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The Story of the Japanese Samurai Who Became a Christian Leader in the Philippines

Justus Takayama Ukon was a warlord who converted to Christianity and was exiled and died in Manila.
IMAGE takayamaukon.com / Wikipedia
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February 3 is the feast day of Justus Takayama Ukon, a Japanese warlord and samurai who converted to Christianity in the 16th century. He died as a martyr on this day here in the Philippines after being banished from his homeland for steadfastly refusing to give up his faith. 

Who is Takayama Ukon

Takayama Ukon was born in 1552 in Takayama Castle, near Nara. According to historical records, his father, Takayama Zusho (some identify him as Takayama Tomoteru), was a military nobility who was often involved in various wars between daimyo or feudal lords. There is evidence that the elder Takayama served as a samurai in the service of the noble Matsunaga Hisashide and became commander of Sawa Castle from 1538 onwards.

At the time, Italian Jesuits were in Japan to spread Christianity; the first Catholic mission had actually been founded in Kyoto, then the seat of the emperor, in 1559. Zusho had been a judge who was tasked with examining the work of the missionaries, but he was reportedly so taken aback by the conviction of Father Gaspar Vilela that he ended up being baptized and becoming a Catholic himself, changing his name to Dario.

Along with other samurai, Zusho’s wife and six children also converted to Christianity. The eldest, Ukon, who was around 12 years old at the time, took the Christian name of Justus. 

As a young man, Takayama followed in his father’s footsteps and became a warrior. He had rarely practiced his faith at that point, until a duel that pitted him against the son of a family friend ended up with the death of his opponent. Although he won, Takayama was seriously injured, and it was during his healing period when Takayama realized he “had cared little for the faith had been taught.”

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Photo by Utagawa Yoshiiku / Tokyo Metropolitan Library / Wikipedia.

A warrior and daimyo

With his father, Takayama went on to become a warrior and daimyo. After receiving the fiefdom of Takatsuki (in Osaka), he fought in several important battles, including the Ishiyama Hongan-ji War (under Oda Obunaga), the Battle of Yamazaki, Battle of Shizugatake, and Siege of Kagoshima. It was also around this time, in 1574, when Takayama got married. He eventually had three sons (two of whom died as infants) and a daughter.

Takayama also continued helping Christians, including with the construction of the first church in Kyoto and a seminary in Azuchi. He also spearheaded the conversion of many Japanese people into Christianity.

One of first tests to his faith came when, in 1587, Christianity fell out of favor with the current shogun, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who ordered that all missionaries and foreigners be expelled from the country. Displeased at the number of daimyos Takayama was able to convert, the shogun summoned him on July 24 and ordered him to abandon his faith; otherwise, he would be exiled to China and be stripped of all his lands and assets.

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“The daimyo refused, declaring that for nothing in the world would he reject the God in whom the missionaries had taught him to believe,” according to Santi Beati.

Although his lands and properties were seized, Takayama and his family managed to stay in the country, thanks to a friend named Konishi Yukinaga. Eventually he was able to make peace with the shogun Hideyoshi and he was soon able to resume helping the Jesuit missionaries. 

Exile to Manila

Despite this, the persecution of Christians continued in the following years. In 1597, 26 Catholics were crucified on Nagasaki Hill and a new law soon followed that banned Christianity from Japan completely. A new shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, rose to power and it was he who ordered all Christian missionaries expelled from the country in 1614.

Christians were ordered to perform acts of abjuration on religious symbols, but Takayama refused. He and his family, and many other Christians, were then escorted to Nagasaki, where he spent months waiting if he would be put to death.

Instead, the Takayama family joined a group of about 300 Christians on a boat to the Philippines, which was still under Spanish rule at the time. Reports say he brought comfort to his companions on the boat and was welcomed as a hero upon reaching Manila.

Based on historical records, Takayama devoted his time in the Philippines to prayer and evangelization of about 3,000 Christian Japanese in what is now Paco, Manila. He also presented a statue of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary, a relic which later came to be known as La Japonesa, to the Dominican community in Manila. This statue is still enshrined in the church of Santo Domingo in Quezon City to this day.

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But Takayama’s stay in the country would be brief. He was stricken with high fever just 40 days later.

A statue of Takayama Ukon in Plaza Dilao, Manila

Photo by takayamaukon.com.

Takayama's death and beatification 

“Certain that he was at the end of his life, he called his spiritual director, Father Morejón, and received the last sacraments,” according to Santi Beati. “Once again he encouraged those around him to persevere in the faith and, finally, he died repeating the name of Jesus. It was about midnight on February 3, 1615; Giusto was about 62 years old.”

The Spaniards gave Takayama a Christian funeral with full military honors, noting his military record and his contributions to spreading Catholicism. He was buried at the Jesuit Santa Ana church, the only daimyo buried on Philippine soil. A statue of Takayama Ukon was later erected in Plaza Dilao in 1977, and another one inside the University of Santo Tomas in 2017.

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Efforts to formally recognize Takayama’s contributions to the Catholic faith started as early as a few years after his death, but, as always, the process can take decades, or even centuries. In October 2012, Monsignor Leone Jun Ikenaga, archbishop of Osaka and president of the Japanese Bishops’ Conference at the time, asked Pope Benedict XVI to examine the case. That led to a fast-tracking of sorts, which eventually led to Catholic officials recognizing him as a martyr because he had renounced all his earthly possessions and was persecuted for his faith. He was venerated in January 21, 2016 and beatified by Pope Francis on February 7, 2017. According to Catholic rules and tradition, beatification requires either martyrdom or a miracle to have taken place. The next step is canonization, when a person is officially declared a saint. 

Japan currently has 393 individuals declared blessed and a total of 42 saints. The Philippines has two saints (Lorenzo Ruiz and Pedro Calungsod), and three Blesseds—Diego Luis San Vitores, Eugenio Sanz-Orozco Mortera, and Takayama Ukon.

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Paul John Caña
Associate Editor, Esquire Philippines
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