Skip to Content
Search Icon

Brass Rubbings


A visit to the memorial of Amakusa Shirou.


Standing atop a high hill in Amakusa in Kumamoto Prefecture is a towering edifice of bizarre design. Its façade is immediately identifiable as quasi-religious, but it follows no identifiable school of architecture and boasts rounded windows, a glass front-facing wall, and a pastel color scheme. Its domed roof and curved protruding sides give the middle of the structure the look of a U.F.O.

Within the main building’s orbit is an immaculately clean bathroom facility, a small stand selling soft-serve ice cream, and a photo stand-in of a cheerful samurai wearing a red cape and a European-style Victorian neck ruffle. Guests can poke their faces through the board and have their picture taken. The samurai salutes in welcome, a small sword hilted to his waist and a gold rosary dangling from his neck.

The cartoon samurai’s name is Amakusa Shirou. He is one of the most famous Catholics in Japanese history, and the strange-looking facility on the hill is a museum dedicated to his martyrdom.

The Amakusa Memorial Hall is impossible to miss while driving down National Highway 266 through Kumamoto prefecture. As you enter the small flat town of Amakusa, you begin to pick up breadcrumbs suggesting that you’re in the right place. Street signs and business advertisements pass by your window, and the same peach-colored face smiles at you from underneath the same samurai hairstyle.

Shirou’s image has been simplified and animated into a full-fledged mascot for the town. In these representations he is portrayed as androgynous, even beautiful in a manner blending the fashions of West and East. He has rosy cheeks and a tight smile, and the buttons on his anachronistic tunic are cartoonishly large.

Historical accounts offer a very different but no less startling description of his appearance. Contemporary writers claimed he carried a Shinto-style rod with prayer paper on it and dressed in a crown of leaves and white baptismal robes. According to one account, he kept a cross painted on his forehead at all times.

Amakusa Shirou, baptized as “Jerome,” was the leader of what became known as the Shimabara Rebellion. The infamous revolt was a bloody act of resistance against the ruling shogunate and the daimyo Matsukura Katsuie.

Katsuie had taxed and exploited peasants in Kumamoto nearly to death in order to build the decadent Shimabara Castle. His worldly cruelties were exceeded by his spiritual assaults. Katsuie violently suppressed Christianity, and put to death those caught practicing the faith in his domain.

In these troubled and dangerous times, Amakusa Shirou, a child born into a Catholic family, began to have miraculous powers attributed to him. Farmers claimed he could bring blessings to their crops, and experienced swordsmen were inexplicably bested by the young boy in armed combat. The young man was rumored to be a messenger from God, a religious leader who would lead his countrymen in pursuit of justice.

Approximately forty thousand peasants, warriors, and rogue samurai rose up against Katsuie. They attacked four government castles, though they were repelled from the first three before they finally captured the fourth, Hara Castle, in what is now Minamishimabara. After a defection from one of his own commanders, the arrival of re-enforcements brought by the Dutch to aid his enemies, and a long campaign to starve out the rebels, Shirou’s rebellion was brutally cut short. Hara Castle was retaken and Shirou was executed along with thirty-seven thousand rebels. His head was left out on a pike for the public to see.

It was a resounding defeat for the rebel forces. But, in a turn of events that reminds us that judgement is inescapable for the wicked, it was not a victory for Katsuie. The uprising brought unwanted attention to the much-hated ruler from the shogunate, who until that point had been largely unconcerned with Katsuie’s methods of governance. His brutality was exposed and the blame for the rebellion was put on his shoulders, sealing his fate.

Even when samurai were greatly dishonored, they usually retained the privilege of their rank. They were afforded the option to end their own lives, which was seen as honorable. But Katsuie’s crimes were treated so gravely that he was not granted this liberty. Instead, he was beheaded for his transgressions, a final mark of dishonor. His land was given to another feudal lord.

The interior of the Amakusa Shirou Memorial Hall looks like an ordinary government office or corporate lobby. It has tall high ceilings, and is only lightly decorated with images of saints and crosses. After you pay the small fee at the front desk and enter the museum area of the building, the tone shifts abruptly. Tense and slow music plays as you walk through the small corridor into the exhibit hall. Once you pass through this amusement-park haunted house-like atmosphere, you emerge in a totally normal open-floored display room. Scale models show the dress and hairstyle of both ordinary Japanese and Catholic missionaries at the time of the Shimabara Rebellion. Glass cases contain Christian art of the period, influenced by Shinto and Buddhist aesthetics. Abstract depictions of divine and infernal scenes are rendered with thick brush strokes and a flowing style less rigid than the firm, concise European paintings with which they are contemporary.

Towards the center of the main room is a single fumi-e. These slabs of stone or metal were carved with the image of Christ, the Virgin Mary, or other similarly revered Christian images. People suspected of practicing the forbidden European religion were told to step on the image of Christ and, by blaspheming, repudiate Him. If they refused, they would be summarily executed. Martyrs were put to death by burning alive, drowning, and crucifixion.

This object of reverence, twisted into an object of persecution, is now encased impotently behind glass. The fumi-e presented the Christians of Japan with a sickening paradox: it was at once an image of their Lord and Savior and a threat of being forced to share in His pain and suffering.

The images created by these persecuted Christians were covert. The Virgin Mary and Jesus might be disguised to pass for Buddhist deities or depictions of Amaterasu, the sun goddess. Their silent presence in the museum conveys a sense of fear and desperation that makes their beauty difficult to enjoy.

Although the persecution of Christians is presented truthfully, the history is presented in a dispassionate manner. There is no sense of apology or guilt for the horrors of the shogunate. The period of persecution is treated as remote and foreign to modern Japan. Other exhibits include reconstructions of schoolhouses used to train Japanese deacons for the priesthood, complete with models and mannequins of the students and teacher. The training clergy’s curriculum is explained, and the interplay between Japanese, Portuguese, and Latin is explored through historical texts used to train the Japanese seminarians in foreign languages.

One wall of the museum tells the story of one of the first foreign envoys sent from Japan to the West: the Tensho Embassy. The samurai were sent abroad in 1582 in order to meet with the King of Spain and the pope in Rome. All four of the samurai who undertook the trip converted to Catholicism and were ordained Jesuit fathers after their return to Japan. 

In the museum’s small theater, attendees can watch a short film retelling the life of Amakusa Shirou, complete with special effects and C.G.I.—albeit that of a few decades ago. The movie is both charming and frustrating for Catholic viewers.

It portrays Shirou and his rebellion as noble. It even goes so far as to depict the miracles attributed to him. The Shirou of the film maintains a stoic, determined demeanor as he is aided by the supernatural. However, just what supernatural force is aiding Shirou is hard to discern—the film’s creators treat him almost as a djinn. Before and after death, he shines and twinkles, as if charged with some preternatural pagan magic. It makes for a jarring contrast with the otherwise serious tone of the story.

Towards the end of the film, Shirou appears after his death to children in the dead of night. The children, forlorn after the warrior’s death, celebrate his silent appearance before he is whisked off into the night sky, like a hero in a fantasy story. The film reflects the frustration of Japanese Christians who find that their religion is an object of poorly informed fascination in their country’s popular culture. Perhaps a mirror phenomenon can be seen in secular Americans’ obsession with a watered-down Buddhism. Still, it is refreshing to see such a positive portrayal of Christianity in Japan, no matter how misguided its details.

As you leave the exhibit hall, you walk through the gardens, hedges, and flowers surrounding the building. At the top of the hill you find a modest, angular stone marker and a simple statue—the grave of Amakusa Shirou. This statue, green with age, is not a cartoon, nor is it an amalgamation of folklore and modern cartoon aesthetics. It’s just Shirou, a short Japanese boy with flowing pants and a simple cloak. His face is stern but serene. His mouth is tightly shut and his eyes are overshadowed by his thick brow. 

One hand is held vertically over his heart. The other is raised up to the sky.

Timothy Nerozzi is a news editor at the Daily Caller.

To continue reading, subscribe to The Lamp.

Get unlimited access to our complete archive when you subscribe.

Already a Subscriber?

Timothy Nerozzi is a reporter for Fox News. He was previously a news editor at the Washington Examiner.