Justus Ukon Takayama: the Greatest Japanese Missionary of the 16th Century

The illustration that was published in “La Civiltà Cattolica” is historically inaccurate – as Justus was baptized at age 11 — on June 1, 1563.

By Fr. Toni Witwer, SJ – Jesuit General Postulator of the Servant of God, Justus Takayama’s Beatification Cause

►Four hundred years have passed since the death of Justus Takayama Ukon (1552 Osaka-1615 Manila), remembered and revered in Japan not only as a martyr, but also as a great witness to the Christian faith, which he practiced in connection with the mission of the Society of Jesus.

He was the greatest Japanese missionary of the sixteenth century because of how he lived the Christian faith with the tenacity, rigor and loyalty that were typical of the Japanese people, promoting the inculturation of Christianity through the witness of his life, which eventually led to his dying while in exile. Already at the time of his death people were talking of him as though he were a saint.

The foundation: the faith proclaimed in Japan

To better understand the development of the faith of Ukon and what its characteristics were, it is good to remember how Christianity came to Japan and how it was perceived by the Japanese.

In April of 1549, Francis Xavier left India for Japan together with two confreres and three Japanese converts who had studied in the Jesuit college in Goa. After having learned the catechism, the latter asked for the right to be baptized, performed their Spiritual Exercises with great commitment and showed themselves to be eager to proclaim the Lord to others. With them, Francis Xavier began the work of the evangelization of Japan, where he stayed until Nov. 16, 1551.

Upon his arrival, which took place on Aug. 15, 1549, the Jesuit saw how eager the people were to know the Gospel and, by becoming familiar with local customs and practices, his esteem for the high moral and spiritual values of the Japanese increased even further – values that would soon play a decisive role in welcoming and living the Christian faith.

A fundamental characteristic of the Japanese people was the desire that every Japanese person needed to maintain their honor before others. This made the individual not only capable of renouncing and putting into perspective other values, but also disposed them more towards an ascetic and austere life. This ensured a good social order and mutual respect between people. Relationships among the Japanese were, in fact, stable and characterized by a very deep loyalty, rooted in awe.

At the time of Francis Xavier, deep respect for the nobles or landowners (the social class to which Ukon belonged) favored availability for service and unconditional loyalty to the so-called “lord.” To defend their honor, the Japanese readily demonstrated willingness to offer their lives, even to commit suicide. When they decided to open themselves to the Gospel and recognize Jesus Christ as their true Lord whom they would serve completely, without compromise, serious tension and misunderstanding were created in their relationships with these “lords” upon whom they depended in daily life.

It should be said in this context that there was another element in Japan that influenced the attitude of Christians in regards to persecution which could involve crucifixion. For Francis Xavier, the passion and the cross of the Lord held a very important place ever since he made the Spiritual Exercises in Paris under the guidance of St. Ignatius. But the experiences he lived in the mission brought even greater significance. Even if he did not suffer a violent death, he nevertheless suffered an interior martyrdom, seeing others exposed to injustice and abuse without having any power to intervene on their behalf; he always carried this pain with him like a deep wound.

Francis Xavier left India with the “desire for martyrdom,” as he wrote to his companions in Goa, and the same desire was also very much alive in Ukon. Firmly convinced of the importance of martyrs to proclaim the Gospel, he spoke enthusiastically of martyrdom as a way of following Jesus on the cross, emphasizing it in the letter to Simone Rodrigues on Feb. 2, 1549.

Therefore, the preaching of the first Jesuits, strongly shaped by the “Spiritual Exercises” and by a spirituality focused on following the crucified Christ, and the spirit with which the Japanese accepted the Gospel, contributed to the recognition of the passion of the Lord as the center of the Christian faith.

The extraordinary gift of the faith of Ukon

The attitude of Justus Takayama Ukon when confronted with persecution cannot be properly understood unless we take into consideration how he approached the faith and the values which guided his life. In 1563, Ukon, still a teenager, became a Christian through baptism, but was still very far from actually practicing as one. Without having received true teaching about the Christian faith, he lived following the example of his parents and remained conditioned by the mentality of the time, that of the warrior, founded upon the right of the strongest. With this spirit, in 1573 he fought a duel with Wada Aigiku Korenaga, who died a week later due to the injuries he sustained. This duel, in which Ukon also was injured, became the turning point in his life, leading him to reflect on the meaning of existence.

Ukon remained deeply fascinated with the courses on Christian doctrine that Fr. Francisco Cabral held in 1574 in Takatsuki, and through them he was able to welcome the Gospel message. He then had a deep conversion when he became aware of the sacrifice of the Lord for the salvation of all people. It was this first conversion that made a missionary of him, the announcer of Jesus Christ, and one of the greatest promoters of the evangelization of Japan.

His faith was put to the test when the feudal lord Araki Murashige provoked a revolt against another feudal lord, Oda Nobunaga. Ukon found himself in the dilemma of choosing to which of the two lords he should submit. To prove his loyalty to Araki, he gave lodging to his sister and oldest son. Oda, meanwhile, threatened to destroy the churches and crucify the missionary fathers if Ukon did not open the castle of Takatsuki. Before making a decision, Ukon retreated into prayer and then did something unthinkable for a warrior:  instead of throwing himself into the battle, he tried to limit the losses as much as possible and to resolve the situation in a peaceful manner. He came unarmed to Oda, renounced defending himself and placed himself completely in the hands of God.

The awareness of the dilemma in which he found himself and the sense of helplessness he had experienced made his faith in God grow, making it easier for him to renounce his position, his honor and his very existence. They transformed him from a man accustomed to fighting like a hero, even unto death, into a man willing to offer himself for others, capable of loving according to the example of Jesus Christ.

Thanks to this second conversion, Justus Takayama Ukon became a missionary who was capable of convincing not only with his words and actions, but also with his way of life. This gave honor to the name, Justus, that he had been baptized with at the age of twelve. Because of this witness, the pagans called Christianity the “Law of Takayama.”

Persecution as the greatest proof of love

In July 1587, the persecution by the Shogun (an hereditary warlord who governed Japan) Hideyoshi suddenly began when, as night was falling, he decided to banish Ukon into exile. In these circumstances, Justus Takayama Ukon gave proof of great faith, while still remaining attached to his own will, his abilities and human strength, since on the inside he continued to feel like a warrior.

The manner in which he presented himself before the authorities after having received notice of being exiled demonstrated how sure he was of himself. Because of this stance, some friends were very worried for him and tried to convince him to give up showing too much determination in his response to Hideyoshi. Ukon told them that in the things of God one cannot be submissive.

The attachment Ukon demonstrated to the faith reaffirmed for Hideyoshi that he would never renounce being a Christian, that he felt on the inside a strength and a spiritual consolation to the point of being ready to die as a martyr for the love of Jesus Christ. He demonstrated his willingness to give his very life for the faith by cutting his hair, a gesture which, in that culture, was a sign of an inner feeling of sadness, and was used by the Japanese in times of grieving or deportation.

Ukon’s subjects, in turn, declared their readiness to make the same gesture and to share his fate, should he go into exile. This encouraged him to face his persecutors, particularly Hideyoshi, with great firmness. God prepared him for martyrdom, making the desire grow within him, helping to reduce the effect of his exile, the loss of social status and of his material wealth.

To understand the attitude of Ukon in the persecution of 1587, we must also bear in mind another element: Ukon’s gratitude for the love and solidarity shown to him. Certainly his gratitude was sincere, and it was the sign that he already felt the need for Christian communion, for its comfort and for its encouragement in the faith. However, he was not yet able to recognize or admit this need in a deep way. Instead, he continued to persevere in the attitude of not leaning on others, and rather putting confidence only in his own abilities. While being genuinely willing to help others, he still needed to learn to let himself be helped. Until he had the experience of helplessness and of his own needs, it would be difficult for true faith in God to grow in him.

Following Hideyoshi’s decree and his deportation, Ukon accepted both the loss of his social position and his assets, having been reduced to a poor and austere life, as well as having to hide on the island of Shodoshima. Even in such dramatic circumstances, he proved to be capable of comforting others and of encouraging them in their resolve to remain faithful to Jesus Christ.

The condemnation to exile and Ukon’s decision to leave the world even changed his relationship with others: he became a pilgrim, that is, a person who puts faith in God and asks for his help, and a companion for those who had once been his subjects. The experience of poverty made him understand how much he had received from God and from so many people, and made him grow in gratitude. What he had learned during the time of the first great persecution characterized his attitude even after his rehabilitation.[12] He was able to accept help and to show that he was willing to accept offered gifts, and then to put them at the service of others.

The more intense relationship with the Jesuit missionary fathers and his collaboration with them in the work of conversion of many people to the Christian faith pushed him to a further deepening of both knowledge and experience of faith. In fact, when he learned the news that Hideyoshi had ordered the execution of the Jesuit priests, he welcomed it as a grace that God wanted to give him, as though he had already thought of provoking his own martyrdom.

At that time, Ukon still dreamed of an active martyrdom. He desired a heroic death, even death on a cross in imitation of that of Jesus Christ. Certainly he wanted to offer his very life, but at that time he could not imagine that he would have to deny himself even more firmly.

Martyrdom as a grace

The expulsion from his homeland in 1614 and the difficult path of exile to Manila were for Ukon a grace because he would progress in faith and further mature as a spiritual man and witness of the crucified Lord. Despite all the sufferings and difficulties, the final year of his life would be decisive for his transformation into a true martyr, as venerated by Japanese Christians and as defined by Fr. Johannes Laures.

In describing the process of the spiritual growth of Ukon, Fr. Pedro Morejon talks of a threefold test of faith that he faced. The firm decision to offer his very life for others was already present in the so-called “first test of faith,” when Araki rose up against Oda Nobunaga. Morejon affirms that Ukon then “came to die in the place of the innocents,” and reminds us that Nobunaga called him, and Ukon replied that he had not come to serve him, but to die or to be exiled with the Jesuit priests. Already, at that time, God wanted to put him to the test so as to make him progress in the willingness to offer his very life for others.

When Hideyoshi ordered banishment, Ukon accepted it with joy. This is the “second proof of faith.” To prepare himself for martyrdom, he looked to the Jesuit fathers making the Spiritual Exercises and a general confession, in preparing himself for martyrdom, and it was again the Lord who ensured that his testimony would become “the seed of the Gospel” during the 26 years in which he lived in exile in the Northern provinces.

The willingness to give one’s life for Jesus Christ was alive even in his fellow Christians, such as Joao Naito and his son Tome. Banishment and exile were a martyrdom, not only because it was a form of “prolonged martyrdom,” as Fr. Morejon affirmed, but also because they were involved more deeply in the powerlessness of the crucified Lord, who offered himself helplessly into the hands of his crucifiers. With banishment and exile, God granted the wish of Ukon to give his very life, but in a different way than he had imagined.

Through banishment and exile – and this is the “third proof of faith” – God’s formation of Ukon continued and was brought to completion: he became aware that neither life nor death was in his hands, but in the hands of God, and that he needed to rely on Him completely.

During the nine months prior to leaving for Manila, Ukon continued to nourish the hope for martyrdom in the form of a violent death. He was certain that he would be killed prior to leaving Japan and waited for death with great serenity. He was ready to serve the Emperor, but not to obey him in matters that concerned the Christian faith. The journey and exile to Manila were the time in which God made him understand the difference between an active desire for martyrdom and being passively exposed to the conditions which only slowly would lead to death. Ukon understood that God was asking him to offer his life, not in the form of instantaneous death, but rather that of the “prolonged martyrdom” of exile.

With his decision to accompany the Jesuit fathers to Manila instead of embarking for Macao, Ukon manifested not only the great respect he had for them, but above all the need he had for their spiritual direction. He often asked to do the Exercises and the meditations that the Society usually offered.

Ukon demonstrated his humility even as honors were bestowed upon them when he arrived in Manila. As a Christian, he was grateful to them for the expressions of reverence, but at the same time said that they felt like a heavy weight and a burden, since he was not worthy of them.

Humility led Ukon to perceive and recognize every event as a grace offered from God, and not as something he personally deserved. Until the end of his life he remained faithful to his desire to give his life for the love of God. He wanted to be a martyr for Christ, and he truly was.

Ukon ended his life invoking the name of Jesus and delivering, like the first martyr, Stephen, his spirit to the Lord, as noted by Fr. Valerio de Ledesma:  “Invoking multiple times the Most Holy Name of Jesus and Mary with the mouth and with the heart, he gave his spirit to the Lord. He was 63 years old and it had been 50 years since he had become a Christian, which, for him, meant a change in the law to which he had at that time been committed. And if there were changes, they were from good to better, with increased daily growth in devotion and in the desire to offer his life for the love of God and for the confession of His Holy Law.”

Ukon as an example and intercessor for the Church and society today

Even if Ukon initially saw the Christian faith as a law, and therefore as something that could be in conflict with the Japanese culture and traditions, he soon realized that Christianity consists in lived love. Allowing oneself to be transformed through the love of God to become an instrument in the hands of God is the vocation of the Christian.

Ukon demonstrated that Christian faith, like love, is not opposed to any culture. On the contrary, it is able to enter the depth of every culture and bring it to its own fulfillment. Christianity calls into question a culture only if it tends towards absolutism or if an unholy authority intends to be a substitute for God. Ukon was convinced that he needed to be obedient to God as the supreme authority in all things, and in this way, while showing full loyalty toward his masters, he remained interiorly free.

The persecution of 1614 had a general nature and involved all Christians. The only possibility of escaping from it was abandoning the Christian faith. Because of his prominent role in the emerging Christian Church of Japan, Ukon was particularly targeted by his persecutors from as early as 1587. The firmness of faith that he showed constituted a challenge for them, and there were many attempts, ever more insistent, to make him disavow it.

Ukon’s death while in exile in Manila could at first glance look like a natural death, and this could put into question its being valued as martyrdom. The deeper assessment of what comes with exile, of the difficulties to which the Servant of God was exposed and the hardships that weakened him progressively, clearly show us instead that his death was caused by the suffering and the difficulties that were results of persecution. All the available documents, in fact, are in agreement in the affirmation that it was determined by the hardships suffered during his exile.

In addition to the ancient documents that speak of his exile and of his death, the fact remains that Ukon, from the beginning, had been venerated not only as a holy man, but also as a martyr who offered his very life for Jesus Christ, not having renounced in any way the Christian faith.

His witness of faith was, and is, convincing. Just as his life has led many to the Gospel, so can the blood of his martyrdom continue to be “the seed of Christians.”#

— By Fr. Toni Witwer, SJ, General Postulator of Jesuit Causes — who promoted the Cause of Beatification of the Servant of God, Justus Ukon Takayama (1552 Osaka-1615 Manila; beatified 2017) — as a Martyr.#

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s