By Fr. Johannes Laures, SJ
One of the greatest heroes of the glorious Martyr Church of Japan is undoubtedly the Catholic lay apostle, Justus Ukon Takayama (1552-1615), or Justus Ucondono, as he was usually called by missionaries. Although he greatly desired to shed his blood for Christ, he was not granted this honor, yet he sacrificed everything on three separate occasions for his Divine Master, was exiled to a foreign land (the Philippines) for the sake of his Faith, and died in Manila as a result of the hardships endured on the voyage to his exile.
Ukon Takayama was one of the greatest men of his era. He was an able ruler (as Daimyo, or governor of Takatsuki and later, of Akashi), a great general, an ingenious strategist, a master of the tea ceremony, a harmonious personality, and above all, an exemplary and saintly Christian. He preached the Gospel better than any of the missionaries. His amiable and attractive personality and, more striking, his blameless life, attracted numerous souls to the fold of the Good Shepherd. Not only did he convert his vassals and subjects to the Catholic Faith, but a number of the greatest personalities of his era were also won over by his entreaties and example to the cause of Christ. Gamo Ujisato, Kuroda Yoshitaka, Hosokawa Gracia were the most outstanding of them, but there were many others whose number and identity is known to God alone. Ukon’s unblemished chastity was so generally admired even his enemy, Hideyoshi (who ruled Japan 1583-1598) could not but admire it.
As the beloved of God, Ukon Takayama was necessarily blessed with the surest sign of elections, the Cross. When the hegemon Nobunaga (r. 1574-1582) threatened to massacre all the Christians and destroy their churches unless Ukon handed over to him the castle of Takatsuki (in Osaka prefecture), the heroic champion of Christ, without hesitation, renounced his domain and betook himself to Nobunaga, ready to die with the missionaries and Christians. Doing this, he fully realized the terrible danger to which he exposed the lives of his only son and his little sister, who were hostages held by his suzerain Araki Murashige. God took the will for the deed, saved Ukon’s life, spared his hostages and secured for him Nobunaga’s admiration and good graces.
When Hideyoshi (who succeeded Nobunaga) suddenly turned persecutor in 1587, Ukon Takayama was called upon either to deny his Faith, or lose his fief, and he gladly gave up everything rather than turn traitor to his Divine Master. For several years, he was in fear of his life; even after Hideyoshi’s wrath had cooled, he never again became a ruling daimyo but lived in obscurity as a simple samurai of the Maeda rulers at Kanazawa. In 1614, Ieyasu resolved to exterminate Christianity, and Ukon Takayama was again among the first victims. Since the tyrant could not hope to make him apostatize, he exiled him to a foreign land, calculating that he would not long survive the rigors and hardships of the voyage. The fact that Ukon died a few weeks after his arrival at Manila shows most clearly that Ieyasu’s calculation has been only too correct. Thus Ukon Takayama has the satisfaction of giving up his life for the Divine Master.
In the estimation of his contemporaries, Ukon Takayama was a saintly man. When after he had been deposed a Lord of Akashi (in 1570), he arrived in Kyushu, the Christians there venerated him as a martyr. In Manila, he was welcomed with religious enthusiasm, for everyone was well aware of the honor of giving hospitality to a renowned Confessor of the Faith. His premature death on February 3, 1615 caused general mourning and regret that Manila had been deprived of the presence of a man of God. His funeral in Intramuros, accorded by Church and State, was a great tribute to him, underscoring that an outstanding Servant of God had passed to a better life.
The Archdiocese of Manila (as the diocese where Takayama died (or was “born to Heaven”) first presented to the Pope a petition for the beatification of Ukon Takayama in 1630, only 15 years after he died. Many who have remembered this heroic champion of Christ across the centuries continue to pray fervently that Ukon Takayama woud someday be raised to the honors of the Altar, and thus be set as a model for young people.