The First European Description of Japan, 1585|
I am delighted to introduce this new book to our series. It is quite unlike anything we have done before, and has many exciting features. It does start out as a translation, and we had one before, but this one is from Portuguese to English, rather than from Japanese to English. As it happens, we are quite late in the game for it has already been a popular book in its Japanese language translation, and has appeared in German, Chinese, French, Spanish, and modern Portuguese as well. It is, as the title would suggest, an early account of Japan, penned in a comparative fashion by a Jesuit missionary from Portugal, but this book is not just a translation of the original text; it comes with a great deal of value added by its three highly qualified editors, and makes a special contribution to the Japan Anthropology Workshop series for several reasons.
First, the original text represents a kind of early forerunner to the anthropological studies that we usually publish in the series. Written in couplets comparing Japan and Europe, the style may be very different, but the observations are based on first-hand experience gathered during a long stay, in this case of more than twenty years, and with a deep knowledge of the language, and the ways of thinking and behaviour of the people. It thus builds on a root understanding common with the anthropology of today. It also has an amazingly anachronistic ability to consider the Japanese as equally “civilized”, if not more so, than Europeans, and thus achieves an even approach still being sought by some anthropologists.
Secondly, the couplets themselves are presented with an immediate historical context, explaining both the reasons why certain aspects of the comparisons were chosen from a sixteenth-century European perspective, as well as how Japanese customs have changed since that time. Our editors comprise a team of scholars with different skills: Danford to translate from Portuguese into English; Gill, who like Frois, lived in Japan for some twenty-odd years, adding a contemporary commentary based on a similarly deep experience, though separated by more than four centuries; and Reff, who supplies the scholarship on the Jesuits of “early modern Europe”.
Daniel Reff has also written a very helpful introduction to the “tratado” or main body of the text, which assesses the aim of Frois’s writing, probably meant to help newly-arrived Jesuit missionaries to settle in. His superior, Valignano, was determined to convince Europeans that Japanese were “civilized” enough to become clergy themselves, and thus take over judicial control of the Church in Japan. He realised that neither Spain nor Portugal would ever be in a position to successfully invade Japan (and China) and overpower the indigenous elite, so learning the language and local customs was essential. He also took four Japanese teenagers to Rome, partly to convince them that Europeans were not barbarians either, but still he asked his missionaries to live like Japanese in Japan.
Many of their customs are so distant, foreign, and far removed from our own that it is difficult to believe that one can find such stark contrasts in customs among people who are so civilized, have such lively genius, and are as naturally intelligent as these [Japanese].
This book demonstrates that some of these stark contrasts have been amazingly persistent on both sides of the world despite a growing knowledge about each other’s ways. Would that a few more of the Europeans who set out to study around the world could be as accepting of such continuing difference as a couple of priests committed to conversion in the sixteenth century!
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Radical Militant Library 0.5.5
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