When we talk about persecution of Christianity, usually the image that comes to mind is that of the Roman Empire, with Roman Christians identifying themselves incognito through drawings of the Chi-Rho or a schematic fish. However, in late 16th century Japan, a similar situation was also experienced. In 1587, the daimyo Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the unifier of the country, decreed the ateren tsuihō rei: a law to expel missionaries, which first affected the Jesuits and later extended to other orders, followed by repression of all converts.

It was during this period, known as Kirishitan (“Christian”), that the first twenty-six Christians were crucified in Nagasaki (1597), and there was no peace for believers thereafter. The next ruler, shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, continued the same policy, advised by Dutch and English traders who, besides being hostile to Catholicism, saw an opportunity to eliminate their Spanish and Portuguese competitors.

Ieyasu’s successor, his son Hidetada, definitively banned Catholicism in 1614, forcing people to register at a Buddhist temple and trample on fumi-es (religious icons like images of the Virgin or crucifixes) to identify those who refused as Christians. These measures worsened with the expulsion of all Europeans and the condemnation to torture and death (they were thrown into the Unzen volcano) for Japanese who embraced the new faith.

However, there was a double problem. On one hand, Christianity had already taken root in a significant part of the population, both commoners and the affluent, with an estimated number of believers around two hundred thousand in 1582. On the other hand, while some accepted martyrdom, others decided to resist with arms. This conflict coincided, coincidentally, with the confrontation between Catholics and Protestants in Europe during the Thirty Years’ War.

This rebellious movement in Japan is known as the Shimabara Rebellion, named after the peninsula on Kyushu Island where, along with the Amakusa Islands, it erupted in the late 1637. Interestingly, it didn’t start for religious reasons but because of the famine suffered by local peasants, resulting from poor harvests and the feudal lord Matsukura Shigemasa’s tax pressure, who needed funds to build a new castle and undertake a campaign against Luzon to enhance his prestige for a shogunate bid.

These abusive taxes affected all social classes, from farmers to fishermen, merchants, and artisans, continuing such a tense situation with Matsakura Katsuie, Shigemasa’s successor. The Christian veneer that permeated this conglomerate of factors stemmed from the fact that before the Matsakura, Shimabara had been a domain of the Arima family, who had converted to Christianity, leading many of the peninsula’s inhabitants to follow suit.

Nineteenth-century illustration showing a Japanese man stepping on a fumi-e
Nineteenth-century illustration showing a Japanese man stepping on a fumi-e. Credit: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Following the law dictated by the bakufu (government), Christians were repressed, so harshly that even Dutch Protestant traders in the local factory of Shibamara expressed discomfort, fearing that the persecution would eventually extend to them. After the Matsakura, the Terasawa came, with nothing changing except that many samurai were left without a lord to serve due to repression and now, turned ronin, they were ready to wield arms against the established order.

All that was missing was a man to rally around and lead the insurgency, emerging in the figure of a teenager named Amakusa Shiro. His original name was Masuda Shiro Tokisada, and the aura surrounding him since childhood came from the rumor – probably unfounded – that he was the illegitimate son of Toyotomi Hideyori, the heir of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (the unifying daimyo of Japan mentioned earlier), who had gained great reputation by bravely committing seppuku (ritual suicide) after failing in a rebellion against the Tokugawa.

Hideyori’s family had also suffered the consequences of the revolt, with his seven-year-old son executed and his daughter confined to a convent, hence the legend of a surviving illegitimate offspring, akin to sebastianism. This legend was reinforced by the fact that Amakusa Shiro’s horse had a pumpkin-shaped brand, like Hideyori’s, although this detail might have been added later.

In reality, Amakusa Shiro’s father was a vassal of the Konishi clan named Koji Masuda, renamed with the Christian name Pedro. About the mother, we know she also had a Christian name, Martha, and was the younger sister of Senzoku Zenemon, a ronin who would become the brains of the rebellion.

Amakusa Shiro was born around 1621 in the village of Ebe (now Asashi), on the island of Oyano, where he spent his entire childhood with occasional visits to Nagasaki for education. He had two older sisters, Zen and Tsuru.

Later, he moved with his parents to Amakusa – hence the name by which he is now known – shortly before the rebellion broke out. There, he would have married if the sources attributing a wife to him are correct. Obviously, he was Christian and, amidst rumors, it spread that he had performed several miracles similar to those of Jesus Christ (healing the sight of a blind girl, walking on water, attracting doves), all of which gave him an exceptional personality that perhaps was exaggerated later to exalt his figure.

In any case, Amakusa Shiro was barely fifteen when he was proclaimed the messenger of Heaven by Japanese Christians. Naturally, he lacked military experience – of any kind, given his youth – and couldn’t be the strategic brain directing the uprising; that task fell to the ronin and some leaders from Shimabara, with him providing the image, the charisma that attracted followers to the rebellion. He proved to be quite effective in this role, as soon the ranks of the insurgents swelled to between twenty-seven thousand and thirty-seven thousand fighters ready to fight to the end.

After a series of secret meetings to plot the conspiracy, the spark that ignited everything was the assassination of the hated daikan (tax collector) in the autumn of 1637. The rebels besieged the castles of the Teresawa and Hondo clans, but had to lift them and retreat when a relief army was sent from Kyushu. They then crossed the Ariake Sea to besiege another castle, that of Matsukura Katsuie in the aforementioned Shimabara peninsula, although once again they were forced to leave it.

They then decided to change tactics and gathered all their forces at Hara Castle, which was half in ruins but reinforced with palisades and parapets using wood from the boats used for the maritime crossing. They had plenty of weapons and provisions from looting Matsakura’s warehouses, so they trusted they could resist the troops sent by the shogunate, led by Itakura Shigemasa and joined by the famous swordsman Miyamoto Musashi (whom we already discussed in another article).

The besiegers also had firearms and artillery provided by the Dutchman Nicolaes Couckebacker, who also allowed them to bombard the defenses with several ships while he personally attended from the De Ryp; the rebels criticized their enemies for having to resort to foreigners to try to defeat them.

However, an attempt to assault the castle not only failed but resulted in the death of Itakura Shigemasa, replaced by the cunning daimyo Matsudaira Nobutsuna, who arrived with timely reinforcements.

However, all efforts were futile against the entrenched Christians, who saw in Amakusa Shito a true messiah. Clad in a white kimono, hakama (wide trousers, a symbol of high status), branches of ramie on his head and a cord around his neck, sporting a cross on his forehead and wielding a gohei (wooden wand, a symbol of purity), he walked among his followers encouraging them: Those who accompany me in the siege of this castle will be my friends in the other world, he said.

The arrival of winter wreaked havoc on both sides, though the besiegers suffered especially because on February 3, 1638, the rebels made a surprise sortie in which they killed two thousand enemies. However, it was an ephemeral victory; they had been resisting for three months already, so food and ammunition were starting to run out. In spring, the besiegers recovered with new reinforcements, totaling nearly one hundred and twenty-five thousand men, and thwarting another attempted coup.

A few days later, a column from the Kuroda clan managed to breach the defenses and capture the warriors defending the outer perimeter of the castle. The rest remained strong inside, but to the overwhelming numerical inferiority was now added another problem: the exhaustion of supplies and water. This information was learned by the shogunate generals thanks to the prisoners and because they had managed to infiltrate a spy into the castle.

That agent was named Yamada Emosaku and, logically, he was one of the survivors of the final assault ordered by Matsudaira Nobutsuna: a human tide surged against the weakened defenders, who could do nothing to contain it. One version says that Amakusa Shiro was captured and taken to Nagasaki, where he was beheaded; according to another, he died at the hands of Jinsazaemon, one of his vassals. The latter seems more coherent with the rest of the account.

The shogunate did not know Shiro’s appearance, so it was ordered to decapitate all the children and show their heads to his mother to identify him. She did so, indeed, and then his head was placed on a pike at the entrance of Nagasaki, to serve as a warning to the Christians. Forty thousand of them perished in the repression that followed the fall of Hara Castle, while Spaniards and Portuguese were expelled from the country on suspicion of having incited the revolt.

Shimabara went through a difficult time; half depopulated by the massacre, it was necessary to relocate new settlers there to work the fields. Lord Matsakura Kasuie did not fare any better; considered negligent for failing to prevent the riot, he was offered seppuku as a dignified way out and accepted it; Korioki Tadafusa replaced him at the head of his domain. The Terasawa were spared from the fire, although a decade later the clan became extinct due to lack of descendants.

As for the Japanese Christians, several thousand were deported to Macao and Manila, then Portuguese and Spanish territories respectively. The rest remained faithful to their faith in secret, so they passed into history as kakure kirishitan (“hidden Christians”), accompanied by a handful of priests who managed to stay in Japan (eighteen Jesuits, seven Franciscans, seven Dominicans, and one Augustinian, besides laymen). Amakusa Shiro became a martyr and popular saint, but not officially due to the socio-economic reasons that prevailed in the rebellion.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on October 30, 2023. Puedes leer la versión en español en Amakusa Shiro, el mesías adolescente que lideró la rebelión contra la persecución de los cristianos en el Japón del siglo XVII


Jonathan Clements, Christ’s samurai. The true story of the Shimabara Rebellion | Michael Zomber, Jesus and the samurai. The shining religion and the samurai | Charles Ralph Boxer, The Christian Century in Japan, 1549-1650 | John Dougill, In search of Japan’s hidden christians. A story of suppression, secrecy and survival | Wikipedia

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