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The Jesuit boys’ tour of Europe

by Hugh Cortazzi

THE JAPANESE MISSION TO EUROPE, 1582-1590: The Journey of Four Samurai Boys Through Portugal, Spain and Italy, by Michael Cooper. Global Oriental, 2005, 262 pp., xix black and white plates, $85 (cloth).

Michael Cooper, a former editor of Monumenta Nipponica, has contributed significantly to our knowledge of the Jesuit mission to Japan and its members in the 16th and early 17th centuries. He is a Japanese, Latin and Portuguese scholar.

This book, which is based on extensive and painstaking research, is an absorbing account of the first Japanese visitors to Europe. They did not constitute a proper diplomatic mission, as they did not represent the Japanese government and did not conduct any negotiations. Still, the mission or legation, as Cooper calls it, was an important development not only for the Catholic Church in Japan but also for European perceptions of Japan.

The mission was planned by Alessandro Valignano, the forceful Jesuit (inspector) who arrived in Japan in 1579. He believed that “there was a pressing need not only to make Japan better known in Europe but also to make Europe better known and appreciated in Japan.” He hoped that, as a result of direct contact with young Japanese Christians, the Jesuits in Japan would be assured of regular supplies of funds from Europe. Sadly, as Cooper explains, these aims were only partially achieved.

Three Christian daimyo (of Bungo, Arima and Omura) were asked to send representatives, but the choice of delegates had to be rushed as the Portuguese ship sailing from Nagasaki left in the spring and could not be delayed. Because of the slowness of communications in Japan, the choice was limited to young men living near Nagasaki. Bungo was represented by Mancio Ito and the other two fiefs by Michael Chijiwa. They were accompanied by two companions Martin Hara and Julian Nakaura. All four were young teenagers who had been brought up in the Christian faith. Their guide and mentor was Diogo de Mesquita, a young Jesuit who had only been six years with the Jesuits in Japan.

Valignano, who accompanied the party as far as India, had hoped to go with them to Europe but was ordered to remain in India. The journey to Europe in the late 16th century was long, dangerous and hard. The Portuguese carracks were clumsy and unstable. There were no reliable charts, and while navigators were able to make a fair calculation of latitude, they were unable to determine longitude accurately.

The small ship in which they traveled left Nagasaki on Feb. 20, 1582. They did not return until July 21, 1590, over eight years later, but they only spent one year and eight months in Europe. It is hard for us who can travel to Japan in a matter of hours by air to understand how their journey to Europe could take 2 1/2 years. The return trip took four years including 4 1/2 months in Mozambique and a two-year wait for a ship in Macao.

At sea and in port, the four boys were kept at their studies and their devotions. They were given very favorable treatment everywhere, but storms and other natural hazards and disease could only have made their lives tedious, uncomfortable and frightening. Cooper draws a vivid picture of these voyages.

Much of the narrative is devoted to an account of the boys’ European tour from Portugal through Spain to Italy and back. Valignano had wanted the tour to be low key, but this proved impossible. The boys were received everywhere by high church dignitaries including cardinals and archbishops.

In Madrid, they had audiences with King Philip II and were given a guided tour of the newly built Escorial. The king even made the unprecedented gesture of appearing personally to wish them a good journey to Rome.

In Pisa, on the way to Rome, the Archduchess of Tuscany insisted on dancing with Mancio, but the boys rarely had a chance to relax.

In Rome they were warmly received by the dying Pope Gregory XIII and by his successor Pope Sixtus V, whose coronation they attended.

They went on to visit most of the leading cities in northern Italy where they often stayed in palaces and were greeted with pageants and banquets. They received lavish gifts that they were unable to reciprocate adequately and were royally entertained.

The boys seem to have behaved with decorum and piety throughout. Sadly, the records and the portraits, including sketches by Tintoretto in Venice, reveal nothing of the real personalities behind these masks. The reader longs to know what their real impressions were of the cathedrals, gorgeous costumes and pomp that greeted them. Were they bored by the long masses and ceremonies, longing for a frolic, or were they serious youngsters with little imagination or sense of humor so that they had little difficulty repressing their youthful passions? We shall never know.

By the time the boys eventually returned to Japan, they had grown up into young men. The warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who had become suspicious of the Christians and begun to persecute them, and whose attitude toward the Jesuits had been one of the reasons for the delay in their voyage home from Macao to Nagasaki, was persuaded to receive Valignano and the boys. Valignano’s appointment as ambassador from the Portuguese viceroy in India provided the necessary opening.

Hideyoshi duly welcomed the returnees, who played Western music to him and answered his questions about their experiences. But Valignano’s hopes that the visit would lead to a better understanding in Japan of Europe and of the Catholic Church were disappointed. The mission had brought back a printing press from Europe, but no attempt was made to produce and circulate any account by mission members of their experiences. The promises of funding for the Jesuits in Japan were rarely fulfilled.

In an interesting appendix, Cooper explains what happened to the members of the mission: Michael ceased to be a Catholic, married and had four sons. The other three were all eventually ordained priests, but had to wait a long time for ordination because of the Jesuit reluctance to ordain Japanese. Mancio died in Nagasaki in 1612. Martin joined other priests in Macao following the expulsion edict of 1614 and died there in 1639. Julian was eventually martyred in Nagasaki in 1633.

Anyone interested in the period that the late professor Charles Boxer, perhaps misleadingly, called Japan’s Christian century, will find this a fascinating read.