Blessed John Tomaki: Father and Martyr

Sara and Justin Kraft

Blessed John Tomaki: Father and Martyr

Little is known about Blessed John Tomaki. An internet search turns up only a few sentences. Still, I believe there is a great deal that can be learned from this father and martyr who not only persevered in his faith until death, but also passed on the same courage to his sons. 

Blessed John Tomaki was a Third Order Dominican.  That meant he was a lay person, not a professed religious.  He had a family.  He was martyred on September 8, 1628 in Japan with his four sons at Nagasaki.  Japan was not a friendly place for Christians at the time.

The History of Christianity in Japan

The history of Christianity in Japan is quite varied. After his arrival, the great missionary saint, St. Francis Xavier noted the openness of the Japanese people to belief in Jesus Christ. The faith actually spread quite rapidly and with relatively little resistance. The church even enjoyed a brief period of state sponsored support. In 1587, there were 200,000 Christians in Japan. 

However, 1587 marked a turning point for Christianity in Japan. In that year, suddenly and somewhat unexpectedly, an official order of persecution was given. The order led to the destruction of one hundred and forty churches and the expulsion of missionaries from Japan many of whom had to flee in danger of death.  The property of Christians was also seized and many Christians were forced into poverty. As the persecution intensified, martyrdom began.  In 1597, twenty-six Christians were crucified because of their faith.

"The astonishing fruit of the generous sacrifice of our 26 martyrs," wrote a Jesuit missionary "is that the Christians, recent converts and those of maturer faith, have been confirmed in the faith and hope of eternal salvation; they have firmly resolved to lay down their lives for the name of Christ. The very pagans who assisted at the martyrdom were struck at seeing the joy of the blessed ones as they suffered on their crosses and the courage with which they met death."

Even so, the faith in Japan remained strong. Groups devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary were formed to prepare Christians to meet the challenges of persecution and even martyrdom. These groups practiced intense prayer and even scourging in preparation to resist persecution to the point of death.  However, there were only a few cases until a new wave of martyrdom began 1614.  The years following 1614, were extremely bloody for Christians in Japan. The number of Christians who gave their lives is difficult to count, but the list of known martyrdoms numbers in the thousands. A brief but more complete history from which I have summarized above can be found here.

Reflecting on Blessed John Tomaki

Blessed John Tomaki wasn’t a Christian during a safe time or in a safe place.  His story is reminiscent of one of the most moving passages of the Bible, the story of the widow and her 7 sons (2 Macabees chapter 7).  This is a story of bravery, perhaps unparalleled. This courageous woman and entire family chose death over eating pork in violation of God’s law.  She watched all seven of her sons die, providing rousing encouragement to each of them, reminding them to stay steady in their faith.  After all seven of her sons died, she was put to death.  The words of the widow and her seven sons are some of the most emotion stirring words in all of scripture. I encourage you to read them and meditate on them.

Like the widow with seven sons, Blessed John Tomaki watched his four sons choose death rather than renounce Jesus.  Did Blessed John Tomaki encourage his children in their faith at their martyrdom, or were his sons the ones encouraging him?  I have to imagine as a lay Dominican, he was praying the rosary for his steadfast faith and the steadfast faith of his children as they were staring at death.  

As a parent, I cannot even imagine the anguish of watching my child (let alone multiple of my children) get beaten, knowing they will soon be killed. In my best moments, I like to think I could rise to the occasion to give my life for my faith. However, what certainty of truth must one possess in order to watch even encourage your own child to do the same. 

Blessed John Tomaki’s example and the example of other Japanese martyrs present us with many questions.  Do we hold the same certainty of faith in Jesus? Are we willing to lose our worldly goods for our Catholic faith? What about our reputations? Prestige? Or are we willing to conform to our culture? As Christians, while we may not be called to physically die for the faith, how are we dying to ourselves?  What sacrifices are we making for others?  

Is there anything I would not give up for Jesus? These are challenging questions.  However, we don’t have to face them on our own strength. Like Blessed John Tomaki, who had been given courage by the examples of others, we too must encourage one another in our families to cling fast to Christ in turbulent times.