Nagasaki (AsiaNews) - Japan's Catholic community today is celebrating Our Lady of Tsuwano, a festivity associated with a Marian site where 19th century martyrs saw apparitions of the Virgin. The Holy See has not confirmed them, but the shrine is very popular among Japanese Christians, who today honour Mary whilst remembering the first witnesses of the faith.
Following early conversions in the 16th century, Japan's Christian community, "Kakure Kirishitan" in Japanese, remained faithful to the Church for some two and a half centuries of underground existence, this despite the lack of missionaries, priests, religious freedom or practice. When Japanese authorities granted the French missionaries the right to build a church in Ōura (near Nagasaki), they came out of hiding.
On 17 March 1864, as he prayed inside the newly-built church, Fr. Petitjean, from the Paris-based Foreign Missions Society, later to become Nagasaki's first bishop, was approached by a small group of local farmers who asked him if "it was possible to greet Jesus and Mary".
Following a moment of surprise, the clergyman listened to their story, and heard the tale of a large Christian community that had stayed loyal to Rome despite the start of persecution in the 16th century.
On several occasions, Pope Francis spoke with great respect about Japan's Catholics. As a priest, the future pope had hoped he might be sent to the mission in Japan. For health reasons, he was unable to go, but as cardinal and bishop of Buenos Aires, he repeatedly talked about the "great example" of the Japanese Christian community.
However, by coming out of the shadows, Japan's Catholics also put their lives in danger. In fact, the decree branding Christianity as an 'evil cult' was still in place, the faith banned on pains of death for anyone discovered practicing it.
When the governor of Nagasaki asked the Imperial Court for advice, he was told to "bring the Christians back to Shintoism or wipe them out with the edge of the sword." As a show of their "good intentions", Imperial officials chose the first option in 1867.
An initial group of 3,500 Christians was arrested and sent to different parts of the country for brainwashing and torture sessions. Of these, 28 were sent to Tsuwano and jailed in an old abandoned Shinto temple.
At the start of winter, they were regularly locked up in a one-by-one-metre cage, subjected to incessant psychological harassment to persuade them to renounce Christianity. As the weather worsened, snow fell and piled up.
One of the prisoners, 30-year-old Yasutaro was locked in a cage after the death of the first three Christians. His companions feared for his life, knowing that he was weak from sharing with others whatever food and water he had.
After three days, two friends went to see him at night. They asked him whether he felt lonely and cold. Reports from the time give an account of his answer. "No, no. I am very well," he said. "Every night, a beautiful lady comes here and tells me wonderful things. She is dressed in blue and looks like the statue of Mary in our church in Nagasaki. But please, do not say anything to the others until I am dead."
Shortly before Yasutaro's death, his companions visited him again. They were convinced that they could trick their way out of the place. They wanted to know what they should the young man's mother, who was waiting for him at home.
Smiling, Yasutaro replied, "Tell her I'm happy to die here. I am on the cross with our Lord, Jesus Christ." That same night he passed away, still smiling.