TYRANNY, REBELLION, AND SIGNS OF THE APOCALYPSE (SPRING JOURNEY III)
If you were a Doomsday prophet in the late-1630’s Japan, you’d have had an easy time making your case. Those years were plagued with terrible disasters; massive earthquakes devastated the country, typhoons leveled coastal cities and left thousands homeless, volcanoes erupted, and dust storms in China turned the Japanese morning and evening skies ominously red. Comets blazed in the heavens, the seasons staggered in strange patterns, and southern Japan found itself wracked by a terrible famine. The ruler of Japan withdrew to his chambers to pray for answers, wondering what it all meant, why such horrible, relentless signs and catastrophes were striking his country all at once.
But Japan’s hidden Christians did not wonder. Persecuted and desperate, they saw in these signs the anger of a rejected God and the imminence of the Day of Judgment. The foreign priests had all been driven out of Japan, leaving Japanese Christians to struggle on their own. Every day they faced terror, torture, and death at the hands of the government authorities, who regularly sent inquisitors to their towns to weed them out. Suspected Christians were paraded out into the streets and forced to stamp on images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, or the Holy Family. Those who defiled the images were spared; those who refused were charged as Christians and arrested, tortured, and killed.
Nowhere was the suffering worse than in the Shimabara domain, a poor region of southern Japan ruled over by a tyrant named Matsukura. Matsukura governed from the opulent Moritake Castle and dreamed of raising a powerful military for an invasion of the Philippines. Despite the famine, he squeezed his people dry for taxes until starving peasants were reduced to eating grass and mud in order to stay alive. Under Matsukura’s policy, peasants who couldn’t pay their taxes were rounded up publicly, dressed in straw coats, and set on fire. He was likewise ruthless in rooting out Christians, whom he boiled alive in the scalding volcanic waters of Mount Unzen.
The suffering in the region came to a head one cold winter when a village headman, despite being the richest man in his area, found himself unable to meet Lord Matsukura’s tax demands. This time, instead of simply setting the man on fire, Matsukura’s men seized the headman’s pregnant daughter-in-law and locked her in a cage neck-deep in a freezing river, refusing to release her until the full amount of taxes were paid. The girl suffered for a week, went into labor, and miscarried. She died with her child in the icy water.
That was the final outrage. The signs in Heaven and on Earth had all been pointing to a divine reckoning, and the desperate Christians and starving peasants of the region could bear no more. Christian and peasant leaders met in secret on a small island in the Ariake Sea, along with disenchanted samurai who knew something drastic had to be done. They laid plans for a massive rebellion against Lord Matsukura, and selected as their leader the young, mysterious miracle-worker named Shiro, whom many Christians claimed was a messenger of God. In their darkest hour, Shiro would be the messiah the suffering people needed.
To the Christians, the auspices of the moment were clear—in the earthquakes, in the eruptions, in the storm-battered shores, in the blood-red skies. The world was entering its final stages, and the Kingdom of God was at hand. It was time to rise up, and Shiro would lead them either to victory over their oppressors—or to fiery martyrdom and Paradise.
(A shrine now stands on the spot where the rebellion broke out in the Amakusa Islands. I found it on the roadside facing the sea, a stone memorial wreathed in falling blossoms.)