Incident Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s confiscation of the Spanish galleon San Felipe marked the beginning of a long period of Japanese isolationism and persecution of Catholic missionaries.

Summary of Event

Before the arrival of the Spanish galleon San Felipe in 1596, the ruling Japanese Lords, Oda Nobunaga and his successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi, had for the most part befriended the Catholic missionaries in Japan. The first Catholics to arrive in Japan in 1549 were the Jesuits, Missions;Jesuits in Japan Jesuits;Japan a Portuguese order. They inaugurated what is now known as the Christian Century in Japan (1549-1650) Christian Century (Japan, 1549-1650) . Nobunaga hoped to unify all the regions of Japan under his control and believed the Jesuits would serve as allies against the Buddhists, who opposed him. He also believed his relationship with the missionaries would facilitate trade with the Portuguese. San Felipe Incident (1596-1597) Oda Nobunaga Toyotomi Hideyoshi Tokugawa Ieyasu Masuda Nagamori Olandia, Francisco de Oda Nobunaga Toyotomi Hideyoshi Masuda Nagamori Olandia, Francisco de Tokugawa Ieyasu

Succeeding Nobunaga in 1582 as the de facto military ruler of Japan, Hideyoshi followed the latter’s policy and showed favor to the missionaries. In July of 1587, however, Hideyoshi issued the first edict against Christianity, banning all foreign missionaries from Japan. The ruler apparently realized that the Jesuits had acquired too much territorial power. The Jesuits had converted a number of influential regional lords (or daimyo) and had thus gained control over their lands. Daimyos For instance, the area of Nagasaki was essentially controlled by the Jesuits. In the edict, Hideyoshi stated that the foreign missionaries were politically subversive and a threat to the national security of Japan.

Shortly thereafter, however, Hideyoshi changed his mind and ignored the ban. The ruler himself was seen wearing Portuguese attire and carrying a rosary. He probably knew that it was not an appropriate time to persecute the Jesuits, since he needed the military aid of the Portuguese to win a forthcoming war in Korea. Thus, the Jesuits resumed their activities and successfully continued their conversions.

Hoping to emulate the success of the Portuguese Jesuits, the Franciscans Franciscans;Japan Missions;Franciscans in Japan , a Spanish Catholic order, arrived in Japan in 1593. Hideyoshi welcomed the Spaniards and even donated land for the missionaries. Some historians estimate that, by the time the San Felipe arrived in 1597, as many as 300,000 Japanese, including high-ranking advisers and generals, had already converted to Catholicism. Hideyoshi’s main motive for aiding the Spanish Franciscans was to attract Spanish trade, just as the Jesuits had served to attract Portuguese merchants. Since their arrival, the Franciscans and the Jesuits clashed with the Jesuits over power and jurisdiction of territories.

In October of 1596, on its way from the Philippines to Mexico, the Spanish galleon San Felipe was blown off course by a typhoon and became stranded on the coast of Shikoku Island. The local daimyo held the ship, detained its crew, and requested guidance from Hideyoshi’s lieutenant Masuda Nagamori. The daimyo informed Nagamori that the ship was carrying heavy arms and a rich cargo, as well as many Franciscan missionaries on board. Nagamori then went to the site and met the officers of the ship, who had become upset at the possibility that their cargo could be confiscated. According to the Jesuit account, the captain of the ship, Francisco de Olandia, attempted to prevent the confiscation of the cargo by boasting about the power of the Spanish Empire and its plan for world conquest. Olandia supposedly pointed out that the Franciscans had been sent by the Spanish as precursors to a subsequent Spanish military conquest. The Spanish plan was to first conquer Japan by converting the Japanese into Christians. Then, the Spanish were to send military troops to take the islands of Japan just as they had done in Peru, Mexico, and the Philippine Islands.

The Spanish Franciscans’ version of the incident, however, was different. According to the Franciscans, Olandia’s story was a Jesuit fabrication to have the Franciscans removed from Japan. In the end, the quarrel between the Catholic orders only exacerbated the situation, resulting in Hideyoshi’s mistrust of all Franciscans, and subsequently of all Jesuits as well. In December, when Hideyoshi’s anti-Christian advisers informed him of Captain Olandia’s account of the Spanish Empire’s scheme to invade Japan, the ruler became furious. This was probably not a good time to try Hideyoshi’s patience. He had just been struck by a series of unfortunate events: his recent defeat in Korea, the destruction of his new palace in Kyōto during a series of earthquakes, and the deterioration of his personal health. With this background, Hideyoshi’s advisers managed to persuade him that the San Felipe incident presented proof that a “martial Catholic church” in Japan was a threat to national security. Hideyoshi issued arrest warrants for all Franciscans in Japan. He then ordered their execution by crucifixion in Nagasaki. He justified these death sentences as just punishment for breaking the ban on Christianity of 1587, a ban that he had not enforced.

The initial list of the condemned numbered 160, but the officer in charge felt compassion for the large number of Japanese Christians involved and cut the list to 24. The final list included 6 European Franciscans, 10 Japanese Franciscans, 3 Japanese Jesuits—who were probably included by mistake—and 4 Japanese laymen who worked as aids to the missionaries. Hideyoshi sought to make an example of the condemned and gave them an excruciating sentence. In the beginning of January, in the middle of winter, the Christians had their ears and noses cut—rituals of humiliation—and were paraded for a distance of 600 miles (966 kilometers), for an entire month, making stops in the towns between Kyōto and Nagasaki. Martyrdom;Japan

Catholic accounts portray the event as the triumph of the Christian faith in pagan lands. They describe the martyrs’ journey as the way to the Calvary. They recount tales of how during their long journey the martyrs never stopped preaching and singing hymns. They also depict all the martyrs as displaying such remarkable joy, courage, and undying faith that even the pagan witnesses of the apotheosis were convinced of the truthfulness of the Christian faith. By the time the Christians reached Nagasaki, more Japanese laymen had been added to the list. It is believed that these two volunteered to die as martyrs.

The crucifixion took place in Mount Tateyama on February 5. Catholic sources recall the martyrs’ singing, praying, and preaching the Christian gospel from their crosses until the very end. The martyrs became known as the Twenty-six Martyrs of Nagasaki Twenty-six Martyrs of Nagasaki[Twenty six Martyrs of Nagasaki] . Two months after their execution, Hideyoshi ordered all Jesuits to leave the country. The Twenty-six Martyrs of Japan were canonized in 1862 by Pope Pius IX.


The San Felipe affair and the crucifixion of the Twenty-six Martyrs in 1597 mark an important point in the history of Japan because they established another stage of Japan’s self-imposed isolationist policy, also known as the Sakoku Sakoku Japan;isolationism policy. The anti-Christian aspect of the Sakoku policy was completed with the martyrdom. It also represents the first time Europeans were put to death for preaching Christianity in Japan. In the history of the Catholic Church, it marks the end of open missionary works of the Catholic missionaries, closing the first half of the Christian Century.

During the second half of the Christian Century (1597-1650), the rulers of Japan formed a clear ideological structure aimed at the eradication of Christianity and mobilized the common Japanese people to join the persecution of Christians. At the beginning of this period, an estimated 150,000 Japanese were practicing Christianity underground.

In 1614, Hideyoshi’s successor, Tokugawa Ieyasu, passed an edict that suppressed all Christian activity. It demanded that all foreign missionaries be deported and all churches be destroyed. As a result, there were crucifixions, decapitations, burnings, and hangings. The excruciating torments imposed on Christians drove many Japanese converts, and even a number of missionaries, to apotheosize their faith. Others, including about three thousand Japanese (between 1597 and 1650), refused to do so and were sentenced to death. Still, Christianity was not eradicated completely. When Japan reemerged from its isolationist policy in the 1850’, a French Catholic priest discovered a secret group of Christians that lived in the mountains and practiced an indigenous form of archaic Catholicism that dated back to the time of the San Felipe incident.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ellison, George. “Hideyoshi and the Sectarians.” Deus Destroyed: The Image of Christianity in Early Modern Japan. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973. The chapter presents a well-balanced revision of “the rise and fall” of the Christian Century (1549-1639) in Japan. Its discussion on the Jesuit/Franciscan antagonism is particularly enlightening.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nelson, John. “Myths, Missions, and Mistrust: The Fate of Christianity in 16th and 17th Century Japan.” History and Anthropology 13, no. 2 (2002): 93-111. Article points out the strategic blunders of the missionaries in Japan that contributed to the decision of the Japanese Lords to persecute Catholicism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ross, Andrew C. “The Christian Century in Japan, 1549-1650.” A Vision Betrayed: The Jesuits in Japan and China 1542-1742. New York: Orbis, 2000. Survey of the Jesuit missions in Japan and of their underlying philosophy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Whelan, Christal. The Beginning of Heaven and Earth: The Sacred Book of Japan’s Hidden Christians. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1996. Provides an anthropological perspective on the Christian missionaries’ interactions from the sixteenth century through modern times.

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1477-1600: Japan’s “Age of the Country at War”

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Beginning 1513: Kanō School Flourishes

1532-1536: Temmon Hokke Rebellion

1549-1552: Father Xavier Introduces Christianity to Japan

1550’s-1567: Japanese Pirates Pillage the Chinese Coast

1550-1593: Japanese Wars of Unification

Sept., 1553: First Battle of Kawanakajima

June 12, 1560: Battle of Okehazama

1568: Oda Nobunaga Seizes Kyōto

1587: Toyotomi Hideyoshi Hosts a Ten-Day Tea Ceremony

1590: Odawara Campaign

1592-1599: Japan Invades Korea

1594-1595: Taikō Kenchi Survey

Oct. 21, 1600: Battle of Sekigahara

Categories: History