In 1549 the Jesuit missionary, Francis Xavier, founded the church in Japan. The Jesuits were soon followed by the Franciscans. For 40 years Christianity spread and flourished. Then in 1588 the Japanese ruler Hideyoshi, fearful of the changes introduced by Christianity and apprehensive of western intentions of conquest, began a severe persecution aimed at wiping out the Christian faith completely. The persecution included the families of the principal victims in accordance with Japanese custom. This persecution lasted nearly 50 years, and during that period thousands laid down their lives.
The first of these martyrs were 26 in number. Of these, one was a Japanese Jesuit priest and outstanding preacher (Paul Miki), 2 were Jesuit lay-brothers, and 6 were Franciscans (4 of whom were Spanish, one from Mexico City and one from Bombay). The other 17 were all laity (1 a Korean and 16 Japanese). Among the laity were catechists, interpreters, a physician and 3 boys in their teens.
Their martyrdoms took place near Nagasaki in 1597. They were tied or chained to crosses on the ground, had an iron collar put round their necks, and then their crosses were raised upright in a single row. Each victim had a separate executioner, who stood in front of the cross with a spear in his hand. It is said that while awaiting execution the martyrs preached or sang. Then at a given signal the spears were plunged into the martyrs.
These 26 were canonised in 1862 as the first martyrs of the Far East. But they are not the only martyrs for the faith in Japan: between 1617 and 1632 many more Japanese Christians were put to death because of their faith.
The teaching of Christianity in Japan was forbidden until the 1850s, and all foreigners were excluded from the country. In 1859 French missionaries were permitted to enter and were amazed to find that, 250 years later, there were small bands of Christians in communities throughout Japan, who, without priests or teachers, had kept the faith handed down by their forebears and baptized their children.