Christianity in a cold climate – Jesuit encounters with Japan

When Jesuit missionaries arrived in Japan, they found a rich and beautiful culture - their early dialogues left deep marks on civilisation in Europe and in Asia.

The Jesuit fathers, Detail from a 17th century Japanese paper screen of the Jesuit Fathers arriving in Japan.
The Jesuit fathers, Detail from a 17th century Japanese paper screen of the Jesuit Fathers arriving in Japan. Credit: Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images

I shall endeavour to provide a historical sketch of the early encounters of the Japanese in Japan with members of the Society of Jesus, a Roman Catholic religious order of men founded in 1540 to propagate the Christian faith. The founding of the Jesuits, as members of the Society of Jesus are referred to, overlapped with a momentous period in world history. This was the era of European maritime exploration and expansion around the globe. It could, in fact, be referred to as the first great ‘age of globalisation’ — for better and for worse. It was also an era when Christian missionaries embarked on missionary enterprises on multiple continents, from Mexico, Colombia, and Paraguay to India and Indonesia, from the Malay Peninsula to Macau in China, and further east to Yamaguchi, Kyoto, and Nagasaki in Japan.

Each of these countries and cultures presented unique challenges for the missionaries who arrived on their shores. Japan, the furthest missionary ‘outpost’ of the European Jesuits, was a unique civilisation, with a complex language and culture that did not easily lend itself to mastery, or even initial comprehension. What then were some of the cultural and religious issues that the missionaries and their Japanese interlocutors faced when they first encountered each other? Before answering this question, we need to clarify how Europeans first learned about the existence of Japan.

Our story begins with Marco Polo’s journeys overland across the Silk Road to the court of the Mongols in the 13th century. In his famous diaries, which were dictated sometime between 1295 and 1298, we find a curious reference to a land that we now know represents the Japanese archipelago. In subsequent editions of the early illuminated manuscripts, which were produced in the Republic of Venice not long after the invention of the Gutenberg handpress, there are references to ‘Zipangu’ or ‘Cyampagu’, i.e. to a fabled group of islands lying to the east of the Chinese empire. Polo heard reports of such isles full of silver and gold, but he was never able to reach them.

Europeans thus continued to be ignorant of the exact location of Japan for another 250 years, until finally one day in 1543, a group of Portuguese vessels sailing in the South China Sea were blown off course by a storm, and unexpectedly landed on the shores of Tanegashima, a small island off the southern tip of Kyushu. The Portuguese had begun exploring the western coast of Africa in the early 15th century. By the 1480s, they finally succeeded in rounding the ‘Cape of Storms’, known today as the Cape of Good Hope, a treacherous sea route through the currents where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans come together over razor-sharp jagged rocks not far below the surface.

As they continued their explorations along the eastern coast of Africa, they established several safe ports, including the strategically located Mozambique Island, where they could winter and wait for the winds that would allow them to sail farther east. This eventually led to the conquest of Goa in 1510 and of Malacca the following year. With these footholds secured, the passage was open to the South China Sea. The lease of Macau along the Pearl River Delta in 1557 from the Ming court made it possible for the Portuguese to act as intermediaries in the trade between China and Japan. In fact, the Europeans quickly developed a thriving market in silk and other rare and coveted commodities, including spices and porcelain. The Portuguese were quick to take advantage of the official ban on Japanese vessels sailing into Chinese ports. The Ming coastguard was trying to prevent the frequent raids carried out by the wako, a group of Japanese pirates, who were often working hand-in-hand with Chinese shipmen looking to make a quick profit.

Japan was thus integrated into the international hub of trading outposts of the so-called East Indies under the system of Royal Patronage [Padroado Real] of the Portuguese court in Lisbon. This sphere of influence included places and cultures as diverse and distant from each other as Mozambique, Goa, Malacca (Melaka), Macau, and Nagasaki. These commercial and diplomatic developments set the scene for the arrival in Japan of Francis Xavier (1506–52), one of the founders, together with Ignatius of Loyola, of the Society of Jesus. Having landed in Kagoshima on August 15, 1549, he soon set about establishing the first Christian communities in that country. He accomplished this despite the immense difficulties of communication and the dangers that came with arriving in a country of sixty-six kingdoms governed by rival samurai engaged in war with each other. After he had secured permission from several local warlords to preach his faith, he was able to spend approximately two years in the country. With his activities in India, the Malay Peninsula, and Indonesia, Xavier soon became the idealised prototype of the Roman Catholic missionary who captured the imagination of his fellow Europeans and inspired them to follow in his footsteps. This was reflected in the many works of art that represented his life and the books that were written about his endeavours. The latter were printed in numerous editions and in a variety of languages all across Europe, from Lisbon to Paris and from Rome to Augsburg.

One curious volume, which recounts the story of the Japanese martyrdoms of 1622, printed in Polish in Poznań in 1625, includes a unique engraving of Xavier as a pilgrim carrying a staff and a rucksack. The inscription in Polish and Latin, reads as follows: ‘S. Franciszek Xawier— Societatis Iesu—do Japoniejęsię pieszo wyprawujący’ [St. Francis Xavier, of the Society of Jesus, setting off on foot to Japan]. This image is symbolic rather than literal, for it expressed the idea of the Christian mission as an urgent pilgrimage to the ends of the known world. This ideal would inspire generations of Jesuits as well as other religious orders of Catholic Europe to make their way to Japan.

What specific role did the Jesuits play in these encounters with the civilisations of East Asia in the aftermath of Xavier’s foundation of Christian communities in that part of the world? And what did they hope to accomplish, as they left Europe thousands of miles behind them, many never to return to their native shores? Their peculiar approach to other cultures becomes evident from the way they came to understand the Jesuit missionary enterprise (or empresa, as they often referred to it in Spanish and Portuguese) and the means they employed to introduce Christianity to an ancient civilisation that had very different religious traditions and cultural norms.

The most influential among Xavier’s successors was an Italian nobleman by the name of Alessandro Valignano, who arrived in Japan in 1579, after having first spent several years in India and the Portuguese enclave of Macau. Valignano had been appointed ‘Visitor’, i.e. delegate, of the Jesuit Superior General in Rome, Everard Mercurian (1514–80), to all the missions of the East Indies. This gave him the authority to formulate a new policy of ‘cultural accommodation’. This approach differed greatly from the European model of conquest in the Americas, where the sword and the cross arrived together on the same ship, and often worked in tandem to further the colonial interests of the Portuguese and Spanish. But how and why did he come to conclude that missionaries needed to adapt, rather than try to impose their own ways upon the people of Japan?

In a letter penned in 1595 to Claudio Acquaviva (1543–1615), the Jesuit superior general who succeeded Mercurian, Valignano reflects upon his more than 20 years of experience in Asia. He recounts in detail what he had been told soon after his arrival in Japan by Otomo Sorin (1530–87), a Japanese daimyo [lord] who was known as Don Francisco, or King Francisco after his baptism. This powerful warlord of the kingdom of Bungo in eastern Kyushu had met Francis Xavier two decades earlier, and in the 1580s became the Jesuits’ great benefactor and protector. During their lively conversations Sorin and several other Japanese Christian samurai, including Arima Harunobu (1567–1612) and Omura Sumitada (1533–87), had told Valignano in no uncertain terms that the Jesuits had to learn to understand and respect Japanese customs. Valignano reports the following about their conversations:

Lord Francisco of Bungo […] told me that if we wanted to attempt to convert Japan, we would have to master the language and live according to [Japanese] norms of civility (policía). Moreover, [he noted that] it could only be taken as a sign of diminished intelligence to imagine that a handful of foreigners could possibly induce the samurai and their lords to abandon their own time-honored customs and civilized forms of courtesy in order to accommodate themselves to our foreign ways […] which appeared to the Japanese to be most barbaric and lacking in civility.

He also said that if I could in some way find a remedy to this sad state of affairs, he would consider me an angel sent from God so that His Holy Law could spread throughout Japan with honor and esteem […] It is for these reasons that I convoked our first general consultation in Japan in the year 1580.

This letter is a valuable source, because it offers us a rare opportunity to hear – at least indirectly – the voices of influential members of the Japanese samurai elite, as they speak candidly with Valignano about the Christian mission and express their frustrations. The Jesuit Visitor took to heart what he had heard and soon enacted major changes.

Just before his departure in 1582, after two years of intense deliberations, the Jesuit Visitor wrote a long report to Rome to inform the General of the Resolutions he had compiled for the proper governance of the mission. In the opinion of the majority of missionaries, the only way to ensure the survival and development of the church in Japan was to promote the formation of a native clergy with the admittance of Japanese young men into the Order. These candidates needed, moreover, to be given proper training in both religious subjects as well as the humanities. This represented a major shift from the previous decade, during which the Christian community had continued to grow but had also been hindered by the strict and uncompromisingly negative view of the Japanese people adopted by the Portuguese Jesuit, Francisco Cabral (1529–1609). A former soldier, Cabral had expressed his contempt for the Japanese as unreliable and untrustworthy. As a result, he concluded that they could never become priests or Jesuits; and he insisted that they should be completely subordinate to their European superiors. But Valignano did not accept his view of Japan or the Japanese.

Valignano was well aware of the fact that the admission of native candidates into the Society of Jesus was a novel and a controversial idea in Europe. He thus felt the need to justify his new policy and provide a rebuttal to Cabral’s criticisms. In another letter penned to Rome, Valignano noted that:

If the [Japanese] are treated properly, go through the novitiate experiments, and acquire the requisite learning, we may confidently hope they will become able workers in no whit inferior to European subjects. They are truly a very capable people endowed with talents of a high order […] They are very courageous and patient in meeting adversity and hardship, and persevering and meticulous in their studies.

Having persuaded Acquaviva in Rome, Valignano decided in 1580 to establish a Jesuit novitiate (a house for initial religious training), two secondary schools or seminarios, and a college of higher learning. In the case of the College of Funai, which became the first Jesuit college in East Asia, it was the daimyo Otomo Sorin, who gave the Jesuits the land to build it in his kingdom. The aim of the collegio, which was later transferred to Nagasaki, was to provide a higher level of studies in both the European and Japanese humanities, as well as in philosophy and theology for those who were training for the priesthood and had already completed their basic studies at the seminario.

But what did the Jesuits teach at this college, which was attended by young European as well as Japanese Jesuits in training? Valignano wrote to Rome in 1583 and again in 1592 requesting that Jesuit scholars in Europe compile a summary of philosophy and theology for use in Japan, but this textbook never materialised. To remedy the situation, he assigned this crucial task to a Spanish Jesuit theologian in Japan. This was Pedro Gómez (1535–1600), who had taught the full curriculum of the studia humanitatis at the University of Coimbra before embarking for Asia, proving himself to be an able scholar. While in Portugal he had worked under Pedro da Fonseca (1528–99), a Portuguese Jesuit who was widely known in Europe as the ‘Aristotle of Portugal’.

Gómez’s compendium for the college in Japan included three parts: a treatise on astronomy; a partial translation of Aristotle’s De anima; and an adapted version of the Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent, which was first published in Rome in 1566. Gómez initially composed the compendium in Latin, but the students found it difficult to read in view of their limited mastery of the ancient language of Rome. To remedy this problem, he sought the help of two erudite former Buddhist monks, Paulo Yoho and Vicente Hoin, who had converted to Christianity and become Jesuits, and his fellow Spaniard, Pedro Ramón. Together they produced a Japanese translation, with many revisions and additions that reflected a Japanese mindset, between 1594 and 1595.

It is interesting to note that the only surviving manuscript copy of the original Latin version of 1593, preserved in the Vatican Library, was a gift of Queen Christina of Sweden (1626–89), who was living in Rome after abdicating the throne. She was an avid collector of rare books and manuscripts and a scholar in her own right. In 1995, I discovered the long-lost Japanese translation of this work, produced exactly 400 years earlier in 1595, in the archives of Magdalen College at the University of Oxford.

Soon after Valignano had succeeded in putting the mission on a new and more solid footing, he decided that it was time for Christian Europe to see at first hand the fruits of the Jesuit efforts in Japan. To achieve this goal, Valignano chose four boys and formed an ‘embassy’ to Europe. His purpose was both to recruit new missionaries for the mission and to find funding in Japan: the Jesuits were constantly on the verge of bankruptcy on account of the poverty of the majority of converts, who were unable to support them. The four young men embarked on what would become a sensational journey of encounter between East and West with a life of its own.

Among the great and the powerful who honoured them in Europe were Philip II of Spain, the Regent of Portugal, the Duke of Tuscany, the Doge and Senate of Venice, as well as the Dukes of both Milan and Mantua. Ito Mancio (1569–1612), one of the four boys, has been represented in numerous sketches, manuscripts, and works of art. Recently, a painting of Mancio produced in 1585 by Domenico Tintoretto (1560–1635) was discovered in Milan, where it is preserved by the Trivulzio Foundation.

While in Rome, the boys met two popes, beginning with the great benefactor of the Society of Jesus, Gregory XIII, who supported many colleges, including the four institutions founded by Valignano in Japan. After Gregory’s death they also met several times with his successor, Sixtus V. Their travels and very public audiences were widely reported and illustrated in several dozen editions about their journeys printed in Europe, including a German broadsheet newspaper that appeared in colour in Augsburg in 1586.

Upon their return to Japan after a voyage that had taken them across Asia to Europe and back over a period of eight years, between 1582 and 1590, the boys, now young men, were received in Kyoto by the Japanese regent, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537–98). After his subjugation of Kyushu, he had issued a decree in 1587 expelling the Jesuits. This development complicated matters for the delegation and for the future of the mission. Valignano was thus able to accompany the young men on their journey back to Japan only in his capacity as ambassador of the viceroy in India. Hideyoshi knew that the Jesuits remained in the country, but decided for a time to turn a blind eye to their missionary work and to their defiance of his decree.

Meanwhile, the embassy to Europe had brought back with them a Gutenberg handpress, which they used twice en route to print two works in Latin, one in Goa in 1587 and another in Macau the following year. The arrival of the press marked the beginning of a short-lived but very productive period of printing of devotional works, as well as a variety of educational materials, between 1590 and 1614. Curiously, the missionaries’ first use of movable metal type to print texts in Japanese script overlapped with the introduction of Korean metal type to Japan. Hideyoshi acquired this printing technology during his first invasion of Korea in 1590. The Korean casting of metal type predates Gutenberg by at least 150 years.

The Jesuits began by printing works in Japanese transliterated phonetically with Roman letters. The first such work to come off the press was an abridged edition of the Golden Legend (or Legenda aurea), that is, excerpts from the Lives of the Saints by Jacobo da Voragine (1228–98). Only two copies of this exceedingly rare Jesuit translation into Japanese from the original Latin survive to this day. One is preserved in the Bodleian Library in Oxford and the other in the Biblioteca Marciana of Venice.

These initial successes led the Jesuits to experiment with the casting of metal type in cursive Japanese script, including several characters on a single piece of type, which resulted in elegant masterpieces of early Japanese printing. Previously, works printed to resemble calligraphic brushstrokes had only been produced on individually hand-carved wooden blocks – a Chinese technique that dominated East Asian printing until the 19th century. Once they mastered these techniques, perhaps the greatest work the Jesuits produced, both in terms of the quality of translation as well as the creation of cursive metal type for printing, was the Giya do pekadoru or Guide of Sinners. This devotional book was composed by one of Catholic Europe’s most famous writers of the 16th century, Luis de Granada (1505–88), a Spanish Dominican. It is noteworthy that the four boys had the chance to meet him on their journeys throughout the Iberian Peninsula.

Other important works that came off the Jesuits’ mission press included the very first grammars of the Japanese language compiled between 1604 and 1608 by the Portuguese Jesuit, João Rodrigues (1562?–1633), who was known as Tçuzu or ‘Interpreter’. Rodrigues had arrived as a young boy in Asia and later worked as an interpreter for both Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu before being exiled to China after the missionaries fell out of favour with the shogunate. It is noteworthy that these grammars and dictionaries still serve today as key references for the historical study of the Japanese. Rodrigues’s careful analysis of the complex epistolary style, used for official documents and correspondence, and variations in dialects and vocabulary usage offer insight into a linguistic world that remains otherwise difficult to master.

Important innovations also took place in the arts. Instead of relying solely on imports from Europe, many devotional images were produced in Japan. Around 1590, the Italian Jesuit, Giovanni Niccolò (156–1626) founded a painting academy in Nagasaki, where he instructed his Japanese, Chinese, and European pupils in the art of European oil and watercolour painting, as well as in the production of etchings. Among the most famous images produced in Japan and later venerated by the Christians who went into hiding during the persecutions of the 17th century is a painting by an anonymous artist, Our Lady of the Snows, preserved in Nagasaki. Other images of the Madonna, as well as of Christ as Saviour, the Salvator Mundi, were prevalent among works produced by his school. These paintings were in high demand by Japanese Christians and missionaries alike, and some of them survived among the ‘hidden Christians’ in Nagasaki, Hirado, and the Goto Islands, where they used them for the purposes of worship. Other hybrid works of Namban, or ‘Southern Barbarian’ art (a term the Japanese coined to refer to all things Portuguese and Spanish), such as liturgical objects and coffers, intricately decorated with inlaid mother of pearl and lacquer, were also popular.

In later decades, Japanese artists worked in Macau, where they had been exiled in 1639 in the aftermath of the closing of Japan to the Europeans – with the notable exception of Dutch traders, who occupied the trading post of Dejima in Nagasaki until the 18th century. Among these artists was a group of sculptors who carved the famous façade of the Church of St Paul in Macau, which includes both saints and mythical creatures from East Asian lore.

As part of his strategy of cultural accommodation, Valignano also insisted on the pursuit of traditional Japanese arts, such as the tea ceremony or cha no yu. The Jesuit Rules for the Japanese Province, compiled in 1590, also mention a set of Rules for the Master of Tea. These included a meticulously compiled list of traditional utensils used during the ceremony that all Jesuit houses should obtain. Every Jesuit residence was to have a tearoom, where distinguished guests could be properly entertained. And special tea bowls with Christian motifs, including crosses, were produced for this specific purpose. In this way, the Jesuits in Japan began a process of creating a hybrid Japanese-Christian culture. Valignano’s key insight and inspiration was that the evangelisation of Japan was not to be interpreted as a civilised Europe bringing the Christian faith to a barbaric or foreign land. Rather, the missionaries’ work was to reflect that of the primitive church of apostolic times, when St Paul preached to the Greeks on the Areopagus. Valignano chose to apply the same principle to China and Chinese culture. Thus, Ancient Greece and Rome, which had become Christian, could serve as models for China and Japan.

Even after the persecution in Japan began in earnest, with the official ban on the Christian faith issued by shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543–1616) in 1614, curiosity and interest in Christian books persisted throughout the Edo period. It is interesting to note that the main conduit of information about Christianity became the publications in classical Chinese compiled and published by the Jesuits in China. The first Jesuit missionary in China to gain wide acceptance among the literati of the Ming dynasty was Matteo Ricci (1552–1610), whom Valignano had sent to Macau to begin his study of the Chinese language. Ricci would become the first westerner to master classical Chinese and compose both Christian, philosophical, and scientific works in that language. He was also the first to gain regular access to the Forbidden City, following his admittance to Beijing in 1601.

The missionaries in the Middle Kingdom were engaged at the imperial court as scientists – mathematicians, astronomers, and engineers. Their endeavours included activities as wide-ranging as the reform of the calendar based on astronomical observations and calculations, the production of maps (of the world and of China), hydraulics, and the building of military defences, including the design of cannons. But they did not forget that their main purpose for being in China was to propagate the Christian faith; and to that end they composed many works explaining the tenets of Christianity, beginning with basic summaries or catechisms, as well as treatises on vices, virtues, and the Ten Commandments, to name but a few.

Ricci noted the importance of these books not only for China but also for Japan in a letter he wrote to Rome from Beijing:

It gave us great consolation to know that many of our works written in Chinese characters were useful in Japan because of their use of the same characters. For this reason, Fr. Valignano reprinted [my] Catechism [The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven] in Canton and arranged for it to be sent to Japan; and Fr. Francesco Pasio has requested that I send him many of these books, for they have great authority in Japan insofar as they come from China […]

The importance of these books is also confirmed by Diogo de Mesquita (1551–1614), who had accompanied the four boys to Rome and had acquired a Gutenberg handpress in Lisbon. In a letter written to Rome in 1613, shortly before his own death at a time when exile was imminent, he informs the Jesuit Superior General that:

During these persecutions, especially when priests cannot travel freely through the territories of Christians whose lords are pagans, it is impossible to exaggerate the wonderful results obtained by these books […] for they serve as preachers to the Christians. With this help both the persecuted and non-persecuted are confirmed in their faith and their customs.

Most of these books were strictly banned in Japan following the expulsion of the Jesuits, because of their suspect connection with Christianity. The inspection of books was first carried out in Nagasaki in 1630 at Shuntokuji Temple with the explicit purpose of ferreting out any volumes being imported from China that may have been composed by the foreign missionaries at the imperial court in Beijing. This was further formalised with the establishment of the Inspectorate of Books, also in Nagasaki, in 1639. The shogunate appointed the Confucian physician and botanist, Mukai Gensho (1609–77), to lead the new office. Besides his function as a censor of forbidden imported publications, Mukai’s mandate included the selection of Chinese books for the shogun’s library in Edo, the Momijiyama Bunko. He also dealt with orders from Edo of Chinese books that the shogun and his officials had explicitly requested.

Yet so concerned were the Japanese authorities about the possible dissemination of Christian-tainted books among the populace that even a passing mention of the names of a Jesuit missionary – particularly those of Matteo Ricci or Giulio Aleni (1582–1649) – would warrant a book being put on the index of prohibited items. On several occasions, such books were found among the cargo of the Chinese merchants. In each instance, the authorities immediately launched a thorough investigation into the importer’s background and ultimate intentions, which included the interrogation and torture of all the sailors. Despite this strict censorship, manuscript copies of these publications, including Jesuit books on Christian doctrine, such as Alfonso Vagnone’s (1566–1640) Exposition of the Ten Commandments, escaped the vigilance of the authorities and circulated illegally among scholars. Other works on science, such a copy of Johann Adam Schall von Bell’s Treatise on the Telescope, were also known to Edo scholars. Some of these works had been brought into Japan before the expulsion of missionaries, but others were imported through the Chinese merchants of Nagasaki. Of foremost interest to Edo scholars was Matteo Ricci’s famous 1602 world map, of which numerous manuscript copies survive in Japan. On some copies, to avoid censorship, the seal of the Society of Jesus, the name of Ricci, and any references to Christianity, were carefully erased. Restrictions on scientific books would be eased in 1720, when Kyoto mathematician and scientist, Nakane Genkei (1662–1733) convinced Tokugawa Yoshimune (1684–1751) that they needed to refer to Jesuit works on astronomy published in China to carry out their own reforms of the Japanese calendar. Permission was granted, provided that the work otherwise contained no references to the ‘evil teaching’ of Christianity.

A detailed exposition of the reasons for the expulsion of the missionaries and the persecution of Christianity in Japan remain beyond the limited scope of this essay. The tumultuous times during which these events took place are not easily characterised. As missionaries were captured, executed, or forced to apostatise, native Japanese Christians had no choice but to go underground, where they maintained secret rituals and continued to worship to the best of their ability. While arguably imperfect and incomplete, Jesuit missionary efforts to adapt the Christian faith to Japanese culture rather than to import a fully grown ‘foreign tree’ and forcibly transplant it into Japanese soil had somehow succeeded.

The survival of the hidden Christians beyond the collapse of the shogunate in 1868 bears eloquent witness to this fact. It is remarkable to note how a group of Nagasaki Christians who had come out of hiding in 1865, when French priests were first allowed to build a church in Nagasaki for the foreign community, willingly underwent arrest, exile, torture, and – in some cases – death. The story of their courage in suffering and dying for their faith in the first years of the Meiji Restoration led to the declaration of conditional religious freedom in 1873, after their plight became known in Europe and North America. Thus, as the shogunate and the early Meiji government both discovered in their own way, a seed had indeed been planted; and it would not be easy to uproot or eradicate.


M.Antoni J. Ucerler, S.J.