The founding of the Society of Jesus coincided in time with the discovery of new continents and peoples across the world by Europeans. Saint Francis Xavier, one of the founding members of the Jesuits, arrived first in Japan in 1549. Though at first the Japanese proved slow to accept Christianity, missionary work picked up increasing momentum across the islands, to the point where those in authority felt threatened by radically different beliefs and values. What resulted was persecution and death for those who followed the Christian faith. Saint Paul Miki was one of many who were martyred, nearly fifty years after Francis Xavier first arrived in Japan.
Paul Miki was born in Japan, around the year 1562, into a wealthy noble family. His family converted to Catholicism when he was young, and he was baptised at the age of five. He was educated by Jesuits at Azuchi and Takatsuki, in the south of Japan’s main island, and decided to enter the Jesuit noviciate at twenty two. During his studies to become a Jesuit and later for ordination, Miki was renowned for his eloquent preaching.
At this time, however, there was a dramatic change in the attitude of the authorities to Christianity. Fear at the increasing numbers of Japanese who were converting led to the banishment of Christians by the daimyo Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1587, as well as the destruction of many churches. Christianity continued in the region, however, though only as an underground phenomenon, and those who practised it were hounded and persecuted. In 1596, Miki was arrested along with twenty-five other Catholics, including two other Jesuits. After imprisonment and torture, they were forced to march nearly one thousand kilometres from Kyoto south to Nagasaki. Despite the hardships they endured, they sang hymns as they walked.
On a hill above the city of Nagasaki their journey came to an end. Each one was tied to a cross, with their necks bound to it by iron rings. In this fashion they were crucified. From his cross, Miki preached to the crowd that gathered. He proclaimed that he was both a Catholic and Japanese, and he forgave his executioners even as they stood to the side with spears in hand. After the Christians had finished praying, the executioners ran a spear through the heart of each of them. Among these twenty-six were three boys, the youngest of whom was twelve years old. All of them were canonised by Pope Pius IX in 1862 and are known as the Twenty-Six Martyrs of Japan.