Shimabara Rebellion – The Christian Uprising that wasn’t One

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Amakusa Shirou (天草 四郎・あまくさ しろう) as he is often portrayed – a young and handsome teenager of fair skin in Western fashion, laying his protecting hands over the lands. His is appearance in reality likely to be quite a different one – read why, later in the post.

In this post I talk about the Shimabara Rebellion (島原の乱・しまばらのらん) that took place in Japan in the years of 1637-38, pretty much at the beginning of the Edo Period (江戸時代・えどじだい; from 1603-1868), my favorite era in Japanese history. This is going to be my first historical article on MyLittle Dejima and I am happy this particular topic marks the starting point of my journey💓. I hope to be able to write more about historical accounts in the future and to share my findings with readers on this blog. Conducting research 📚🔬 was one of the main purposes in setting up this page and it is my hope that you will find the results of my first work interesting. Here we raise the curtains:

Preface

Firstly, some geographical orientation about the locations on the Shimabara Peninsula that have seen most scenes of action during the rebellion and from which the uprising derives its name. The peninsula lies on the Western shores of Kyushu (九州・きゅうしゅう), the 3rd largest of the Japan’s main islands, and holds a city by the same name.

Shimabara City (島原市・しまばらし), is a pretty venue with Mt. Unzen (雲仙岳・うんぜんだけ) in its back in the West and right across the bay in the East it faces the City of Kumamoto (熊本市・くまもとし). To the South are the island groups of Amakusa (天草・あまくさ; translating to ‘Heaven’s Grass’) that were also affected by the despotic rule and subsequent rebellion. The main attraction of the city is the elegant Castle of Shimabara (島原城・しまばらじょう), which was temporarily attacked and besieged by the rebel forces. It was not majorly damaged while besieged, but the main structure was demolished along with hundreds of other castles nationwide in the early years of the Meiji Restoration (明治維新・めいじいしん; from 1868-1912). The rebuilt castle keep, the conspicuously white landmark, now raises lofty above the city and provides scenic views on the surroundings from its top observation level. The central town retains a charming samurai neighborhood with a water stream in the middle of the street. Some preserved houses of the warrior class host simple exhibits and let assume how life must have been in past times.

My last trip dates back to 2014, when I visited a friend of mine there. Unfortunately the time did not permit an outing to Hara Castle (原城・はらじょう), where the insurgents took refuge and the decisive battle of the conflict was held. Although significant historically, in fact the remote remnants of Hara Castle receive very little blessing from tourists due to absence of highway and railroad access. If it would have been a bit more convenient, I would have gone there in a heartbeat, but so it remains on my travel wish list for the future 😊.

Here a map to illustrate the locations, I have been talking about above:

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The map is showing the whole of Kyushu island, with main prefectural cities () and borders of prefectures (separated with red lines). I added the yellow box, which roughly frames the area affected of the uprising. The orange arrow points to the Shimabara Peninsula, where the final showdown took place.

Prelude

After the sieges of Osaka Castle (大阪城・おおさかじょう) and elimination of the remaining enemy forces in 1615, Japan through the Tokugawa Shogunate (徳川幕府・とくがわばくふ), also called the Bakufu, would enter into a time of relative peace and stability for more than 200 years. The uprising on the Shimabara Peninsula (島原半島・しまばらはんとう) would depict the only one of its scale in the Edo era and on a wider scope within the Japanese history as a whole. It was also the last major battlefield and opportunity for the samurai to shine before the Tokugawa consolidated politic powers – or at least that is what many of them thought, including Musashi Miyamotos (宮本 武蔵・みやもと むさし).

However, the reality turned out to be somewhat different in many ways and in the end there was nothing glorious about the defeat of the poorly equipped rebel forces that would ultimately occupy an enormous government army of more than 120’000 troops – 3 times its own size. Riots lead by the peasantry would break out in later decades as well and more frequently in the 19th century as the power of the Tokugawa government started to crumble. Yet, those revolts never lasted very long or rose to the extent of what took place on the Shimabara Peninsula and its adjacent regions. There were different reasons for this and I am going to elaborate in more detail about it in the following paragraphs as I trace back the chronology of events of a rebellion that is often considered a religious one. But was it really Japan’s ‘holy war’? Let’s take a closer look at the events together.

Cause of Unrest – An Evil to take its Course

The regions of the Shimabara Peninsula and Amakusa on the opposite shore were formerly both domains of Christian Daimyo (切支丹大名・きりしたんだいみょう; feudal lord of Christian belief), Arima Harunobu (有馬 晴信・ありま はるのぶ; 1567-1612) as well as Konishi Yukinaga (小西 行長・こにし ゆきなが; 1558-1600), and so Christianity was well spread and prospering among its population in the remote lands. However, from 1616 onward Matsukura Shigemasa (松倉 重政・まつくら しげまさ; 1574-1630) and his successor Katsuie (松倉 勝家・まつくら かついえ; 1597-1638) would take post and rule the area, which would drastically change life for the common people, who now gradually faced oppression and exploitation from their lords.

The clan despite having only the economic capabilities of a 40’000 Koku (石・こく; measure of volume for instance of rice; 1 koku = approx. 150kg, the amount one person would consume a year) domain, to the shogunate in Edo it was pretentious, claiming it to be a 60’000 Koku annual crop yield instead. To meet those exaggerated means the draconian clan of the Matsukara – Katsuie in particular – would resort to the implementation of unbearable tax burdens for the populace. Almost at the same time, prosecution towards Christians within the territory began and was carried out gruesomely. One of the last straws to break the farmers back, leading to the uprising, is said to be an incident in the village of Kuchinotsu (口之津・くちのつ; on the Southern tip of Shimabara Peninsula) during the collection of the annual tax tribute.

While the authorities demanded the farmers to turn over the rice corp, they were threatening with the life of a young women hailing from Amakusa, who had the misfortune to fall into their clutches. To underscore their intentions and to put pressure on the tax payers, they repeatedly soaked her in the river. The towns folks, with kith and kin, gathered to consult on options available, but one could only give what one had, and there was nothing! As the towns people held counsel how to cope with the grave situation, the young women died from torture. The motionless body together with her newborn baby was brought before the villagers, inflaming the anger of the already downtrodden souls of the farmers. Left with only the choice of either evil, the people decided to take lives into their own hands rather than helplessly bear the disgrace and inevitable death by starvation through authorities. Even a rabbit will fight you back, once driven into the corner of a wall, and so it happened that near the end of 1637 the insurgency took its course.

Now, the uprising was not from one day to the other, but was slowly growing over the years, like a boil that swells until it bursts open. To understand a bit more about the background of the causes that lead the fief people to raise up against their lords, the person preparing the soil for disaster, needs to be examined as well. It is the here before mentioned Matsukura Shigemasa, the lord of the fiefdom of Shimabara.

Originally Shigemasa held only a small fief in Yamato Province (大和国・やまとのくに; present-day Nara Prefecture) of about 1000 Koku and was fairly unknown. However, the time would arise this man to step out of the depths of namelessness. At Sekigahara (関ケ原・せきがはら), the history-charged battlefield that would secure the power shift in favor of the Tokugawa’s in 1600, Shigemasa was first on the side of the rivaling Toyotomi Family (豊臣氏・とよとみし), but then switched sides to support Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川 家康・とくがわ いえやす), who would later ascend to the great unifying leader of Japan, the Seiitai Shougun (征夷大将軍・せいいたいしょうぐん). The lords, who sided with Tokugawa, would be receiving rewards in form of additional or new lands.

As mentioned earlier, the Shimabara domain formerly belonged to Arima Harunobu, who was one of the representative Christian daimyo at the time, with many retainers and fief population sharing the credence of catholic Christianity. But through an incident Arima infuriated shogun Ieyasu and fell into disfavor, forcing him to commit ritual suicide, Seppuku (切腹・せっぷく). As a natural course of things of the time, his retainers would be doomed to become Rounin (浪人・ろうにん; masterless samurai). Instead of their swords, from then on they would wield the plows to tend the fields. Further the administration for a masterless fief would be temporarily overseen as Chokkatsuchi (直轄地・ちょっかつち; area under the direct control of the bakufu government/shogun) by the magistrate of Nagasaki (長崎市・ながさきし; the capital and largest city of Nagasaki Prefecture) for a few years until a ‘suitable’replacement could be found. You know where this is going, Shigemasa would rise to the position of daimyo in the region.

One of the first things to do in his new role? – To order the construction of a fine castle that would be way above his station and spendings. Well-understood, this with the existence of already two castles in the area with the above mentioned Hara Castle and Hinoe Castle (日野江城・ひのえじょう, in Minamishimabara). At the beginning he would take quarters at Hinoe Castle to observe progress of constructions at the Shimabara castle site, which shall take 7 years in total until completion. It goes without saying how the financing was done to cover the enormous costs such a projects incurs – of course the commoners had to bleed with their tax tributes and hard labor. The labor included for example the dismantling of Hara Castle to transport materials over to Shimabara.

Shigemasa’s exploitation would last for 14 years before he passed away in 1630. His son, Matsukura Katsuie followed in his footsteps, taking over the headship of the family. He ‘learned well’ under his father’s wings and relentlessly pursued the rule of iron fist of his father. For instance, Katsuie’s tax policies would go as far and be as absurd as charging for horse and cattle to pass streets, taxes would be taken when Tatami mats (畳・たたみ; straw floor covering) were laid out, when a child was born, headcount taxes would be levied. Would officials come to count the harvest crop (starting from 1 eggplant), they would take some of the produce directly on the spot as a form of tax. Furthermore, he would not even flinch from imposing a hole tax, when a deceased person had to be buried. But thinking about it, at a time people were killed for the slightest of things or died from overwork, this might have been a steady, not to say lucrative source of income.

This tremendous pressure to provide, the feeling of desperation and position of hopelessness prepared the ground for the citizens to unit against the racketeering authorities. So it can be said with conscience at this stage that the religious factor was marginal for the outbreak of the rebellion, much more it was the hard conditions for all the inhabitants that lead the region to explode.

Religious Aspects – Years of Persecution

Albeit the religion played a secondary role in the events of the uprising, the Christian oppression and prosecution at the time is very well fact and amply documented. It was yet another tributary factor to the plight of the commoners. The Christian faith though, was not explicitly an anathema to Matsukura Shigemasa and Katsuie, nor was it restricted to the said regions alone, already Toyotomi Hideyoshi (豊臣 秀吉・とよとみ ひでよし; 1537-1598, one of the three great unifiers of Japan and regent before the Edo period) and Tokugawa Ieyasu feared the influence on politics from the foreign creed, which lead to several edicts and bans of Catholicism on national scale throughout the years with various degrees of effectiveness. At the time of the edict by Tokugawa Ieyasu, most of the then Christian daimyo, with the exception of Takayama Ukon (高山 右近・たかやま うこん; or Dom Justo Takayama) and Konishi Yukinaga perhaps, laid down the religion without hesitation, since it served mostly the purpose of facilitating trade with foreigners and to gain information about the West from priests. It was more linked to business than anything else, which was also true for many merchants. Firm believers across Japan might therefore been less than the history records make believe.

The persecutions were tightened further under the 3rd shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu (徳川 家光・とくがわ いえみつ; 1604-1651), after he formally assumed rule of the bakufu bureaucracy in 1623. In the timeline this means, seven years passed Matsukura Shigemasa’s appointment to the new domain in Shimabara. Even though the restrictions and punishments ever intensified, at first Shigemasa was considered lax in carrying out his duties. For example, Shigemasa wouldn’t execute the priests that were captured, but would call them into the castle to hold talks and interact with them instead. This would bring about the perception of him being a tolerant ruler and Shimabara being idolized by priest and disciples alike as ‘safe heaven’. That was much different in the area 2 years prior to his arrival, when the magistrate of Nagasaki was in charge of this role, who wield an iron fist towards Christians.

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One of the torture methods believers were forced with to recantation, the Iouzeme (硫黄責め・いおうぜめ; punishment by partial applying sulfuric water or complete immersion) at Unzen Hell Spring (雲仙温泉地獄・うんぜんじごく).

Shigemasa, however, underwent a sudden change, when on an obligatory visit to Edo. During the Sankin Koutai (参勤交代・さんきんこうたい; official attendance service to the capital by a daimyo in the Edo era), in an official hearing with Iemitsu, he was severely scolded for his misconducts. To safe himself from punishment, he immediately ordered his chief retainers to go after the Christians in his territory upon his return to the domain. The same person, who before treated priest comparably lenient, would device now one unthinkable atrocity after the other to bring people to abandon their faith.

Torture and murder included, but were not limited to methods like the Mokubazeme (木馬責め・もくばぜめ; Wooden Horse/Sledge, a triangle like framework, whereby the convict would sit on his buttocks on the edged rims for hours all tight up, legs spread out to the sides. To intensify the cutting effect between the legs, stones were hanging from the feet) or the Onsen Jigoku Zeme (温泉地獄責め・おんせんじごくぜめ; to boil prisoners alive in the volcanic hot springs of Unzen Hell). Should convicts die in the process, they would right away be disposed on site by being thrown into the hellish abyss of Unzen Hell.

His son Katsuie, was nothing short of this evil, becoming infamous for a torture method called Miodori (箕踊り・みおどり; dancing winnow). Disobedient or non-taxpaying peasants, were considered the same as Christians, were knot to a post, wreathed in a Mino (蓑・みの; straw raincoat) and set afire. Who is familiar with the kanji (漢字・かんじ; Chinese characters/letters), might recognize the character 「踊り」, which stands for ‘dance’. This is because once the straw was set alight, the poor blighters would wring and wrench themselves in agony. In the eyes of Katsuie and his prosecutors this seemed amusing, like a dance performance in front of them they were not . This is the origin of this devilish torture. The oppression in Nagasaki was already considered harsh, but what occurred on the Shimabara Peninsula brought out all the ugliness human nature is possibly capable of.

Through this regime of terror and systematic punishment, the vast majority of people renounced from the faith, missionaries were completely eradicated. As a consequence, it may be assumed that just right before the outbreak of the upheaval, there must have been only a pocket of unwavering believers left. The number of those Christian cells must have been so small that they could not possibly pose a threat to the national security. They must have been more concerned with saving their lives daily than plotting a large scale rebellion. The shogunate was well aware of that fact, yet under the pretext Shimabara Rebellion being a Christian revolt, the shogunate in faraway Edo saw the timing ideal with the outbreak to justify rigorous measures towards a political agenda of isolationism. Further the armed abatement of the rebellion lead participating warriors, called up from all corners of the country, to be instructed in the persecution of the prohibited religion and ensured the thorough enforcement throughout the nation until the closing days of the Tokugawa government.

Outbreak – No more!

Like I wrote above, the combination of exploitation, the drowned woman during the tax collection, the starving common people with a feeling of desperation, all this had become a melting pot with towns people marching towards the lodging house of one of Matsukura’s chief retainers by the name of Shuusuke (宗甫・しゅうすけ) and set it on fire. Shuusuke fled to the safety of Shimabara Castle with 700 to 800 furious peasants in tow. The upraising gained momentum as the crowd grew larger with every street until it reached the castle. As they rushed into the land near the castle, they accumulated to a few thousands. The castle doors were shut firm and gun fire opened on the approaching insurgents. This was in October of 1637, when lord Katsuie resided in Edo for official business. Siege was laid at Shimabara Castle, but defenses could not be breached timely enough before enemy forces repelled them.

At this phase the civil commotions had no religious atmosphere. However as the unrest formed to a full-scale rebellion, people rallied behind the banner of Christianity. For one it boosted their moral to believe in something and further gave them a common cause to fight for, in that the enemy of the persecuted Christians and the maltreated commoners was the one and the same – the Tokugawa shogunate and its henchmen in the domains. The date put down in history books for the outbreak of the rebellion is recorded with the year Kanei  14, 25th day of the 10th month at the calculation of the times, or December 11th, 1637 of our common era and shall last until Kanei 15, 28th of the 2nd month or until the 12th of April the following year. Give and take 4 months of intense offense and defense combating between the rebel army and the government forces.

Savior – A divine Youth to lead Them 

For many, probably the most interesting part that we are to appraoch now, as we are about to enter the final battle stage.

The rebel army was not only consisting of peasants, merchants, fishermen, they were actually reinforced and spearheaded by a group of battle-hardened rounin of the Sengoku Jidai (戦国時代・せんごくじだい; Waring States period) in their 50’s and 60’s. You might remember from the previous paragraphs, the retainers that had to exchange their swords for the plows as their lord Arima fell into disgrace.

Even they were leading the lives of farmers, they cultivated the fields of their wealthy ancestors and thus were regardless of the drastic tax raises well nurtured compared to the towns folk. Once a warrior, always a warrior and they were quick at their weapons and in planning the conspiracy for the rebellion. However, fighting a battle to that extent required arrangements, but more than that, it needed something miraculous or rather someone charismatic, a figure having the gift of prophecy.

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One part of Yamamoto Takato’s (山本 タカト・やまもと タカト) ghastly, yet outstanding illustration, showing Amakusa Shirou striding through a hellish inferno of death and agony as though leading his loyal followers from the nether world into eternal salvation.

There were said to have been 5 influential rounin from Amakusa that proclaimed what the writings of 26 years before expelled padre Marco Ferraro, who proselytized  in the area, left behind. It stated: “After 26 years, with absolute certainty, an extraordinary child shall be born. The heavenly child will be able to remember characters without learning them, before long it will raise a white flag and erect the cross of Christ in the heads of many.”.

This is where young Masuda Shirou Tokisada (益田 四郎 時貞・ますだ しろう ときさだ; baptized name Geronimo, later changed to Francisco), more widely known under the name of Amakusa Shirou (as mentioned in the feature image), enters the stage. One of the two Christian daimyo mentioned at the beginning of the story, Konishi Yukinaga, holding half of nowadays Kumamoto Prefecture (熊本県・くまもとけん) and the island groups of Amakusa, was among Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s defeated generals at the battle of Sekigahara, resulting in confiscation of all his territories and losing his life. Like daimyo Arima, Konishi’s retainers would meet with the same lot as their Shimabara counterparts. Among those establishing themselves as farmers in Amakusa, there were many that didn’t want to break away from their Christian belief as they were ordered to do. One such a person was Masuda Yoshitsugu (益田 好次・ますだ よしつぐ; 1583-1638, also known as Masuda Jinbei), the father of Shirou.

Shirou was his eldest child of four and received a Christian education in Nagasaki. Although being claimed the leader of the uprising, there is surprisingly little to record about his person. At the time of the rebellion he is said to have been in the tender age of 16 years and a wonder child of attractive face and figure with rhetoric skills. As skillful he might have been in preaching, the more doubtful it is that such a young person with no military background would lead a major rebel army. He thus is assumed to have had a mere figurehead role, since there is also no mention where he was or what he did as the surges of war broke against the rebels. One is to tend to call him the nameable absentee during the turmoil of battle.

The lack of documentation leaves room for plenty of embellishment for the character of Amakusa Shirou, which has seen many portrayals over the years. His arguable role in the rebellion is one thing, but also his powers and appearance as we know them today, are more product of Kabuki (歌舞伎・かぶき; Japanese classical drama/theater), Takarazuka (宝塚・たからづか; Japanese all-female musical theater troupe) and modern-day pop-culture than actual fact. The main portion of writings, portrays and statues of him date from the end of the Edo period or later. Then he is sometimes attributed with the ability of conjuring miracles of various kinds, but even in the eyes of missionaries and priests, those stories must have been rather considered charlatanism. As for his looks there seems be another flaw in that according to documentation of the time there is possibility of him not being that pretty youth as he is portrayed nowadays. Reportedly he was suffering from a contagious skin disease, an eczema causing heath rush that tarnished body and face. Also a form of syphilis called Hizen Kasa (肥前瘡・ひぜんかさ) is assumed to have been prevalent in the area during the particular time. What is more, there is also no evidence of him wearing Western style fashion like the ruffle collar. From the depictions of the Edo period it is more probable he wearing a simple Japanese Haori Hakama (羽織袴・はおりはかま; formal male attire).

Developments right after the Outbreak

From Amakusa Shirou’s person back to the events of the uprising. At the time the rebel forces attacked Shimabara Castle, similar circumstances prevailed in the detached land of the Karatsu Domain (唐津藩・からつはん; Karatsu is the main landholding of the Terazawa clan in Hizen Province, nowadays Sage Prefecture) on the Amakusa Islands. The two armies of  Shimabara and Amakusa subsequently heave Amakusa Shirou into the rank of general and therewith leader of the rebellion. He and his entourage of about 2700 men crossed the sea to converge with the Shimabara forces. Battles of Shimabara Castle and Tomioka Castle (富岡城・とみおかじょう) in Amakusa, seemed to progress into the direction of the rebel’s victory, but both strongholds would not fall into the attackers hands.

Eventually, the rebels would have to retreated from approaching reinforcements to the bare stripped Hara Castle site, where they hurriedly installed a defense fortification and prepare for the upcoming siege. Together with Amakusa Shirou an estimated total of 37’000 followers would hold out in the fortified castle remnants. The fighters accounted for about 23’000, non-combatants including children, women and elderly said to have made up the other 14’000. Inside Hara Castle now, the former retainers of Konishi and Arima would take matters into their hands, modelling organization after the military principles they knew from their days in service. For the combat lines, they allocated troops according to their villages and prepared for counter attacks as well. The stage was set, the final battle about to begin.

Initial Phase – Ignorance and Military Failure

The Matsukura clan requested troops for reinforcement from the neighboring fiefs, but none of the domains would move out. Neither the Karatsu domain would dispatch troops to Amakusa, nor would the Hosokawa Clan (細川氏・ほそかわし; one of the prominent and large landholding daimyo families in Japan, based in Kumamoto during the Edo era) or the Nabeshima Clan (鍋島氏・なべしまし; family controlling the Saga Domain) lift a finger. The reason for no intervention of any of the clans nearby can be explained by the law decreed by the bakufu that unless there is a formal order, no matter what the situation in the adjacent land, troops are not to be sent. Interestingly, as obedient Hosokawa, Nabeshima and other clans were in strictly following this order, especially Nabeshima would disregard commands time and again when battle had been underway, causing disorganization among the attackers.

The Tokugawa government would eventually decide to make a move to put down the rebellion by deploying Itakura Shigemasa (板倉重昌・いたくらしげまさ; Mikawashinmizou 11000 koku) as commander-in-chief. However, in the Kyushu region, among the many great daimyo present, a lot of them were also Tazama Daimyou (外様大名・たざまだいみょう; non-Tokugawa daimyo) reportedly taking Itakura Shigemasa’s orders on the light shoulder. Back in Edo, chief minister Sakai Tadakatsu (酒井 忠勝・さかい ただかつ) was in charge for such personal affairs, but he pretty much decided on his own discretion in this regard. His thoughts must have been that Shimabara is at most a peasant revolt, a waltz to deal with by Itakura and the local daimyo. If just he or any other official of high responsibility assured at this point, what was really going on down South West, Shimabara would perhaps never turned into a debacle as it did in the end. The absence of rapid deployment forces, the negligence from the authorities in the capital as well as the fact that the rebel lines contained of not a small number of the battle-tested rounin,  all contributed to the rebellion swelling to that dimension.

Ignoring great commander Itakura’s orders, the Matsukura and Nabeshima charged self-willed against the defenders of Hara Castle in prospect of their military honors, but inevitably paid the price for their foolishness by being devastatingly defeated and repelled. As a result, the beleaguering tactics that were known by Toyotomi Hideyoshi had no effect. Desperately trying all kinds of different fighting tactics, with the shame of failure before his eyes and the determination to put things right in his own favor, Itakura launched an assault in the midst of his own troops. Also this undertaking ended in failure by which Itakura Shigemasa lost his own life when being stroke by a projectile. Taking in consideration the moral concept and ideals of the time, for a samurai dying in combat being the most honorable means to depart from life, for Itakura it was probably the best way out of the disaster.

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Map of the besieged Hara Castle. From the image one can see that the geography of the fortifications held by the rebels sticks out to the sea, the end of it being a steep cliff as well as a natural defense line. The sturdy fort, when attacked from the open sea though seemed vulnerable and good for cannon fodder –  a maneuver the shogunate troops would undertake with the aid of the Dutch.

 New Commando and Foreign Intervention

Once the bakufu realized that it is biting out its teeth on the well-organized defenders, after all it decided to install a heavy weight with Matsudaira Nobutsuna (松平 信綱・まつだいら のぶつな; 1596-1662), no less a member of the Shogun’s Elder Council, the Roujuu (老中・ろうちゅう). Arriving in camp on the 4th day of the New Year, Nobutsuna changed around plans by moving away from the aggressive offense strategy his predecessor pursued to starvation tactics to bide time until food supplies would run thin within the castle.

Moreover, with the full grasp of the seriousness of matters, sortie of various Kyushu daimyo was ordered to crush the resistance once and for all. Finally the shogunate would throw in an incredible number of approx. 125’000 – 127’000 troops. In comparison to the numbers I quoted earlier for the rebels, this is a disequilibrium of about 1 to 3 in size. Nevertheless, outnumbered, outgunned, as they were, the rebels sustained themselves for an astounding length of time. Several months, maybe more, if it was not for the winter months that surely wore out resources and people alike.

In addition the government troops received aid through the Dutch factory in Hirado City (平戸市・ひらどし; small port city in Nagasaki Prefecture, important role as foreign trade station in the Sengoku and early Edo periods) that came down with a ship accompanied by the chief of the trading post, Nicolaes Couckebacker, to take the beleaguered Hara Castle under fire from the sea. Here it poses the question whether the bakufu actually called for the support of the Dutch or if it was rather their own independent judgement. The Dutch were eager to prove themselves trustworthy and loyal to the Tokugawa over the Portuguese, with whom they were fiercely waging war in different parts of the world from 1601-1661. For the Dutch, the Shimabara Rebellion represented a welcome opportunity to appeal their services in favor of the other competing European nation, with which they rivaled for the sole trading rights with Japan. Over the course of 2 weeks the Dutch ship fired several hundred rounds (an estimated 425-450), yet the hoped results failed to appear because the canons of the foreign ships had not yet the vigor or range. Most cannonballs didn’t even make it above the cliffs and shattered on the natural palisades. Since there was little to no effects, canons from the ship were moved to the land, where they continued the bombardment of the fortification with greater success.

However, the intervention, which was an excessive one, was reproached with scorn from the resistance inside the castle. They claimed, it being humiliating to ask the military power of a foreign nation to suppress a domestic conflict. The bombardments were ceased and the Dutch withdrew. The intervention might not have brought the desired outcome on the battlefield, but it would have success in its own right. Few years following the Shimabara Rebellion the Netherlands would be granted the exclusive right for trade with Japan. The small trading post on the artificial island of Dejima (出島・でじま) in the bay of Nagasaki that was formerly run by the Portuguese changed over to the Dutch.

The End rolls near

With the Dutch leaving the battleground, the bakufu troops had to depend on their own and resort to old-established warfare methods. From the end of January 1638, they employed miners to dig out tunnels into the inside of the castle, but also those plans were thwarted by the cunning defenders, who trenched out their own tunnels from the opposite side to afterwards fill the enemy tunnels with smoke and human waste to repulse them from their positions.

Also Yabumi (矢文・やぶみ; messages affixed to arrows) were fired into Hara Castle to urge for surrender or to appeal that non-Christians would be spared and given land, if they give in. But those approaches, too, showed no desired effect because defenders remained resolute in the before sworn determination based on the Christian belief. It kept them unwavering in their hearts and minds to the bitter end that was inevitably to come. Despite the invaluableness of ammunition some of the letter messages were retorted from the besieged army in similar way to show their intentions.

As the siege dragged on, the food supplies and ammunition at Hara Castle started to exhaust. The rebels were aware of the acute situation that was approaching for them by the day, therefore launched a night assault on the surrounding camps with a force of about 4000 men to get their hands on new provisions and ammunition to take back to the castle. This desperate thrust though took its toll and many lost their lives. The castle troops that died in the raid, were inspected and their bellies cut open what unveiled the desperation of the army within the castle walls for food replenishment. Their stomachs were filled with nothing but seaweed, grass, tree bark and the like. Matsudaira Nobutsuna now confirmed that it was only a matter of time for a complete shortage foods, started to determine hard-line tactics for the further course of the battle.

Final Attack – A Day without Morning

The plans for the major offensive were set for April 12th, however, since the Nabeshima forces secretly stole march on others, the attack started 1 day sooner on the 11th. By the time the sun set of a day with much fierce fighting, all but the inner castle defenses remained in rebel hands. With daybreak of the following day the besiegers provided the final blow to the fraction of resistance, putting a gruesome end to the rebellion.

On the side of the bakufu the 2 days of combating caused an estimated casualty of war death of about 1050 soldiers and 6700 plus being injured. As for the rebel forces, only artist Yamada Emosaku (山田 右衛門作・やまだ えもさく), said to have betrayed his kind by providing vital intelligence to the attackers during the siege and therewith contributed to the downfall of the rebels, was spared for his life. For the rest of the survivors, the attackers knew no mercy, slaughtering everyone, not holding back from elderly or women, not even infants.

20160222_Shimabara Rebellion 7
The second part of the illustration above. I am not quite sure, who the woman depicts, but it could be Michika. A name that falls in connection with Amakusa Shirou, as she is said to have been his love. It is just an assumption though, but I have not made any deeper research on it. There is however no mention that Michika was at the siege, which would be portrayed with this artwork.

After the Battle – No Winner to take it All

For other peasant uprisings the victims were usually secretly mourned for in the villages they came from, however, in case of Shimabara, the corpses were left as they were, to expose the scoundrels and to give out a stern warning for those who would dare to cause disruption in the future. As a further result of the brutal abatement of the rebellion, nearly all villages and towns in the area were swept empty and new people from other parts of the country had to migrate to bring the region back on its feet.

What happened to the so called leader of the rebellion, Amakusa Shirou, remained unclear at first and rumors had it that he could escape the savage, however, his death was confirmed by his mother and sister as they were forced to identify severed heads. His head was allegedly taken by a man with the name Jinsa Saemon (陣佐 左衛門・じんさ さえもん), member of the Hosokawa clan. Shirou’s head was put on a pike and displayed at Hara Castle and later on in Nagasaki. There are cases, him being considered a martyr, however, there is no official recognition from the Catholic Church for this. For one should know the condition for attaining martyrdom in Christianity is the acceptance of death without resistance. Since he was involved into a four months battle with the Tokugawa army, he does clearly not fulfill this requirement. In addition, the Catholic Church does not approve of political opposition. Would he have been properly instructed in the way of Christ, he would not have acceded to the revolt or becoming leader.

On the other hand, Matsukura Kachie, too, was at last brought to justice for his misruling. He was made responsible for the turmoils in his territory. His fief was confiscated and he would be decapitated on Mimakasa (美作国・みまさかのくに), to where he was exiled to. Similar events took place in the fief Amakusa, where the local lord Terazawa Katataka (寺沢 堅高・てらざわ かたたか) found himself also dispossessed of his domain and assets. Different than Kachie however, Terasawa forestall the executioner in that he committed suicide.

Lords, who hoped to gain a territorial advantage with the participation of their troops in battle faced mostly disappointment for that no reward was granted by the shogun for merits on the battlefield. Because in the end, the rebellion was dismissed goverment internally as nothing, but an uprising by the peasantry.

Aftermath for foreign Ties and Christianity

To the outside and foreign relationships however, the consequences of the rebellion were far-reaching in that it entailed the Portuguese being driven out. Their ships and those of other Western nations were banned from arriving in Japan ever again, except for those of the Dutch, who had to move to confined Dejima in Nagasaki, as explained earlier. The Chinese, too, could safeguard their trading rights out of Nagasaki as part of the same private commerce sector, but were similarly restricted like the Dutch. Through three other selected ports, official governmental ties with emissaries and commodity trading were maintained with neighboring states and people from the Korean peninsula, the Ryukyu Islands (Ryūkyū; 琉球諸島・りゅうきゅうしょとう; present-day Okinawa) and Ezo (蝦夷・えぞ; present-day Hokkaido), yet were strictly governed through laws to control the flow of people, goods and information in and out the country, as more recent research suggests. The country therewith went over to isolate itself from the outer world, traditionally known as the Isolation Policy, the Sakoku Seisaku (鎖国政策・さこくせいさく) until it was forced open again with the arrival of Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry and his black ships in the mid of the 19th century.

The bakufu further clamped up on the prohibition of the forbidden religion, forcing remaining fractions of believers into the underground. Furtively they would cling on to their faith for more than 200 years, bringing them the name of Kakure Kirishitan (隠れキリシタン・かくれキリシタン; Hidden Christians). Believers practiced in secret and passed on what they knew from their ancestors to the next generations before they wondrously re-appeared as the Catholic Church would return to Japan yet again. While some rejoined the Catholic Church, others didn’t, but Christianity as a whole has never managed to regain its lost herds of believers and lingers to this very day at something of around 1% (with dwindling tendency) in Japan.

Ending Word

Herewith I have reached the end of my research project of the Shimabara uprising. It has been a time intense self-study, but all worth the effort. In the process I could learn not only about the protagonists and the cause of the rebellion in more depth, but also about a variety of related topics that gave me a better understanding of different aspects of the era. Further, evaluating all the findings, one can say with high certainty that it was not the Christian Rebellion it is often considered because the villagers and people in the area have been suppressed and exploited regardless of their beliefs, which is ultimately the trigger for the uprising. The crackdown of Christians might have exacerbated the situation for commoners, but was more adventitious than main cause.

I hope that those reading through the entire article found it informative, maybe even engaging enough to make inquiries themselves on the subject. If you have any feedback on the article, please feel free to write in the comments 💬 section below, send in an email or Facebook message me.

You might also be interested in the following article(s):

Article Guide:

  • Words in light sky blue color link to other articles/pages on MyLittle Dejima
  • Words in lavender violet color link to external references/pages
  • Words in simple bold, titles and article relevant information without external reference/page
  • For Japanese related words Hiragana (ひらがな), Katakana (カタカナ) and Kanji (漢字) are added for those interested in Japanese terminology

Edition History: 

  • First release: April 6th, 2016
  • Clean-up: December 6th, 2016
  • Minor editing: March 30th, 2017
  • Editing of Ending Word: June 1st, 2017

©MyLittle Dejima

One thought on “Shimabara Rebellion – The Christian Uprising that wasn’t One

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