Blessed Hashimoto and her children

paul glynn

Fr Paul Glynn SM





St. Francis Xavier arrived in Japan on August 15, 1549, the feast day of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven, and the day he took his vows as a Jesuit in 1534.

He set off for Kyoto to get the Emperor’s permission to evangelize in Japan. The Emperor however was really just a captive bird in a gilded cage, possessing no effective authority. Xavier discovered that the most powerful man in Japan was the daimyo (feudal lord) of Yamaguchi.

He immediately went to that city, met daimyo Yoshitaka Oouchi and received permission to preach and make converts.

No Japanese-European language dictionary then existed of course, and Xavier and his co-missionaries would have a torrid time stumbling along, searching for Japanese words that adequately expressed Christian teaching. Xavier’s sheer holiness however convinced many and they were baptized as the pioneer Christians.  

Xavier died of fever on the island of San-chian in 1552 while trying to enter the Forbidden Kingdom,  China.

When he discovered that China was the source of Japanese writing, culture and Buddhism, he decided he must preach the Gospel to that huge Mother-nation without delay, leaving the increasing number of fellow Jesuits to minister to the very promising Japanese Catholic communities.

Xavier’s letters to Europe had created great interest, resulting in highly talented and keen Jesuits like Valignano coming to build on his firm foundations.

Modern Protestant historian Otis Cary, born of U.S. missionary parents working in Japan, and so fluent in the language became a professor in Kyoto’s prestigious Doshisha University soon after the Pacific War ended in 1945.

In his thoroughly researched 798 page book, “A History of Christianity in Japan”  he calculates that by 1607 Jesuits were ministering to 215,000 Japanese Catholics.

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By then Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians and secular clergy were also working among other well established Christians communities.

Six years later in 1613 the Tokunaga Shogun Ieyasu, the now unchallenged dictator of all Japan issued a decree totally banning Christianity.

Missionaries were ordered to leave the country immediately and Japanese converts must renounce this “foreign religion”. Anyone refusing to obey this total prohibition would be executed.

Many missionaries and thousands of Japanese died violent deaths when they refused to give up the Faith.

Two Protestant Englishmen living in Japan in this period would eventually become influential with the Shogun.

One was William Adams. He had arrived in Japan as pilot of a storm-battered Dutch ship in 1600. Adams was to remain in Japan until his death 20 years later.

He had been a master ship builder back in England and won the Shogun’s favour by building him two European-style vessels. Adams eventually became a trusted adviser to the Shogun, and a man of means.

He married a Japanese woman and was even inducted into the prestigious ranks of the samurai.  

The Shogun allowed him to set up a Dutch trading post in Hirado, a port not too far from Nagasaki. Englishman Adams and the Dutch were commercial seafaring rivals of the Catholic Spanish and Portuguese and they did nothing to persuade the Shogun from outlawing the Christian Gospel whose first preachers were Spanish and Portuguese.

Clavell’s novel “Shogun” is a travesty of this period and is laughable to Japanese readers.

st francis xavier

St Francis Xavier



Japanese character for 'martyrdom' commemorating the 26 Japanese martyrs of 1597

The second Englishman to arrive was Richard Cocks. Adams, again with the Shogun’s permission set up a branch of the British East India Company, also in Hirado, and had Cocks installed as manager.

These two Englishmen were allowed to roam Japan more or less at will, as protégées of the Shogun.

They both wrote accounts of their life in Japan, including details of the anti-Catholic persecution under the two Shoguns, Tokugawa Ieyasu and his son Hidetada, accounts that are valuable to modern historians.

For instance C.R.Boxer, Professor of Far East History at London University, published in 1951 “The Christian Century in Japan.”

In that book he quotes Cocks, writing in 1620, seven years after the fierce anti-Christian persecution had begun: “The vast majority of Christians in Kyushu would die rather than recant their Faith under torture.”

Kyushu, with its Christian centre in Nagasaki was where the majority of Catholics lived.

The first Christian blood was shed on a hillside overlooking Nagasaki in1597 when 26 Catholics- priests, religious and laity - were crucified on orders from previous dictator Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

In the autumn of 1619 Shogun Hidetada Tokugawa, on a visit to Kyoto, ordered the execution by burning alive of 52 Japanese who had been jailed for refusing to relinquish their faith.

First of all, the 52 condemned, comprising 26 men, 26 women and 11 children under15 years, were paraded around the main streets in open carts as a warning to any other Christians hiding in the city.

They were then taken to the banks of the Kamo River, not too far from the present St. Francis Xavier Cathedral, where wooden crosses had been erected, with firewood stacked at each base.

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Catechist John Hashimoto was first to be roped to a cross. He had earned the special anger of the jailers by leading his fellow imprisoned Christians in frequent vocal prayer, and by preaching to them, encouraging them to remain faithful to the Lord Jesus despite the threats of torture and death.

Next, his pregnant wife Thecla was roughly roped to a cross not far from his. She held four year old Lucia tightly to her breast, while nine year old Francis and 12 year old Thomas were roped to either side of her.

Her other two children, six year old Peter and 13 year old Katrina were tied to the cross beside hers.

The English merchant Richard Cocks was in Kyoto on business and went along to witness the executions.

He described the scene in one of his many diary books that were later published, giving us a precious view of what followed. 

Just as the western skyline was turning red with the sunset, tinging the waters of the river, guards stepped forward with burning faggots and set fire to the wood piled up at the foot of each cross.

After a short time Katrina, now enveloped in smoke cried out: “Mummy, I can’t see anything.”

Thecla replied: “It’s alright, my child. Everything will soon be clear, when we are all together in Heaven.” 

As Thecla became lost to sight in the billowing smoke, she called out to each of her children by name, and shouted: “Jesus, Mary.” Soon her head and shoulders crumpled forward in death.

Cocks was surprised to see that her four year old Lucia was still locked in her arms.

“I saw 52 Christians killed because they would not give up their faith,” he wrote. “I heard mothers shout: “Lord Jesus, receive these children.”

Thecla Hashimoto and her fellow sufferers were among the 188 Japanese martyrs beatified at a large gathering of bishops, priests, religious and laity in Nagasaki on November 24, 2008.



Masami Tanaka's painting of the martyrdom of Blessed Thecla and three of her children

Distinguished Japanese artist Masami Tanaka was received into the Catholic Church while studying painting in France. His wife Tokiko soon followed him into the Faith.

He is dead but his wife is still alive, one of the many modern Japanese women who have celebrated their 100th birthday.

She tells of how deeply moved her husband was when he first read the story of Thecla’s martyrdom.

Apart from the spiritual emotion the martyrdoms evoked, he found in the epic story something of the Yamaro-damashi, the quintessentially Japanese spirit, that he loved and sometimes depicted in his paintings.

Francis Xavier, in one of his letters back to Europe referred to an aspect of Yamatodamashii in his observation that the Japanese are a strong people who do not fear to die for honour.

He predicted they will made great Christians.  

Many tears are shed worldwide as Madame Butterfly proclaims that death with honour is better than life without honour.

Artist Tanaka did a powerful painting that centers on Blessed Thecla and her children in the midst of the flames.

That painting is now in the Vatican though many Japanese Catholics have a copy of it.

When a large Department Store in Tokyo invited Tanaka to put on an exhibition of his paintings, he included the martyrdom of Thecla and her children.

It was too much for many non Christian viewers who complained so strongly that the management quickly had Tanaka remove the painting.

36 years old theologian Tertullian was converted and baptized in 196 AD. It was an era when many Christians were being executed, and he wrote: “The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians.”

Martyred Christians are prominent in the Book of Revelation, the apocalyptic book that ends the New Testament Bible.

Many of our daily Masses commemorate a martyred saint, reminding us of something very important: Something that is worth dying for is worth living for.

I still clearly remember the powerful and positive emotional impact of a martyr story read to us children by Aunty Molly one winter time, as we sat on the floor around the dining room hearth fire. I was about 11 years old.

Much later I found the full account in 2 Maccabees 7:1-42. It has similarities with the Thecla Hashimoto story.  

Around the year 164 B.C. the Syrian king who called himself Epiphanese, (claiming to be the epiphany of the chief Greek god Zeus!) invaded the Holy Land and tried to wipe out Jewish belief and worship, brutally executing resisters.

The king personally conducted the torture of seven Jews. They were bothers and the torture was carried out in the presence of their mother.

Speaking in her own tongue which the Syrians did not understand, she encouraged each of them to remain faithful to the Covenant that the Lord gave Moses.

After six elder brothers had died under torture precisely for that faithfulness, the executioners began on the youngest, determined to break his spirit and make him apostatize.

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The mother called out to him in the Jewish tongue: “My son, have pity on me. For nine months I bore you in my womb and cherished you...Prove yourself worthy of your brothers and make death welcome, so that in the Day of Mercy I may receive you back in your brothers’ company.”    

Dr. Takashi Nagai, who later became Dean of Radiology at Nagasaki Medical University, was baptized largely because of the example of descendants of the Hidden Christians of Nagasaki.

On August 9, 1945, A-Bomb Number 2 destroyed most of the city.

When he found the charred, or rather powdered remains of his wife in what had been their kitchen, he wrote: “My whole body began to shake convulsively and I howled like a child.”

In deep shock, as he began to put all that was left of his beloved wife into one heat seared bucket, he discovered her rosary with the pathetic remains.

That, he later wrote was a great grace that restored his calm.

Later several of his nurses told him they had heard some women singing hymns during the terrible night of August 9.

Next day they investigated and found the bodies of two horribly burned nuns, beside a small creek.

All A-Bomb victims speak of their terrible thirst they suffered. The sisters died in great pain, but with hymns to the Lord on their blistered lips.

Later, other citizens told Nagai of some schoolgirls from Junshin High, lying terribly injured in open spaces, waiting for medical aid that did not come.

They were quietly singing a hymn that the Principal, Sister Ezumi had told them to sing during the air-raids on Nagasaki. Nagai, very impressed, wrote a short Japanese-style poem that was later put to music.

It is still sung by a Junshin schoolgirls choir every August 9: “Maidens like white lilies, consumed in the flames as hansai...and they were singing.” “Hansai” is Japanese for the Biblical “whole-burnt sacrifice” offered in the ancient Jerusalem altar.

In the present English Mass liturgy the priest bends low immediately before he washes his hands and prays in silence: “Lord God, we ask you to receive us and be pleased with the sacrifice we offer you with humble and contrite hearts.”

In the Japanese Mass that prayer is starker: “Lord, accept us who repent as ikenai (living sacrifices) pleasing to your heart.”

The Mass is essentially sacrificial: “This is my Body that is given up to death for you...This is my Blood poured out for you.”

John Paul 11 encouraged priests who say those words at every Mass to offer, consciously, their own body, their own blood with Christs’... offering their whole selves, their energies, suffering, fears, hopes, plans, exhaustion, disappointments and joys, everything, including their future death with all its circumstances.

The Mass then becomes a total commitment, to the Lord and to their parishioners, a commitment even to martyrdom if that is part of the dear Lord’s Providence.

Furthermore Vatican 11 laid heavy stress on the half- forgotten-by-many Biblical teaching that through baptism all believers become priests, sharing in Christ’s priesthood.

Therefore for the Christian laity too the Mass is a call for the total offering to serve the Lord and those who depend on them, and a call for the positive acceptance of all the circumstances of their lives, including suffering and death, even a martyr’s death! Mass offered that way sows the seeds of strong Christians.