By Diego Pacheco, SJ
In the summer of 1587, Toyotomi Hideyoshi was at the peak of his career. In a brilliant campaign, he had obtained the submission of the whole of Kyushu and was now encamped in a pine grove at Hakozaki, near the city of Hakata. There he planned the reconstruction of that city and parcelled out the conquered territories among his allies. It was there also that on the night of July 24, 1587, he placed his red seal on an edict which would later have far-reaching effects on the history of Japan for this proscription of Christianity was the foundation of all the other decrees which would eventually culminate in the Era of the Closed Country (sakoku jidai). On that same night, Hideyoshi took drastic steps against a man on account of his Christian faith – a man who had always served him loyally and who up that time had been bound to the ruler by ties of personal friendship.
The man was Justo Takayama Ukon, daimyo of Akashi, and he calmly declined to obey the order of Hideyoshi and all that he represented. The paths followed by the two men now abruptly diverged; the two men would later renew contact, but the spiritual gap between them would ever increase. This was not the first confrontation with authority in which Takayama Ukon had risked his life and career, for in a remarkable way, the three great generals who brought about the unification of Japan in the 16th century had all felt the need at different times to confront Ukon with a decisive choice. On all three occasions, Ukon followed the dictates of his own conscience; in a society which was rapidly veering toward servile submission to a central authority, Ukon chose the path of personal liberty.
Takayama Ukon was born in 1553, the year after St. Francis Xavier died; his death took place in 1615, only a few months after Tokugawa Ieyasu had expelled the Christian missionaries from Japan. Ukon therefore witnessed practically the whole period of missionary endeavour during the so-called Christian Century of Japan. At times in this period, other men perhaps placed more important roles than he did, but no other person occupied such an enduring and crucial placed in the history of the Japanese Church. His first feat of arms took placed when he was 16 years old and was in the service of Yoshiaki, the last of the Ashikaga shoguns; only a few months after Ukon’s death in 1615, Hideyori, son and heir of Hideyoshi, perished in the flames of Osaka Castle. Brought up in the last years of the Era of Civil Wars (sengoku jidai), Ukon was to experience at first hand the turbulent but stimulating Azuchi-Momoyama age; he withdrew from the scene when the Tokugawa regime consolidated itscentral power. Takayama Ukon not only witnessed but also took part in this era of political dynamism, violence, and at the same time, refined artistic taste and searching for authentic human values. Almost from the very beginning of his career he was under the undeniable influence of men of forceful personality; but he chose to follow his own path, although this independent course of action would inevitably bring him into open conflict with these same men.
Throughout Ukon’s rich and complex life, it is possible to discern three basic roles which must be studied and understood to gain a genuine insight into this controversial figure. These are his roles as a political and military leader, as an accomplished master of the tea ceremony, and as an outstanding Christian apostle. In his infancy and childhood, the first role occupied all his energies; he was, above all, a samurai. His father, Takayama Hida-no-Kami, was lord of the small castle at Sawa in the Yamato mountains to the south of Nara. His father had few retainers and was not wealthy, but was closely connected by bonds of service and family with one of the outstanding warriors of the time. And it was through Wada Koremasa that the Takayama, father and son, came into contact with Ashikaga Yoshiaki and with the Shogun’s champion, Oda Nobunaga. This last contact was of great importance because it was through Nobunaga that Ukon was able to obtain military and political power.
Ukon was baptized a Christian in Sawa Castle in 1563 when he was ten years old. Only three years earlier, Fr. Gaspar Vilela, a Portuguese missionary, had finally managed to begin work in Miyako (present-day Kyoto); Buddhist opposition had brought about his expulsion from the capital, but Vilela was both a thorough and dedicated personality and he established himself in the nearby city of Sakai where he continued to engage in apostolic work. Ukon’s father was a fervent Buddhist and decided to put an end to the activities of the bothersome foreigner by inviting him to defend his doctrines in public debate. Vilela was unable to accept the challenge, but his place was taken by an engaging character, Brother Lorenzo, a half-blind former biwahosi, or wandering minstrel, who had been converted to Christianity in Yamaguchi by Xavier himself. Ukon’s father and his companions were won over but Lorenzo’s eloquent exposition of the Christian faith, and shortly afterwards the Takayama family was baptized in Sawa Castle; Hida-no-Kami received the baptismal name of Dario, while Ukon, his eldest son, was thenceforth to be known as Justo.
But then there was little opportunity for extended religious instruction for central Japan was embroiled in wars and Wada Koremasa was killed in an ambush while in the service of Nobunaga. The Takayama family thereupon became the vassals of his successor, Wada Korenaga, lord of the castle of Takatsuki, which occupied a strategic position between Kyoto an Osaka and was located in the territory of the powerful daimyo Araki Murashige. Only a year after the death of his friend and protector Wada Koremasa, Ukon went through the traumatic experience of saving his own life at the cost of the life of his immediate lord. A completely different character from his father, Wada Korenaga was jealous of the prestige enjoyed by the Takayama and decided to eliminate the family. The plot reached the ears of the intended victims, who thereupon conferred with Araki Murashige and were given permission to act in their own defense. On the night of 12 April 1573, Korenaga and 15 retainers were gathered in the dining hall of Takatsuki Castle. The two Takayama and their followers arrived, and in the midst of the ensuing festivities Korenaga attacked Ukon. The latter, however, had been forewarned and he had not only defended himself ably but managed to wound Korenaga, who thereupon fled from the scene. The castle was burned down and Korenaga died a few days later. Ukon was seriously wounded in the fighting. Oda Nobunaga transferred the fief of Takatsuki to Dario, but the old warrior had had enough; wishing to devote his remaining days to religious and charitable works, he soon entrusted the territory to his son. As a result, Takayama Ukon began his political career at the age of 21.
Ukon’s supervision of the rebuilding of the castle revealed his military talent, while his administration of the fief showed that he was a wise and able leader, and glowing references to him are found in contemporary Jesuit letters written back to Europe. Both Nobunaga and Araki expressed their appreciation of his qualities, and by the time Ukon was 25 years of age, a brilliant career seemed assured. The somewhat Machiavellian character Araki Murashige was more of a politician than a warrior. He was ambitious for power, and yet at the same time he displayed a deep appreciation for the aesthetic ideals of the tea ceremony in sessions held in Araki’s castle; certainly it was there that he first met the great tea master Sen no Riku, one of the men who was to exert a deep influence on him. But as already noted, Takatsuki was located between Kyoto and Osaka, and as Ukon occupied territory lying between Nobunaga’s and Araki’s strongholds. When Araki rose up against Nobunaga in 1578 in an attempt to wrest supreme power for himself, Ukon, as both samurai and Christian, was faced with the great first test of his life.
Ukon had advised Araki not to side with Nobunaga’s rivals, and as token of his sincerity he had handed over his sister and her son as hostages. But Araki had finally decided on war and Ukon, as his vassal, was obliged to follow him. But Nobunaga had shrewdly realized just how much Ukon’s faith meant for the young warrior. The ruler therefore turned his attention to the missionaries stationed in central Japan and sent the most famous of them, the Italian Organtino Soldi, to Takatsuki with a message in which he threatened to execute the missionaries and destroy the churches in his domains unless Ukon handed over his castle. On his part Organtino also applied pressure, declaring that Ukon could not support Araki with good conscience as the war initiated by the latter was not just. But there was also strong and suasive reasons on the other side – Ukon’s honor as a samurai, his father’s resolute resistance to surrendering the castle, and the danger to which the hostages would be exposed. Ukon wished to follow the voice of his conscience and this inclined him to open the gates of the castle. At the same time he realized the grave consequences of this action, and he spent hours in agonized prayer seeking a resolution to the problem.
Ukon finally hit on a solution which he believed would not violate the code of samurai behaviour. Having shaved his head as sign of retirement from the world, he presented himself before Nobunaga without weapons or companions so that the ruler could do with him what he wished. The results of this gesture exceeded all his expectations. Now able to enter Takatsuki without difficulty, Nobunaga pardoned Ukon and his retainers and, once the campaign had been successfully concluded, not only restored to Ukon his former territory but also increased the size of his fief. Further, Araki did not harm the hostages. There was, however, a deeper result which was not immediately visible: the crisis had brought about a change in Ukon and had freed him from all fear and ambition. Thenceforth Ukon was a new man. Historians would later debate whether his decision had been the wisest course of action to take, but Ukon had sacrificed everything for his religious beliefs and knew that his faith was the only thing that could not be taken away from him. In the future he would live for his faith alone.
From the human point of view, the following four years were the most rewarding period in Ukon’s life. Many of his vassals were converted to Christianity; he received the Jesuit visitor Alessandro Valignano at Takatsuki as an honoured guest; he collaborated in the founding of a seminary at Azuchi, Nobunaga’s new city on the banks of Lake Biwa; he advised Nobunaga on the arrangements for the famous parade in Kyoto at which the Emperor himself was present; his circle of friends grew steadily. But on 21 June 1583, Nobunaga was assassinated at Honnoji in the capital; the traitor, Akechi Mitsuhide, tried to win Ukon over his cause, but Ukon, then in Takatsuki, was not persuaded by his promises. He set out to do battle against Akechi and played an important role in the fighting of Yamazaki. From that time on, Ukon’s fate was inextricably linked to Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who in masterly fashion declared himself protector of the Sanboshi (Hidenobu), Nobunaga’s grandson, and thus took over supreme power. In his dealings with Hideyoshi, Ukon never hestitated to show that his Christian faith came first in his life. During Nobunaga’s funeral ceremony, organized by Hideyoshi, Ukon conspicuously remained in his place when it was his turn to offer incense at the Buddhist altar. Hideyoshi studiously pretended not to notice the incident.
Later, in the battle of Shizugatake, Ukon experienced the bitterness of defeat; he himself was wounded in the fighting and he lost many retainers. But Hideyoshi continued to show his favour and once more his revenues were increased. There followed years of strenuous activity, and the campaigns in which he took part in Hideyoshi’s service would be enough to fill the life of any one man. He continued to practice the tea ceremony and was already considered one of the most outstanding disciples of Sen no Rikyu. He sometimes met in the tea room with just two companions – Hideyoshi and Rikyu. Various of his friends received baptism – Kuroda Yoshitaka, Gamo Ujisato, Makumura Chobei – under his influence and persuasion. The territory of Takatsuki could be considered practically a Christian fief and Ukon used his position to aid the propagation of Christianity in other regions of the country. When Hideyoshi, following the example of Nobunaga, offered a site in his new castle at Osaka for the former Azuchi Seminary, then located in Takatsuki, Ukon assumed responsibility for its construction. He also paid the expenses involved in transferring the beautiful church of Okayama all the way to Osaka. The daimyo, the Christian, and the aesthete – all three basic roles of his were now in complete harmony. He followed a path of personal self-fulfillment, honor, and progress in virtue. In writing of this period, the Jesuit missionary Gregorio de Cespedes attributes to Hideyoshi the eulogy: “No one else can possibly emulate Ukon’s great purity of life.”
In 1585 Hideyoshi reshuffled the fiefs under his sway and transferred Ukon from Takatsuki to Akashi. The new territory bordered the Inland Sea and its annual revenues amounted to 60,000 koku [of rice], but Ukon was not given the opportunity to settle there for long. Following the invasion of Shikoku and the campaigns against the Negoro mongs at Kii, Ukon looked forward to a period of peace and rest, but just at that time, emissaries visited Hideyoshi at Osaka and asked him to intervene in Kyushu. Yet another man to talk with Hideyoshi in his newly-constructed castle at Osaka was Fr. Gaspar Coelho, the superior of the Jesuit missionaries, and his visit marked the height of Ukon’s material prosperity and also perhaps the turning point of his fortunes. Coelho was a fervent, possibly naïve, man and his self-confidence prompted him to meddle in political affairs. As a result he had adopted a policy which would lead to the petition he presented to Hideyoshi on 4 May 1586, asking the ruler to intervene in Kyushu and put down the Shimazu clan; for his part, Coelho promised to use his influence in support of Hideyoshi.
At the end of that year, the advance armies commanded by Hashiba Hidenaga and Kuroda Yoshitaka invaded Kyushu. In the following spring Hideyoshi, who had just received the title of Kampakku, went down to Kyushu in person with the rest of this army. Ukon was a member of his personal guard and accompanied the ruler throughout the campaign. Once the operations were over, Hideyoshi set up camp in the Hachiman shrine in Hakosazaki, and there he planned the reconstruction of Hakata and the distribution of the newly-won territories among his allies. An optimistic Coelho, sailed from Nagasaki to Hakata in his decorated ship to offer his congratulations to the ruler for his successful campaign. Ukon had already warned the missionary that he feared there might be a change in the fortunes of the Japanese Church and had suggested that it might be prudent to present the handsome ship to Hideyoshi as a gift. But Coelho had ignored both the warning and the suggestion, and by the time he was awakened from his dreams at dawn on 25 July, it was too late to remedy matters.
It is said that the messenger who carried Hideyoshi’s ultimatum to Ukon on the same night was none other than Sen no Rikyu, who at that period was one of the ruler’s most trusted advisers. The message contained a command and a question: if Ukon wished to continue in the service of the Kampaku, he must abandon his Christian faith; and why had he so encouraged Christianity among his vassals in Takatsuki? This time Ukon had no need to ask the advice of Organtino, much less that of Coelho, or to ponder for long on the reply which Rikyu, most likely secretly approving of its contents, carried back to Hideyoshi. The reply was simple. Ukon was willing to obey the ruler in everything that concerned his status as a vassal, but he would not abandon his faith; as regards to his work of evangelizing his former retainers, he considered this to have been his most outstanding achievement. On the following day, while an agitated Coelho vainly searched for somebody to intercede for him, Ukon serenely bade farewell to his friends and left Hakozaki. He was now an exile, a man enjoying no civil rights in Japanese society; but at the same time he was also a man who was truly liberated. He was soon to be found in the company of Organtino on the small island of Shodoshima in the domains of Augustine Konishi Yukinaga, whom they helped to overcome a crisis of faith brought about by Hideyoshi’s decree. When Konishi received a large territory in Kyushu as a fief, Ukon went down to Kyushu again and took the opportunity of meeting Coelho in the small town of Kasuza in the Shimabara Peninsula. His purpose was not to complain or criticize what had happened but to discuss the future of the Church in Japan. He then retired to the Jesuit novitiate in Arie to spend some days in prayer. Now that his political and military ambitions had come to nothing, his religious fervor increased and he even began to consider the possibility of entering the religious life. For some years he hesitated about taking this step, But Valignano settled his doubts once and for all by showing him where his vocation lay. Even Hideyoshi unintentionally helped to indicate his future mission when he entrusted Ukon to the care of Maeda Toshiie, daimyo of Kaga.
In 1592 Hideyoshi summoned Ukon to Nagoya Castle in Hizen, where the ruler had set up his headquarters for the invasion of Korea; only shortly before, his only son, Tsurumatsu, had died, and he had ordered Rikyu to commit suicide. The meeting between Hideyoshi and Ukon was an interesting one; the ruler did not return to Ukon his former territories or rank as daimyo, but he re-admitted him into his close circle of friends for the tea ceremony and other pastimes. On his part, Ukon showed no trace of resentment and accepted the friendship that was offered to him, at the same time continuing to practice his religion openly. He invited the missionaries at Nagaski to go to Nagoya and look after the spiritual needs of the Christian samurai, and when the opportunity presented itself, he himself went to Nagasaki to bid farewell to Valignano, who was returning to Macao. According to Luis Frois, the contemporary Jesuit chronicler, Ukon’s favorite pastime at this time was the tea ceremony, and among his guests at these sessions was sometimes to be found Tokugawa Ieyasu, the powerful lord of the eight Kanto provinces.
Ukon spent the next few years occupied in intense apostolic activity in Osaka and Kyoto, and the years 1595 and 1596 witnessed a notable expansion of Christianity in these two centers, especially among the young samurai and sons of the great lords. Among those baptized were Oda Hidenobu, grandson of Nobunago; Hachisuka Iemasa, daimyo of Awa; and various others. This surge of Christian activity brought Ukon into confrontation with the monk Seyakuin Zenso, Hideyoshi’s physician and adviser. The ruler was now in an obvious state of decline; the war with Korea had been a disastrous failure and he had condemned to death Hidetsugu, his nephew and heir. The renewed confrontation with Christianity culminated in the deaths of the twenty-six Martyrs on their crosses at Nagasaki on 5 February 1597. Ukon’s name had headed the first list of Christians drawn up in Kyoto and Osaka, but the governor. Ishida Mitsunari, wishing to avoid open persecution as much as he could, had crossed out Ukon‘s name and shortened the list to a minimum. On this occasion, Ukon went to bid farewell to his lord, Maeda Toshiie, and as a parting gift, presented him with a valuable tea bowl.
A year later Hideyoshi was dead. Ukon returned to Maeda’s domain and there in Kanazawa he spent 16 fruitful years. The new daimyo, Maeda Toshinaga, was his personal friend – even, in some respects, his disciple – and he allowed Ukon to work freely; had it not been for fear of Tokugawa Ieyasu, it is possible Toshinaga himself would become a Christian.
In these favourable circumstances Ukon was able to partially rebuild his family fortunes. He received an income of 40,000 koku and his daughter was married to Yokoyama Yasuharu, son of Maeda’s principal governor. Ukon himself was one of Maeda’s leading vassals and adviser, and he served his lord loyally. In 1600 he served in the war under Maeda’s banner but with scant success; he left proof of his military skill, however, in the reconstruction of the daimyo’s castle residence at Takaoka. Using the artistic name Minaminobo, Ukon continued his activity as tea master and formed a school at Kanazawa. Some of his former retainers and other Christian exiles, such as Naito Tokuan and Ukita Kyukan, took refuge in his lands in Noto Peninsula, where Ukon had built two churches; from 1604 a Jesuit priest and brother resided permanently in the church, also built by Ukon, in Kanazawa. These were years of serene spiritual progress. It is quite possible that the Portguese missionary Joao Rodrigues, “the Interpreter,” had this particular period in mind when he notes in his fine chapter on the tea ceremony that Ukon used to withdraw to the tea room and there was accustomed “to stay a long time in intense and silent prayer.”
Rodrigues’ remarks seems to indicate something more than an advanced spiritual life. The three fundamental roles of Ukon’s life – the man of power, aesthete, and Christian – were combined in harmony, and there in the confined space of the tea room he was at peace with himself and enjoyed an inner freedom. His serenity was never more to be disturbed, even when, for example, within the space of a few months in 1608 he lost his mother, eldest son, and daughter-in-law. But the increasing Christian activity of Ukon had not escaped the notice of Ieyasu, and when the ruler ordered the expulsion of the missionaries in 1614 he paid special attention to the Christian community, exiling its leaders Ukon and Naito Tokuan along with their families. Other outstanding members of this church were condemned to hard labor in the region of Tsugaru. Ukon‘s friend and protector, Maeda Toshinaga, had returned from active life and had been succeeded by his younger brother Toshitsune, who was married to a daughter of Tokugawa Hidetada. Toshitsune never really understood Ukon and feared that, on receiving the edict ordering him to exile, most likely to be followed by the death sentence, Ukon would take up arms to defend himself. So Toshitsune prepared for fighting, but Ukon hastened to put his mind at rest by sending a message that gave evidence of the evolution of his idea of a gentleman warrior. The message read, “I do not strive for my salvation with weapons but with patience and humility, in accordance with the doctrine of Jesus Christ which I profess.” He further sent the daimyo 60 bars of gold as a gift, “because this year I will not be able to repay with my services the emoluments that I have received.” He also presented to his old friend Toshinaga, living in retirement, a valuable tea utensil; for himself, he took with him a small tea utensil that had been made by his master Sen no Rikyu.
The road to exile was hard. Ukon was accompanied by his wife, daughter and five grandchildren, and was obliged to cross snow-covered mountains. There were long delays filled with uncertainty. He spent some months in Nagasaki, where he made a spiritual retreat under the direction of the Jesuit Pedro Morejon and collected religious books for future reading. Finally, on 8 November 1614 he sailed from the nearby port of Fukuda in an old ship along with the expelled missionaries. Their destination was Manila. It is related that when news of Ukon’s expulsion reached his old friend Hosokawa Takaoki, daimyo for Kokura, he exclaimed, “Minaminobo [Justus Takayama] has now placed his seal on his life’s achievements.” Coming from Hosokawa, this praise is significant because, although a personal friend of the missionaries, he had turned persecutor out of fear of Ieyasu.
Ukon was greeted as a hero in Manila, and the Governor, Don Juan de Silva, wished to provide him with an income for the support of his family. But Ukon declined the offer, for he was no longer in a position to offer his services in exchange for the income. There were also other reasons which were not at that time apparent. Perhaps, Ukon did not wish to serve a foreign lord. But in any case there was no longer any reason why he should continue the public life that he had led in Japan, and he could now devote himself completely to spiritual matters. After so many years of persecutions, he could now enjoy peace and quiet. With his final sacrifice Ukon had obtained complete inner freedom and had reached the goal of self-liberation. Forty days after reaching Manila, he fell ill and on 5 February (3 February according to some reports) 1615, he gave up his soul in peace at the age of 63. His last words to his grandchildren were an exhortation to stand firm in their Christian faith.
A year later Ieyasu died in Suruga. At the time of his death he was the lord of Japan, but not even Tokugawa Ieyasu had been able to curb the spiritual freedom of Justo Takayama Ukon.