Blessed Justo Ukon Takayama – Christian Samurai/Martyr

Blessed Justo Ukon Takayama (福者 高山ユスト右近): A Gift of Powerful Witness (Martyr) of Christian Faith from Japan to the Philippines – A Seed Sown in the Philippines from Japan by God – A Gospel Witness in Asia

►A blog by Masa Runs (仲田昌史), of Loyola University Chicago | LUC · Institute of Pastoral Studies — When I teach and give presentations on Catholic topics and the Scriptures to my fellow Catholics, I often encounter my audience’s surprised reactions when they learn that I am Japanese. They react to me as if there were no Catholics in Japan. I am often mistaken for a Filipino Catholic speaker to teach on Catholic topics. At least people acknowledge Filipinos as Catholics among the Asians. But, not so with the Japanese.  Now I am tempted to pretend to be Filipino. Pero, ako Hapon.

In fact, many people find it difficult to conceptualize the existence of Christians not only in Japan but generally in Asia, except in the Philippines. Given the fact that Christians’ ratio to the entire national population of Japan barely makes up 1% Catholics and non-Catholic Christians altogether, this is no surprise.  In contrast, Christians (Catholics and non-Catholic Christians) make up about 95% of the national population of the Philippines.  Christianity was brought to the Philippines by Ferdinand Magellan in 1521 with a statue of Santo Nino and to Japan by St. Francis Xavier, accompanied by his Jesuit companions: Anjiro (Yajiro), Cosme de Torres and Juan Fernandez, in 1549. With only 28 years of difference, Christianity has been in Japan almost as long as it has been in the Philippines.

However, in regard to the quantity of Christians, there is a remarkably huge gap between the Philippines and Japan. Then, what about the qualities of the Christianity in the Philippines and in Japan?  Do you think that the quality of Christianity in Japan is less than that in the Philippines, reflecting the quantities?

To know the quality of Christian faith in Japan and to overcome the ignorance about the Catholics in Asia, particularly, in Japan, meet Bl. Ukon Justo Takayama (高山 ユスト 右近), whose life of faith is honored on February 3 in the Liturgical Calendar of the Roman Catholic Church.  Ukon was born to the samurai family of Tomoteru Takayama (高山 友照) in the province of Settsu (now northern Osaka), Japan, in 1552, a year after Xavier left Japan.

Bl. Ukon Justo Takayama  is a lay Japanese Catholic dynamo (samurai provincial lord) in evangelization during the extensive period of feudal turmoil in Japan spanning from the late 16th century into the early 17th century. Ukon was instrumental in realizing many dreams of St. Francis Xavier, who came to Japan in 1549 and began evangelizing with struggles with a vision to set Japan on fire of faith, while winning many Japanese souls for Christ. At the same time, Ukon’s faith with his faith-driven actions of evangelization is a fruit of the seeds of evangelization sown in Japan by St. Francis Xavier between 1549 and 1551, because Ukon was baptized into the Catholic Church as his father, Tomoteru Takayama, decided to be baptized to become Christian as a result of listening to a Japanese story teller, who became Christian as a result of listening to St. Francis Xavier. And this story teller, who impacted Ukon’s father to become Christian together with his son, Ukon, and the rest of his family, and all of samurais under his command, is Lawrence Ryosai (ロレンソ了斎).

At first, Lawrence Ryosai, who was almost blind since his birth, was a biwa-playing story teller. Ryosai’s story telling was always gravitating because of his extraordinary knowledge of Shinto and Buddhism. Biwa is a traditional Japanese string instrument. Ryosai decided to become Christian upon being impressed by a homily given by St. Francis Xavier and baptized by him in 1551, the year Xavier left Japan.  Having become Christian, Ryosai’s story telling with his biwa playing was just as great as Catholic priest’s homilies that touch our hearts and move us deeply. He remained instrumental to the Jesuit missionaries coming to Japan after Xavier, and he himself became Jesuit later, though not ordained as a priest.

In 1559, Ukon’s father, Tomoteru, had an opportunity to listen to Lawrence Ryosai. He was tremendously impressed by Ryosai’s way of arguing for Christianity in contrast to Buddhism and Shinto. As a result, Tomoteru decided to become Christian together with all of his family members, including Ukon, and all of his samurai servants under his command.  And, Ukon received his Christian name, Justo, which means justice, upon his Baptism in 1564. The timing was just perfect as it was around the time for Ukon’s Genpuku ceremony, the coming-of-age ritual ceremony for samurai’s son to be recognized as mature enough to be given swords for himself. And this is how Ukon Justo Takayama begun to grow as Japan’s most notorious Christian samurai as a fruit of the evangelization seed sown by St. Francis Xavier and later becoming a seed of faith sown in the Philippines. 

Though Bl. Ukon Justo Takayama and St. Francis Xavier never met in person, they are connected to each other as the sower and a rich fruit grown out of a seed.  And it is Lawrence Ryosai who connects Ukon to Xavier for further abundant fruits of Xavier’s seeds of evangelization in Japan.

As a young Christian samurai, Ukon exhibited his loyalty to his father and to his family’s master samurai feudal lord, demonstrating his extraordinary valor and impressive battle tactics. It may evoke Joshua in conquering Canaan for the Jewish settlement and David in securing the geopolitical status of the Kingdom of Israel upon conquering Jerusalem, as its king. Both Joshua and David are not only excellent warriors but also men of exemplary steadfast faith in God – loyal servants of God.

The way Ukon served his samurai feudal lord as a young samurai must have reflected his faith in Christ – the way he dedicated himself to Christ, his true and everlasting Lord. However, as a young samurai, Ukon’s faith in Christ was not really mature yet. This is why Francis Cabral and Luis Frois, Jesuit priests, came to visit Ukon in his Takatsuki castle and gave him a discourse on Deus (God) in 1574.

The Japanese word, “samurai” (侍) literally means a man who serves as a temple guard, based on the Chinese character for this word. Every samurai had his own lord to serve and protect to a point of sacrificing his own life. This servant character of samurai bode well with the servant nature of being Christian – being disciples of Christ, as St. Paul of Tarsus puts it (i.e. Romans 1:1; Colossians 1:23). The way samurai is bound to his feudal lord in service parallels the way Christians, disciples of Christ, are bound to Christ the Lord as his servants. And Christians are obedient and courageous “soldiers of Christ,” in fighting Christ’s enemies and defending his truth and the Word, as defined in the Catechism of Trent for the Sacrament of Confirmation.

Given the servant nature as a common factor between being a samurai and a Christian (soldier of Christ) , perhaps, these words of Jesus could have attracted samurais:

>>>You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave. Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:25-28).

The greatest among you must be your servant, Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted (Matthew 23:11-12).

As a young samurai, Ukon already distinguished himself for his unmatched gung-ho drive in battle and contribution to his lord’s victories.  While many other young samurais admired him and were inspired by him, some became jealous of him and plotted to assassinate him together with his father. Remember, Ukon lived during an extensive period of feudal conflict mainly resulting from the decline in the Ashikaga Shogunate’s central ruling power.  As the Ashikaga’s central control power waned, many power-hungry local provincial samurais began competing for the next Shogunate power to be the central ruler or to side with samurai lords who were believed to become the next ruler of the feudal Japan, such as chancellor, as well as a self-appointed regent to even arrogate the Emperor’s power. In such a chaotic situation, those who served loyally could betray their master lords at any time whenever power balance changed. When their master lords died in battle or in assassination, samurais had to find their new lords to serve or throw themselves in this power-competition game to promote themselves in the feudal rank, gaining samurai servants for themselves. 

In 1573, a plot to kill Ukon and his father, Tomoteru, became a reality. The assassination attempt was made by a young samurai lord, who used to admire Ukon and sought advice from him. Though Ukon was able to defeat this contester, he himself was gravely wounded in his defense. Though he could have died from the wound, Ukon made rather a miraculous recovery. And this must have strengthened his faith in God. This is similar to how St. Ignatius of Loyola found himself drawn to God and began recognizing his calling to serve God while recovering from his near mortal wound from the Battle of Pamprona in 1521. Ukon must have realized God’s care for him as Ignatius did and further drew closer to Him during his recovery from the wound.

Jealous rivalry, however, was not the only thing Ukon attracted for his distinct excellence as a young samurai. Ukon’s military accomplishments and outstanding battle skills were highly recognized by Oda Nobunaga (織田信長), the military chancellor of the Ashikaga Shogunate, and  by Toyotomi Hideshoshi (豊臣秀吉), the Chancellor-Regent, who succeeded Oda Nobunaga. Nobunaga and Hideyoshi were the leading figures in sequence during the extensive period of political instability and power-game battles from the latter half of the 16th century to the establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1603. Until Nobunaga’s death in 1582, Hideyoshi served Oda.

Because Nobunaga was open to Christian missionaries and permitted them to evangelize in Japan, Ukon was instrumental to establishing a seminary in Azuchi, which was where Nobunaga built Azuchi Castle for himself in 1576 and considered as his city. The Azuchi Seminary opened its door for aspiring Japanese seminarians in 1580, and one of the seminarians at this seminary was St. Paul Miki, the first Japanese Jesuit who was martyred in 1597 with his 25 companions, including San Pedro Bautista, a Spanish Franciscan from Manila, on the hill of Nishizaka in Nagasaki. Setting the very first pipe organ from Europe, in 1581, at the Azuchi Seminary that he contributed to establish, Ukon sponsored to celebrate Mass in a grand scale for the Resurrection of Christ, having Fr. Alessandro Valignano, a Jesuit expert on missiology, well-known for writing, “Il Cerimoniale per i Missionari del Giappone”, a culturally adopted missionary guideline for Jesuits in Japan.  In this Jesuit manual for missionary in Japan, Valignano said that Jesuits on mission in Japan should behave like the feudal ruling class, namely, daimyos (samurai provincial lords), to be respected and to make it easier to evangelize. This missiology approach was based on the unique social character of the feudal Japan of that time. However, the Franciscan missionary sharply criticized Valignano’s method as they thought that it would neglect the Gospel-mandate care for the poor. This is certainly a debatable topic even today in missiology with inculturation. However, if you bring the example of Justo Ukon’s way of evangelization, Valignano’s approach can make sense. Ukon was in a ruling samurai class of the Japanese feudal social structure. At the same time, he was in touch with the hearts of ordinary citizens, including the poor, with compassion in his province. It was because his governance as a provincial lord was driven by his Christian faith, according to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And, he governed his province with justice, as his Christian name, “Justo,” means. Justice, of course, comes with compassion to be in line with God’s justice.

It was also Ukon who built church in Osaka, a major gateway city to the imperial capitol of Japan, Kyoto, in 1583. He covered the cost of the construction, after the land was provided by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who became the ruler of Japan as regent-chancellor, after Oda Nobunaga’s death in 1582. During that time, many of the servants of Toyotomi Hideyoshi also became Christian because of Ukon.

At that time, Ukon was the daimyo (provincial samurai lord) of the province of Settsu, residing in Takatsuki Castle. He governed his province with justice, reflecting his Christian name, “Justo,” and mercy. For example, when rice harvest was low, he exempted farmers from tax. He is said to have carried a casket at a funeral of a citizen in his province, though it was a task for an underclass man. Ukon governed the Province of Setts as a Christian ruler, reflecting Christ’s teaching in his Gospel. Because of this, Ukon in maintained a good working relation with people. This is why nearly 80% of the people of his province had become Christian.

Ukon was a very dynamic evangelizer not only to ruling class samurais but also to ordinary people under the samurai feudal rule. His enthusiasm in evangelization to bring more people to become Christians may be comparable to that of St. Francis Xavier, St. Ignatius of Loyola, and St. Paul of Tarsus, even though Ukon is a lay Christian.  Ukon’s gung-ho drive was not only in battle but also in evangelization. One of the samurai rulers, who converted and became Christian, really became a new person by abandoning a sinful life of having multiple concubines and chosing a life of chastity with one wife, as a result of Ukon’s evangelization.

Ukon really set the feudal Japan on fire of the Gospel of Christ and the Holy Spirit, though he was not necessarily well-versed with the Scriptures and the catechism. Obviously, Ukon was very charismatic in sharing how great it is to be Christian, perhaps, in juxtaposition to something so gravitating to being Christian in Lawrence Ryosai’s biwa playing story telling. A main reason for Ukon’s evangelization was so gravitating is that he gave his personal witness to a revelation of the mystery of Christ in his testimonies, rather than being preachy in boasting about how much he knew about the Scriptures and catechism.

In 1584, by order of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Ukon was transferred to govern the province of Akashi from the province of Setts, becoming the daimyo of Akashi. This was meant to be promotion given to Ukon by Hideyoshi. But, it was also when trials began to loom over him. Around that time, one of Hideyoshi’s cabinet members threatened Ukon to conspire Hideyoshi that Ukon was plotting a rebellion against him. To this, Ukon resolvedly responded to confront such a matter with truth in his loyalty to Hideyoshi without compromising his absolute loyalty to Christ the Lord. In fact, Hideyoshi really valued Ukon and trusted him. And, Uknon valued Hideyoshi’s confidence in him. But, it was more of his faith in Christ that enabled Ukon to stand against such a conspiracy threat against him with his firm resolve.

When Ukon accompanied Hideyoshi in his battle campaign in Kyushu, 1587, Hideyoshi made a drastic change of his policy in regard to Christianity in Japan. He issued a decree to prohibit Christianity in Japan and to expel all foreign missionaries from Japan. What possibly contributed to this sudden change in Hideyoshi’s stance to Christianity was that he began to see the rapid spread of Christianity in Japan as a great threat to the existence of the Japanese religious tradition, constituted with Shinto and Buddhism. Hideyoshi realized that more Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines were in ruin and desolation where Christians were concentrated. In fact, Kyushu had the highest Christian ratio to the general population than any other regions of Japan. Therefore, the decline of those who practice Shinto and Buddhism was more evident in Kyushu than anywhere else in Japan. Furthermore, Hideyoshi also began to feel a threat from the firm solidarity among Christians in Japan to his ambition to remain in his political power as ruler of Japan. And Hideyoshi was well-aware that Ukon was responsible for the fast-paced increase of Christians and the Christian solidarity in Japan.  This change of Hideyoshi’s policy on Christians in Japan is like how Egypt changed its policy on the Jews in Egypt – from being tolerant to oppressive because of the growth of the Jewish population, as written in Exodus 1.

Nevertheless, Hideyoshi was hoping that Ukon would apostatize for his sake and for his confidence in Ukon. He did not want to lose Ukon for this foreign religion, called Christianity, as he did not want to see traditional Japanese religious custom, Shinto and Buddhism, decline. Although Hideyoshi himself was quite tolerant of Christianity before, especially while his predecessor chancellor, Nobunaga was in his power. And Hideyoshi supported Ukon’s evangelization efforts because he valued Ukon’s distinguished valor and battle skills. So Hideyoshi demanded Ukon to give up his Christian faith for the sake of the loyalty to him and his ambition to stabilize Japan and rule with his own Shogunate.

To this, Ukon resolvedly refused to turn his back against Christ, even disobeying his order could result in execution, and chose to rather lose his privilege as a samurai lord by leaving the domain of Hideyoshi.  And he was not even afraid of losing his life for the sake of Christ. But, Ukon also made it clear that his refusal to apostatize as Hideyoshi desired was not out of his disrespect. So, this is how Ukon responded to Hideyoshi’s demand to give up his faith in Christ:


I have always been loyal to you with reverence – never insulted you, to my best recollection. It is my responsibility, however, that my servants both in Settsu and Akashi had become Christians. I will never trade my faith in Christ and forfeit the salvation of my soul even for the whole world to be in my disposition. Therefore, I hereby submit myself, my body and my province, to your disposition.  (translation mine).

Not even a prospect of becoming the ruler of the whole world will not tempt Ukon to abandon his faith in Christ. This firm resolve of Ukon evokes how Jesus fended off Satan’s temptation to bow down to him in exchange for the ruling power over the entire world (Matthew 4:8-10). And Ukon will never trade his soul’s salvation for anything, reflecting these words of Jesus:

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehena (Matthew 10:28).

What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? (Matthew 16:26).

Because this decision to choose Christ over Hideyoshi as his true lord to serve, Ukon lost all his privileges as a samurai lord and his promising future in Hideyoshi’s political power. He and his family were reduced to homeless wanderers in exile. To borrow Flannery O’Conner’s word, Ukon and his family chose to be “displaced” from the feudal power game of the secular world. In exchange, he and his family gained freedom – becoming unfettered, even though risk of being executed by Hideyoshi remained for defying him.

To this, Hidesyoshi was certainly disappointed. But, he seemed to have rather grieved over losing a great warrior and strategist and governor. Rather than reacting in his anger, Hideyoshi must have been impressed by how strong Ukon’s Christian faith was to a point of his awe.

As a matter of fact, it was Hideyoshi who sought out Ukon to meet him for reconciliation in 1592. Though he could have refused, thinking it as Hidehyoshi’s tricky trap to kill him, Ukon came out and met with his former “boss” over a tea ceremony session in Nagoya castle of Kyushu (not to be confused with Nagoya castle in Nagoya, central Japan). It was an amicable meeting. Hideyoshi did not demand Ukon to apostatize anymore. Rather, he expressed his concern for the wellbeing of Ukon to have lived as a wonder. So, Hideyoshi assured Ukon that he did not have to be “invisible” any more as he can now on present himself publically – though he cannot redeem his former privileges. In fact, it was much a relief to Ukon.

Fortunately, Ukon and his family were able to live under the care of his friends, who were also provincial samurai lords in various parts of Japan.  Ukon told a Jesuit priest, Luis Frois, that it was God’s grace to keep him and his family alive and well even being reduced to poverty by defying Hideyoshi for Christ. And, he lived in such a way until his actual expulsion from Japan in 1614.

During these “displacement” or “exile” years in Japan, Ukon and his Christian family could have been arrested at any moment for execution, even though he and Hideyoshi reconciled in 1592. The risk of his arrest for execution had become much higher upon the 1596 San Felipe ship wreck incident, which triggered Hideyoshi to order the execution of the 26 Christians in 1597 in Nagasaki. The lives of these 26 martyred are memorialized and honored in the Catholic Church on their feast day, February 6.  The 26 martyred include St. Paul Miki, one of the first Japanese Jesuit seminarians to study at the Azuchi Seminary that Ukon helped to build, a son of samurai.  Another one is San Pedro Bautista, a Spanish Franciscan friar from the Philippines, who also served as Spanish Ambassador to make peace with Hideyoshi in 1593, in response to Hideyoshi’s threat to the Philippines in 1591, demanding Spain to recognize Hideyoshi as the superior power not only in Japan but in Asia, including the Philippines. And the 26 martyred saints also include San Felipe de Jesus, a Mexican Franciscan seminarian returning to Mexico from the Philippines, and St. Louis Ibaraki, a 12-year old Japanese Christian boy, the youngest among the 26, known for preaching to his executioner to become Christian shortly before being put to his cross. Hideyoshi made his decision to tighten up the persecution of Christians in Japan upon the Spanish galleon’s shipwreck because this incident, San Felipe incident, resulted in a conspiracy that the Spanish Franciscan priests on the galleon, San Felipe, were Spanish invaders to colonize Japan. An officer under Hideyoshi’s command, who investigated this shipwreck incident, made a false report with the conspiracy against Christians, as Roman Emperor Nero not only justified his persecution policy against Christians in the Roman Empire but to turn Roman citizens to view Christians as their enemies by falsely accusing Christians for being the culprit of the great fire in Rome in 64 AD.

An anti-Christian officer in the Hideyoshi’s administration knew about Ukon and wanted to kill him during these years leading to the San Felipe incident in 1596 and the 1597 execution of 26 Christians in Nagasaki. In fact, Ukon was originally top on the list for the 1597 Christian execution in Nagasaki, along with Paul Miki and Pedro Bautista and other Christians arrested in Kyoto and Osaka. However, unbeknownst to him, Ukon’s name was deleted from this “black list” because of influential samurai lords, who understood Ukon very well. One of them is Toshiie Maeda (前田利家), daimyo of the province of Kaga (Kanazawa, today), who is a close friend of Ukon through Sado (the way of tea). Both Ukon and Toshiie are among top seven disciples of Sen no Rikyu (千利休), the grand tea master of Japan.  In fact, Toshiie was very supportive of Ukon during his exile and even Ukon join in his battle campaign, bringing in a great victory. So, the friendship bond between Ukon and Toshiie was very strong, even though Toshiie was not Christian.

Hideyoshi died in 1598, in the following year that he had executed 26 Christians in Nagasaki.  It was the same year when Felipe (Philipp) II, king of Spain, died. Hideyoshi’s limitless hunger for hegemony threatened this Spanish king, demanding him to surrender the Philippines, the Spanish colony named after him, to Hideyoshi. Spain could have had a war with Hideyoshi’s forces. But Spain was reluctant to choose a bloody method to resolve this issue with Hideyoshi, knowing how militarized Japan was. So, Spain sent San Pedro Bautista, a Spanish Franciscan friar based in the Philippines, to negotiate for peace with Japan.  By the grace of God working through San Pedro Bautista, a possible war between Felipe II’s Spanish forces and Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s forces over the Philippines was averted when San Pedro Bautista and Toyotomi Hideyoshi met in Japan, in 1593. At this meeting, Hideyoshi also allowed San Pedro Bautista to bring his Franciscan missionaries from the Philippines to Japan in 1593. Though he was able to make peace and work amicably with contentious Hideyoshi, San Pedro Bautista was treated mercilessly and executed because Hideyoshi was persuaded by the groundless report that the Franciscans aboard San Felipe, which was washed off to the coast of Japan, were Spanish spies to colonize Japan. Ukon could have been martyred together with San Pedro Bautista with other Franciscans, St. Paul Miki, St. Louis Ibaraki, San Felipe de Jesus, and 23 more companions. And, Ukon was aware of that possibility all the time. However, Ukon was not afraid and ready to die for Christ. And, it was mainly thanks to his engagement with the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola to keep him out of fear, maintaining inner peace throughout this difficult time. He was really benefitted from the Spiritual Exercises in remaining resolved to die for Christ, as the words of Christ in Matthew 10:28 inspire.

The persecution against Christians in Japan became fare more severe as Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川家康) took the reign of Japan in establishing his central feudal government, Shogunate, in Edo (Tokyo) in 1603. From the beginning of his reign, the Tokugawa Shogunate had no mercy to Christians in Japan and became more vigorous in persecuting. The execution of the 26 Christians in 1597 by order of Hideyoshi was just a beginning of persecutory executions of Christians. 

In 1614, Ukon and his family had to leave Maeda’s castle in Kaga due to Ieyasu’s 1613 decree to expel all Christian missionaries from Japan. Ieyasu was rather very careful about handling Ukon, knowing how Christians in Japan could rebel against the Shogunate. To minimize this risk, Ieyasu thought that it would be the best interest of his administration to expel Ukon and his family, along with missionaries and other Christians.

On February 14, 1614, official order from Ieyasu was issued to expel Ukon and his family. And the ship that carried Ukon and his family, together with other Christians and missionaries, left the port of Nagasaki and arrived in Manila on December 21, 1614. The voyage was extremely difficult and dangerous, as the ship was rather inferior and defective, unfit for navigation, because of so many problems, including constant water leaks. So, they had to scoop the water out of the ship constantly during the voyage.

Upon his arrival in Manila, Ukon and his family received a red-carpet welcome by Spanish governor of the Philippines and citizens of Manila. It was really a hero’s welcome. Ukon’s extraordinary and exemplary life of Christian faith had been known to the Spanish authority and missionaries prior to his arrival. Ukon’s presence in Manila was certainly inspiring to Christians in the Philippines. However, Ukon remained humble and kindly declined Spanish governor’s offer of lavish treat. Because one of the very few things Ukon brought from Japan with him was his favorite tea bowl. There has been a speculation that Ukon might have had a small tea ceremony in Manila. Though he was seen as a hero in faith by Christians in Manila, Ukon remained rather low-key and died on February 5, 1615.

What do you make out of the story of Bl. Ukon Justo Takayama’s life of steadfast faith in Christ? Are you surprised to know that there was such a hero in Christian faith in Japan,  in Asia, in case you had thought that there was no Christian in Japan?

As it was the case with St. Ignatius of Loyola, Bl. Ukon Justo Takayama traded his military and political ambition for his faith-driven service to Christ. Both St. Ignatius of Loyola and Bl. Ukon Justo Takayama were warriors with extraordinary courage and battle skills. And, both were gung-ho in what they were committed to, and both of them were so in serving Christ, keeping the spiritual zeal for the Kingdom of God. And as Ignatius developed the Spiritual Exercises out of his struggles with the torments of his passion in Manresa, Ukon engaged with Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises to overcome the torments of his passion during his difficult years with increasing persecution.

Ukon’s martyrdom is like John’s martyrdom, because both John and Ukon died in exile because of their faith in Christ. As John was believed to have been spared from bloody form of martyrdom to give witnesses of the mystery of the incarnated Christ through his testimony in his unique way, perhaps, so was Ukon to bring testimonies of his witnesses to Christ from Japan to the Philippines.

Christianization was more advanced in the Philippines than in Japan. So, why the Philippines need a testimony from a country where Christianization progress was in struggle? We tend to think that it is Japan, therefore, in need of more Christian testimonies to advance in evangelization.

Ever since he was a young promising rising star samurai, Ukon was giving his testimony of his personal witness of Christ to his fellow samurais, daimyos, and other noblemen, as well as ordinary people. He continued to do so even after Hideyoshi banned Christianity and  he was reduced to a wonder in exile because he did not give up his faith in Christ as Hideyoshi ordered. It was very dangerous to keep giving testimonies and evangelize under Hideyoshi’s prohibition. But, Ukon continued on with his evangelization through his testimonies. And, his testimony giving was extended to the Philippines as it is where his exile ended. Perhaps, this is how God wanted Ukon to serve Him, and Ukon certainly fulfilled God’s will for him.

Because Christianity in the Philippines was protected and rather forced by the Spanish colonial authority, a testimony of Christianity under severe persecution from Ukon was much needed in the Philippines and benefitted the quality of Christianity in the Philippines. God must have chosen Ukon to contribute to Christianity in the Philippines in such a way and to die there as a seed to bring more high-quality servant soldiers of Christ, like Ukon, from the Philippines to Japan as persecution in Japan continue to rage on. Perhaps, for this reason, Ukon was spared from the 1597 execution in Nagasaki.

For Ukon’s feast, February 3, we celebrate his extraordinary life of faith in honor his martyrdom in exile, beginning with these words in the opening prayer:

Let us pray. Almighty and merciful God who brought your martyr Blessed Ukon to overcome the torments of his passion, grant that we who celebrate the day of his triumph may remain invincible under your protection against snares of the enemy through our Lord Jesus Christ your Son, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, One God, forever and ever.  Amen. 

In this prayer, we see Ukon as a person of faith, who has overcome the torments of his passion – a faithful samurai, who has won internal battles of distress caused by fear and anxiety. As his swords became his cross, he was able to convert his attachment to honor, status, castle, territory, every treasured tools of tea ceremony (except for the bowl given by his tea master, Sen no Riyu for his excellence in tea), and his own life into his secure attachment to Christ, as Jesus desires (John 14:20) and as envisioned in the branches connected to the vine to bear abundant fruits (John 15:1-10). And the great amount of fruits that Ukon produced through his life of faith were the samurais and ordinary people who became Christians because they were moved and touched by Ukon and the way he lived. Perhaps, there was no other lay Christian who has moved as many people as he did to become Christians as Ukon in Japan.  There were not many missionary priests whose records come close to Ukon’s in “winning the souls” for Christ.  But, what matters more than his record of “winning” is the quality of Ukon’s  life of Christian faith and his character, because these are what really gravitated others to become Christian like him. Yes, Ukon is truly one of the fishers of men for Christ (Matthew 4:19//Mark 1:17).

The bottom line of Ukon’s fruitfulness is his secure attachment to Christ as fruitful branches are securely attached to the vine as all unfruitful factors and detrimental factors to the fruitfulness have been pruned out by his spiritual sword.  To keep his fruitfulness unfettered, Ukon remained to be a Christian samurai per excellence as he put the full armor of God: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the combat boots of the readiness from the Gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Holy Spirit to remain fearless and to make known the mystery of Christ’s Gospel as his ambassador (Ephesians 6:10-20). Yes, Ukon served Christ as his amurai ambassador in Japan for converting so many and also in the Philippines to give powerful witness in his testimony.  And the bottom-line character of Ukon, secure attachment to Christ, is reflected in the First Reading (Romans 8:35-39). Ukon must have resolvedly believe that nothing can separate him and his family from the love of God. When he was going through very difficult time during his exile years with increasing persecution, while many Christians were apostatizing for their lives, Ukon remained resolved to offer up his life for Christ out of love, which is one of many fruits he bore as a branch (Galatians 5:22; John 15:5). And to keep himself in internal peace, Ukon also practiced the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola to remain in Christ’s love, letting nothing separate him from Christ, conquering the torments of his passion (Romans 8:35-39),  as the branches are not separated from the vine to remain fruitful (John 15:1-10).

Because of his internal security in Christ, Ukon remained fruitful in evangelizing as a fisher of men for Christ. The Respnsorial Psalm (Psalm 126) and the Gospel Reading (John 12:23-28) reflect Ukon’s fruitfulness as a seed sown to the ground – a seed that dies in the ground as sown – to bring even more abundant fruit for greater harvest for the Kingdom of God, in glorifying God.

Though his martyrdom did not come with fatal bloodshed, Ukon was resolved to die for Christ and remained as a witness to Christ in giving testimonies to evangelize more even during these dangerous years in exile under persecution. It must be God’s will for Ukon not to let him die in the hands of persecutors but to keep him as a powerful witness gift to be sent to the Philippines from Japan.

San Pedro Bautista was one of the seeds that were sown and died in the ground of Nishizaka in Nagasaki on February 5. 1597, as a gift from the Philippines to Japan. And Bl Justo Ukon Takayama was a seed sown and died in the soil of the Philippines on February 3, 1615, as a gift from Japan to the Philippines.

Though he only lived for 40 days (44 days in some accounts) in Manila upon his arrival from Nagasaki, Ukon gave moving testimonies to Filipinos and Spaniards as a powerful witness to Christ. Because Christianity was not only protected but promoted by the Spanish rulers, Ukon’s testimonies from Japan of witnessing Christ amidst of increasing persecution were very moving to both Filipinos and Spaniards. Perhaps, because of this, many Filipinos and Spaniards went to Japan, knowing that it means no to return to the Philippines alive. Though he probably never met Ukon in person in Manila, San Lorenzo Ruiz, the first Filipino saint, who was martyred in Nagasaki in 1637, and his Dominican companions, were just some of the abundant harvest impacted by the seed of gift from Japan in 1615, Blessed Ukon JustoTakayama.

Now as you see, Japan and the Philippines have been one in bringing rich fruits to the Kingdom of God, where Christ reigns as the King. Knowing this, you will never mistakenly think that there is no Christian in Japan and in the rest of Asia.

Look beyond Japan and the Philippines in Asia, you sure find more of great seeds sown and died to have resulted in greater harvests for Christ’s Kingdom.

To the ignorance about the Catholics and Catholicism in Japan and in the rest of Asia, let seeds of grains be sown and die with the ignorance so that the truth in the mystery of the incarnated Christ be revealed to bring abundant harvest of faith. And may Bl. Ukon Justo Takayama continue to be this seed of grain for years to come so that more and more harvests of faith be enjoyed both in Japan and in the Philippines, impacting the rest of the world for the greater glory of God – Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam.#

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