27 February 2022

Warriors For Christ in Japan

The author has written a historical novel about the Shimabara Rebellion when Catholics rose up in arms against their persecutors, led by a Catholic samurai.

From Catholic Stand

By Michael Thomas Cibenko

Not long after graduating from The University of Montana in 1996, I found myself on a plane headed for Tokyo.  Experiencing Japan had been a long-time dream of mine, in no small part to discover more about my own ancestry.  My Japanese grandmother had come to live with my family when I was a teenager, shortly after my grandfather died.  (He had been an American soldier stationed in Japan shortly after its surrender in World War II.)  I had learned just enough about the language and culture from my grandmother to know that I wanted to spend some significant period of time in the land of her birth.  And so I was finally off to fulfill that goal with a contract to teach English in the Japanese public school system.

But Tokyo was not my final destination.  I was there for a few days of orientation before traveling on to my assignment in Kumamoto Prefecture on Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands.  I must confess that, at this point in my life, my practice of the faith could perhaps best be described as lukewarm.  Still, after a few weeks, I determined that I should at least discover where the nearest Catholic church might be.  As it turned out, it was only about a fifteen-minute drive from my little home (which had formerly been a police station) in the small rural village of Kumamura.  Though I procrastinated a few more weeks, I did finally resolve to get my American self to Mass.

When I arrived at the humble church in the town of Hitoyoshi, the first thing I noticed at the entryway were small cubicles for shoes.  I was already accustomed to removing my shoes when entering someone’s home, but I was not expecting to do that for Mass.  But, then again, I was entering the house of God.  From the moment Mass began, even in the moments prior, I perceived an atmosphere much more reverent than what I was used to back in the U.S.  Everyone was modestly dressed, the women wore head coverings, and children were well behaved.  When it came time for the sign of peace, I instinctively stuck my hand out to an elderly lady next to me.  She just gave me a polite smile and did what Japanese people do – she gently bowed.  And everyone proceeded to exchange civilized and non-disruptive bows.

After Mass, as everyone exited the church, inquisitive but courteous folks approached me.  I was the only foreigner amongst them, and one of the very few Westerners living anywhere in the area.  The people of that parish really made me feel welcome and helped to instill in me a refreshed sense of joy in being a Catholic.  The priest of the parish, Fr. Malloy from Ireland, would officiate my wedding a few years later at the somewhat larger church in the prefecture’s capital of Kumamoto City.

One of the things that impressed me about Catholics in Japan was their willingness to accept some of the fundamental differences between their professed Christian faith and the norms of the culture at large.  Japan is historically a society that holds uniformity in high regard.  Therefore, to be one of the less than half a percent of the population to be Catholic is to be the proverbial “nail that stands out.”  The devoutness of the Catholic community was certainly one of the things that inspired me to learn more about the history of the faith there.

I’m sure not many people can say they went on their honeymoon with their parents, but I did.  (Since they’d flown all the way to Japan for my wedding, I certainly wasn’t going to leave them alone in some hotel!)  We chose the port city of Nagasaki, only a three-hour drive from Kumamoto.  With its scenic hills overlooking a bay, beautiful Nagasaki almost looks like it could be a town on the Mediterranean.  Of course, Nagasaki is best known for being one of the two cities destroyed by an atomic bomb in August of 1945.  We toured the memorials and a museum related to that tragic event.  We also visited Oura Catholic Church, where one can still see glass rosaries and faces of stone statues that were melted from the heat of the blast.  Most people don’t realize that Nagasaki had at that time, and still has, one of the highest concentrations of Christians in Japan.

The other major memorial we visited on that trip was that of the 26 Martyrs of Nagasaki.  When the first Spanish and Portuguese missionaries arrived on Japanese soil in 1549, they were permitted to evangelize the populace and even build churches.  This was considered by the imperial authorities to be a fair exchange for the new trade opportunities permitted by the large sea-faring vessels of the Europeans.  And for over half a century, the new religion thrived.  Converts, both peasant and noble alike, numbered into the hundreds of thousands.  Churches and seminaries were established, and the gospel message of salvation spread like wildfire.

And this made those in the capital of Edo (today Tokyo) very nervous.  It was feared that the “foreign religion” threatened to upend cultural and political stability.  There were also rumors that the arrival of the missionaries may have been part of a larger plan for an eventual military takeover of the islands.  In an attempt to force Christians to renounce their faith, an example was made of twenty-six Catholics.  (The group comprised twenty Japanese, including three young boys, and six foreigners.)  Refusing to deny Christ as God Incarnate, the group members were arrested.  Their ears were hacked off to discourage others from “hearing” the Gospel, and they were paraded through towns along the long march to Nagasaki, where they were crucified.

Under the rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate, a statewide ban on Christianity was formally issued in 1614.  Missionaries were expelled, and those known to be converts were forced to publicly renounce the faith.  This was commonly done using the “fumi-e,” a bronze image of Our Crucified Lord upon which one was compelled to step with his foot.  Those who refused were imprisoned, tortured, or sometimes beheaded on the spot.  And those who refused were many.

On my most recent trip to Japan, some seven years ago, I took a ferry from Kumamoto to the neighboring island of Amakusa.  I had gone with my wife, children, and mother-in-law to visit the Amakusa Christian Museum.  As we disembarked the ferry and walked along a path, we saw near the water’s edge a statue of a young man.  He wore the swords of the samurai, yet attire that appeared rather European.  In one outstretched hand sat a dove.  The man and the bird were locked in a perpetual gaze at one another.  That young man is Shiro Amakusa, a 16-year-old Catholic samurai who helped lead a rebellion of persecuted Christians.

During that day at the museum, I would learn a great deal more about the history of Christianity in Japan, and in particular what’s come to be known as The Shimabara Rebellion.  This event, which lasted from the winter of 1637 to the spring of 1638, was an armed uprising of Catholic peasants and samurai who were vastly outnumbered by their imperial persecutors.  Beyond the particulars of the events during this period, I found myself mainly fascinated by the absolute conviction of those who refused to renounce the faith.  Many of them, especially of the warrior and noble classes, could have led quite comfortable lives.  Yet they chose to sacrifice all worldly things in the name of Jesus Christ.  The question that kept going through my mind that day was, “Would I have been able to do that?”

My book, Masaru (a word that translates to “victory”), is a work of historical fiction based on the events of The Shimabara Rebellion, and the person of Shiro Amakusa.  (In the book, I give the main character the last name of Nakagawa, the maiden name of my Japanese grandmother.)  Masaru blends actual history with many of the cultural observations of my four years living in Japan.  It also contains a good deal of apologetics, much of which was inspired by theological discussions during my fifteen years of teaching Catholic high school in my native northwest New Jersey.  This labor of love, which really seeks to get to the heart of what makes a Christian warrior, was written for anyone who is interested in Church history, Japanese culture, or just a compelling adventure story.

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