Japanese illustration of Portuguese Nau (Great Ship)

Portugal’s 90-year affair with Japan

My recent trip to Japan has left me with saudades for Japanese courtesy, order and cleanliness. In the wake of those inveterate Portuguese explorers, my fascination with Japan is in the first stage of the original Portuguese pattern of initial infatuation (1542), mature enjoyment and trust (to 1587), followed by periods of doubt (to 1614), distrust and profit taking (to 1637) before a complete and final divorce (1639). I shall remain in the first two stages.

The Portuguese rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1488, arrived in India (1498), in Malacca (1511), and then reached China and the Spice Islands, and only in 1542 arrived in Japan – and even then it was not by design.

A monsoon had blown up across the East China Sea and the Portuguese junk was thrown up at Funai on the forested island of Kyushu. The local governor, Otomo Yoshiaki, planned to execute the crew but his son Yoshishige intervened.

The governor could not care less about “the land named Portugal, which was at the further end of the world”, but he was interested to hear of remedies for his gout and digestive problems. Executions were avoided.

The manners of the Europeans and their medieval dislike of bathing and shaving might have been enough for the Japanese to dismiss them out of hand as barbarians, but the Portuguese possessed muskets and arquebuses. These engines of death were an attractive prize in a country of swords and crossbows which had suffered civil war for over a hundred years. For the Portuguese, the discovery of sophisticated white people on the far side of the world was a welcome surprise.

Japanese and Chinese were forbidden on pain of death to trade directly with each other. China was, however, desperate for Japanese silver, and the Japanese yearned for Chinese silk. The arrival of Portuguese ships hinted at an answer to the difficulty, and for 90 years, Portuguese merchants were able annually to enrich themselves as middlemen in this Far Eastern corner of Empire. The annual ship from Macau was known as the Great Ship from Amacon.

At Goa in 1547, Francis Xavier, a young Jesuit who had already made converts in India and Malaya, saw possibilities of new conversions in Japan.

Xavier made his way to the great Fukosho-ji Buddhist monastery where he studied the Japanese language and began to make converts to Christianity. His aim was to reach the imperial city of Kyoto to preach to the Emperor and towards the end of August 1550 he set off on a journey that involved a dangerous sea voyage and a long trek over a steep mountain range.

Proving that the Earth is a globe, Xavier made an impression as a learned man, in the same way as the Jesuits did at the court of the Chinese Ming Emperor. Such a reputation enabled him to win 500 Christian converts during the two years he remained in Japan.

Japan was by far the most popular mission field for Jesuit missionaries since Japanese were seen as intelligent, cultivated and on an absolute level with Europeans, and they were white.

Jesuit Visitor Alessandro Valignano (1539-1606) planned to educate Japanese as priests, and their curriculum would include Japanese and Latin, humanities and other sciences, virtue, deportment and good manners. To draw attention to Jesuit progress in Japan, Valignano arranged for four Japanese samurai to visit Europe, and they left Japan in 1582 and returned eight years later.

By 1580, there were 150,000 Christians in Japan and 200 churches were served by 85 Jesuit priests and 100 acolytes. Ten years later, there were 136 priests and 470 acolytes. Although the mission was supported by wealthy converts, it was in debt. To make up the shortfall, even though strictly forbidden by their order, Jesuits found that they could trade on their own account, and acted as bullion brokers on behalf of local nobles. Applying Jesuitical logic, they continued in their illegal trade in order to protect and pay for their Christian mission.

Shogun Hideyoshi’s (1582-1598) attitude to Christians was unpredictable. He asked four questions of the Jesuits:

1. Why are they desirous of making converts?
2. Why do they destroy Shinto and Buddhist temples?
3. Why do they eat useful animals, horses and cows?
4. Why do they buy Japanese to export them as slaves?

He began to see the 200,000 Christian converts as a potential fifth column against his regime, and therefore banished the missionaries and permitted only merchants and traders to remain in Japan. Although all Jesuits were ordered to leave on the Great Ship, and not to return, the order of expulsion was not enforced. It is likely that Hideyoshi believed that Jesuits were necessary intermediaries in the China trade.

In 1598, Hideyoshi’s successor Ieyasu appeared pro Christian, but allowed Jesuits in Japan only for the continuance of the silk trade. Other language interpreters such as the English William Adams and other trading nations, such as the Dutch, were beginning to import Chinese silk.

By 1614, Shogun Iemitsu, sure that the Christian converts owed their allegiance to the Church and not to him, decided on the expulsion of all missionaries, the closure of all churches, and the prohibition of the practice of Christianity by any Japanese. There were about 300,000 converts under 143 missionaries concentrated in North West Kyushu around Nagasaki. All remaining churches were destroyed and leading daimyo persuaded their vassals, under the influence of torture, to recant on the grounds that it was the loyal vassal’s feudal duty to follow his master, even to Hell. In Nagasaki, there is a memorial to those Christians who died in the mass crucifixions of 1597 and 1632.

It is ironic that at the same time as Christians were being hounded in Japan, Jews were being hounded in Iberia in exactly the same way. Both Judaism in Portugal and Christianity in Japan survived for 200 years in hiding and in isolation.

The Portuguese at Macau were horrified at the loss of their Japan trade, and sent a last ship to Nagasaki in 1639 to plead for a re-opening of the trade link. Sixty-one of the Portuguese ambassadors were executed, the ship and its goods burned, and the 13 Chinese survivors returned to Macau with the adamant reply.

Japan united, Christians expelled and Portuguese no longer trusted. The relationship had lasted for only 90 years. It was a major cause of Japan entering the 210 Sakoku (closed country) period.

By Lynne Booker
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Lynne Booker, along with her husband Peter, founded the Algarve History Association. [email protected]

Japanese illustration of Portuguese Nau (Great Ship)
Toyotomi Hideyoshi
Tokugawa Ieyasu
Tokugawa Iemitsu
Japanese painting of Portuguese foreigners

Jesuit Visitor Alessandro Valignano (1539 – 1606) planned to educate Japanese as priests
Martyr’s Memorial, Nagasaki