The success of the Portuguese missionaries in sixteenth century Japan was due to the relationship between actors in the Asian theater and that milieu itself. Economic and political pressures, not religious fervor, were the important determining factors.
Among the said factors were the production of silver in Japan, the potential market for it in China, the prohibition against trade engendered by the activities of the Japanese pirates, the arrival of the Portuguese traders with the accompanying missionaries, the receptivity of the then-emperor to Portuguese proselytizing, and the policy of funneling a portion of trade revenue to the Jesuits for recruitment purposes. Tangentially we may take into consideration the character of the faith itself. However, the Jesuits presented the same faith as in other countries during the Crusades with much less of an effect.
Therefore we must conclude that it was the economic and political power the Portuguese wielded that enabled the Jesuits to attract more followers to their belief system in Japan during the Crusades than in other countries to which they directed their efforts. Influence at this time, as always, was an admixture of the religious, the military, the economic, the political, and the social. We must first understand the milieu of sixteenth-century Asia. The Portuguese reached the shores of Japan in 1543 aboard a Chinese junk. They set up shop and shortly thereafter, more traders began to arrive along with Jesuit missionaries.
The emperor at the time was open to their activities, as were the Kamakura who shared power at the time. This was the “Sengoku” period, a time of warring states in which the shoguns lost some power which was then assumed by the merchant classes then in ascendency. The plebian classes were eager to capitalize on this development in order to rise in Japanese society. The Jesuits were involved in more than religious activity. In 1549 the priest Francis Xavier arrived in Japan.
“This marked the start of a vigorous effort by Jesuit missionaries to bring Christianity to Japan. (Hall, 1) As stated, there was substantial trade between Japan and China commanded by a Portuguese captain-major who possessed military, economic, and administrative powers in the name of the king of Portugal. As a result of this influence, the Jesuits gained control of both Nagasaki, trade headquarters, and the area of Mogi in 1580. “The Society of Jesus then held all rights pertaining to possession of land, administration, and judicial matters there and also received the anchorage fees levied on Portuguese ships. ” (Hall, 62) They used the proceeds from this windfall to fund their missionary work.
It must be noted, however, that the Jesuit dominion of Nagasaki and Mogi lasted only until 1588 when the emperor Hideyoshi confiscated the Church’s domain. Another point of influence was military. “The Portuguese traders’ contribution of a new, modern instrument of mayhem to Japan’s well-stocked but still medieval and, by European standards, obsolescent arsenal was one of those was one of those remarkable accidents of history that have a revolutionary effect. ” (Hall, 302) The Portuguese, with whom the Jesuits were allied, thus contributed the technology which enabled Japanese military reunification.
The missionaries were able to use not only the economic influence the Portuguese conferred upon them but technological influence as well. The Portuguese were of great practical benefit to the Japanese and enabled the Jesuits to use the goodwill the contribution generated to gain an audience for Christianity. This development was yet one more point of intersection between the religious and the secular. One association which enabled the Missionaries to pursue their work was that with the wako, the pirates and illicit traders.
Not only did the wako transport the Portuguese and especially Francis Xavier to Japan but their depredations aroused the indignation of the Japanese emperor and caused them to be banned from Japanese shores. ” The Portuguese found that what the Japanese really wanted from abroad were Chinese silk fabrics; as a result of Chinese reactions to (the wako), Japanese were not permitted to go to China themselves to buy them. ” (Mason and Caiger, 154) The Chinese were highly interested in the silver of which Japan had a seemingly inexhaustible supply.
The trade which then resulted was extremely profitable. The issues of Christianity and foreign trade were not central concerns of Japan but they were relevant to the success of the Jesuits in sixteenth-century Japan. The aid which the wako provided was not unalloyed. Francis Xavier used one of them, Yajiro, who badly led him astray. This native informant may indeed have ‘learned in eight months to read and write, and speak Portuguese’ and even have been ‘very well indoctrinated in the in the faith of Jesus Christ Our Lord,’ as Xavier maintained. Hall, 307)
“For all that, he thoroughly misinformed his mentor. Yajiro’s outline of the essentials of Japanese religion was the sometime wako’s biggest disservice to the sometime saint. ” (Hall, 308) This outline included the assertion that there is only one God which the Christian neophyte proceeded to amplify with theological analogues. He also proclaimed mistakenly that the Dainichi, the central Buddha of the Shingon sect, was similar to the Judeo-Christian God. “…the results of his altogether facile explanations are clear: Xavier began his mission in Japan by preaching Dainichi.
Despite this setback, after the clarification of the issues, the missionaries eschewed anything resembling syncretism and preached Deus with marked success. An example of the mistake that was Yajiro’s enlistment was his assistance with religious texts. Yajiro had put a summary of Christian doctrine into Japanese and Xavier had painstakingly written it out in roman letters, yet the translation was such a failure that it elicited jeers and laughter from the men of letters who comprised its audience. For all that, Xavier and his helpmates were able to convert more than one hundred people, who were drawn to the foreign priest by the force of his personality if not the power of his message. ” (Hall, 309) The exact nature of the new converts’ religion was indeterminate. The Christians in Japan endured a degree of persecution. The authorities, namely the emperors and the Buddhists, found the proselytizing disturbing and tolerated it for a time only for the sake of trade.
Emperor Ieyasu “wanted to continue trading, but he was troubled by occasional political complications and wished to discourage Iberian missionary activity. In the end he settled for sporadic, half-hearted measures of repression. ” (Totman, 222) The arrival of the Dutch and the English merchants, with their connections to Southeast Asia, weakened the position of the Portuguese and without the leverage trade provided, they found their existence in Japan to be tenuous. In the autumn of 1613, the Emperor Ieyasu resolved to end the Portuguese and Jesuit presence n Japan due to a sedition plot among Ieyasu’s key vassals. Rumors “linked the suspects to a recent and very messy scandal involving some Christian converts and members of his own household…. ” (Totman, 222)
This emperor, like Hideyoshi, wanted to limit his dealings to the Dutch and the English. To do so he outlawed Christianity, ordered missionaries expelled, and churches destroyed on the grounds that the Iberians had come to Japan not only to trade, “but also hoping to spread their evil doctrine without permission, to confound true religion, change the political order of the realm, and make it their own. (Totman, 140)
However Ieyasu found himself distracted with other matters and unable to resolve the issue, allowing the Portuguese traders and missionaries to continue their work. The reprieve gradually came to an end however with the ascent of the emperor Hidetada, reputedly vicious, who tried to enforce his father’s policy. The result was that by 1630, most missionaries had left Japan in the face of the worst pogrom in Japanese history. Most churches were demolished, many converts were forced to recant, perhaps four to five thousand were executed and made martyrs.
A minor tragedy by modern standards, but a horrific chapter nonetheless. The last stand of the Christians in Japan occurred in 1637. Crop failure, famine, and local political abuse brought on a major rebellion among the inhabitants of the Shimabara Peninsula in Kyushu. “25,000 commoners and ronin insurgents employed Christian religious banners and rhetoric to sustain themselves…and for a time they badly embarrassed the ineffectual government forces sent to crush them. (Totman, 223) In the end, however, they did not emerge victorious and the emperor Iemitsu severed all remaining Iberian connections, ordering all surviving Christian communities suppressed. Xavier needed both political and social acumen in order to make progress in his mission to Japan. At first he operated on the assumption that all he would need to gain entry to that country’s universities and palaces was his missionary zeal and conviction, courage and charisma.
Although, by these means he did manage to obtain a letter of introduction from an “honored person” who took pity on him, without the necessary legitimization and presents he was turned away again and again. His goals were two: to convert the “king of Japan” and to spread the word of the Gospel at Japan’s leading institutes of higher learning. Unfortunately he found that ,”The petitioner who approached the gates of exalted personages barefooted and empty-handed would be turned away; aside from one’s convictions, one had to bear with him gifts and credentials. (Hall, 313) On Xavier’s second visit he had learned enough to appear in the capacity of an envoy of the authorities of Portuguese India, armed with letters from the governor and bishop of Goa, bearing presents, and dressed splendidly. The Japanese then received him as an ambassador and, duly impressed, the emperor granted him and his missionaries permission to preach and for the people to embrace the new religion in his domains, significant because those domains at the time comprised all or parts of ten provinces.
The Jesuit missionaries were more successful in their efforts to spread the Gospel in Japan than in other countries. The Portuguese traders who served as intermediaries in the trade route between Japan and China facilitated this success. Directly, the traders and even the Jesuits themselves gained control of ports, ships, and revenue that the exchange of Japanese precious metals and Chinese silk provided which the missionaries then used to fund the proselytizing of the rising Japanese merchants.
This class was especially susceptible to the persuasion of the Portuguese, economically and otherwise because they had long suffered under the rule of the shoguns. The warrior class was in disarray due to infighting and their disorganization along with the arrival of the Portuguese allowed the merchants the opportunity to prosper. As soon as the influence of the Portuguese traders waned, the Jesuits found preaching the Gospel in Japan to be impossible and they were expelled. However, as a result of their association with the Portuguese, many merchants became Christians.
Due to the efforts, worldly and otherwise, of Xavier and his missionaries, the Japanese learned of the Gospel. The foregoing supports the theory that it was a combination of extra-religious forces which enabled the Jesuits to have more success in converting the natives of Japan to Christianity rather than the religion itself. Once the trade dominance of the Portuguese was limited by the incursions of the Dutch and English traders, the Japanese grew steadily more unwilling to tolerate the growing influence of the Jesuits.
Indeed, that the Iberians were expelled as the power of the traders waned and the influence of the priests grew clearly demonstrates that the leverage of commerce was substantial and that it was used both in swaying people indirectly and directly for the benefit of the missionaries. More- over, the political savvy of the Jesuit leader, Francis Xavier, contributed greatly to the advancement of the fortunes of Christianity in sixteenth-century Japan, short-lived though those fortunes were.