Samurai, Martyr, Soon a Saint: Dom Takayama Justo

Will join the list of great Japanese martyrs

There is a classic story about a samurai warrior who came to understand what real courage, integrity and humility were all about.

The cruelest, most violent samurai in Japan decides he wants to become enlightened. He bursts into the home of an esteemed Zen master and demands the master teach him how to become enlightened.

The Zen master looks deeply into his eyes and says, “No. You are a dirty, vicious samurai. I will not teach you.”

Enraged, the Samurai yanks out his sword and places it right at the Zen master’s neck. He hollers, “Do you have any idea who I am? I am the cruelest samurai in the world. I can cut your throat and not blink an eye.”

Without skipping a beat, the master calmly responds, “Do you have any idea who I am? I can let you slit my throat and not blink an eye.”

The samurai falls to his knees, sobbing, overcome by the presence of a man mightier than his sword.

This weekend, Pope Francis approved the martyrdom of a 16th-century samurai who embodied the “master” in this story, choosing a life of voluntary poverty and exile, and eventually death, over obedience to the oppressive regime of the chancellor Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

Takayama (Justo) Ukon followed the example of his father, Takayama Tomoteru, a daimyo (he was the lord of Sawa Castle in the Yamato Province) and convert to Catholicism. When he was baptized at around age 12 by the Jesuit missionary Gaspare diLella, he took the name “Justo,” for Justin Martyr.

The family’s exalted position in feudal Japan gave them control over vast lands and armies and also made it possible for them to give assistance to Jesuit missionaries as they expanded their reach into the country. Conversions brought about through the help of Takayama Justo are believed to number in the tens of thousands.

When Hideyoshi bore down on Catholics, crucifying some as an example and demanding that the rest abandon their faith, Takayama — by then about 35 years old — gave up all of his worldly power and possessions and chose exile. He led a group of about 300 Catholics to Manila, Philippines, where he soon died, reportedly due to the persecutions he had suffered while in Japan.

A report from the Catholic News Agency quotes Father Anton Witwer, general postulator of the Society of Jesus, who told them in 2014 — when the samurai’s cause was sent to Rome,                       “[Takayama] did not want to fight against other Christians, and this led him to live a poor life, because when a samurai does not obey his ‘chief,’ he loses everything he has.”

Upon Pope Francis’ decree of martyrdom, Witwer explained, “Since Takayama died in exile because of the weaknesses caused by the maltreatments he suffered in his homeland, the process … is that of a martyr.”

Takayama’s approval comes simultaneous with the news that Blessed Jose Luis Sanchez del Rio, the “boy martyr” depicted in the film For Greater Glory, and nine others are to be canonized, including Bl. Stanislaus of Jesus, Bl. Jose Gabriel del Rosario Brochero, Francesco Maria Greco, Elisabetta Sanna, Fr. Engelmar Unzeitig CMM, Genaro Fueyo Castanon, Arsenio da Trigolo and Maria Luisa del Santissimo Sacramento.

Takayama Justo will join the list of great Japanese martyrs, including saints Paul Miki and his Companions, who are to be commemorated on February 6 in the Roman calendar.

Statue commemorating Takayama Justo
Statue commemorating Takayama Justo

Elizabeth Scalia is Editor-in-Chief of Aleteia’s English edition