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Bl. Dom Justo Takayama, Samurai and Martyr

February 3, 2021


There is a classic story about a samurai warrior who came to understand what real courage, integrity, and humility were all about:

The cruelest, most violent samurai in Japan decides he wants to become enlightened. He bursts into the home of an esteemed Zen master and demands the master teach him how to become enlightened.

The Zen master looks deeply into his eyes and says, “No. You are a dirty, vicious samurai. I will not teach you.”

Enraged, the Samurai yanks out his sword and places it right at the Zen master’s neck. He hollers, “Do you have any idea who I am? I am the cruelest samurai in the world. I can cut your throat and not blink an eye.”

Without skipping a beat, the master calmly responds, “Do you have any idea who I am? I can let you slit my throat and not blink an eye.”

The samurai falls to his knees, sobbing, overcome by the presence of a man mightier than his sword.

In 2016, Pope Francis approved the martyrdom of a sixteenth-century Kirishitan daimyō (“Great Christian”), beatifying a samurai whose humility embodied the “master” in this story.

Descended from a noble Buddhist family, Takayama Hikogorō (1552-1615) was an educated and cultured man, regarded as “a great general, an ingenious strategist, a master of the tea ceremony, a harmonious personality and above all, an exemplary and saintly Christian.” In 1564, he followed the example of his father, Takayama Tomoteru (the feudal lord of Sawa Castle in the Yamato Province) and became a Catholic. Both were baptized by the Jesuit missionary Gaspar diLella, and the then–twelve-year-old Hikogorō, taking Justin Martyr as his patron, became known as Justus Ukon Takayama, or, more popularly in the West, as Dom Justo. (Ukon is an affectionate title some equate with Dom.)

As he continued his training and studies, Takayama’s enthusiasm for the faith waned until he was about twenty years old, when he became a fervent evangelizer. The family’s exalted position in feudal Japan gave them control over vast lands and armies—indeed, Dom Justo served as feudal governor of Takatsuki from age 21, and later as governor of Akashi—and also made it possible for them to give assistance to Jesuit missionaries as they expanded their reach into the country. Conversions brought about through the help of Dom Justo are believed to number in the tens of thousands during an era in which the oppressive regime of the chancellor Toyotomi Hideyoshi was bearing down on Catholic Christians. The chancellor crucified Catholic men and women, hoping to make an example of them, and called on all Catholic citizens to abandon the faith or face destruction.

As an era of dramatic persecution of Christians grew, Toyotomi demanded of Dom Justo a complete renunciation of either his faith or his fiefdom. The samurai chose to renounce his fiefdom, walking away from worldly power and voluntarily embracing poverty over obedience to a despot. He lived under the protection of friends and allies for several decades, but in 1614, when Toyotomi’s successor prohibited the Christian faith outright, Dom Justo left Japan from Nagasaki, leading 300 Catholics into exile in Manila, Philippines, so they could again practice their faith. He died there, forty days later, while praying the Rosary, the only daimyō to be buried on Philippine soil. Witnesses testified that the persecutions he had suffered in Japan had brought about his early demise.

A report from the Catholic News Agency quotes Fr. Anton Witwer, general postulator of the Society of Jesus, who told them in 2014—when the samurai’s cause was formally taken up in Rome—“[Takayama] did not want to fight against other Christians, and this led him to live a poor life, because when a samurai does not obey his ‘chief,’ he loses everything he has.”

Of Pope Francis’ decreeing his death a martyrdom, Witwer explained, “Since Takayama died in exile because of the weaknesses caused by the maltreatments he suffered in his homeland, the process . . . is that of a martyr.”

In 1775, Saint Alphonsus Ligouri, having studied the life of Dom Justo and all available papers at the time, concluded the same.

The 2017 beatification of Dom Justo was the fifth Japanese beatification ceremony since the Twenty-Six Martyrs of Japan were beatified in 1627. At a Commemorative Mass in Kobe, Japan, meant to observe 400th anniversary of Takayama’s death, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle—then Archbishop of Manila—noted that the Philippines and Japan are forever linked through a “bridge of faith and martyrdom.” Dom Justo’s death in Manila and the Filipino San Lorenzo Ruiz’s martyrdom in Nagasaki, he added, demonstrated that “martyrdom is the deepest link between our two churches.”

A group of seventeenth-century Jesuit missionaries took Takayama for their patron as they entered into their work in Japan. He is a patron of persecuted Christians, Japanese immigrants, and the University of Santo Tomas Graduate School, the oldest and largest Catholic University in Manila.

Blessed Dom Justo Takayama, pray for us.