The First European Description of Japan, 1585|
Preparation of an English-Language edition of the Tratado
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It was in recognition of the importance of the Tratado, both as a primary source for early modern Europe and Japan and an encounter text—reflecting the many forces that governed European perceptions and representations of others—that we undertook the preparation of an English-language edition of the Tratado. In preparing an English translation we have relied on Schütte’s transcription as well as a microfilm copy of the Portuguese original obtained from the Real Academia in Madrid. We have indicated in footnotes instances where we disagree with Schütte’s rendering of the Portuguese original, which is not altogether legible in places, owing to minor damage the manuscript sustained during the centuries prior to its discovery. Because the Tratado is in the form of over six-hundred brief couplets, rather than a narrative, our biggest challenge with respect to translation has been insuring lexical accuracy. Special attention has been given to the translation of Portuguese and Japanese terms whose meanings have changed significantly over the past four-hundred years. We generally have left un-translated Portuguese or Japanese terms with meanings specific to the sixteenth century. These cultural or temporally-bound terms are italicized and are discussed in footnotes. The reader will note that we especially have relied on Houaiss’ encyclopedic dictionary of the Portuguese language.
It is perhaps the human condition to live out our lives unsure of the changes taking place all around us. Today, for example, we speak of “globalization,” but are at a loss to define adequately what may be a new historical epoch. Frois offered no reflection on how the societies and customs he compared might have been in flux (except perhaps when he used qualifiers such as “for the most part” or “generally”). And yet, it is difficult to imagine a period in the history of either Japan or Europe that was as dynamic as Frois’ lifetime (1532–1597). In Japan, the demise of the Muromachi shogunate in the late 1400s ushered in a century of warfare that intensified with the arrival of the Jesuits and Portuguese traders. Indeed, during what scholars have designated the Azuchi (ca. 1568–82) and Momoyama periods (ca. 1582–1600), which coincided with the “reigns” of Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, respectively, the scale of violence seemingly reached unprecedented heights. And yet paradoxically, the Azuchi and Momoyama periods were a time of cultural fluorescence, as seen in the elaboration of the tea ceremony, the appearance of Kabuki, or the stunning perfection of various “material” arts (e.g. ceramics, lacquer, screen painting, castle architecture). As Masahide has pointed out, Japan during the Azuchi-Momoyama period also experienced a religious reformation of sorts, as it is during this period that the Pure Land tradition of Buddhism, earlier elaborated by Shinran (1173–1263), spread rapidly. The appeal of Shin Buddhism stemmed not only from its concern with the salvation of all people (rather than a select, mostly aristocratic few), but its doctrine that salvation required no esoteric or scholarly knowledge or practices, but a “simple” faith in Amida Buddha.
Only in recent decades have we fully appreciated that all cultures are dynamic and contested. We should not be surprised that Frois spoke of customs as if they were static and invariable. Although one would think that Frois had a much better understanding of his own European culture, it might not have been apparent in 1548, when Frois left Europe for good, that Erasmus and Luther irrevocably had shaken the foundations of Christendom. During Frois’ lifetime Europe also was changed forever by the discovery of whole new worlds on the other side of the planet. The sixteenth century likewise witnessed a communication revolution in the forms of the printed book and broadside. Today we also look back and recognize the nation state, polyphonic music, opera, the rise of the bourgeoisie, and a host of other new societal forms and expressions.
As noted, the Tratado consists of over six-hundred distichs, divided by Frois into fourteen chapters. Our translation of each of Frois’ distichs is followed by a brief commentary in which we clarify—with the benefit of hindsight—the contingencies (e.g., literary, theological, political, historical, cultural) that seemingly governed Frois’ representation of Japanese and European customs. Often in our commentaries we point out how Frois’ distichs are partial truths that actually pertained to a particular segment of European or Japanese society (i.e. elites), or to a particular time (e.g. summer, new year’s) or place (e.g. a shrine or tea house). Our work of contextualization was helped significantly by Akio Okada’s enormously popular Japanese-language edition of the Tratado. Similarly, we often turned to Marques’ Daily life in Portugal in the Late Middle Ages for an understanding of the European customs referenced by Frois.
Although the sixteenth century in Japan and Europe witnessed unprecedented change, Japanese and European cuisine, architecture, drama, and aesthetics—to name but a few arenas—are still to this day governed by distinct and enduring principles. Accordingly, we have drawn on the comments of perceptive Europeans who wrote about Japan subsequent to Frois, particularly Engelbert Kaempher (1690), Sir Rutherford Alcock (1863), Isabella Bird (1880), Edward Morse (1886), Alice Bacon (1893), Eliza Scidmore (1897), and Basil Chamberlin (1902). Like Frois, these Europeans spent many months or years in Japan and sometimes offered “thick” descriptions of Japanese customs. Along these lines, readers of our edition may be surprised (pleasantly, we hope) that our edition incorporates observations about present-day Japanese customs. Because most readers of our edition are likely to be Westerners, they will know that Europeans (for the most part) no longer beat their wives, eat with their hands, or attend hangings for entertainment. These same readers are not likely to know that the Japanese (for the most part) no longer eat dog, carry their children on their backs, or commit ritual suicide. We thought it important to reflect on present-day Japan, if only to preclude stereotypes of a timeless or tradition-bound Japan.
In general, our goal has been to convey the cultural-historical context of the Tratado and the dynamic and contested reality of Japanese and European cultures. The Tratado is a fascinating text because it reflects how humans know and constitute themselves both in relation to and distinct from others. We have tried to draw the reader’s attention to how this comparative “project,” which is an essential part of the human condition, can entail a narrow or ethnocentric logic. The Tratado suggests that cultures are amenable to formulaic statements. Arguably this type of thinking, which once heralded the birth of anthropology as a discipline, survives today in popular stereotypes of the Japanese, or in the case of the Japanese, of Westerners. In translating and commenting on Frois’ text, we have sought to emphasize how identities are sometimes rooted in empirical generalizations (e.g. Europeans do tend to be physically larger than the Japanese) but more often in contested social constructions. Being a man or woman, or modes of expressing or feeling pain, are, in fact, quite variable.
The very breadth of Frois’ Tratado, which encompasses topics as diverse as architecture, gender, shipbuilding, and childrearing, poses a challenge in terms of providing appropriate contextual information to appreciate Frois’ individual comparisons. To meet this challenge, the project has engaged an interdisciplinary group of scholars. Although each of us has handled multiple tasks, we each brought particular skills and knowledge to the text. Richard Danford was ultimately responsible for our translation from Portuguese into English; Robin D. Gill, who, like Frois, lived in Japan for over twenty years, supplied commentary and insight into the Japanese language, culture, and history; and Daniel Reff provided insight into the Jesuits and early modern Europe.
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