After the tumultuous warring states period which ended with the battle of Sekighara in 1600, the Tokugawa shogunate established a relatively peaceful reign that would last until the Meiji Restoration of 1868. One notable disruption to this peace occurred on the Shimabara peninsula in 1637 when high taxation, widespread famine, and brutal persecution of local Christians led the repressed peasants and the local masterless samuri warriors to join forces in rebellion against the governing Matusukura clan. A charismatic and devout teenager, Amakusa Shiro, emerged as the leader of the uprising, which was viewed by the Tokugawa government as a part of a dangerous pattern of foreign influence. After battling with the provincial forces through December 1637 and January 1638, the Tokugawa military swept into the peninsula and besieged the rebels at Hara Castle. Led by Amakusa Shiro, the rebels held out for several months and inflicted heavy casualties on the Tokugawa forces. After several months under siege, however, the rebels’ supplies had run out and Hara Castle was overrun on April 15, 1638. Amakusa Shiro was executed, and as many as 40,000 peasants, including women and children, were massacred. Knowledge of the rebellion and the events at Hara Castle were transmitted to the West primarily through the letters of Nicholas Koeckebacker, a Dutch trader who was stationed on the Shimabara peninsula at the time of the rebellion, and Jesuit missionary Duarte Juan Correa.
Siege at Hara Castle, 1638
Those who adhere to a religion which wants to usurp sovereignty betray their ruler and their obligations to their land. Those who do not venerate their ancestors disregard their parents’ virtue and their debt for their upbringing. Those who do not pray at the gods’ mausolea undercut the customs of the country to which they owe their very lives. Those who love deeply the members of their own religion only to hate strongly those of another faith do not know what the communion of friend and friend means. Those who destroy temples and shrines and burn sacred scriptures and images commit actions which damn them to the three realms of suffering. Do not fall for this demonic trickery, you people! Mark this well, by all means mark this well!
1. The Christian doctrine teaches that believers should obey the padres as their spiritual pastors, rather than the daimyo as their temporal lords.
2. The Christians sacrifice everything in favor of their law, and worship criminals who have been justly condemned as evil-doers and rebels; they carry their relics as amulets.
3. In order to imitate Jesus Christ, who died crucified between two thieves, the Christians glory in dying such a death, and for such a cause; hence they are a fanatical and pernicious sect, dangerous to the Empire, and ripe for any mischief.
The people endured this ill-treatment of the said prince as long as he was present among them, but as his son, the present lord, who resides in Yedo, feels also inclined to follow in the footsteps of his father, and forces the farmers to pay far more taxes than they are able to do, in such a manner that they languish from hunger, taking only some roots and vegetables for nourishment, the people resolved not to bear any longer the vexations, and to die one single death instead of the many slow deaths to which they were subjected. Some of the principal amongst them have killed with their own hands their wives and children, in order not to view any longer the disdain and infamy to which their relatives were subjected.
The farmers of the island of Amakusa, situated southward of Nagasaki bay, just opposite the district of Arima, whence the island may be reached on foot at low tide, have also revolted against their magistrate; as soon as they heard of the insurrection in Arima, they joined their neighbours, killed their regent, shut up the nobility in their castle, and made themselves masters of the island. The reason of their discontentment was that their lord, the Prince of Karatz, had also inflicted many vexations upon them. The magistrates of Karatz, situated nearly fifteen miles to the north of Hirade, sent some commissioners and soldiers to Amakusa as soon as they heard of the rebellion to quell the revolt and to punish the ringleaders. On the 25th of December, 1637, they passed Hirado with thirty-seven row-barges and cargo-boats on their way to Amakusa, but on their arrival there they were received in a hostile manner by their own subjects, the majority of the troops being killed, the barges burnt to ashes, and some of them kept in captivity. As yet only one single boat with two mortally wounded noblemen returned to Hirado on the 3rd January (1638).
A few days after the outbreak of these discords, the Christians of Arima joined the farmers, who received them in a friendly manner. They burnt down all the Japanese or heathen churches, built a new church, with the image of the Virgin Mary, and their troops carried colours with a cross. They say that, whether they are victorious or defeated, it will be for the glory, and in the service, of their God; they cry out throughout the whole country that the time has now come to revenge the innocent blood of so many Christians and priests, and that they are prepared to die for their faith.
The labourers that could not pay [taxes] were cruelly maltreated. Their wives were seized as hostages, and these unfortunate women were frequently put to the torture. Several of them who were pregnant were plunged into frozen ponds and some of them succumbed. In the last place the daughter of a principal labourer had been sequestrated; and young and beautiful as she was, she was exposed nude and branded all over the body with red-hot irons. The father had supposed that the girl would merely be detained as a hostage till his debt was paid, and so he had accepted the temporary separation, but on learning the barbarous treatment to which she had been subjected, he became furious with grief, and summoning his friends, he fell upon the local governor and killed him, together with thirty of his satellites. This event, which took place on December 17th, 1637, was the signal for a general revolt. The prince’s troops saw themselves besieged in the castle of Shimabara, and the town itself was delivered to the flames.
For the sake of our people we have now resorted to this castle. You will, no doubt, think that for the sake of conquering countries and acquiring houses we have done this; but such is by no means the case. It is simply because the Christian sect is not tolerated as a distinct sect, as you know. Frequent prohibitions have been published by the Shogun, which have greatly distressed us. Some among us there are who consider the hope of future life as of the highest importance. For these there is no escape. Because they will not change their religion, they incur various kinds of severe punishments, being inhumanly subjected to shame and extreme suffering, till at last, for their devotion to the Lord of Heaven, they are tortured to death. Others, men of resolution even, solicitous for the sensitive body, and dreading the torture, have, while hiding their grief, obeyed the royal will and recanted. Things continuing in this state, all the people have united in an uprising in an unaccountable and remarkable manner. Should we continue to live as hitherto, and the above laws not repealed, we must incur all sorts of punishments hard to be endured; we must, our bodies being weak and sensitive, sin against the infinite Lord of Heaven; and from solicitude for our brief lives incur the lsos of what we highly esteem. These things fill us with grief beyond our capacity. Hence we are in our present condition. It is not the result of a corrupt doctrine. – 4th of 1st month of 15th year of Kanyei (February 17th, 1638). Addressed to the attendants on the Imperial Commissioner.