Spain’s Japon clan has reunion to trace its 17th century roots

by Ryoichi Awamura

Kyodo

In the southern Spanish city of Coria del Rio, citizens with the family name of Japon gathered for a Japan Week program this month to talk about their Japanese ancestors who settled here in the 17th century.

Some 650 Japons live in this city of 24,000 near Seville at the center of Andalusia.

Daimyo Date Masamune of Sendai sent a delegation led by Hasekura Tsunenaga to Europe in the early 17th century.

It reached this city via the Guadalquivir River. Some delegation members settled here, while others went home after visiting Madrid and Rome.

Standing by a river is the bronze statute of Hasekura that Miyagi Prefecture donated in 1992 to commemorate the Hasekura mission.

“Japan is my fatherland,” said Manuel Japon, 66, who heads a local Spanish-Japanese friendship association. “My grandmother gave me this,” he said, displaying a copper tablet with a crucifix. “I saw the same one when I visited Sendai.”

The copper tablet, or “fumie,” was used to test a person’s belief in Christianity, which had been forbidden in the Edo Period, including the 17th century.

“When I visited a small village in Miyagi Prefecture,” Manuel Japon said, “Villagers looked similar to my aunts (and) cousins.”

How did Japon become a family name? The name appeared on an official document in 1646 for the first time ever. “In (the) old days, a child was named Hasekura de Japon, for example. Since Japanese names like Hasekura were difficult to pronounce and memorize, Japon alone might have been left as a family name naturally,” Japon said. “I am proud of the family name.”

Japons here include professors, engineers and medical doctors. One was even selected as Miss Spain.

Jose Japon Seville, 44, has served as referee for soccer games for 27 years. When he refereed a match between Real Madrid and Valladolid that included Japanese player Shoji Jo four years ago, a local newspaper described the match as “Real vs. Japon,” he recalled with a laugh.

His three sons are now university students studying Japanese as their second language. “My sons love Japan as their (roots).”

A pediatrician said he saw blue spots on many Japon infant buttocks. The so-called Mongolian spot is a feature of every Japanese baby.