Takayama Ukon and ‘La Japona’

According to the Dominican Commemorative Book, The Saga of La Naval: Triumph of a People’s Faith (Quezon City: Dominican Province of the Philippines, 2007 – 358p) – the Dominican missionaries in Manila made their first missionary venture outside the Philippines in 1602 by fielding a pioneering mission to the Japanese archipelago — half a century after the Jesuits arrived there.

Dominican Mission to Japan

The Dominican prior at Manila, Fr. Francisco de Morales (1567-1622), had been meeting with Japanese Christians from Satsuma about the possibility of opening a mission in that fief. In time, the Dominicans were invited by the Daimyo of Satsuma, a fief of the island of Kyushu.

The five-man group was composed of four Dominican priests – Fr. Francisco de Morales, OP; Fr. Tomas Hernandez, OP; Fr. Tomas de Zumarraga, OP; Fr. Alonso de Mena, OP (1578-1622) and Brother Juan de Abadia, OP. (Fr. Fidel Villaroel, OP, “Our Lady’s Champions…”, in The Saga of La Naval, p. 255)


“La Japona” – Our Lady of the Holy Rosary

The former Spanish Governor-General, Luis Perez Dasmarinas (r. 1593-1596; d. 1603), who had earlier donated the soon-to-be-famous Marian image revered today as “Our Lady of La Naval,” gifted the pioneering mission with another statue of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary (later to acquire the nickname “La Japona”) to accompany the Dominican mission in their journeys.

La Japona - Our Lady of the Holy Rosary
La Japona – Our Lady of the Holy Rosary


La Japona - Our Lady of the Holy Rosary
La Japona – Our Lady of the Holy Rosary


Fr. Fidel Villaroel, OP, University Archivist of the University of Santo Tomas (est. 1611) confirms: On June 1, 1602, “they carried with them an exceptional companion, an image of Our Lady of the Rosary, which had been donated by the [former] Spanish-Governor General, who had earlier donated the image of Our Lady of La Naval. The company of the heavenly Mother gave them a strong hope that the mission would be successful — and indeed the initial enterprise looked like a triumphant entry to Jerusalem.”

La Japona at the Santo Domingo Museum
La Japona at the Santo Domingo Museum


The Mission in Japan

The mission landed “on the small islet of Koshiki, off the big island of Kyushu,” and it was their good fortune that the ruling daimyo looked kindly to their mission. “They got the surprise of their lives when the tono (governor) of the place offered them a residence “which was a building that had been the temple of an idol” from which the bonzos had been removed. The Dominicans converted the temple into a church and enshrined in it the image of Our Lady of the Rosary.

While the temple was being repurposed into a church, the Marian image was brought to the residence of the Lord of the island [Shimazu Yoshihiro, of Satsuma in Kagoshima], “who treated her with much respect and admired her color and beauty.”

“When we found ourselves in the house of the bonzo [i.e., the ex-Buddhist temple],” Fr. Francisco de Morales wrote, “we sang a ‘Salve Regina’ filled with emotion and shedding tears.“ (p. 255.)

Seeking trade, the Lord of Satsuma (in Kagoshima) asked the Dominicans to send Father Alonso de Mena to Manila to initiate commercial relations with his territories. Father Mena completed the task and arranged for a ship to land at the port of Satsuma. Although the commercial venture ended in failure, nonetheless the Lord was kind enough to allow the building of a church and residence in Kyodomari, in Saga Prefecture. Thus, a vast field of apostolic endeavor was opened to the Dominicans.

Toward the end of August 1606, Father Mena opened a new missionary territory in the kingdom of Hizen (in Saga). Around that time, he went to Nagasaki where he learned that a Spanish ship had landed at the port of Fukahori. He approached the captain of the ship, Francis Moreno Donoso, who introduced him to the local Lord. They then paid a courtesy visit to the principal Lord of the region of Hizen. The visit was so cordial that the latter granted the missionaries the necessary authority to preach the Gospel in his territories. The Dominicans also had the freedom to build churches in the towns of Hama, Kashima, and Saga. This new apostolate area gained by Father Mena was a veritable paradise for the dynamic missionary endeavors of the Dominicans. (Father Mena was burned alive in Nishizaki, Nagasaki on September 10, 1622 – and beatified by Blessed Pope Pius IX in 1867.)

Father Villaroel summarizes: In the course of the next years, the Dominican missionaries built four other churches dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary in Hamamachi (1606), Kyodomari (1609), Nagasaki (1609) and Kyoto (1610).


Declining Support

Donald F. Lach (1917-2000) fleshes out the Dominican situation: “The Dominicans, who had never made many converts in Satsuma, began in 1608 to lose the support of the Shimazu family. Strongly opposed by the local Buddhists, the Dominicans in their eagerness for a notable success illegally baptized a local samurai who was promptly executed for having accepted Christianity in defiance of the Shogun’s prohibition against doing so. This untoward event, when coupled with the failure of trade to develop, brought about the expulsion of the Dominicans from Satsuma in May 1609.” (Lach, Asia in the Making of Europe, Volume III: A Century of Advance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,1998: p. 210.)

Lach adds: “Other Dominicans founded churches in Hizen ‘which thereafter became their principal mission field’ – as well as Kyoto and Osaka. Never more than ten in number at any one time, the Dominicans had to limit their activities to a few centers and to be content with occasional visits to other places.”

But the same ruler who had given the Dominicans permission to build a church on Koshiki soured up on them. He wanted a flourishing trade, not a flourishing religion. By May 1609, the Dominicans were expelled from Satsuma – bringing with them their most precious jewel: the image of Our Lady of the Rosary.



Before their expulsion from Satsuma, the Dominicans had managed to expand their work to the south of Kyushu and eventually reached the major port of that island, Nagasaki, which was the center of Christianity in Japan. By 1611-12, the Catholic center of Nagasaki “boasted more than 20,000 Christians out of a population of 40,000, four parishes staffed by native clergy, and houses and churches for all four of the missionary orders” – Jesuits, Dominicans, Franciscans and Augustinians. In Nagasaki, Father Morales, OP (who, like Father Mena, was martyred on September 10, 1622 – and beatified by Blessed Pope Pius IX in 1867) — and two others established the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary.

“Despite great advances in their evangelization, with six churches built – all dedicated to Nuestra Senora del Rosario — and many members recruited to the Confraternity of the Rosary, official toleration was gradually withdrawn. As persecution forced church upon church to be closed for demolition, the sacred images and utensils were concentrated in Nagasaki, the last Christian outpost. In 1614, the last Dominican mission to Japan was officially closed, and Dasmarinas’ image is believed among those evacuated to Manila.” (R. T. Jose, The Saga of La Naval, pp. 91-93).


La Japona Goes Back to the Philippines

In Father Villaroel’s account, the Dominicans themselves brought the Marian image back to Manila:

“But in 1614, induced by some fanatical Buddhist and Confucian ministers, the Shogun issued a general decree declaring Christianity forbidden in Japan under penalty of death. The first consequence of this edict was that all foreign missionaries were banished from the empire. They were assembled in Nagasaki and shipped out in two separate boats, one bound for Macao and the other for Manila. The outgoing Dominicans took care of bringing with them their most precious jewel: the image of Our Lady of the Rosary they had brought to Japan in 1602. Arriving in Manila, they placed the image in Santo Domingo Convent. Since then, the image was fondly referred to as ‘La Japona’ (The Japanese).” (Fr. Fidel Villaroel, OP, “Our Lady’s Champions…”, in The Saga of La Naval, p. 256)

Santo Domingo Church in Quezon City
Santo Domingo Church in Quezon City

Santo Domingo Church

Entrance to the Museo de Sto Domingo. La Japona statue is seen in the background.
Entrance to the Museo de Sto Domingo. La Japona can be seen in the background.
Display at the Museo de Sto Domingo.
La Japona at the Museo de Sto Domingo


Did Blessed Takayama Ukon bring back La Japona to the Philippines?

But the “Tour Notes for Japanese Pilgrims” which is handed out by the Lord Takayama Jubilee Foundation to Japanese pilgrims visiting the Marian image at Santo Domingo Church in Quezon City may, in fact, be responsible for the short-cut claim that the “La Japona” statue of Our Lady of the Rosary was brought back to Manila on the same Chinese junk with a mixed Chinese and Japanese crew, captained by the Portuguese, Esteban d’Acosta.

In tours across three decades, other tour guides have narrated that “La Japona” was brought back to Manila by Takayama Ukon – which is a short-hand rendition. At a symposium studying the daily life of Takayama after his Manila arrival, this morphed into: “With ‘La Japona’ entrusted to his care, Takayama Ukon took full responsibility during the voyage that took 43 days — (instead of the normal 20 days) – during which a December typhoon snapped the main mast in two. Justus Takayama Ukon kept the statue of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary in his cabin throughout the voyage  – so that the fragile image would not be damaged by the ocean spray or violent rain — arriving in Manila on Sunday, December 21, 1614.

Ukon took a while to recover from the fatigue and rigors of a long disagreeable voyage before visiting Santo Domingo Church (among the six major churches of Intramuros) for Holy Mass on Christmas Day, 1614 together with his family – wife Doña Justa Takayama, a married daughter, Lucia Yokoyama, and five grandchildren (aged 8-16) — to implore La Japona’s continuing intercession to be delivered “from present evils and from inevitable death.” Ever popular in Dominican churches, the Marian antiphon about exile would have been sung:

Hail, holy Queen, Mother of Mercy,

Our life, our sweetness and our hope.

To you do we cry,

Poor banished children of Eve;

To you do we send up our sighs,

Mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.

Turn then, most gracious advocate,

Your eyes of mercy toward us;

And after this our exile,

Show us the blessed fruit of your womb, Jesus.


La Japona at present

Since then, up to 2017, the “La Japona” Marian statue has remained with the Dominican Priory – with no major damage from the many vicissitudes of history: the British Invasion of Manila [1762-1764], the Philippine Revolution [1898], fire, robberies, and World War II [1941-1945] that resulted in the complete destruction (by bombing) of the Santo Domingo Church in Intramuros on December 27, 1941.

Museo de Sto Domingo and the La Japona
Visit the Museo de Sto Domingo to see the La Japona.

Whatever were the actual circumstances of her transport to Manila, the fact remains that “La Japona” arrived on the same exile ship as Takayama Ukon and the 300 Christian exiles. Was she entrusted to the care of a Marian champion like Lord Takayama Ukon (in keeping with her high standing in the devotion of Christians) and kept in the safety of Takayama’s cabin — or was she consigned to a hold with some 300 other passengers? This matter cannot now be ascertained.

But, some 400 years ago, “La Japona” and her devoted champion, Justus Takayama Ukon, had indeed returned “home” to Manila on the same exile ship from the same “valley of tears.”


The Clincher

As a clincher that the Santo Domingo Priory’s “La Japona” was indeed the same Marian image connected with the Church of the Holy Rosary in Nagasaki (the debarkation port of Takayama’s exile ship), it was “La Japona” who “presided over the Beatification Ceremonies of ‘Lorenzo Ruiz and Companions’ in Manila in 1987.” Nagasaki, from where Lord Takayama Ukon and “La Japona” debarked for Manila, is where St. Lorenzo Ruiz (the Philippines’ first saint) and his companions were martyred in the 1630s. (Regalado Trota Jose, “Venerated Images of Our Lady of the Rosary…” in The Saga of La Naval, p. 94) ###


By Dr. Ernie A. De Pedro, Managing Trustee
Lord Takayama Jubilee Foundation