and were initially successful at raiding several towns and laying siege to several castles in the area. For months they lived on the castle’s plentiful food provisions, and fought back imperial forces that tried to overtake them.
Shiro’s conduct as leader seemed to be of a more spiritual character, urging his followers to follow some sort of Christian monastic practices. Throughout the palace, he posted motivational posters with the words: “Now, those who accompany me in being besieged in this castle, will be my friends unto the next world.” while working to repel the imperial forces that surrounded them. Eventually, he would be betrayed by one of his own men, and within days the castle would be overrun by imperial forces, and its inhabitants – himself included – would be massacred on 28 February of 1638. The suppression of this uprising would drive Christianity in Japan underground for at least two centuries, with believers left without the Sacraments for centuries and forced to syncretize their faith with local customs to avoid government punishments. Until the Boshin War of 1868-1869, Shiro’s uprising would be the last major Japanese national conflict.
AMAKUSA SHIRO: WHAT HE WASN’T
Amakusa Shiro is one of the most misunderstood figures from both a Japanese secular and Christian perspective. Apart from a 1962 live-action film which fairly chronicles his life and involvement in the uprising, he has been victim to a number of erroneous depictions of his character in several anime and video game franchises, such as but not limited to:
- The founder of a schismatic sect, as shown in A Certain Magical Index – an anime series focused partially on religion. The series shows him as the original leader of a religious movement which broke away from the Roman Catholic Church sometime prior to his death, and continues in a manner similar to the kakure kirishitan movement in Japan, and has evolved to institutionalize Catholic, Buddhist, and Shinto practices (!), contains priestesses, practices magic, and ends up fusing with the equally heretical Unglican Church of England.
- A power-hungry sorcerer, as the Fate series depicts. While in reality, he was hailed as a wonderworker by locals, this series takes it up a notch and shows him as having been granted the ability by God to do miraculous powers at whim. Ironically, he also shares a role with St. Joan of Arc, the famous Maid of Orleans, who despite their similar backgrounds as warriors with a God-given mission, the latter was canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1930 and actually had a case for her claims of sanctity.
- Most popularly, a demon (or at least demon-possessed). An example is the 1997 anime Ninja Resurrection, where he joins league with the forces of Hell as an attempt to obtain power, and serves as the central antagonist which the show’s heroes must kill to prevent him becoming the Devil. If that’s not enough, the series depicts Christianity in an entirely antagonistic manner. 10/10 would absolutely not recommend.
AMAKUSA SHIRO: SAINT OR MARTYR FOR CHRIST?
Regarding calls for his sainthood, I have issues with this solely on theological grounds. Pope Benedict XIV, in his work On The Beatification And Canonization Of Saints, cites that for a candidate to be considered for sainthood there ought to exist a popular veneration of the person, a clear and concise biography of his personal life, and miracles attributed to their intercession. In the case of Amakusa Shiro, we have:
- The lack of a popular cultus of veneration. While there exists a good number of people who look up to him, it appears his cultus has not achieved wide popularity, even amongst the Japanese faithful in the years after his death; unlike other saints such as Francis of Assisi, Peter of Verona or Stanislaus of Krakow who were quickly venerated after their deaths.
- The vague details surrounding his life. Outside of the fact that we know he was a Catholic samurai, details about what heroic virtues he practiced in his life, his devotional life, or the degree of his military involvement are severely lacking. The absence of evidence surrounding these, as demonstrated above in my account of his life, would make it difficult to know for certain whether he truly is someone worth taking up as a role model, or not.
- No verifiable miraculous cases attributed to him. Finally, the lack of miraculous interventions attributed to him is a major problem. If we do not have any cases of miracles attributed to them, then how can we be certain that he truly is in Heaven, other than a second-hand guess? The lack of posthumous miracles would also cast verifiable doubt as to how legitimate the miracles attributed to him in his lifetime were.
Even if he isn’t a saint, can he be considered, at the very least, a Christian martyr? Fr. Benedict Ashley OP, a Dominican priest and theologian, lays out three necessary conditions for one to be considered as such:
- The person must have been put to death
- They were killed out of hatred for Christianity (in odium fidei), expressed by word or intention
- The person must accept their death voluntarily, and face it humbly
Someone who dies defending a false conception of Christianity, or for medicinal, social, military or egotistical purposes would be disqualified from being labeled a martyr. That being said, does Amakusa Shiro’s death meet all the conditions outlined by Fr. Ashley?
AMAKUSA SHIRO: KILLED IN ODIUM FIDEI?
On paper, given Shiro’s troops’ use of Christian imagery such as the Blessed Sacrament on their flags, one might see this as a Christian uprising, like that of the Vendée uprising during the 18th-century French Revolution, or the 20th-century Cristero Wars in Mexico. But whereas those two groups made it clear that they intended to fight to defend the Faith against a heathen government’s attacks, the main intent of Shimabara has been disputed by both Western and Japanese scholars. Both Ohashi and Farias, analyzing the exchange of letters between Shiro’s troops and the imperial forces, show that while the freedom to practice Christianity was one of the demands, so was the levying of the harsh taxes laid upon them by the local daimyo. In fact, they insist that the latter seemed to be of higher importance than the former, and therefore they consider the event to be driven by economics, rather than religion.
On the other hand, Kreeft shows that amongst the rebels, the practice of Christianity made up a significant part of their non-fighting duties, essentially stamping itself as a mark of identity upon them, much like the Vendée and Cristero fighters. In one of the documents she provides, the Shiro Hattogaki, he calls compatriots towards Christian repentance, and views their campaign as a holy effort:
Everybody in the castle! Because we are in this state in which we have accumulated great sin, our salvation in the afterlife is uncertain. However, with a special mercy (from God) we have summoned a great number of people within this castle. What a blessing this is! We must serve Him with unfaltering hearts! …
Life in this world is short, but the lives of the people in this castle are even shorter so. Especially (focusing on) the regrets of the past, you must devote yourself day and night to serving (God) in your daily venerations and prayer! …
At a time when we can needlessly fall into sin, now is an important time especially since we are in Lent! Crowded into this place, we should venerate Deus day and night, yet people bring others in their little houses and we see them take a little break and rest. This is such a waste! Everyone to the lowest individual should be told about this!Excerpt from the Shiro Hattogaki, cited from Nadia Kreeft’s “Deus Resurrected – A fresh look at Christianity in the Shimabara-Amakusa rebellion of 1637” (2011), pg.32-33
In addition, Kreeft notes that imperial forces, led by Matsuda Nobutsuna, a Japanese daimyo, made manifest their desire to kill Christian rebels in their negotiations, while sparing those who weren’t, or were willing to apostatize. Given the context surrounding the uprising and the violent campaign pursued against the Faith during and after the fact, I find it plausible that Shiro was executed in odium fidei.
AMAKUSA SHIRO: A PIOUS DEATH?
However, the third condition is where I feel Shiro’s case falls apart. Before his execution, he was to have uttered as his last words: “I shall return after 100 years and take my revenge.” Compare that to other Christian martyrs, who humbly accepted their deaths without any hint of ill will towards their captors:
- St. Stephen asked God to forgive his killers (“Lord, lay not this sin to their charge”; as per Acts 7:60), one of them in an ironic twist being the future martyr and missionary St. Paul of Tarsus
- Blessed Noel Pinot and the Martyrs of Compiegne silently prayed the opening words of the Mass (Psalm 42) and chanted the Salve Regina respectively as they climbed to the guillotine
- Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher faced death with courage, refusing erstwhile to betray their fealty to the Papacy by acknowledging Henry VIII as head of the English Church
- St. Jean de Brebeuf and companions, aka the North American Martyrs, calmly endured the tortures put upon them by their Native American captors
- St. Josaphat Kuntsevych, who I have a personal attachment to, prayed for his anti-Catholic Eastern Orthodox would-be assassins
His last words also smack of heresy, with an reference to reincarnation. Why would he also feel the need to curse his oppressors? Wouldn’t it make more sense to put all their preparation into contemplating an eternal happiness with God, or commit an act of perfect contrition as fitting for a martyr? As a result, I will have to maintain a positive doubt on calling him a Christian martyr – his final moments just don’t add up to one of such.
To summarize; the Shimabara Rebellion was partially motivated by a mixture of economic and religious factors; but given the shogunate’s aversion to the Faith during that time, it’s plausible that Amakusa Shiro’s death was motivated by the latter reason. However, he did not face death with a Christ-like humility, but instead with fury and vengeance; and added to the fact that not much is known about his personal life and general doubt about the authenticity of his miraculous powers, I will be willing to refer to him as perhaps, a staunch defender of the Faith; but not among the martyrs of the Church.
An example of a real martyr of the Faith, who we know much about and I look up to, is St. Josaphat Kuntsevych. As a child in Ukraine, he is said to have had a disregard for worldly activities, preferring to study the Faith and memorizing the prayers of the breviary (daily prayer book). Although raised Eastern Orthodox, thanks to a mentor he later converted to the Catholic Faith, joining a Basilian monastery and eventually being ordained priest, and later consecrated as the Eastern Catholic Metropolitan (bishop) of Polotsk. His life was marked with a daily routine of prayer, fasting, bodily mortification, and pursuit of his episcopal duties; but moreover, a desire to bring the Eastern Orthodox brethren back to Rome. Many would come back to Christ thanks to his ministry; sadly, his Orthodox compatriots, who saw him as an traitor, axed him in 1623, and granted to him his eternal reward.
His life bears some similarities to Shiro’s; particularly their zeal for Christ from youth, and earnest hope to unite everyone under His banner. However, what Shiro lacked in matters spiritual, St. Josaphat excelled in, with many genuine conversions to the Faith, and numerous miracles attributed to his intercession. I found his story inspiring, and immediately felt a connection to his virtuous examples and love for studying the Faith. I have him to credit for something: in my first year of university, I was considering converting to Eastern Orthodoxy; were it not for him, I would probably never have known about Traditionalist Catholicism, or solemnly embraced it at all.
You people of Vitebsk want to put me to death. You make ambushes for me everywhere, in the streets, on the bridges, on the highways, and in the marketplace. I am here among you as a shepherd, and you ought to know that I would be happy to give my life for you. I am ready to die for the holy union, for the supremacy of Saint Peter, and of his successor the Supreme Pontiff.St. Josaphat Kuntsevych’s humble plea for martyrdom