Before the Olympians leave Tokyo, we can learn about some of the heroes of their host nation.
As the Tokyo Olympics finish up this weekend, the world’s eyes remain fixed on the Land of the Rising Sun, a country not known for its Catholic faith in spite of its hundreds of saints and blesseds. Though the Japanese population today is only about 0.35% Catholic, the halls of heaven are filled with Japanese heroes who can inspire Christians the world around. Before we leave behind this country of saints and martyrs, let’s get to know some of them.
Martyred alongside St. Paul Miki (1564-1597) were 19 other Japanese men and boys. Among their number were two brothers and their nephew. St. Paul Ibaraki was a sake brewer, a former samurai who was able to refute any Buddhist arguments against the faith. His brother St. Leo Karasumaru had been a Buddhist monk until he heard the Gospel proclaimed at age 30; after that he left the monastery, was baptized, and got married. He and his wife served in a hospital for lepers, caring for the patients despite the risk. Leo and Paul’s 12-year-old nephew St. Louis Ibaraki was (according to Spanish priest St. Francisco Blanco) “so full of courage and in such high spirits that he astonishes everybody.” The youngest of the martyrs, Louis was the object of much pity on the part of the spectators. When a samurai encouraged him to renounce his faith to save his life, Louis replied, “It would be better if you also became a Christian and joined me on the way to heaven.” When the martyrs arrived at the place of their passion, Louis asked cheerfully where his cross was. On finding one that had been cut to fit his small frame, he ran to it and embraced it. As Louis and 13-year-old St. Anthony of Nagasaki were hanging on their crosses, they sang together, “Praise the Lord, ye children!”
St. James Kyusei Gorobioye Tomonaga (1582-1633) was a Japanese Dominican priest who was rejected by several religious orders because of his race. Born to a noble Japanese family, Kyusei preached masterfully throughout Japan, despite having been denied entry to several religious orders. He brought many souls to Jesus until he was exiled to the Philippines because of his faith. There he was finally accepted into the Dominican order and ordained before eventually returning to Japan. Though Christianity was illegal, Fr. James’s race made it much easier for him to pass unnoticed; but within a year, his companion (St. Michael Kurobioye) was caught and tortured until he revealed the whereabouts of Fr. James. The two were martyred together.
St. Magdalena of Nagasaki (1610-1634) was a Japanese woman whose parents were martyred when she was 10. She became a member of the Augustinian third order, living in hiding while working as an interpreter and a catechist. When all the Augustinian missionaries were martyred, Magdalena prepared to become a Dominican Sister. But before she could make her profession, the Dominicans were arrested. Magdalena presented herself to the authorities who had arrested Fr. Jordan, declaring that she deserved the same treatment as the missionaries. The guards refused to arrest her, so she went to the judges of the city and pleaded her case. This time she was imprisoned, tortured, and martyred.
St. Lazarus of Kyoto (d. 1637) was a Japanese layman whose leprosy brought him to Jesus—and then, after apostasy, to eternal life. When he was discovered to be a Christian, Lazarus was deported to Manila with other Christian lepers (as an act of biological warfare as much as a punishment for their crime). There he volunteered his services as a guide and translator and made plans to return to Japan with the Dominicans (with the unwitting St. Lorenzo Ruiz). Despite Lazarus’s best efforts to hide them once they arrived, the group was arrested and imprisoned for over a year. In prison, Lazarus renounced the faith but received only mercy and understanding from the other Christians. After this, he took back his apostasy and was martyred.
Servant of God Takashi Nagai (1908-1951) was a married Japanese doctor and convert from Shintoism and atheistic nihilism. Nagai served as a medic in the Japanese Army before his marriage. The contrast between the misery he saw in the field and the joy and grace he saw in the Catholic woman who would become his wife led him to the Church and to his vocation as husband and father. Nagai worked at the leading edge of radiology research, eventually contracting leukemia from his exposure to radiation. His cancer was dramatically worsened by the atomic bomb that incinerated his wife when it was dropped on Nagasaki. The poetry he wrote over the next several years, about suffering and forgiveness, transformed the way the Japanese responded to the catastrophic end of World War II.
Venerable Satoko Kitahara (1929-1958) was raised in an aristocratic Shinto family in Japan. After World War II, Satoko (like many of her peers) was extremely disillusioned and near despair. Her spiritual hunger eventually brought her to Catholicism. She longed to be a Sister but weak health prevented it; instead, she began tutoring slum children, picking through trash with slum children, and eventually moving into a slum. She loved her people and helped them to see their dignity and worth, leading many souls to Christ before dying of tuberculosis at the age of 28, a smile on her face.