Weird History

Feudal Japan Went On A Brutal Campaign To Exterminate Christianity, With Horrifying Results 

Melissa Sartore
Updated April 13, 2020 7.3k views 11 items

When Jesuit missionaries traveled to Japan in the 1540s, they had hopes of introducing their faith to new, enthusiastic followers of Christ. They asked for permission to preach in Japan and were granted access by warlords looking to establish trade contacts with the West. Initially, only Jesuits were entering the Asian country, but they were later joined by Spanish Franciscans. At first, their conversion efforts were quite successful and Christian beliefs spread quickly throughout the small Asian country. However, within 50 years of the arrival of missionaries, the early progress of Christianity in Japan would be washed away with the blood of persecuted and martyred Christians. 

The Christian monotheistic belief system wasn't something easily understood in a land of people who believed in Shintoism and Buddha's path to Enlightenment. Similarly, Christianity was quickly seen as an extension of imperialism and the Japanese government became increasingly distrustful of Christians. The Japanese government began to persecute Christians, eventually outlawing the faith and harshly eliminating its followers. 

Christian martyrs in Japan represent a violent chapter in the history of religion in Japan. The first and most famous martyrs of Japan include 26 men who were crucified in 1597. The killing and violence continued well into the mid-nineteenth century. Christians were tortured, forced to recant their beliefs, and killed when they refused to do so. This list explores the various gruesome practices that the Japanese used to punish those professing Christianity. Read at your own caution, as the details can be quite graphic. 

Japan First Drew Blood By Killing 26 Martyrs In 1597
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In the late 1580s and early 1590s, Toyotomi Hideyoshi ruled over Japan and saw firsthand how much Christianity had developed in some urban areas. Feeling threatened by the presence of both Jesuits and Spanish Catholic missionaries, Hideyoshi decided that Christianity, as a foreign faith, represented a threat to Japan. He ordered all missionaries to leave Japan within 20 days. Though the ban was not strictly enforced, it set the foundation for persecution of Christians. 

Hideyoshi took further action after a Spanish ship, the San Felipe, washed up on Japanese shores and the captain boasted about Spanish designs to take over the world. According to the Spanish captain, Christian missionaries were part of this plan. Hideyoshi panicked and started claiming that Christians were spies. This sealed the fate of 26 missionaries who were rounded up in the Kansai region, publicly mutilated, and crucified at Nagasaki. These victims became known as the 26 martyrs. 

Crucifixion Was An Ironically Appropriate Death
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Photo:  Unknown/WikiMedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

When the 26 Christians were arrested and crucified in 1597, they were given a chance to renounce their religion. They refused. All of the Christians, even a twelve-year old boy, were crucified on top of a hill at Nagasaki. This punishment was possibly chosen as a statement against the death of Christ himself, though it should be noted that crucifixion was a regular practice in Japan prior to the late 16th century. 

Torture Escalated And Included Reverse Crucifixions, Where An Individual Would Be Lowered Into A Hole Of Excrement
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Photo:  Otiai Saheiji Michihisa/WikiMedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Hideyoshi's successor as overlord of Japan, Tokugawa Ieyasu, took an even more violent approach to Christianity during the first decades of the 17th century. In 1614, he expelled all Christians from Japan. Converts were expected to renounce the faith and any continued practitioners of the faith were to be executed. Despite all this, there were still "hidden Christians" who chose to remain in Japan, known as kakure kirishitans.

During the Tokugawa period, Christians were subjected to tsurushi, or reverse hanging. In an effort to get the Christian to recant, he or she was hung upside and lowered halfway down into a pit of excrement. The Christian was usually slashed on the forehead or on an arm that was left hanging so his or her blood pressure would fall, but death would not come too quickly. The pit was covered with boards to prevent light from entering and the victim was denied food or water.  After a couple of days, the individual would either renounce Christianity or die. One account from 1633 describes the ordeal of Nicholas Keian Fukunaga, a martyr who refused to renounce his faith:

"Or until, worn out by the torment, loneliness, and solitude, he finally succumbed to this deadly torture and renounced his faith while there was still life left in him. Nicholas hung three days in the pit, from vespers on Thursday until noon on Sunday." 

Torture Methods Included Burning People Alive And Slowly Slicing Them With Bamboo Saws
Torture Methods Included... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list Feudal Japan Went On A Brutal Campaign To Exterminate Christianity, With Horrifying Results
Photo:  Cuzco School/WikiMedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

At Nagasaki, the Chief Commissioner employed a variety of tactics to torture Jesuit missionaries. He used water torture, he roasted people alive, and he slowly sliced missionaries with bamboo saws to cause excruciating pain. He also placed people on a wooden horse and had weights put on their legs to torture them. 

The methods of getting people to scream and renounce Christianity were endless. The Chief Commissioner also amputated appendages, crushed limbs, and placed pregnant women in vats of cold water until they gave birth (the babies were expected to die of exposure). They also subjected Christian peasants to the "raincoat" dance, the mino odori. Victims were wrapped in a straw coat, covered in oil, and set on fire. The twists, turns, and panicked movements of the burning person was the "dance" part of the torture.