Justus Takayama Ukon: The Great Japanese Missionary of the Sixteenth Century

Toni Witwer, SJ

 Toni Witwer, SJ / Mission / 1 March 2017

Paid Article

Four hundred years have passed since the death of Justus Takayama Ukon, remembered and revered in Japan not only as a martyr, but also as a great witness to the Christian faith, which he practiced in connection with the mission of the Society of Jesus. He was the greatest Japanese missionary of the sixteenth century because of how he lived the Christian faith with the tenacity, rigor and loyalty that were typical of the Japanese people, promoting the inculturation of Christianity through the witness of his life, which eventually led to his dying while in exile. Already at the time of his death people were talking of him as though he were a saint.[1]

The foundation: the faith proclaimed in Japan

To better understand the development of the faith of Ukon and what its characteristics were, it is good to remember how Christianity came to Japan and how it was perceived by the Japanese.

In April of 1549, Francis Xavier left India for Japan together with two confreres and three Japanese converts who had studied in the Jesuit college in Goa. After having learned the catechism, the latter asked for the right to be baptized, performed their Spiritual Exercises with great commitment and showed themselves to be eager to proclaim the Lord to others.[2] With them, Francis Xavier began the work of the evangelization of Japan, where he stayed until Nov. 16, 1551.[3]

Upon his arrival, which took place on Aug. 15, 1549, the Jesuit saw how eager the people were to know the Gospel[4] and, by becoming familiar with local customs and practices, his esteem for the high moral and spiritual values of the Japanese increased even further – values that would soon play a decisive role in welcoming and living the Christian faith.[5]

A fundamental characteristic of the Japanese people was the desire that every Japanese person needed to maintain their honor before others. This made the individual not only capable of renouncing and putting into perspective other values, but also disposed them more towards an ascetic and austere life. This ensured a good social order and mutual respect between people. Relationships among the Japanese were, in fact, stable and characterized by a very deep loyalty, rooted in awe.

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