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The Great Kyoto Martyrdom

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In the following article by Graham McDonnell (which first appeared in the Hawaii Catholic Herald), we read the best recent account of the 52 + 1 Martyrs of Kyoto, with due respect given Tecla and the child in her womb.  The author lives in Kyoto and probably knows more than most about the Great Kyoto Martyrdom.  Our commentary appears in red:


“The ‘Great Kyoto Martyrdom,’ as it is known, took place on Sunday evening, Oct. 6, 1619, at the command of the Shogun Hidetada Tokugawa who had abruptly ordered the execution of the Christians.

“The victims, 52 men, women and children, were herded into 11 hand-drawn carts that held eight persons each, and paraded through the main streets of Kyoto as a warning to others. Leading the wagons were guards who shouted, ‘These prisoners have been sentenced to death by fire because they persist in believing the teaching of Christ, which has been outlawed by the shogun.’”

Interestingly, in the romance entitled The Knight of the Cart written around 1180 A.D. by Chretien de Troyes, Lancelot proves his love for his Lady by mounting a cart pulled by a troll, something considered shameful in that society, as in Japan, but sublime when done for love, just like the martyrs here are doing for love of God, particularly Johann Kikoya, the husband of Tecla, who was a converted samurai, and thus a true knight.   

“The martyrs countered those jibes by saying, ‘Yes, we are Christians and we offer our lives to God.’”

“Their faces gleamed with joy at the prospect of meeting God face-to-face. Bystanders witnessing their deep faith greeted them with applause. After a journey that had stretched nearly eight kilometers across the city of Kyoto, they reached the execution site on the eastern bank of the Kamogawa River. It was late afternoon.

“The location, about three hundred meters from Hokoji Temple, was the busiest place in the city. The temple, affectionately called the ‘Big Kyoto Buddha,’ was modeled after the ‘Big Buddha’ temple in Nara. Years later, in 1798, the ‘Big Kyoto Buddha’ was struck by lightning and completely destroyed. All that remains today is a huge temple bell, bearing silent witness to the events narrated below.

Why isn't the fact that this temple and Buddha were destroyed by lightning trumpeted throughout Japan and the rest of the world? It is a clear indication of God's disapproval of the shamefully evil thing that was done in front of them.  Oh well, not to fear, the Catholic Faith is now being rebuilt on the stone commemorating the Great Kyoto Martyrs and the first true Catholic to visit that stone on a lonely Sunday in July of 2012, with her Latin missal to read the Mass, was greeted with a beam of light from the heavens onto the open pages of her Missal--the light shining nowhere else in the surrounding environs save for that spot where Tecla's stone stood--on what to that point had been an oppressively overcast day.  

“On the river bank was a plot of land 50 meters long and 25 meters wide where a huge pile of kindling, wood beams and trash taken from the condemned Christians’ homes, was piled high around 27 large cross-like stakes.

“The official in charge, Katsushige Itakura, was the governor of Kyoto. As a young man, he had been a Buddhist priest. Itakura knew that in executions by fire, the kindling was set away from the victims, allowing the flames to prolong the suffering. This special torture could cause some to give up their faith and recant. But Itakura also realized that with these faithful Christians, there was little hope of recanting. For this reason he had pity on the victims, and ordered the kindling placed as close as possible to them, so their sufferings would be brief.

It is wrong to say that Itakura had “pity” on the martyrs due to the fact that he burned them faster rather than slower.  Killing of innocent people is still killing of innocent people, and regardless of whether the martyrs were given a fast or slow execution, their blood will still cry to heaven for vengeance, as Holy Scripture tells us. Methinks there is an implied Universal Salvation in these words of Mr. McDonnell (which, admittedly, was taught more overtly by JPII than Mr. McDonnell does here); that the Buddhists who killed Tecla, and Itakura in particular, were really not such bad guys after all and we all will meet happily ever after in heaven anyway, so why bother about our religious differences...right?

“The victims were bound two to each cross, back-to-back. The leader of the martyrs was John Hashimoto, who, with his wife Tecla and their five children, drew sympathetic glances from the bystanders. Tecla was expecting her seventh child.

“To celebrate her martyrdom, she wore a stately, white silk veil that reached to her feet. The sight of this young mother and her five children as they walked to their crosses brought tears to the eyes of many. She clutched her three-year-old daughter Luisa, as her 12-year-old son Toma was tied to her cross at her right side. Eight-year-old Francisco was tied to her left. Her six-year-old Pedro and 13-year-old Katarina were tied together to another cross close by.

I have heard from a Japanese friend who was able to research the martyrdom more in depth on the internet that one Japanese account describes the gown that Tecla wore for the martyrdom as the kind of gown Japanese women wear when giving a performance onstage.  Coincidentally, just down the river from the stone commemorating this event, is a monument to O-kuni, the female founder of kabuki, in 1603, where women wore--what else?--stately gowns for giving performances onstage.  We might say, therefore, that Tecla gave the greatest kabuki performance of all and all kabuki since then, particularly the marvelous collaboration between Yo Yo Ma and Tamasaburo Bando in 1995, has been a commemoration of her great sacrifice.   (See "Media" page for link and more details)

“When the fires were lit, the night sky shone brilliantly with flames leaping from the ghastly funeral pyre. All of the martyrs began praying and singing hymns. When Katarina cried that she could no longer see because of the smoke, her mother shouted, ‘Sing out the names of Jesus and Mary.’

Other accounts say that Tecla said, "Pray to Jesus and Mary," to her children, which sounds more accurate.  At any rate, Tecla at this point became like Wagner's Brunnhilde, at the end of the great tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelungen), who built a funeral pyre of "stout logs," set them alight with a torch, and then leaped into the fire for the Downfall of the Gods and the Redemption of the World Through Love.  (You can read more about this on my "Bayreuth, Germany" entry on the "Places" page.)

“The raging flames soon brought an early end, leaving onlookers stunned by the sublime sacrifice of the parents and the heroic bravery of the children. That evening, the Catholics secretly buried about 30 bodies found in the ashes. The location of this mass grave, somewhere in Kyoto, remains unknown to the present day.

“The eldest child of the Hashimoto family, Miguel, was not home when the rest of the family was arrested. Later he appeared at the prison declaring his intention to join his family as a martyr too, but he was turned away, since his name was not on the list of the condemned. Instead, he was admonished by the prison officials to return home and think about carrying on the family name.

It would be interesting to know if that family name was in fact carried on by Miguel.  What is clear is that there is a Hashimoto who ran a Japanese grocery store next to my university which I only discovered after attending there for a few years and visiting that shop frequently, the owner for the first time telling me her surname the day before the shop closed down; and there is a Hashimoto Nursery in the downtown area where I visited a friend once a week to play tennis, with big glorious sign proclaiming "Hashimoto Nursery" looming over the adjoining avenue like T.J. Eckleburg's eyes in The Great Gatsby.  Finally, there is a place at the nearby lake with a bridge and walkway underpass section precisely like that at the corner of Kawabata/Shomen, where Tecla was martyred. ("Hashimoto" literally means "The Base of the Bridge.") Cherry trees are now planted there and a Japanese Garden has been there for many years....

“The pastor, Father Diego Ryosetsu Yuki, had been hearing confessions when the Christians were arrested. He and a foreign priest witnessed the martyrdoms, and provided what remains one of the most detailed accounts in the history of martyrdoms in Japan.”

And yet the world still ignores it and even covers it up and obfuscates it whenever possible.  Lord have mercy and allow the story of the 52 + 1 Martyrs--especially the only known pregnant martyr in Catholic Church history, and the only known unborn child of a martyr in Catholic Church history--to flourish!