The first Western diplomat in Japan

Shipwrecked in 1609, Rodrigo de Vivero negotiated with the shogun on establishing relations


Pop quiz: The first Western diplomat to set foot in Japan came from what country? Portugal? Holland? England? Actually, the correct answer is Mexico.

The diplomat in question was Rodrigo de Vivero, a high-ranking official who was returning from a post in the Philippines when he was shipwrecked on Sept. 30, 1609, off the coast of present-day Chiba.

Surviving the disaster, he ended up spending 10 months in Japan, during which time he traveled widely and negotiated with the shogun on establishing trade and diplomatic relations. He also wrote a detailed record of his stay.

Yet few people are aware of this remarkable history, according to Miguel Ruiz-Cabanas, Mexico’s current ambassador to Japan. Speaking Sept. 30 at a special meeting of the Asiatic Society of Japan to mark the 400th anniversary — to the day — of Vivero’s unplanned arrival in Japan, Ruiz-Cabanas acknowledged that most people have no idea that friendly contact between Japan and Mexico dates back a full four centuries.

The event, held at the Mexican Embassy in Tokyo, was attended by high-level dignitaries of both countries, including Crown Prince Naruhito, who along with Mexican President Felipe Calderon has lent support to official efforts to increase public awareness of de Vivero. Princess Takamado, who is honorary president of ASJ, was also present.

In a detailed lecture, Ruiz-Cabanas outlined what is known about de Vivero and his time in Japan, and placed the episode in the broader historical context of Japan-Mexico relations.

At the time of the shipwreck, Mexico was called New Spain and was part of the Spanish empire. Rodrigo de Vivero, a member of one of the richest families in New Spain, was 44 when he was named interim governor of the Philippines, which was also a Spanish territory.

During his tenure in Manila, de Vivero had official contact with Japan, including negotiations concerning Japanese residents of the Philippines accused of fomenting civil unrest, but there was no plan for him to actually visit Japan.

He was in fact returning to New Spain, on a route that hugged the coast of Japan, when his ship was wrecked against a reef at what is now the town of Onjuku in Chiba Prefecture. Fifty men were lost, but de Vivero and several hundred other passengers made it safely to shore with the assistance of local villagers.

Although European missionaries and merchants had been arriving since the 1540s, Vivero was the first European diplomat and administrator ever to enter the country.

Once it was understood who de Vivero was, he was taken on guided tours of Edo, Kyoto and other cities, and was received in audience by Tokugawa Ieyasu, who had stepped down as shogun but was still the most powerful figure in the country, and his son and incumbent shogun, Hidetada.

De Vivero also met with senior government officials, and had dealings with the renowned English mariner William Adams, who had been living in Japan for nine years. During such meetings, de Vivero attempted to influence Japanese foreign policy, in particular urging that the Dutch be expelled from Japan, and negotiated a proposed framework for future diplomatic and trade relations.

The Spanish government never ratified the treaty, as Ruiz-Cabanas explained in his lecture. Authorities in Manila objected on the grounds that direct communication and trade between Japan and New Spain would result in a loss of influence and revenue for them. Spanish sailors feared the Japanese would gain knowledge of long-distance shipbuilding, increasing the danger of a Japanese invasion of Spanish territories.

But Ruiz-Cabanas said his personal view is that religious considerations probably played a bigger role. News of official opposition to Catholicism in Japan “was a cause of anxiety in Madrid and the Vatican,” he said, and it was unlikely that Spain was ready to formally recognize a non-European and non-Catholic country.

“At the time, no European power had recognized any Asiatic nation, including Japan and China, as equal,” the ambassador observed.

Shortly thereafter, Japan adopted a policy of seclusion, greatly limiting contact with New Spain and most other countries for more than 200 years.

While Vivero may have failed in his immediate effort to establish closer ties with Japan, he did leave a legacy of friendly contact that fostered the eventual establishment of diplomatic relations, Ruiz-Cabanas stressed.

In 1888, Japan and Mexico, by then an independent nation, signed a treaty establishing economic, political and diplomatic relations.

“For Japan, it was the first treaty that fully recognized its national jurisdiction over all persons within its territory, as well as its right to impose duties on foreign goods according to its own trade interest,” the ambassador explained. “Using the treaty as a legal precedent, Japan was able to renegotiate the unequal treaties with Western nations. For Mexico, it was the first treaty with an Asian nation that would renew its centuries-old links with that continent.”

Mexico is now the 12th-largest economy in the world, and Japan’s main trade partner in Latin America, according to Ruiz-Cabanas. The two countries also cooperate on issues of global concern, including climate change and nuclear proliferation.

“Today, our countries look at each other with mutual confidence, as real partners and friends,” the ambassador said. “That is the legacy of Rodrigo de Vivero.”

Also at the event, ASJ Vice President Robert Morton announced the publication of a new English translation of de Vivero’s account of his stay in Japan, translated and annotated by Michael Cooper.

Entitled “An Unscheduled Visit: Rodrigo de Vivero in Japan, 1609-1610,” the publication was timed to commemorate the 400th anniversary and released as a supplement to the society’s main journal, Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan. It is the first translation into English of the text since the 1880s.