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St. Francis Xavier At Yamaguchi

John Laures, S.J.

Fr. John Laures, S.J.

On August 15, 1549, the first Christian missionary, St. Francis Xavier of the Society of Jesus, landed in Japan. The 400th anniversary of that memorable day is to be celebrated in 1949 in Tokyo, Nagasaki and Kyoto-Osaka, the three great Catholic centers of Japan. Remarkable, however, is the fact that such cities as Kagoshima and Yamaguchi, where there are only a small number of Catholics, are endeavoring to outdo the larger Catholic circles in their homage to and gratitude toward the first preacher of the Gospel in this country and first hero of the "glorious Martyr Church of Japan." With boundless love and tireless patience, St. Francis Xavier won many a convert in this country where Christianity had never before been taught. And if the holy father loved the Japanese and their beautiful country, he loved the city of Yamaguchi more than any other place, for the fruit of his activities was richest in that city.

The first Japanese whom Xavier met was Yajiro, a samurai of Kagoshima. How Yajiro was introduced by George Alvarez to the "Santo Padre" at Malacca is too well known a story to be repeated here. Suffice it to say that Xavier was enthusiastic about Yajiro's curiosity, good common sense and charming personality and that he wrote to his Society in Europe, "If all the Japanese are as eager to learn as Yajiro, they will be the most remarkable of all races in the world." When Xavier asked Yajiro whether many Japanese would desire to become Christian, if he were to go with him to Japan, Yajiro replied, according to the record preserved, that "they would not at once accept the Christian faith, but would first ask him questions, examine his answers and, above all, try to see if his conduct was in conformity with his teaching. If his answers satisfied them and if they found nothing blameworthy in his conduct, all the nobility and the intellectuals, and even the Emperor would be willing within one year to receive baptism, for they are people guided only by reason."

Thereupon Xavier planned a missionary expedition to Japan, with Yajiro and his two companions who had been instructed in the fundamentals of the Christian religion and received into the Church. Xavier preaching with AnjiroOn June 24, 1549, Xavier set out from Malacca, accompanied by two European companions, three Japanese who had been prepared for the work of catechists, and two Indian servants. They landed at Kagoshima, Yajiro's birthplace, on August 15 of the same year. His ambition was to obtain permission from the Emperor to preach the Gospel and convert the Japanese in any part of the country. Shimazu Takahisa, Daimyo of Satsuma, greatly rejoiced to receive the foreign preacher and was anxious to keep him in Kagoshima, for he secretly hoped to attract Portuguese ships to his harbors by the presence of foreign missionaries. Xavier waited more than a year but seeing Shimazu was not interested in his journey to the capital, he left Kagoshima to proceed to Hirado, a port frequented by Portuguese ships. Nor did he linger at Hirado long but set out for Kyoto, the capital arriving on the way at Yamaguchi in the middle of November, 1549.

Yamaguchi was at that time a very important town, being the seat of the mighty Ouchi clan which ruled not only the Province of Suwo but also a number of neighboring provinces on the mainland of Honshu and the island of Kyushu. Having learned that Ouchi, the head of the clan was the slave of a most abominable vice, Xavier determined to stay in the city for some time to preach the Gospel. Every day, he and his companion, Brother Fernandez, took their stand at a crossroads, Brother Fernandez reading a passage from the handwritten catechism prepared by Xavier and Yajiro while they were at Kagoshima. After reading the account of the creation of the world, Fernandez would denounce in a loud voice what he believed to be the three cardinal sins of the Japanese people, viz. idolatry, sodomy and infanticide. While he was inveighing against these vices, Xavier would stand by and pray fervently for the success of their mission. This was done twice every day and always in a different section of the city so that very soon there was no corner in Yamaguchi where the word of God was not heard.

The effect of their sermons was manifold; some Japanese were angry at the preachers because of their bold attacks on the Japanese deities, others were impressed by the beauty of the Christian doctrine, while others made fun of them on account of their strange appearance, poor apparel and uncouth Japanese speech. When they passed through the streets the children would throw stones at them, and the common people would mock at them saying, "These are the people who say that we must adore God in order to be saved." Or again, "These men preach that a man must have but one wife." Soon, the foreign preachers and their doctrine became the object of public interest as well as city gossip.

Among the hearers, there were a number of noblemen who invited the strangers into their homes, either to make fun of them, or to learn about foreign lands, or to know the truth of their faith. Naito Takaharu, one of those noblemen, was their genuine friend and showed them great kindness. By his good office, they obtained an audience with the lord of the province, Ouchi Yoshitaka. Ouchi YoshitakaThe prince spoke kindly to them, asked a few questions about India and then wanted to lean about the new religion. Thereupon Brother Fernandez read from his catechism. When he came to the passage where the unnatural vice of sodomy was denounced relentlessly, Ouchi, evidently embarrassed and angered at the preacher's words, gave a sign that the audience was ended and that the foreign preachers should withdraw. Fernandez, who had noticed the prince's resentment, feared his retaliation, banishment or execution at the worst, but nothing of the sort happened.

They continued their daily lessons at the Crossroads and were still invited to the homes of the Samurai classes. Nevertheless, the results of their efforts were very discouraging; not a few were delighted in hearing the account of the life of Christ and often moved to tears when the preachers spoke of His passion, but only very few asked for baptism. Undoubtedly, the ungracious and abrupt dismissal from the daimyo's presence had become widely known, so that few had enough courage to incur the displeasure of their prince by accepting the new religion.

Realizing the futility of his efforts Xavier at last resolved to leave Yamaguchi and to continue his journey to the court of the Emperor. He left the city eight days before Christmas. It is a well-known fact that at Kyoto he was no more successful than he had been at Yamaguchi. He not only failed in his attempt to see the Emperor, but could not even find an audience willing to listen to his sermon, so that after a short stay of eleven days he again left the capital. Yet he had learned much from his sad experience. He had found out that the Emperor possessed no real power and consequently imperial permission would have been of little avail. He, moreover, learned that one of most powerful men in Japan was the Daimyo of Yamaguchi and, consequently, resolved to approach him a second time. Realizing, however, that his poor appearance as well as his severe critical attitude had been the cause of the failure of his first visit, he saw that if his efforts were to succeed this time, a radical change of method was imperative.

When Xavier started on his journey to Japan, the Viceroy of India, Gracia de Sa, had charged him as his ambassador with an official message to the Emperor of Japan, and the Bishop of Goa, Joan d'Albuquerque, had also made him his official envoy. In their instructions, beautifully written on parchment, they offered the ruler of Japan the friendship of the King of Portugal, requesting the former to receive the preachers of the "Law of God." In order to make sure of the success of his mission Xavier had taken with him a good many presents for the Emperor, which the generous governor of Malacca, Pedro de Silva, had bestowed upon him. Now that his plan of a visit to the Emperor had failed, Xavier resolved to bring to Ouchi Yoshitaka the messages of the Viceroy of India and of the Bishop of Goa and offer him the presents he had brought from Malacca. Having donned a robe befitting an official ambassador and accompanied by Brother Fernandez and two Japanese Christians as his suite, he set out for Yamaguchi for the second time.

The fact that both Xavier and Ouchi were great men was chiefly responsible for the success of the former's mission. Xavier, who desired nothing but the salvation of souls and the propagation of the Gospel, did not hesitate to appear before the man who had so ungraciously dismissed him a few months before. Nor did Ouchi entertain any grudge against the foreigner who had so boldly denounced his vice. Ouchi accepted the letters from the Viceroy and the bishop and the presents, which were thirteen in all: an artistically ornamented clock, a music box, a beautifully finished rifle with three barrels, a pair of spectacles, a mirror, gold brocade cloth and other Portuguese fabrics, Portuguese wine, three costly bottles, tea cups, books, pictures and other things. In return the prince offered many valuable gifts, including a great amount of gold and silver. Xavier, however, accepted no gift but the prince's permission to preach freely among his people. This favor was granted to Xavier. Moreover, Ouchi assigned a former monastery as the residence of Xavier and his companions and, a few months later, donated a piece of land for the construction of a church and a convent. In the streets of the city, official signboards were posted stating that the prince of the city was glad to have the Law of God taught to his subjects, that anyone who wished to embrace the new religion was free to do so, and that anyone who molested or injured the foreign preachers was punished with heavy penalties. When the prince's favor was made public, large crowds of people flocked to Xavier's residence from morning till night, asking him questions and delighting in his teaching. Among such audiences were many bonzes and noblemen. Their first questions were about the shape of the earth, the movements of the sun, and the comets, about lightening and thunder, snow and rain, etc. They showed great joy and satisfaction at Xavier's answers and respected him as a great scholar. From such topics, Xavier soon passed over to religious matters. Very soon their discussion came to be centered on religious subjects alone and some of his audience began to doubt the truth of their sects and admitted the superiority of the Christian religion. Nevertheless, it was long before they asked for baptism. It was the heroic act of patience demonstrated by Brother Fernandez that brought about the first baptism of a Japanese convert.

When Brother Fernandez was preaching in the street one day, a ruffian interrupted his sermon and finally spat him in the face. Without showing the least sign of anger, Fernandez took out his handkerchief, wiped his face and continued his preaching. Xavier and Fernandez preaching in street corners of YamaguchiA man in his audience, who had often jeered at him, followed the brother after his sermon was finished to the missionaries' residence and asked Xavier to prepare him for baptism. His example was followed by many others, with the result that the number of Christians in the city steadily increased. Curiously enough, those who had argued with violence and hostility were the first to be baptized. "It was," wrote Xavier of those days, "something almost incredible to hear the Law of God discussed in almost all the houses in such a large city." Within two months, 500 persons were baptized, while the number of neophytes increased daily.

It was but natural that opposition soon began to arise. One day, Xavier paid the prince his third visit to show him a most beautifully adorned edition of the Bible and a gold-brocade vestment. When the holy father put the vestment on, the prince was so delighted that he clapped his hands, exclaiming, "This father indeed looks like a living representative of one of our gods." Thereupon one of the bonzes of the Shingon Sect, who happened to be present, asked Xavier if the God he worshiped had any shape or color. Xavier's answer was that He had none, being a pure spirit. Then the bonze further questioned about His origin. Xavier replied that God existed by virtue of His divine essence and that consequently He was almighty, omniscient and eternal. Upon hearing this, the bonze remarked that although their teachings differed, their fundamentals were in substance identical. Later, Xavier was invited to the Shingon monasteries and received by the bonzes, with great respect.

Xavier greatly marveled, wondering if it might not be possible that the Christian faith had been taught in Japan centuries before. To find out whether the bonzes knew the fundamental dogmas of the Christian creed, he asked them about the mysteries but the bonzes only laughed at him, which showed that they knew nothing about what he asked. Xavier dialoguing with a Japanese monkThus Xavier came to the conclusion that the similarity between their creed and his was merely superficial. Upon Yajiro's advice, he had until then used for the word "God" the Buddhist term "Dainichi" (the Great Sun). Believing that the Dainichi was the almighty creator of heaven and earth, Xavier had been preaching to the people to worship the Dainichi. With the help of some of his educated converts, Xavier began to study the teaching of the Shingon Sect and found out that the Dainichi was entirely different from the God of the Christians, the Dainichi representing merely the material element of all objects. Therefore he adopted for the word of "God" the Latin word "Deus". The friendship of the bonzes now came to an abrupt end with the result that they became his bitter enemies.

Meanwhile, on learning of the fabulous rebirth of Gautama and Amitabha and the latter's alleged penance for the redemption of his followers, Xavier wrote refutation on the errors in the Buddhist creed and denounced the sale by the bonzes of the "magic passports" to heaven. In dismay, the bonzes sent the most learned man of their sleet to refute Xavier's contention. Their attempt having ended in failure, the bonzes began to say that the Christian God was a demon and that his very name "Daiuso," a malignant distortion of "Deus", was a proof that he was an imposter. Despite such cowardly attack by the bonzes, the number of Christians in Yamaguchi showed a marked increase every year.

However, among the bonzes, especially among the adherents of the Zen Sect, were some who honestly sought for the truth. Xavier himself related a very interesting case of a learned Zen priest, who had studied at the famous Buddhist Academy of Ashikaga. After having found no truth in the teaching of his sect, the man left the monastery where he had spent so many years and got married. After hearing Xavier preach, he immediately asked for baptism, saying that he had at last found the true Creator of the world. The conversion of this learned scholar filled the Christians of Yamaguchi with joy and confidence.

Another noteworthy success of Xavier was the conversion of a young man well known in the Christian history of Japan by the name of Lorenzo. He was born in about 1556 in the Province of Hizen in the Island of Kyushu. Being blind in one eye and half-blind in the other, he made his living like most of the blind men of the time by playing the biwa or Japanese lute. When he learned of Xavier's presence at Yamaguchi he made a long journey to see the holy man. After due instruction, this blind man was received into the church. Xavier's noble personality, his zeal for the propagation of the Gospel and above all his extraordinary kindness made such a deep impression on the man, that he resolved to devote the rest of his life to the conversion of his countrymen. He worked as a catechist until 1563, when he was received as lay-brother into the Society of Jesus. Despite unattractive features, his penetrating and quick mind, remarkable command of speech and wonderful memory won to his side many a devout listener, including men of the highest rank. It was in the main due to this blind preacher's endeavor that the church of Kyoto was established and that men of noble lineage were won over to the faith. It was he who spoke fearlessly before the mightiest men of the time, such powerful warlords as Nobunaga and Hideyoshi. When he closed his eyes in 1592, the Christians in Japan grieved, feeling that one of the pillars of the Church had gone.


As already stated, Naito Takaharu, a samurai of high rank, had shown extraordinary kindness to Xavier when he first arrived at Yamaguchi. His friendship was just as cordial as before, when the holy father returned to the city. Nevertheless, he and his wife could not make up their mind to receive baptism, for although they had donated large sums of money for the building of monasteries and their maintenance, they could never abandon daily pleasures in this world and hoped to receive Amitabha's blessing in the next. Moreover, they were afraid that, if they became Christians, they would have to forfeit all their social prestige.

After Xavier left the city, rebels murdered the lord, Ouchi Yoshitaka and his son.* The missionaries were then in great danger of being massacred by the angry people, who blamed them and their teaching for the misfortune of civil war that befell the city. Naito and his wife saved the missionaries from the fury of the rebels, hiding them and caring for them until order was restored in the city. Four years later, Naito and his family received baptism; the kind old man was so deeply moved on the occasion that he "fell on his knees and besought the Lord to take him to heaven in that happy moment."

* The leader of the rebels was Suwe Harukata, formerly known by the name of Takafusa. According to the report written by Father Torres, Ouchi Yoshitaka committed suicide, after ordering one of his faithful retainers to kill his son.

Not only the steady increase of the neophytes but their wonderful courage and devotion comforted the holy father. Among the neophytes, there were a great number of samurai, who were united in a genuine brotherly love and showed an extraordinary zeal for the conversion of their pagan brethren.

Towards the missionaries they showed filial love and a most touching attachment "so that it seemed almost incredible", as Xavier said. Father Torres, Xavier's fellow-worker, praised, above all, the faithful Christians of Yamaguchi and believed that "the majority of them would be ready to suffer any hardship rather than give up their faith." Nothing else, of course, could be expected from people who, "after having understood the truth of the Christian religion had given up idolatry and even left father and mother in order to embrace this religion." Brother Fernandez was so deeply impressed by the piety of these Christians that he confessed that he "could not praise it enough" and Xavier cherished such exemplary Christians, calling them the "delight of his heart."

Xavier had spent no more than six months among his beloved flock at Yamaguchi, when in September, 1551, he received an invitation from the Daimyo of Bungo, Otomo Yoshishige (in Japanese history called Otomo Sorin). OtomoSorinSimultaneously he learned that a Portuguese ship had arrived and since he hoped to receive letters from India and Europe, he all the more gladly accepted the invitation. Nevertheless, he intended to return to Yamaguchi, at the latest within one year but as it happened he was never again to see his beloved flock. While he was still at Bungo, he learned from Father Torres that rebels had killed the lord and his son.

About the same time the rebels asked Otomo Yoshishige to send his younger brother, Hachiro, to Yamaguchi, as the heir presumptive to the late Ouchi. Their offer was accepted and both Yoshishige and Hachiro promised Xavier that they would protect the missionaries at Yamaguchi. Hachiro indeed kept his word and restored to the fathers the land of the former. Daido Temple, where presently a church was erected. The number of converts steadily increased, but unhappily peace did not last long. Just before he committed suicide, Ouchi Yoshitaka wrote a letter to Mori Motonari, lord of the fortress of Yoshida in the Province of Aki, entrusting to him the task of avenging his death. Motonari was only too glad to accept this commission. In 1533 he submitted a memorial to the Emperor emphasizing the services rendered by the Ouchi family and their unswerving loyalty to the throne, declaring his desire to punish the rebel Suwe Harukata, who had murdered his lord, and beseeching that a commission might be granted to him. The Imperial Court graciously granted him the Commission. In the following year, Mori declared war against Harukata and his protege Otomo Hachiro, who had assumed the name of Ouchi Yoshinaga. In 1556 the City of Yamaguchi became the scene of disorder; a riot broke out between Yoshinaga's partisans and the supporter of Mori Motonari and, as a result, a large part of the city was destroyed by fire, the church and the residence of the fathers included. Thereupon the Christians urged Father Torres to flee to Bungo. For a time it seemed that Yoshinaga might be able to repel the invaders and, as it is recorded, towards the end of 1556, the Christians invited Torres to return to Yamaguchi, but Otomo Yoshishige advised him to wait until the victory was ensured. Shortly after, Yoshinaga was compelled to flee to the fortress of Kachiyama, where he was subsequently besieged and killed and Motonari entered tile City of Yamaguchi in triumph.

Mori Motonari was a fervent adherent of the Ikko Sect of Buddhism and antagonistic toward the Christian creed. Thus with his reign there began for the Christians of Yamaguchi a period of hardships. Many of them, especially the Christian noblemen who had served Ouchi Yoshitaka, had to flee to various parts of the country. Only about 300 Christians remained at Yamaguchi, deprived of their pastors, since the new lord would not allow the latter to remain in his dominions. For a time even the church ground was taken from the Christians, but they shortly after recovered it and rebuilt their church, only to have it destroyed again by order of the lord, who later confiscated the land in 1564. When in 1573, two years after Motonari's death, Father Cabral, the new superior of the mission, was to visit the churches of central Japan, the Christians of Yamaguchi asked him to visit them. He spent three months with them. They had earnestly continued in their faith under the direction of two fervent Christians, who had been baptized by Xavier, and greatly rejoiced to have a priest again in their midst after a lapse of 18 years. During Cabral's stay 172 persons were baptized in the city of Yamaguchi and 42 more in the neighboring village of Miyano.

Scarcely had Cabral left them when their trials began anew. Strict orders were issued prohibiting further visits of the missionaries. When Father Figueiredo planned to visit the Christians in 1577, the Christians of Yamaguchi advised him not to do so, since it would only increase the fury of their tyrant, Mori Terumoto. When, however, Mori was defeated by the mighty warlord Nobunaga, Mori Terumoto urged the fathers to establish themselves once more in his domain. The Christians wrote to them a most touching letter to the same effect. "We are", they wrote, "the first-fruits of the Japanese Christians, and the majority of us were baptized by Father Master Francis or by Father Cosme de Torres. On account of our sins and our poor work we have been living for 25 years under a tyrant king, and our little flock is surrounded by pagans on all sides, without the sacraments, without Holy Mass, without sermons, deprived of fathers and brothers for so many years. . . . Hence we beg your Reverence humbly and with tears to remember our forsaken plight, lest these souls, whose redemption cost the Savior of the world so dearly, should be lost."

Unfortunately the fathers could not comply with their request, for the dearth of priests did not allow them to do so, and even if they could have spared a missionary, they would have exposed themselves to Nobunaga's displeasure and endangered the churches of central Japan. Yet four years later, by the good offices of the Christian daimyo Kuroda Yoshitaka, Yamaguchi at last received missionaries once more, although only for a very short time. When Hideyoshi in 1587 ordered all missionaries to leave the country, the fathers again had to flee from Yamaguchi. Nevertheless the Christians not only kept the faith, but they increased in number. In 1599 a new residence and church were again established. In 1600, however, when the Mori family were deprived of the greater part of the domain, they attributed their ill luck to the Christian religion and began once more to persecute the followers of Christ. In 1602 the fathers were compelled to leave Yamaguchi, and in 1604 the Christian nobleman, Melchior Kumagai, and his relatives and retainers totaling 100 were decapitated for being Christians. Thus ten years earlier than the nationwide persecution, the era of martyrdom began for the valiant Christians of Yamaguchi, who gladly gave their lives for their faith, thus fulfilling Xavier's expectations. The last missionary, who visited Yamaguchi during the great persecution in 1625, was Father Porro. To console the bereaved Christians he gave them a picture of St. Francis Xavier, Patron saint of Yamaguchi. From 1625 until 1889 no priest ever visited Yamaguchi, and during that period the once flourishing Church almost died out.

Yet Xavier's memory has not died. Bust of Fr. Villion in Xavier Memorial Park, YamaguchiWhen, therefore, Father Villion proposed in 1923 to the City of Yamaguchi to erect a monument in honor of Xavier, his suggestion was received with enthusiasm, and the monument was completed in October 1925. It is a large cross of granite with the bronze bust of the saint in the center arid his coat of arms on the back. Xavier Monument in Xavier Memorial Park, Yamaguchi, restored in 1949 During the Pacific War the bronze part of the monument as well as the bust of Father Villion were confiscated by the militarists, but the Christians of Yamaguchi consider it their duty of honor to restore them. Preparations are underway to unveil the monument for a second time on August 15, 1949, the day when the 400th anniversary of Xavier's arrival in Japan is celebrated throughout the country. The Xavier Memorial Hall will be opened in the City of Yamaguchi on the same memorable day. This Hall, a sort of museum, contains the valuable relics and documents testifying to the works carried out by the ardent Catholic Missionaries in the 16th century and the earliest Christian movement in the country. Moreover, the Xavier Society of Yamaguchi, headed by Prefectural Governor Tatsuo Tanaka, is preparing the publication of the biography of St. Francis Xavier, whom the city has regarded as its patron saint ever since his arrival in the city in 1549. This pamphlet, revealing the love St. Francis Xavier bore towards Japan and the Japanese, will be freely distributed so as to remind the Japanese people of the heavy debt of gratitude they owe to the first preacher of the Gospel, who awakened them to the Christian creed of love and truth.

This article was penned by the late Jesuit Professor Fr. Johannes Laures, S.J. Ph. D. of Sophia University, Tokyo, in 1947.

© Copyright Jesuit Province of Japan, 2001. All Rights Reserved. Not to be reproduced without permission in any form whatsoever. Weblished here with permission. This copy of the article is from a booklet given by Fr. Domenico Vitali, S.J., Pastor of St. Francis Xavier Memorial Church in Yamaguchi, on September 3, 2001. Scanned and proofread by Francis Britto.

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