On Good Friday I crossed the sea to Nagasaki Prefecture, then hiked north up the coast. At night I reached the seaside ruins of Hara Castle, where the boy-messiah Shiro and his 37,000 followers were killed.
The moon was nearly full, with cherry blossoms blooming in the dusk. The fortress buildings were all gone, but the castle foundations and embankments remained; the scene of one of the largest massacres in Japanese history is now verdant with flowers, cherry groves, and green, rolling hills.
380 years ago, these grounds were a red, bloodsoaked slaughterhouse; everywhere I stepped, there a body had once lain. Here the Shimabara Rebellion met its end, and in a large sense Christianity in Japan died with it. In the wake of the cataclysm, only small pockets of the religion survived by quietly retreating underground, where the faith remained largely inconsequential and forgotten for over two hundred years.
Shiro’s grave lies at the top of the cliff where the castle keep once stood. Visitors leave him flowers, tea, and the occasional bottle of sake. Despite the serenity of the place, one can still feel the weight of the blood in the soil, as if the grass, the flowers, and the trees have not quite forgotten.
* * *
37,000 souls huddled within the fortress walls, awaiting annihilation or divine intervention. Clutching swords, muskets, and rosaries, they faced an overwhelming force of 200,000 enemy troops camped outside, a government army determined to scour them and their religion from the earth. Yet for over three months, the rebels held the castle with determination, repelling attack after attack. They sent messages to the enemy by arrow, detailing their grievances: all they desired was the right to exist with dignity, to escape the cruelty of tyrants and to practice their faith freely.
But the government army was not there to negotiate, especially not with so many Christians gathered conveniently in one place to be exterminated. Every single rebel--and every man, woman, and child sheltering in the castle with them--was already condemned. If God really was coming to save His faithful, he would have to do so quickly, for food and water inside the castle were running out. With 37,000 mouths to feed, they would need a miracle. Their leader Shiro could supposedly walk on water and heal the sick, but with meager fish and loaves he could not feed a multitude.
On Palm Sunday, an enemy cannonball blasted through the main keep, into the very room where Shiro and his council were resting. The boy-messiah’s clothes were grazed, and several other Christian leaders were killed. Despite Shiro’s survival, this was the moment when many rebels found their faith shaken, and a heavy despair began to set in over the castle. Good Friday and Easter passed as the rebels starved.
Finally, one week after Easter, a member of Shiro’s inner circle betrayed him. Yamada Emosaku, who had stood with Shiro from the very beginning and had even designed the young leader’s banner, saw that all was lost and sent information by messenger-arrow to the enemy outside: the rebels were weak and out of food and ammunition, and an all-out attack would be enough to crush them now. In exchange for inside information about the castle’s condition and defenses, Emosaku asked to be spared. The enemy general agreed to his request.
The government army then launched its final attack. The castle defenses finally shattered, and the 37,000 starving rebels who had once held out for divine aid found themselves facing a storm of blades. Government troops received rewards based on how many heads they took on the battlefield, and since they outnumbered the rebels five to one, competition for heads was fierce. The massacre was complete—the Christian and peasant rebels were butchered along with their families who had sheltered with them. Not even children, not even mothers or the elderly were spared.
Moonrise over the Ariake Sea
The scale of such a massacre is hard to comprehend. 37,000 dead—that number requires perspective. That’s twelve times as many as perished in the Twin Tower attacks, and eight times the number of Allied troops that died on D-Day. Only the traitor Emosaku survived.
Shiro’s mother had not been present in the castle during the siege, so she escaped death--but not capture. In the wake of the final battle, so the story goes, she was brought to the scene of the slaughter to identify the head of her son. An army officer showed her a series of heads, asking her which one belonged to the boy-messiah who had led the revolt. Shiro’s mother stayed quiet as the officer showed her head after head, determined not to give her captors the information they wanted, but she finally broke when shown the head of one of the last victims--a handsome yet gaunt, malnourished young man. Falling to her knees, she clutched the head to her chest and began to weep, “Oh my God, had he really become so thin?”
* * *
At around midnight, I went down below the cliff where the castle had stood and sat by the ocean to watch the moon. The wind came cold over the water, yet the silver light on the sea and the falling cherry petals were so beautiful that I lay down there for the night. The old battleground was quiet, and though no trace of the struggle remained, the celestial moon, the ethereal blossoms, and the rolling waves consecrated the ruins like a reliquary.