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The boys who built a bridge between Japan and Europe

One of the most sensational events of Japan’s “Christian century” was the European trip of “the four boys,” described some years ago by Michael Cooper in “The Japanese Mission to Europe” (2005). The sight of these gracious princelings in the Catholic courts of Italy, Spain and Portugal moved and astonished Europe as the revelation of an unknown and exquisite civilization.

JAPANESE TRAVELLERS IN SIXTEENTH-CENTURY EUROPE: A Dialogue Concerning the Mission of the Japanese Ambassadors to the Roman Curia (1590), edited by Derek Massarella, translated by J. F. Moran. Hakluyt Society, 2012, 481 pp., $119.95 (hardcover)

Now the Hakluyt Society presents, in a stylish and lively translation by the late Joseph Moran, an account from the boys themselves of their historic journey of eight years (1582-1590). It centers on the two thrilling years spent in Europe, but also contains pioneering descriptions of India and China. The trip was organized by Alessandro Valignano, visitor of the Jesuit mission in Japan, and the publication of this report, in the form of a dramatic colloquy, was its literary harvest.

The trip had a double purpose: to make Japan known to European elites, correcting inaccurate earlier reports, and to impress upon the boys the grandeur of Christianity and the prosperity of the kingdoms that honored it. This would lead to stronger support for the missionaries in Europe and higher esteem for them in Japan.

Perhaps remembering how Buddhism thrived in Japan through its promise of worldly benefits, Valignano has the four young men enthuse about the wealth and pomp of Europe’s courts and cities. “I declare that all things European are admirable,” cries Leo, brother of the principal speaker, Michael; “it is evident that there is nothing, no matter how difficult, which the Europeans do not bring to a successful conclusion.” Leo is also thrilled to hear that thanks to Jesuit reports “we are wonderfully loved by Europeans whom we have never seen.”

Today, as scholars revisit Japan’s “Christian century” with new questions, this document can be assessed anew, with the help of Derek Massarella’s introduction and footnotes, which expertly anchor the work in its context and deftly correct many idealizations, such as the claim that “among the Europeans no one is forced to take up arms.” In reality, “forced recruitment was common and much resented.”

The attempt to discern the shadows at the edges of this glowing propaganda is worthwhile. At that time papal “triumphalism” had revived in response to the challenges of the Reformation, of which the chaperoned boys seem to have heard nothing.

They saw only goodness and grace everywhere, even to the point of extolling the purity of Roman mores. Everyone loved them and the pope shed tears.

The boys probably did not know that the weeping pope was burning dissenters at the stake in Rome, nor that the Inquisition, set up at the urging of St. Francis Xavier, was doing the same in Goa and Manila.

Denouncing Japanese amorality, the missionaries veiled the vices of Europe. Sometimes there is a telling admission: the Japanese sale of slaves to Europeans, which the Jesuits were powerless to stop (later the Jesuits in Brazil became prominent slaveholders themselves), could not be attacked without implicating the Portuguese traffickers as well. A fig leaf is provided: at least the Portuguese are Christians and care for the religious welfare of their slaves!

As Japanese rulers became suspicious about Christian expansionism, it seems that Valignano had second thoughts about producing a Japanese version of the text, which remained buried in stately Latin. Its utopian account of law and governance in Europe, with pointed criticism of Japan (“our people care little for love, for faith, for friendship”), might have angered the powerful Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

Meanwhile, the four young men became Jesuits. One of them was martyred in 1633, but Michael, the chief speaker, apostatized and possibly wrote an anti-Christian tract in 1606. A church poised for conquest was to know only the bitter glories of martyrdom.

It may be regretted that Valignano’s publication had so little effect, for if his ambition “to encourage Europeans and Japanese to shed their mutual prejudices and misconceptions and attempt to engage with each other in a manner that would produce a ‘union of minds’ ” had been fulfilled, the course of history might have been very different.

Joseph S. O’Leary, an Irish theologian, is a professor of English literature at Sophia University in Tokyo.