On Christian Martyrdom in Japan (1597-1658)

Cristina Osswald


This essay deals with the collective episodes of Christian martyrdom that took place in Japan in the Early Modern Time. On February 5, 1597 six Spanish Franciscans, seventeen Japanese catechists and three Japanese Jesuits, a priest and two brothers were martyred by crucifixion on the Nishizaka Hill, Nagasaki. This episode of collective martyrdom of Christians was the first of many such episodes that occurred to a great extent during the so-called Christian Century or Namban Era (1549-1639). The formation of communities of Kakure Kirishitan (Hidden Christians) or Sempoku Kirishitan (Underground Christians) was a main consequence of these episodes. The Kirishitan communities developed a very syncretic religiosity marked by the veneration of their ancestors killed for their faith. In 1627 the martyrs of Nagasaki in 1597 were declared blessed, as an overall recognition of this episode within a time characterised by such gruesome episodes in Europe and beyond. The atomic bomb thrown over Nagasaki in 1945 revived the memory of past martyrdoms dating back to 1597 among the local Christian communities. In June 1962, the Twenty-Six Martyrs Museum and Monument built on the spot of their martyrdom on the Nishizaka Hill in Nagasaki, Japan, opened to commemorate the centenary of the canonization of these martyrs. The subject remains actual in the 21st century. Hundred and eighty-eight Kirishithan martyred for their faith, and who were mostly laypersons, were declared blessed in 2008. The film Silence directed by Martin Scorsese and based on the novel by Shisaku Endo opened the debate on the significance of Christianity and martyrdom in early modern Japan to the wide public in 2016.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.13035/H.2021.09.02.63

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