As Pope Francis visits Japan, an 83-year-old Filipino historian is hoping the pontiff will recognize a Japanese samurai who once offered his life for the faith.
Dom Justo Ukon Takayama, or “Justus Ucondono” as missionaries fondly called him, was a warrior who fought under the banner of the cross in the land of the rising sun.
He was an eminent Japanese feudal governor who served under Japan’s three hegemons — Oda, Hideyoshi, and Toshiie — who unified Japan.
In 1587, Chancellor Toyotomi Hideyoshi took drastic steps against Takayama, who declined to obey the chancellor’s order to renounce the faith.
Takayama was baptized a Christian in Sawa Castle on June 1, 1563, when he was 11 years old.
For refusing to renounce his Christian faith, Takayama was sent to Manila as an exile on Dec. 21,1614. Months after his arrival, he died on Feb. 3, 1615 in the old walled city of Intramuros.
The faithful of Manila promptly presented the Japanese warrior’s case to the Vatican for beatification. But after centuries passed, Takayama seemed to have been forgotten.
In 1963, Cardinal Rufino Santos of Manila endorsed the cause of the samurai to the Church in Japan. But there were no updates as church officials came and went.
Then one day, a Filipino history enthusiast passed by a statue of a Japanese man in the Plaza Dilao in the old city of Manila where the samurai supposedly baptized Japanese converts.
Historian Ernesto De Pedro wondered why a Japanese figure would standing as such in the Philippines. He did not give it much attention until a group of Japanese Protestant pastors came to inquire.
The Protestants were researching about a certain Takayama whose statue stands in the middle of Manila. They found nothing.
De Pedro wondered. “Why nothing?” he asked. He did his own research. He found out later that in Manila Takayama “Dom Justo Ukon Don.” In the papal archives, he was identified as “Ukon Don.”
“There was no Takayama. Nobody knew a Takayama,” said De Pedro. The confusion was one of the reasons why the initial process of the cause for beatification took years after it was first presented by the Manila Archdiocese to the Vatican.
In 1986, a group of Filipino and Japanese historians supported De Pedro’s search to find out whether Takayama was a real person, an actual figure of history or just a composite of Christian samurais.
In the Vatican, De Pedro met Jesuit priest Paolo Molinari who was working on the cause of the Japanese samurai.
Father Molinari asked help from the Filipino in translating documents.
“After you complete your work, I’d like to invite you to join the historical committee that will examine the documents,” Father Molinari told De Pedro.
A team of translators in Manila was organized. De Pedro continued his studies and later traveled to Japan to see the places where Takayama supposedly lived.
With his own money, De Pedro set up the “Lord Justus Takayama Professorial Chair in Philippine-Japanese Studies” at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila.
He wanted to ensure that studies on the life of Takayama will continue. He also organized international symposia on the topic that brought in experts from the Vatican and Japan.
In 1994, De Pedro handed the translated documents to Father Molinari, and on the same year, Takayama was declared a “Servant of God.”
The next year, De Pedro handed a book on Takayama to Cardinal Peter Seiichi Shirayanagi of Tokyo during the prelate’s visit to Manila.
The cardinal promised De Pedro that “wherever Takayama will be beatified, whether in Rome, Tokyo, or Manila, you will be the guest, all expenses paid.”
The promise was fulfilled on Feb. 7, 2017, when Takayama was finally beatified in Osaka.
De Pedro was also the first to commission an image of the Blessed Takayama. With the help of friends, he was able to produce 24 statues destined for altars in six countries.
“I adopted Takayama as a salvation move,” said De Pedro. He said he is not a religious person and does not even go to confession because it is “tiresome” to repeat the same sins over and over again.
He takes comfort that he used to attend Mass every day when he was still studying in the seminary. “Of course, you have a lot of nonsensical reasoning if you want to escape a basic duty,” he said.
It all changed when he caught the attention of the late Cardinal Jaime Sin of Manila.
“Why are you wallowing in that river of filth? Get out. You are worth so much more. Get a worthwhile cause,” De Pedro recalled the exact words of the cardinal.
The historian was then working as director general of the Manila Film Center, which showed all sorts of film during the years of the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos.
That was all in the past. Now at 83 years of age, De Pedro only wants his mission accomplished. He wants to see Takayama, the blessed samurai, declared a saint.
De Pedro said he has lived a full life, one filled with “small miracles.”
He recalled one “miracle” when he was carrying a pile of Takayama documents inside the Hong Kong airport. He prayed for Takayama’s help while walking.
Out of nowhere, a young Japanese tour leader offered to help.
“You know what’s the tour leader’s name was?” he said. “It was Nakayama,” De Pedro burst out laughing.
The old man has been diagnosed with an eye problem that doctors said might lead to blindness. De Pedro, however, refused treatment.
He said he doesn’t care if he goes blind as he had lived a full life. When he was reminded that Takayama has not been canonized yet, he agreed to see an ophthalmologist.
With Pope Francis visiting Japan, De Pedro hopes that his work of a lifetime will see fruition.
“I have devoted 33 years of my life to Takayama. I want to bring it to completion,” he said “At least my life would mean something.”