“Christian Sorcerers on Trial: Records of the 1827 Osaka Incident”


“As soon as he took his first spear, he writhed in pain. Leaking urine and making a miserable spectacle, he took nine spears.” The gruesome and cruel execution of one Heizō Takamiya described here took place in Osaka in 1829; the unfortunate Heizō was accompanied by five other people, one a woman (Toyoda Mitsugi) and four others who were already dead and had been pickled in salt so that their remains could be symbolically crucified and methodically stabbed with spears as a form of humiliation.

What heinous crime had these unfortunates committed, and why was such a spectacle made of their death? It was quite a simple answer; they were allegedly all members of the “Kirishitan” sect, a group of powerful “sorcerers” who had long been advocating a “pernicious creed” which needed to be stamped out before it infected the general population of Japan and seriously challenged established religious practices. Christianity, the “pernicious creed”, had, it was thought, previously been eliminated by a series of persecutions carried out from 1597 to about 1634, but an uprising at Shimabara-Amakusa in 1637-38 in which supposedly Christian symbols were displayed “reinforced the assumption that Kirishitan were not only sorcerers but also fomenters of rebellion and political subversion.”

There were, the editors tell us, numbers of popular tales and writings about Kirishitan in which they were depicted negatively as sorcerers who insinuated themselves into society and subverted what the Japanese authorities considered the natural order of things. Common people, it was believed, were particularly susceptible to the wiles of the Kirishitan, who were seen by one anonymous Japanese writer, an “Edo samurai”, as “greedy”, and that “in their yearning for personal glory they engage in all sorts of nefarious practices so as to produce strange occurrences and thereby deceive the world.” Another writer, the daimyō (lord) Matsura Seizan, wrote in his miscellany Night Tales from the Kasshi Day (1841) about a conversation he had with “a certain person”, who told him that someone (one of a group) had been “finally arrested” for professing “the Jesus creed”. Matsura thought that if that were true, the man and his fellows would be “punished severely”. His friend replied, “Of course, they’ll be crucified,” to which Matsura rejoined, “That sort will be only too glad to be crucified… That’s the very idea of that sect.” It would appear, however, that the miserable Heizō was an exception to the rule. Mitsugi, however, laughed as the first spear went through her body, and “retained her composure” bearing out Matsura’s observations as she took eleven spears.

What heinous crime had these unfortunates committed, and why was such a spectacle made of their death?

Christian Sorcerers on Trial: Records of the 1827 Osaka Incident, Fumiko Miyazaki, Kate Wildman Nakai, Mark Teeuwen (eds, intro) (Columbia University Press, July 2020)
Christian Sorcerers on Trial: Records of the 1827 Osaka Incident, Fumiko Miyazaki, Kate Wildman Nakai, Mark Teeuwen (eds, intro) (Columbia University Press, July 2020)

The editors, specialists in Japanese studies, have collaborated before (with Anne Walthall and John Breen) in Lust, Commerce and Corruption: An Account of What I Have Seen and Heard by an Edo Samurai, the source of the Matsura quote above. Here they have collected an enormous amount of contemporary documentation of the 1827 Osaka Incident ranging from official reports, biographical information and testimonies from the accused to a section entitled “Rumors and Retellings”, as well as appendices presenting further written reports, including one of the previous arrest (1822) of Toyoda Mitsugi, the (living) woman executed along with Heizō and the presumed ringleader of the Kirishitan group. All this adds up to a thorough and revealing examination of the Japanese judicial system and giving us a window through which we can observe what Daniel Botsman, in his back cover note, calls “the cultural  and mental universe of an era”, in this case the last decades of  the so-called “Japanese isolation” from the outside world, although foreign books as well as a foreign religion play a considerable part in this localised drama.

Christianity had been in Japan since 1549, when priests, including Francis Xavier, arrived with the Portuguese. Xavier set himself up in Hirado (on the island of Kyushu) and died in China two years later. After that there were various conversions, but in 1597 the shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi ordered a ban on missionaries, although he himself had on occasion shown tolerance towards some local lords who had converted. Serious persecutions began in 1620 under the shogun Tokugawa Hidetada (1605-23), who believed Christians to be a threat to Japanese unity, and many of them, native and foreign, were slaughtered or expelled, which drove the sect underground until after the Meiji Restoration in 1868. More mass executions occurred in the 1650s and 1660s, but tapered off after that period, the authorities apparently realizing that the more they were persecuted the more determined the “deviants” became, so as long as people registered in the nearest Buddhist temple they were left more or less unmolested, because that of course meant that there were no Christians in the area!

As the editors point out, Christianity was defined differently in 1827 than it had been, say, in 1630. As there were no actual confirmed Christians in Japan any more, official understanding of the faith was largely based on “chapbooks, popular tales, and plays that depicted Kirishitan as wily sorcerers and rebels, intent on undermining the social order and taking over the country.” Furthermore, the political elite were convinced that common people were becoming more and more greedy and self-interested, which made them more susceptible to the evil blandishments of the devious Kirishitan or the “pernicious sect”, as it was often called. A magistrate at the time summed it up; “Should ordinary people secretly become believers,” he wrote, “and should these practices spread throughout the world, the situation will become irremediable.” This view, widely-held among officials and state authorities, was formed largely by their fear of popular disorder and their reading. As the editors point out, though, the people accused of being “Kirishitan” had read the same material, and probably felt that if they became Kirishitan they would somehow acquire magical powers. As Mitsugi said in her testimony, “From the start I had the ambition to make a name for myself by performing extraordinary feats.” At the same time, they had no thoughts of overthrowing the government or taking political power, and indeed didn’t even know each other at first; their connection to the “pernicious sect” had come through a man named Mizuno Gunki (d. 1824), a calligrapher with court connections, to whom Mitsugi had been introduced by a tea-house owner named Itoya Wasa. “I was impressed by Gunki’s sorcery,” Mitsugi told her interlocutors in 1827, “and ultimately learned the pernicious creed from him.”

These accounts reveal the flesh-and-blood participants in these incidents as people who seem to have absorbed a great deal of miscellaneous information without really understanding it in depth.

The editors approach their subject from several angles; Part One presents the actual testimonies of the accused, Part Two the Judicial Review Process, and Part Three deals with “Rumors and Retellings”. In Part One we get to hear the actual voices of the prisoners, or at least their voices as transmitted by the various officials who interrogated them. We learn their backgrounds, where they lived, who they knew, and how they came into contact with the “pernicious sect”. The key figures here, apart from Mitsugi, are two women, Sano, the first person to be arrested and the last interrogated, and Horiyama Kinu, a disciple of Mitsugi who was also an Inari medium; Inari was a god associated variously with agriculture and commerce as well as with brothels, and his mediums channelled him much like the Sybil did the Delphi oracle. Kinu had initiated Sano into the cult of the “Lord of Heaven.” All of these women, as well as Heizō and Fujii Umon, a doctor and fortune-teller, were personally associated with Gunki, who seems to have been the “leader”  They provided detailed testimonies, which were duly recorded and presented to Takai Sanenori, the Osaka eastern magistrate.

These meticulously-compiled testimonies and the judicial reviews tell a great deal about the Tokugawa judicial system as well as making these shadowy people come more alive. These accounts reveal the flesh-and-blood participants in these incidents as people who seem to have absorbed a great deal of miscellaneous information without really understanding it in depth. Indeed, they come across not as actual Christians, but more as living representatives of what people thought “Kirishitan” were. Gunki himself might have been acquainted with the “Jesus sect”, and had perhaps even read books about it, but the others seem to have been more intellectually-curious than anything else. However, in the case of Mitsugi, the examiners found that she had “received transmissions of the Kirishitan creed from Gunki,” and had “built an Inari shrine that did not in fact enshrine Inari.” They went on to accuse her of using the “deity title of Lord Toyotomi Hideyoshi” for the shrine, and that she had subsequently “pretended to act as an Inari medium while in reality you were using Kirishitan arts to heal illness and carry out divinations.” Those actions attracted followers like Sano, but what really seems to have upset the authorities was that Mitsugi and others were women. Summing up charges against Sano, Takai stated “she forsook her [natural] sentiments as a woman and pursued the fallacious examination to work miracles that would astound others.” He concluded “showing not the slightest awe for the shogunal authorities, she acted in a manner that was the height of audacity for a woman.” In case anyone thinks that this is merely traditional Japanese misogyny, the witch-trials in Europe of the 16th and 17th centuries should perhaps be kept in mind. In many previous judicial processes, women had been considered as mere followers of men and often received more lenient sentences, but not here, suggesting that perhaps potentially powerful women were seen as more of a threat to the authorities in this highly patriarchal society.

In the second part, the editors present the judicial reviews of each case which had come before the magistrates. We have mentioned a few of the accused above, but there were in fact many people involved, some only peripherally, and the punishments recommended reflect this. Mitsugi was sentenced to crucifixion along with Heizō, and others deemed leaders were subjected to posthumous punishment. However, the actual penalties include one beheading (another woman), exile to remote places, house arrest, imprisonment and monetary fines. One Zen priest was fined heavily because he had registered a parishioner who, unknown to him, was a Kirishitan. And being dead didn’t help, either; for example, the pickled corpse of Fujita Kenzō, who had “composed a Jesus-creed work himself and kept it in his possession,” was therefore “without question indeed a Kirishitan” and was duly crucified along with others including Kinu, who was also dead. People who had already been buried had their graves destroyed, an action which would deny their reincarnation, and even the punishments which would have taken place where the victims still alive were made public after their deaths. The dossiers on the accused were thoroughly reviewed, and punishments suggested, usually in an almost frighteningly laconic manner. In Heizō’s case, for example, the Deliberative Council wrote: “In our view, you might order that the sentence should be that he be crucified after having first been paraded through the three districts of Osaka.” The implication is that  that crucifixion need not necessarily be the sentence but the one-sentence confirmation of Heizō’s sentence by the Senior Councillors simply reads “To be paraded through the three districts of Osaka and crucified.”


The title of the third part of the book, “Rumors and Retellings”, really speaks for itself. Here the editors have gathered a wide range of documents ranging from first-hand information to what various people had seen and heard and miscellaneous “elaborations” of the incident. There was a great deal of public interest in what had happened in Osaka, but what is really interesting is the story of Ōshio Heihachirō, the Osaka magistrate who had taken part in the earlier judicial process and in 1837 led a failed uprising against the government and was accused of becoming a Kirishitan himself, “possessed”, it was said by some, “Mitsugi’s vengeful spirit” and using knowledge he had learned from her “to pursue his own misbegotten dreams of worldly glory”. His full biography comprises a full chapter, an intriguing postscript to a fascinating story which has been fascinatingly related by the editors of this book.

Christian Sorcerers on Trial is a model of consummate scholarship and at the same time a gripping narrative which will be of great interest not just to students of Japanese religion and history, but to anyone curious about Japan in the decades immediately before its so-called “opening up” by the West. It shows a shogunate failing in the end to completely destroy Christianity or popular religion and the weakening of the old traditional judicial practices, however thorough they were. This book not only puts a human face on the incident but is a fine example of what collaborative modern scholarship can do with complex and copious source material: highly recommended for specialists and non-specialists alike.

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.