8 December 2023 The Future is the Product of the Past

400-year historical document confirms the martyrdom of Japanese Christians

In Japan, the suppression of Christianity increased from the end of the 16th century to the beginning of the 17th century, and many missionaries and Japanese believers were martyred during this period.

New research found a letter stating that between 1600 and 1620, Lord Ogura, Hosokawa Tadao ordered the execution of the main vassal of the Hosokawa family, Diego Gayato Gagayama, and ordered the exile of the two Christian.

The punishment and martyrdom of both men were previously known only from the Jesuit missionaries’ accounts to Rome. The discovery of the original historical documents created in the Hosokawa family explained both the authenticity and the limitations of the missionary writings of the time.

In the mid-16th century, with the arrival of the Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier, the number of Christian followers in Japan surged. In the end, some feudal lords, Daimos, and their vassals believed in Christianity.

In the Kyushu region, in particular, there were many Christians who served as gateways to missionary work and “southern barbarian culture.” The Hosokawa family, who eventually became the lords of the Kyushu region, had many Christian servants.

It is well known that Tama (Gracia / Garasha) Hosokawa, wife of Tadaoka Hosokawa, the second head of the family, was a Christian. She kept the faith and met her end in the Great Civil War, the Battle of Sekigahara, in 1600.

When the Edo shogunate issued a nationwide ban on Christianity in December 1614, members of the Hosokawa family abandoned their faith one by one. However, some vassals in the family chose not to back down, notably Hayato Kagayama and Genya Ogasawara.

Hayato Kagayama was a military commander who served three feudal lords who were closely related to Christianity.

The first two were Christians, and after losing them to deportation and death from illness, he proved to be a very valuable servant to the Hosokawa family. Although Tadaoki Hosokawa himself was not a Christian, his wife Grace was a devout Catholic.

Genya Ogasawara was Hayato’s son-in-law and the son of a man known to be with Gracia in the last moments of her life. When the Hosokawa family mansion was besieged by the enemy during the Battle of Sekigahara, Genya’s father took Gracia’s life and then committed seppuku, a form of ritual suicide under the samurai code of honor. Both were on the orders of Lord Ogasawara, who was then deeply grateful to Genya’s father for protecting his wife’s honor and not giving her over to the enemy. Both Genya and Hayato refused to carry out the order to change religion, but Tadaoki is believed to have respected them so much that he was unable to take decisive action to punish them.

According to reports from Jesuit missionaries to Rome, on September 8, 1619, Tadao Tadao ordered the beheading of the Hay of Kagayama because he refused to apostate. He also exiled Kenya Hosiya and his family from the small warehouse where the Hosokawa family’s castle was located to the countryside to live with unknown farmers and criminals.

Researchers at the Eisei Bunko Research Center * of Kumamoto University discovered a letter related to these orders while analyzing the archives of the first member of the Hosokawa family, “Matsui Family Documents.”

The sender Rokuzaemon Yano and the other three are the officials responsible for the custody of Genya Ogasawara, while the recipient Okinaga Matsui is the first retainer of the Hosokawa family and the chief administrative officer of the Ogura area.

Matsui Family Documents
Matsui Family Documents. Photo: Kumamoto University Library

[Translation reordered for presentation.]

We have received Lord Tadaoki’s decrees.

  1. The Death Penalty (Martyrdom) for Hayato Kagayama:

We understand that the order to execute Hayato Kagayama was given last night (September 8).

  1. Spare the Genya Ogasawara Family:

We immediately informed Genya Ogasawara that our Lord decided to save his life in gratitude for Genya’s father’s fealty. In response, Genya said, “I am so grateful to my Lord that I am at a loss for words.” When we informed him of the Lord’s intention to spare the lives of his family, including his children, he expressed his heartfelt gratitude and wrote a letter of reply to our Lord. In addition, Genya said to us, “Please, the three of you, express very carefully my gratitude to Lord Tadaoki.” Please keep this in mind.

  1. Management of Genya Ogasawara’s family:

We ordered local village officials to keep a close watch on Genya, and to seize him and inform us immediately if he tries to escape from the confinement area. If it is difficult to seize him, we understand it is not a problem to execute him. If any abnormalities occur we shall report them as soon as they occur.

5:00 PM on the 9th of September,
From: Rokuzaemon Yano, Jinbei Yoshida and Ihei Tomishima,
To: First Retainer Okinaga Matsui

Professor Tsuguyo Inaba said following about this historical document: “Until now, we could only learn about the martyrdom of Hayato Kagayama and the punishment of Genya Ogasawara from the reports of Jesuit missionaries from Rome, and we could not eliminate information uncertainty. However, with the discovery of primary historical documents created by the organization that handed down the punishment, the Hosokawa family, more facts are now known. The punishment of the two men is now thought to have been carried out in the immediate aftermath of the “Great Martyrdom of Genna in Kyoto” (1619), one of the greatest incidents in the history of Japanese suppression of Christianity, by Tadaoki, who felt threatened by it. This was a shocking and decisive suppression of Christian retainers and vassals among leading feudal lords. After that point, daimyo and samurai within the family were forbidden from being Christian. This primary historical document demonstrates removal of Christians from the ruling class structure, and is a great historical discovery for Japanese Christianity.”

Items 1 and 3 of this letter are almost identical to the reports sent to Rome, but item 2 has never been seen before in any historical document. Genya Ogasawara’s father protected the honor of his lord’s wife, Gracia, by not letting her be taken hostage during the Battle of Sekigahara. After her death, he died a martyr close by. This document clearly shows that Lord Hosokawa highly valued Genya’s father’s loyalty. However, the Genya Ogasawara and his family were ostracized by Hosokawa because they would not renounce their faith.

Eventually they would all be executed in Kumamoto in December 1635.

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