TOMIOKA CASTLE (SPRING JOURNEY IV)
Tomioka Castle lies on the northern end of the Amakusa Islands. I had planned to continue the trek on foot, hoping to walk the entire route of the Christian Rebel army, but I'd severely overestimated the fortitude of my shoes. After several days of nonstop walking, my feet hated me and I hated them back, and I was cursing myself as ten kinds of an idiot for not investing in better hiking boots before the trip. Still, it was Good Friday, and I was in the mood to suffer -- at least until an old man I met was kind enough to offer me a lift by car. Bless him.
And now I'll continue the tale of a group far more valiant than I.
* * *
Against all odds, the Christian rebels saw a stunning streak of early victories. For several days, the young messiah-general Shiro led his rebel army through the islands, demolishing Buddhist temples and destroying government headquarters, while government forces fell back in the face of the onslaught. The magistrate of the town of Hondo, himself a former Christian who had renounced the faith under pressure, tried to stop the rebels, only to find his samurai forces routed by Shiro’s army. The magistrate escaped capture, only to take his own life in disgrace. Meanwhile, the rebels broke open the prisons, freeing captive Christians and adding to their ranks. Though most of the rebels were merely peasants and Christian commoners, they drove back the government samurai with a fearlessness and strength that seemed to defy explanation. It was as if God Almighty and the Hosts of Heaven really were fighting at their side.
The rebels then attacked Tomioka Castle in a battle that raged for several days, seeking more supplies and a stronghold for their use—but here their advance stopped. With a bit more time they might have taken the castle, but government reinforcements from the mainland were approaching. Shiro and his rebels withdrew, then took a fleet of boats north across the strait to the Shimabara Peninsula, where they would meet more allies and prepare for the next stage of the rebellion.
Stone walls (ishigaki) on the north side of Tomioka Castle.
Though the rebels had failed to take Tomioka Castle, morale and faith still ran strong. Their numbers swelled to over 37,000 people—not just young fighting-age men, but women, children, and elderly. It seemed as if all the villages in the region were emptying out to take shelter under Shiro’s banner and join the fight against Lord Matsukura. But the tyrant had also been busy; he was hardly one to just sit back and wait to be overthrown. Having failed to put down the rebellion, he had gone straight to the capital to ask the ruler of Japan for help. For it was not just Lord Matsukura's personal domain at stake: it was the legitimacy of Japan's entire feudal system.
The terrible news soon reached the rebels: a government army 200,000 men strong was being sent from the capital to destroy them. The tables had suddenly turned on them; outnumbered now more than five to one, they could only hope that their prayers had been heard and that God really was coming to save them. They fortified themselves in the ruins of an abandoned castle, with all the food and weapons they could gather, to wait for the storm and the final test of their faith.