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

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

    Japan First Drew Blood By Killing 26 Martyrs In 1597
    Photo: Unknown / WikiMedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    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

    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

    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. They were tied up by their feet and lowered into a pit of excrement. One account from 1633 describes the ordeal of Nicholas Keian Fukunaga, a martyr who refused to renounce his faith:

    They dug a pit some feet deep, and above it they erected a frame from which the body was hung up by the feet. To prevent the blood flowing into the head and causing death too quickly, they tied the body tightly with ropes and cords. The hands were tied behind the back, and the prisoner was lowered into the pit down to his belt or navel or even down to his knees and legs. The pit was then closed by two boards which were cut in such wise that they surrounded the body...and let no light enter. 

    In this fashion they kept the man hanging upside down without food, poised between life and death and in doubt about the final outcome, until the slowly rising blood pressure brought about complete exhaustion, or else hunger entirely sapped his physical strength.

    After a couple of days (anywhere from three to nine, based on accounts), the individual would either renounce Christianity or die.

  • Torture Methods Included Burning People Alive And Slowly Slicing Them With Bamboo Saws

    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. 

  • Christians Were Burned And Boiled To Death At The Unzen Hot Springs

    Christians Were Burned And Boiled To Death At The Unzen Hot Springs
    Photo: Arnoldus Montanus / WikiMedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    The Unzen Hot Springs near Nagasaki were used to make Christians recant on several occasions. Now a resort, Unzen Jigoku (or Unzen Hell) and its sulfurous, boiling water was used for torturing Christians between 1627 and 1632. Christians were slowly burned and eventually boiled to death in front of family members and other onlookers. 

  • Snake Pit Torture Served Several Purposes

    Throwing a Christian into a pit of snakes was also a common practice during this dark time of persecution in Japan. Snake pits are literally holes full of slithering serpents. A person would be thrown in to induce extreme fear as well as pain. If a person was tossed into a pit, it was just a matter of time until he or she was overcome by snakes and the snakes themselves took over his or her body.