Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Catholic Saints, Korea and Japan

In 2014 I wrote an article titled, “Assassins, Sainthood and Joan of Arc” in which I commented on the cause for canonization currently underway in the Republic of Korea for Ahn Jung Geun, a Korean Catholic most famous for being the man who assassinated the first Prime Minister of the Empire of Japan, Prince Ito Hirobumi. Not surprisingly, this move raised some eyebrows given that Ahn Jung Geun not only seemed to be rather deranged and perhaps not in full possession of his faculties but particularly because the one act in his life which made him famous was not caring for the unfortunate, giving his life for his faith or converting people to Christianity but was, rather, the murder of an unarmed man and gunning down several others. He has, since his death, been lavished with praise and honor by the governments of South Korea and Communist China while, not surprisingly, being regarded as a terrorist and murderer in Japan. Obviously, there are a great many political implications for the Catholic bishops in South Korea promoting the canonization of this individual.

Mass in Japan
The Japanese have every reason to object to this and it would certainly be an unusual thing for the Catholic Church to do. The Church did not, as I pointed out in 2014, give in to the public call for the canonization of Balthazar Gerard in the 1580’s who had assassinated the Dutch leader Prince Willem “the Silent” of Orange. However, the Roman Catholic Church of today is quite different from that of the Sixteenth Century and in recent years the requirements for canonization have been “streamlined” considerably so that it is much easier to have someone canonized today than in the past when it might take several centuries for someone to be verified as a saint worthy of veneration. In other words, as much as I would oppose the canonization of such an individual, I do not think it beyond the realm of possibility that the Catholic Church today might go along with it, that the Holy See might simply go along with the recommendations of the Korean bishops who are pushing for this assassin to be recognized as a saint. I made my objections clear enough, I think, in that 2014 article but today I want to propose a positive action that the Japanese could take in response to this.

Konishi Yukinaga
The Catholic Church in Japan should, I think, propose a more worthy figure from their own history for canonization. I think the Japanese bishops should start a cause for the canonization of Konishi Yukinaga. For those unfamiliar with his exploits, you can read the story of the conflict he is most famous for in my recent article, “Clash of Monarchies: The Imjin War”. Konishi Yukinaga was a great Japanese warrior, a daimyo and a Catholic. He was also the leader of the vanguard force of the samurai armies of Toyotomi Hideyoshi which invaded Korea in 1592. He led the conquest of Busan, was instrumental in the conquest of the Korean royal capital of Seoul and gained further fame for his defense of the captured city of Pyongyang against the armies of Ming China. After a peaceful interlude he arranged, Yukinaga, who was also known by his baptismal name of Augustine (in Portuguese) Konishi, still played a prominent part in the second invasion of Korea, even fighting alongside a bitter rival of his, the daimyo Kato Kiyomasa who had a vicious hatred of Christians. In the final period of the war, Konishi was most distinguished by his heroic defense of Suncheon Castle against much larger Chinese and Korean forces.

All of that makes, I think, Konishi Yukinaga worthy of being considered one of the best Japanese warriors of his time but, of course, it does not make someone worthy of canonization. That being said, neither does the murder of a foreign dignitary which is what Anh Jung Geun is most known for. Is there anything else that would make Konishi Yukinaga more worthy of being “Saint Augustine Konishi”? I would say, yes. In the first place, his faith was obviously important to him and this is significant as other Japanese Christians of the period are often accused of being insincere in their conversions. It is not uncommon to find Japanese daimyos in particular, Otomo Sorin comes to mind, who are accused of converting simply to gain greater favor and cooperation from the Portuguese and who did not genuinely accept Christianity. Personally, I find such accusations to often be unfair but in any event this would not apply to Konishi Yukinaga. After the war in Korea, following the death of Lord Hideyoshi, the Japanese fought another civil war over who would take charge of the country. Konishi backed Ishida Mitsunari, unfortunately for him, rather than Tokugawa Ieyasu and was defeated at the Battle of Sekigahara. In the aftermath, in keeping with custom, the defeated daimyos committed ritual suicide. Konishi, who was captured by Takenaka Shigekado at Mount Ibuki, refused to kill himself because, as a Christian, this would be a sin and so he was beheaded by his captors.

Konishi Yukinaga
This, I think, is proof enough that Konishi was a sincere Christian. However, more than that, he was also something of a peacemaker and got himself into some trouble over his desire to make peace. The Koreans would no doubt object to the canonization of the conqueror of their capital just as the Japanese object to the idea of canonizing the assassin of their first prime minister but Konishi Yukinaga was no anti-Korean bigot. Before he landed his invasion force, he sent a last message to again urge the Koreans to join with his forces in friendship to fight against their Chinese overlords only to be rebuffed. Then, after China intervened in the war, he and a Chinese envoy arranged a period of peace for several years. This was controversial because it was a peace based on a deception. Konishi and the Chinese envoy both, basically, agreed to tell their masters what they wanted to hear. So, Konishi Yukinaga told Lord Hideyoshi that the Chinese had agreed to surrender and the Chinese envoy told the Ming Emperor that the Japanese had agreed to surrender. For a fear years, the war ended and peace prevailed until Lord Hideyoshi received a message from the Ming Emperor granting him the tributary status of “King of Japan” which caused no small amount of outrage and a great deal of anger directed at Konishi Yukinaga.

Obviously, this was not a successful or very sound effort at peace but it was an effort to make peace nonetheless. “Blessed are the peacemakers” is what Christ said and Konishi Yukinaga had tried, even if not by the best means, to be such a peacemaker. We can also see that Konishi was not an anti-Korean bigot as well as how serious he was about his faith by the fact that he married a Korean woman during the war and she was baptized as a Christian, taking the name of “Julia”. Historians still debate the issue but it is quite possible that the Catholic Japanese samurai were the first Christians to ever come to Korea and if so, Julia would have converted at the time of her marriage which shows that Konishi Yukinaga had no prejudice against Koreans and also that his Christian faith was important enough to him that he insist his wife become Catholic as well so that they would have a proper Catholic family.

Having said all of this, I have no doubt, given the level of knee-jerk anti-Japanese sentiment in Korea, that the Koreans would find a cause for the canonization of Konishi Yukinaga objectionable. Yet, I fail to see how anyone could legitimately say that it is more objectionable that their effort to canonize an assassin. Konishi Yukinaga, though I will grant he is far from the traditional sort of candidate, seems to me to be a far more worthy individual and I think a legitimate case could be made for his consideration for sainthood. Perhaps, if the Japanese hierarchy began to seriously take up this suggestion and begin looking into a cause for the canonization of Konishi Yukinaga, it might make some think twice about the obviously politically motivated effort to canonize Anh Jung Geun. The process is different these days and the more thought I have given this, the more I think it is an idea worth pursuing. Japanese Catholics might try praying for the intercession of Konishi Yukinaga. Perhaps a miracle will be forthcoming. If a formal investigation of his merits were to result in the Korean episcopacy re-thinking their own motivations, that would be something of a miracle itself.


  1. MM,

    I have stumbled upon your blog lately, and will say that you do write interesting, thoughtful posts that are very worth the read as a person who is also deeply interested in history.

    As for this blog post, I definitely learned something new about Konishi Yukinaga, including his specific actions that reflected his Catholic faith. Even though he is the enemy general in my country’s perspective, it is always worth learning about them.

    I’ve read your 2014 article “Assassins, Sainthood, and Joan of Arc”, and just read your article here as well, along with your perspective on Ahn Jung-geun. I do understand that when only focusing on the act of shooting Ito, Ahn Jung-geun may appear to be this deranged, nationalist fanatic and an anti-Japanese bigot. This I assume how you see him based on your articles; I feel that you only know him for the shooting of Ito and you believe that this event is the only reason the Korean Catholic Church is considering his sainthood (I don’t know the fullest extent of what you know and believe. If I’m wrong, please correct me). I just feel that there is a lack of understanding of Ahn’s life and personality, and the aspects that made the Catholic Church of Korea to call for his sainthood.

    I’d like to make clear that the Korean bishops have not considered Ahn’s act of shooting the sole reason for canonization or comparison with Joan of Arc. Even Cardinal Andrew Yeom in his 2013 sermon stated that Ahn should not be simply remembered for the shooting or be the reason for sainthood, but rather be remembered for his sincerity in the Catholic faith.

    After Ahn converted to Catholicism at the age of 16-17, he, his father and the German priest Father Wilhelm preached the faith in the streets (this is written in his autobiography and other secondary records of Ahn). He even requested Gustav Mutel, the Archbishop of Seoul that time, to help with establishing a Catholic college that will develop education on the Catholic faith to the lay Korean people (this request was turned down by Mutel). Later in 1906, Ahn established two Catholic schools, known as the Samheung school and the Donwhi school and served as the principal of both schools.

    That’s the early part of his life. But now the next part of his experience will show that Ahn was also a merciful man who followed his faith even in battle. In 1908 Ahn became a lieutenant general of the Korean resistance. He led about 200-300 soldiers to battle against the Japanese. True, he didn’t wave a banner like Saint Joan of Arc. He did have to use his weapon to defend himself and his men. But when he captured several Japanese soldiers, he decided to spare their lives and release them despite strong opposition from his men. His reasoning, according to his biography, was that he never desired freedom and independence through the death of millions of Japanese, and that killing them would be sinful to God. And similar to how Konishi Yukinaga pleaded to the Koreans to join forces with him for the expedition, Ahn also pleaded to his captives that they fight not for imperialism, but for peace, and stated that he hoped to see them again as comrades standing for the friendship between Korea and Japan (a friendship that Ahn believed was being ruined by Ito’s acts in Korea).

  2. (Continuing from previous post)

    Though his releasing of the captives resulted in revealing his position (hence losing the battle and many of his men), he never expressed regret for releasing the captives. As he and his remaining men, who were low on supplies and were very much lost in the mountains, slowly found their way back to Vladivostok, he motivated the exhausted men through preaching of the Gospels, even convincing two of them to convert to the Catholic faith once they returned. Ahn writes that it was God who kept him determined to live and make it back alive.

    A year later, he shot Ito at Harbin. Ahn writes that he fired four shots at Ito, then fired three more at the men beside him (because Ahn wasn’t fully aware of Ito’s appearance and assumed there could be a decoy). He had one last bullet, which he hesitated to shoot because he worried that he may shoot an innocent person that had nothing to do with Ito, and that’s when the Russian guards arrested him.

    Whether his deed is justified or not is something that Korea and Japan will debate for a long time. And I understand even if you consider him unjustified. What I wanted to express here is to see Ahn as a man who professed his Catholic faith. He’s not a perfect man, just like any Saint ever canonized, but he was sincere in following our Lord and desired peace between Korea and her neighboring countries, never a bigot or a fanatic. Even his captors also found themselves respecting him; many of the guards asked for his calligraphy as souvenirs (which they kept for a long time; some of their descendants eventually donated them back to the Ahn Memorial); one of the guards, Chiba Toshichi, even built the Dairin-ji Temple in the Miyagi prefecture to honor Ahn and to treasure the friendship he shared with him.

    How you see Ahn Jung-geun and the call for his sainthood is up to you. I just hope that this could give you a chance to see him in another perspective other than just a deranged man who "was not in full possession of his faculties", and see other parts in his life and experiences that became reasons for the Korean Catholic Church’s to call for sainthood, regardless of whether or not these reasons are sufficient.

    Thanks for reading, and my apologies for the long post. I wish you a good day.

    (A final question: you wrote on your other article that you read about him and his writings. Does this mean that you read his full autobiography, including the records of his trial, his unfinished “Peace in Asia” essay, and the “Unification of People’s Hearts” essay? If so, do you know where you found them? I have found all of this in Korean and Japanese texts, but never in English. If there are, I’d be very interested to see them too)

    1. I know of them but have not read them, only summaries from those who have. You are correct that Ahn Jung-geun was not hateful toward all Japanese and I never said he was. Indeed, he seemed to have a very exalted view of the Meiji Emperor of Japan and saw him as a great man and a hope for Asia but that his agents in Korea were messing everything up. He thought he was doing the Emperor a favor by assassinating his prime minister, which itself I think tends to underline the notion that he was not thinking clearly.

      Part of what impressed his Japanese guards was this attitude of his admiration for Japan and the Emperor. If he hated anyone it seemed to be westerners as he envisioned Japan, Korea and China joining together to eradicate all Europeans from Asia. He believed, or at least so he stated, that the worst "crime" Prince Ito Hirobumi had committed was deceiving the Meiji Emperor. He was also, for exampled, thrilled with reading about Japanese victories over the Russians and was only sorry that the war ended without Japan wiping out the Russians completely. He got on very well with Japanese guards and prisoners alike because he effectively blamed every evil on Ito Hirobumi while lavishing praise on all other Japanese.

      None of this, however, changes the fact that it was his actions as an assassin which is why he is remembered and celebrated today and that cannot be set apart from the rest of his life. Fanatic anti-Christians in Communist China, for example, do not celebrate him because he was a Catholic but because he assassinated the prime minister of Japan. Was he anti-Japanese, no, you are certainly correct there, he was anti-European but that in itself is part of what makes him seem rather unbalanced, that he could believe the Meiji Emperor and all the other Japanese were innocently naive of everything happening in Korea he disapproved of and that only one man was to blame and this justified his murder. And, it was that. He was not shooting a man in uniform, carrying a gun but an elderly, unarmed civilian. Personally, I think there are probably other Korean Catholics of equal piety who did not assassinate people who would be more worthy candidates for canonization. I certainly know there are figures of Korean history more worthy of being celebrated national heroes, including ones who fought against the Japanese in face-to-face combat.

    2. As I have read the full text and interpreted his writings myself, I cannot fully agree that he hated westerners. Nowhere in his writing did he write his desire to eradicate westerners from Asia. He wrote instead that the three Asian countries should unite to prevent western imperialism and a possible invasion launched by a western power. Yes, you are correct that he was fascinated that the Japanese defeated the Russians; however, he lamented afterwards not because the Japanese failed to completely wipe out the Russians, but because the Japanese started to occupy the Korean peninsula with a series of unfair treaties that made the Empire of Korea a protectorate of Japan. The fact that the Japanese were following the examples of western powers’ acts of imperialism was what upset Ahn. Read fully of his “Peace in East Asia” essay, and you will see that he did have some distrust for Europe, but didn’t hate them or desired their eradication.
      You are right and I do have to admit that Ahn is mostly remembered for the assassination. Ito was an unarmed civilian there at Harbin, but his purpose there was a diplomacy meeting with Russian representative Kokotsov with agreements that partly included the request of Russia’s acknowledgement of Japan’s authority over Korea. Ito was still the President of the Privy Council of Japan, and he was responsible for the several treaties and acts that served as stepping-stones to the annexation of Korea (including the disbandment of the Korean military, the consignment of Korea’s diplomatic rights, executive rights, and judicial rights, the establishment of the Resident-General of Korea, and the dethronement of Emperor Gojong in 1907.) To make matters worse, Ito had even agreed with the annexation plan (which he was originally against and favored a protectorate Korea) that was presented to him by Katsura Taro in April, six months prior to his death. Ito didn’t hold a physical weapon like a gun, but he very well wielded the weapon of power that controlled the Korean peninsula and bring it under Japan’s rule. With the Korean population viewing Ito’s acts atrocious, Ahn very much sent the message of the people to Ito physically. Killing is controversial, but I think the intolerable deeds that Ito committed in Korea should also be considered when understanding this unfortunate event.

    3. Well, he had started to learn French and then stopped, saying that if he learned the French language it would make him a "slave". I think that tends to denote a rather anti-western attitude, especially when combined with his proposal for China, Korea and Japan to unite against the western presence in Asia. This is exactly the same attitude expressed by the German Kaiser Wilhelm II who urged Europeans to unite against the "Yellow Peril". Ahn was doing the same, wanting Asians to unite against the "White Peril". As for Ito, yes, he was the most important man on the scene but if that can be justification for killing an unarmed civilian then practically any political assassination would be justified as well and that doesn't seem like something any Christian Church would condone. Again, no different than the desire to canonize Balthasar Gerard by the apostolic vicar Sasbout Vosmeer.

  3. The episode of Ahn refusing to learn French involves with the conflict he had with Gustav Mutel. Remember my early comment above in which Ahn suggested the establishment of Catholic schools for the education of Koreans to Archbishop Mutel? Mutel refused with the reasoning that “education of Koreans will harm their faith”. This reasoning was unfathomable to the hotheaded, 17 year old teen Ahn, and out of frustration he refused to learn French anymore. Can we connect that incident with his distrust in westerners and his “Peace in East Asia” essay? Rather, I think the events such as the French and American Campaign in Korea are likely catalysts to Ahn’s negative view on the westerners than his the incident with Mutel (He even sent a letter to Mutel in 1910 that suggested reconciliation). On the surface, it appears that his essay proposes the three countries unite to eradicate the presence of westerners and never to ally with them. But like I said earlier in my comments, the full text of his proposal suggests very little of that. The only thing I can find in his proposal that could make him look anti-western was his criticism: “Several nations in Europe have been militaristic and are competing through wars without a sense of guilt.” The rest of the text was mostly pleas to Japan to form peace with her neighbors Korea and China as a way to abandon her militaristic, imperialist ways, along with a warning that should Japan continue on with her imperialist motives, Korea and China will have to ally with the westerners (the fact that he even considered this possibility is an indication that alliance with westerners is not out of the question – a person who supposedly despises the west wouldn’t think of such) to defeat her and would be saddening as the same Asian neighbors must turn against each other. The Yellow Peril by Kaiser Wilhelm II was used to justify European colonization in Asia, specifically China, and that European presence in Asia was necessary to quell possible invasions by China or Japan. If Yellow Peril is about justifying imperialism and colonization, then Ahn’s proposal is on a different page, calling for unity and the prevention of war.

    On the debate about political assassination, I think I’ll stop there at an impasse. As a fellow Catholic, I agree with you and know killing is wrong and sinful. At the same time, I do have to admit that I have second thoughts when it comes to political assassination, since my family comes from a country that experienced annexation and oppression.

    Regardless of our disagreement, I sincerely appreciate you taking the time to respond to my comments with your honest opinions. I love my country and her heroes, but I always think it’s worth reading critical arguments that suggest otherwise, and so I respect your posts.

    I wish you well.


    1. I don't think the justification of the French "campaign" (hardly that) in Korea holds water considering that it was done in reaction to the slaughter of Christians and Catholic missionaries in particular. The idea that an Asian coalition against the west being something to prevent imperialism also doesn't make sense considering that, by this time, the Europeans were already there. As with any time, weak countries have to choose between which stronger countries they would rather join with and when making such decisions, sometimes events prove your choice correct, sometimes not, sometimes there is no good option. The Kaiser too was urging unity to prevent war and Europe was invaded by Asian powers long before any of the European empires that colonized Asia ever existed. Even today, while no European countries have any holdings in Asia, there is an Asian nation which still retains a bit of Europe conquered in centuries past.

      The problem with political assassinations being winked at, especially from the Catholic Church, is that this would open up a great deal of old wounds the Church has at least claimed to wish to leave alone to heal. Korea was ruled by Japan for about a couple of decades. Ireland was ruled by the British for quite a few centuries and the British Crown still reigns over the north. Can you imagine the Catholic Church canonizing a devout member of the IRA who, for example, set the bomb that killed Lord Mountbatten or some other such figure? Korea has great national heroes, due to their time and place they were not Catholic ones, but great national heroes who fought the Japanese in honorable, face to face combat, heroes who defeated the Japanese any of whom I think would be more worthy of adulation than an assassin.

      The political aspect is the problem which is why I brought up the possibility of canonizing Lord Konishi Yukinaga, who seems to have been a devout Catholic but those who know him mostly don't know him as that. They know him as the daimyo who led the vanguard of the samurai armies that conquered Korea just as most people who know and celebrate Ahn don't do so because of his religious beliefs but because he assassinated Japan's first prime minister.

  4. Augustine is very interesting character.


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