Christianity was not common in feudal Japan. As a foreign religion, it was embraced by a small minority of people including some samurai who were the social and military elite.
Among those Christian samurais, one of the most renowned was Takayama Ukon.
Rise to Prominence
Ukon was born in 1552 or 1553 to the Takayama Clan. When he was 11 years old, he and his father were baptized as Christians.
At the time, foreign influences were controversial in Japan. European gun technology had arrived and was beginning to appear in wars. Its first decisive use on the battlefield occurred during Ukon’s lifetime. As in most cultures, the Japanese were nervous about outside influences. For those losing battles against guns, it is easy to understand why.
The Takayamas were vassals of the more powerful Wada Clan. The head of the Wada was jealous of the Takayamas’ good reputation and decided to kill them. He invited them to a dinner party at his castle, where he intended to assassinate them.
Ukon heard about the plot in advance. He fought back, injuring the head of the Wada, and escaped the treacherous plot.
Nobunaga, the Wada’s overlord and the most powerful warlord in Japan, was impressed. He gave the Wada castle to Ukon. Ukon began serving Nobunaga in his campaigns to reunite Japan.
Ukon’s castle was surrounded by lands of the Araki Clan. Araki Murashige was Ukon’s direct overlord.
In 1578, Araki rebelled against Nobunaga, ignoring Ukon’s advice that he should stay loyal.
Ukon faced a dilemma. Nobunaga had raised him to power and was successfully bringing order to a war-torn country. As a samurai, he owed his allegiance to his immediate overlord. Also, Araki held Ukon’s sister and her son as hostages to ensure his good behavior.
Bound by honor and family, Ukon joined the revolt.
Nobunaga sent a Jesuit priest to Ukon. His message was simple; if the samurai did not surrender his castle to Nobunaga, priests would be executed and churches demolished as punishment.
Following hours of contemplation, Ukon surrendered himself, unarmed and with his head shaved bare, in submission to Nobunaga. The Christians were safe. Fortunately, Araki also relented and spared his hostages.
After the revolt, Ukon was pardoned, and his lands increased as a reward for switching sides to Nobunaga.
Victory Through Defeat
Shortly after, Nobunaga was assassinated. Chaos threatened to descend again upon an unstable nation.
Ukon sided with Nobunaga’s successor, Hideyoshi, and set out to seek vengeance against the assassins. He fought at the Battle of Yamazaki when the man behind the assassination was defeated. He had honored his dead overlord.
At Nobunaga’s Buddhist funeral, Ukon chose not to light incense at the altar. It was a moment that could have caused offense, but Ukon’s good character carried him through. His allies saw that his honor as a samurai was more important than any religious divisions.
In 1583, Ukon fought in one of his most important battles. As the commander of a frontier fortress, he fought hard against an attack. He was wounded, and many of his followers were killed. In desperate fighting, they were driven out of the castle.
What appeared to be a defeat brought a win for Ukon. His resistance created an opportunity for Hideyoshi, to send reinforcements and win a decisive victory. Ukon’s status rose due to the battle, and he went on to serve Hideyoshi in other expeditions. Together they continued Nobunaga’s work of uniting Japan.
Hideyoshi did not trust anyone whose loyalty to him was not absolute. The Buddhist Ikko-Ikki sect had previously risen against the authority of the shogun, taking control of part of the country. After bitter fighting, they were subdued. He feared the Christians, with loyalties divided between church and state, might also rise.
What followed was a period of persecution. Ukon’s fortunes fell as Christians fell out of favor. Some were killed because of their faith at Nagasaki in 1597. The fear of violence was ever present.
To stem the spread of Christianity, Hideyoshi decided to banish Christian priests from Japan. However, he died in 1598 before carrying out his decree.
The next ten years saw a relatively peaceful period for Ukon. He lived under the protection of powerful friends, having proven himself as a warrior and a noble man. Official persecution was no longer an issue.
The rebellion of the Ikko-Ikki was never far from the minds of Japan’s rulers. The Buddhist fanatics, like the sohei temple armies, had been a recurring threat to the secular authorities who viewed any religious group in that light. Suspicion once again turned on the Christians.
His friend Maeda Toshinaga protected Ukon. However, in 1614, the Shogun announced that all missionaries were being expelled from Japan. Christian lords, including Ukon, were also banished.
Some feared Ukon would resist the order. He was a great warrior and leader who could cause trouble but his samurai values would not allow him to take up arms against his overlord. Instead of defending his status, he followed his beliefs. Obeying the order he had been given, in November 1614 he sailed to Manila.
There he spent his final days among other exiles. He was not in Manila for long. Within weeks of arriving, he fell ill and died.
Ukon had been banished from Japan, but his memory remained. He is still remembered as a warrior who stood by his samurai values no matter what challenges he faced.
Stephen Turnbull (1987), Samurai Warriors