When Japan visited Europe

Alessandro Valignano (Boston College University Libraries)

On July 25, 1579 Alessandro Valignano, the head of the Jesuit missions in Asia arrived in Japan, landing at Kuchinotsu. By the time he arrived, two Japanese feudal lords (daimyos) had been converted to Christianity, and forced their subjects to follow suit: Omura Sumitada and Otomo.

Valignano quickly began reforming the mission. He encouraged priests to adopt local customs, something he’d done as church Primate in India. In both places he was met with strong resistance from local priests, who considered it beneath them to, for instance, eat nothing but rice, fish and vegetables (staples of the Japanese diet), or to learn local Indian languages that would limit their effectiveness if they wanted to go elsewhere.

Valignano started a school in Arima to train Japanese priests. Before arriving in Japan, Valignano was stationed for three years in India, where he wrote Indians were “prone to wrongness,” and “a servile and lowly people,” who should not be ordained as priests. By contrast, he praised the Japanese as intelligent and quick to learn. Like St. Frances Xavier a generation earlier, Valignano believed the future of the Jesuit missions in Asia lay with Japan.

But the Japan mission was understaffed, uninspired and distant from most of the population. Valignano was inspired to send four youths from the school in Arima to Europe to showcase the mission’s work to Europe. The mission was also under pressure from back home – in 1581 Philip II of Spain claimed the Portuguese crown, thus putting all of Portugal’s trade outposts in Asia (and the Jesuit outposts, put there by the padroado) at risk of being attacked by Spain’s enemies – namely the Dutch and English. In 1581 The Netherlands declared independence from Philip II and Elizabeth I of England allied with them against Philip (who briefly served as King of England during his marriage to Queen Mary I).

King Philip II (Prado Museum/Wikimedia Commons)

The delegates, between the ages of 14 and 15, were all converts to Christianity and relatives and vassals of the Christian daimyos (Bungo, Omura and Arima). Mancio Ito and Michel Chijiwa were the accredited delegates to Rome, while Julien Nakaura and Martin Hara were brought along as companions. Ito was a relative of the daimyo of Bungo, Chijiwa was a cousin of the daimyo of Arima, Nakaura’s father was a retainer of the daimyo of Omura and Hara was from Omura.

The embassy departed Nagasaki in 1582 with their tutor and translator Father Diogo de Mesquita, and Valignano. When they arrived in Goa Valignano was ordered to stay and continue his duties as Primate, while the rest of the delegation made their way to Europe.

The embassy arrived in Madrid in November 1584 and presented many gifts to Philip II, including two folding screens and two suits of armor. They also presented him with a lacquered (Urushi) pipe and a desk drawer given to Valignano by General and udaijin (Minister of the Right) Oda Nobounaga. Philip was delighted by the gifts and treated the delegates with kindness. The delegates gave their royal hosts letters in both Japanese and translated into Latin and the local language. Philip was especially intrigued with how they wrote from the top down instead of left to right and asked their letter be read allowed to him in Japanese.

While in Madrid, the delegates were shown “The Marvel of Lisbon” (Abada) that was the second live rhinoceros seen in Europe since Roman times, the first being sent to Portugal in 1515 by Alfonso de Albuquerque, the Governor of Portuguese India.

Meeting with Pope Gregory XIII (Wikimedia Commons)

Pope Gregory XIII issued a breve on January 28, 1585 making Jesuits the exclusive missionaries for Japan. Valignano’s detractors claim he sent the mission in order to get such a brief, but Guzman defends him by saying the embassy was sent to ask the pope for more missionaries, and pointed out that the breve was issued months before the delegates arrived in Rome. But once they did, they presented the Pope with two folding screens. These folding screens were said to have depicted Azuchi, Oda Nobunaga’s capital along with Azuchi Castle, though these screens are thought to be lost. Pope Gregory had been a generous benefactor of the Japanese mission, giving the mission an annual stipend to carry out their work starting in 1583.

In March, the delegates met with Francisco de’ Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, and presented him with examples of Japanese craftsmanship like two pieces of paper made from the bark of a tree inscribed with the Japanese names for God and the Virgin Mary.

Pope Gregory XIII died on April 10, 1585 and was succeeded by Sixtus V on April 24. In the Vatican Library room named after Sixtus there is a painting showing the coronation with the four Japanese delegates in the crowd. Sixtus V was also a generous Pope towards the Japan mission, declaring the first diocese in Japan at Funai in 1588.

Coronation of Sixtus V (Art Resource, ART132414)

Visiting Venice in June, the delegates were met by a line of navy vessels who fired salutes as they passed. They docked, stepping off the boat in traditional robes and were received by 30 Venitian Senators. After a few days rest they met with the Doge of Venice, Nicolas da Ponte. The next day on June 30 the delegates commemorated the “pious theft” of the body of St. Mark from Alexandria to Venice. The Senate commissioned Tintoretto to paint portraits of the delegates, but he only finished Mancio Ito’s portrait. It was long thought lost, but was discovered in a private collection in 2014.

Mancio Ito by Tintoretto. All contemporary art of the delegates depicted them in European clothes, though the traditional dress they wore during celebrations was meticulously documented.

Meanwhile, trouble was brewing in the East. Franciscans in Manila were determined to get into Japan, in spite of the breve declaring a Jesuit monopoly. Groups of Japanese Christians went to Manila to appeal for military help in countering the ever growing power of Nobounaga’s successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The officials in Manila declined to send anyone, on fear of violating the breve and the padroado.

Before leaving Europe, the Japanese embassy purchased a printing press in Lisbon in 1586. They rejoined Valignano at Goa and proceeded to Macau. When they arrived in Macau on July 28, 1588 they learned Toyotomi Hideyoshi had banished Jesuit missionaries from Japan one year earlier and confiscated their holdings in Nagasaki. But in one of the great mysteries of Japanese history, Hideyoshi did not follow through with this edict, and allowed Jesuits to remain as long as they stayed out of politics.

Despite the ineffectiveness of the edict, the embassy stayed in Macau and the four Japanese delegates were inducted into the Society of Jesus in 1589. They returned to Japan on July 21, 1590.

Mancio Ito and Juliao Nakaura returned to Macau in 1601 where they studied at the College of St. Paul. They were ordained as priests in 1608, by which time they had returned to Nagasaki. Ito died of illness in 1612 and Nakaura was martyred in 1633 (he was beatified by the Vatican in 2008). Miguel Chijiwa left the Society of Jesus and died in Nagasaki in 1633.

Martinho Hara operated the printing press from 1590 until 1614 when the Shogun Tokugawa Hidetada banished missionaries from Japan. Hara and the press went to Macau where he died in 1629.

Recent Posts