NAGASAKI CITY - This quaint port city in Japan's southernmost Kyushu island may only be known to many Filipinos as the second A-bomb city, but it actually has a special connection to the Philippines formed even earlier than World War II.
Nagasaki was where Lorenzo Ruiz de Manila, the first and only Filipino saint, was martyred along with 15 others for refusing to denounce their religion.
San Lorenzo Ruiz, who was born in Binondo to a Chinese father and a Tagalog mother, fled the Philippines in 1636 after he was accused of a murder he did not commit.
Leaving behind a wife, two sons and a daughter, San Lorenzo joined a group led by Dominican priest Fray Domingo Ybanez bound for Nagasaki.
Based on stories about his life culled from the Internet, San Lorenzo was close to the Dominicans since in his youth, he worked at the Binondo Convent as a sacristan (altar boy). He was later taken in by the priests as a scribe or calligrapher due to his remarkable penmanship.
But his exact age could not be determined except that he could have been born between 1600 to 1610 and left the Philippines when he was in his late twenties or early thirties.
San Lorenzo and his group arrived in Nagasaki at a time when Christianity was banned in the country and believers were persecuted, tortured, and put to death.
Christianity was first introduced in Japan by Francis Xavier, also canonized by the Roman Catholic Church as a saint, who arrived in Kagoshima also in Kyushu island from China on August 15, 1549. He got permission from the local daimyo to preach in Japan leading to the proliferation of Christianity.
But Toyotomi Hideyoshi banned Christianity in 1587 fearing that the influence of Christian missionaries on the Japanese would pave the way for the country's colonization.
To serve as warning to defiant believers, 26 male Christians (six foreigners and 20 Japanese including three children) were arrested in Kyoto and Osaka and brought to Nagasaki in 1597.
They were crucified on Nishizaka Hill (now known as "Mountain of Martyrs" or 26 Martyrs Hill), which became the site of many more deaths including that of San Lorenzo Ruiz, during the more than three centuries Christianity was proscribed in Japan.
In 1614, the Edict of Persecution (against Christians) was issued upon the orders of Tokugawa Ieyasu in a bid to further clamp down on the spread of Christianity in Japan. There were 300,000
Christians in Japan at the time the ban - lifted only in 1873 - was implemented.
During the time of the persecution, Christians - priest or layman, foreigner or local - were either crucified, burned at the stake, hanged or beheaded if they refused to denounce their faith.
Rewards were also given to those who would report the whereabouts of priests and believers.
Hence when San Lorenzo and his companions arrived in Nagasaki they were almost immediately arrested and imprisoned. He and his companions were tortured for more than a year, including hanged by their feet, their heads submerged in water til l they neared death.
They also suffered other forms of torture like having needles inserted between their fingernails, and were beaten unconscious forcing some of St. Lorenzo's companions to renounce their faith.
On Sept. 27, 1637, St. Lorenzo and 15 others were brought to Nishizaka Hill where they were hung upside down in a pit and left to die. San Lorenzo, the last one to die in the group, passed away after two days. His body was cremated and thrown to the sea. He was canonized on October 18, 1987 at the Vatican by His Holiness Pope John Paul II, making him the first Filipino saint and martyr.
Today, inside the Naka-machi Church compound in downtown Nagasaki, a statue of San Lorenzo stands beside a marker for the 16 martyrs - the group that included Christians from Japan, France, Spain, Italy who refused to renounce their faith. "Shrine of the First Filipino Martyr and Saint, Lorenzo Ruiz de Manila. Inaugurated and Blessed by Manila Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin and the Most Reverend Francis Xavier Shimmoto, Archbishop of Nagasaki on October 2, 1992. On the spot where Lorenzo proclaimed his faith," the marker on the statue reads.
But not many Filipinos living in Nagasaki know about the Shrine for San Lorenzo, nor that he was put to death in this city.
Fr. Francis Kawaguchi, who used to say English mass at the Naka-machi Church, admitted most of the Filipinos he has been in contact with don't know much about San Lorenzo. "Maybe I need to talk more about him to them."
Mr. Kawaguchi, who has been a priest for 32 years, is familiar to Filipinos, noting that among the many foreign groups in Nagasaki, Filipinos are the most devoted churchgoers.
Proof of this is when Mr. Kawaguchi moved to Kaminoshima Church, a 30-minute drive from downtown Nagasaki, many Filipinos who used to hear his English mass in Naka-machi now hears mass at his Church not minding the long drive.
Still, he said much more has to be done to ensure Filipinos remain devoted Catholics in a foreign land. "By my experience, you respect priests and nuns. Your character is very sociable, very nice but I think catechism is lacking. Some Filipina mothers living here, for example, do not teach catechism to their children. They must teach them how to pray," he said.
Mr. Kawaguchi, who has picked up a few Tagalog words due to his long association with Filipinos, added he also wants to reach out other Filipinos in Nagasaki.
"There are many Filipinas in Nagasaki but they work at night especially on Friday and Saturday so they have no time to attend mass, they usually prefer to sleep and rest all day (of Sunday)," he said.
He referred to Filipinas who work as entertainers in nightclubs. Unlike other parts of Japan, Filipinos in Nagasaki only number to about a thousand, including entertainers, students and wives of Japanese men.
There are no Filipino organizations in the area, hence, most Filipinos just go to church to meet and make friends with their countrymen.
Celia Lopez Umali moved here from Nagoya eight years ago to teach at the Nagasaki University's Economics Department. Ms. Umali said she did not know anyone in Nagasaki until she met Filipinos who attended Mr. Kawaguchi's English mass in Naka-machi.
She met Lisette A. Sasaki who moved to Nagasaki in 1993 to follow her Japanese husband. Ms. Sasaki also regularly attends Mr. Kawaguchi's mass. She introduced Ms. Umali to other Filipinas living in Nagasaki expanding her group of friends and making her feel more at home.
In a talk with BusinessWorld, Ms. Umali admitted she had no idea that San Lorenzo was martyred here nor did she know that there was a shrine for the saint in Naka-machi.
But she said she likes Nagasaki better because it has more Catholic churches than in Nagoya or perhaps in other parts of Japan. "Sometimes it feels like the Philippines, you see a Church in every corner," she added.
Nagasaki and its neighboring towns in Kyushu can be considered as the seat of Christianity in Japan since the religion was first introduced in these areas in the 16th century. It is also home to the hidden Christians, or believers who practiced their faith in hiding during the time it was forbidden, hence, religion survived the persecution.
Leotes Marie Lugo is guest researcher with the Asahi Shimbun Asia Network.