The First European Description of Japan, 1585|
5 Concerning [Buddhist] temples, images and things pertaining to the practivce of their religion
1. Our churches are long and narrow; temples in Japan are broad and shallow.
Frois’ perspective is from the front of the building. When you enter a church you essentially enter a long hall with an altar at the end. Here the most important Catholic belief—that God became man—is celebrated during mass. Catholicism is very much a religion centered on sacraments (i.e. baptism, confession, communion, marriage) that take place in a church. The altar in a Catholic church is not just a stage of sorts; it is understood as a sacred space by virtue of a holy relic within the altar and the consecrated host, which is kept secure in a tabernacle.
Writing generally, it may be said that in design, roof, and general aspect, Japanese Buddhist temples are all alike … There is a single or double-roofed gateway, with highly coloured figures in niches on either side; the paved temple-court, with more or fewer stone or bronze lanterns; amainu, or heavenly dogs, in stone on stone pedestals; stone sarcophagi, roofed over or not, for holy water; a flight of steps, a portico, continued as a verandah all around the temple; a roof of tremendously disproportionate size and weight, with a peculiar curve; a square or oblong hall divided by a railing from a “chancel” with a high and low altar, and a shrine containing Buddha, or the divinity to whom the chapel is dedicated; an incense burner, and a few ecclesiastical ornaments … Some temples are packed full of gods, shrines, banners, bronzes, brasses, tablets, and ornaments, and others, like those of the Monto sect, are so severely simple, that with scarcely an alteration they might be used for Christian worship to-morrow.
Japanese Buddhists do not go to temple for regular services or sacraments the way Catholics attend church. In Frois’ time, they went mostly for the anniversaries of Buddha’s death, the sect founder’s death, or the recent death of a relative (hence the often-repeated truism about Japanese religion: Buddhism is for dying, Shinto is about living). During funeral services, the head priest does not face the congregation, but sits closest to and faces the honzon—statue of the Buddha. Behind him sit fellow priests, with the mourning family in a row behind them, and relatives in a row behind them, and so forth.
Despite widespread agnosticism in Japan today, seemingly every Japanese family has an altar in their home that serves “religious” purposes. These altars often consist of a small cabinet with images of deceased relatives, the Buddha, or any item or icon (e.g. a dried flower) that facilitates contemplation. The altars provide a focal point for Shinto reflection, Confucian ancestor reverence, and/or Buddhist prayer. The popularity of these altars and a lack of temple-centered sacraments such as confession or communion explain in part why the Japanese do not go to temples regularly the way Christians go to church. Following the expulsion of Christians from Japan during the early seventeenth century, the Tokugawa rulers made owning an altar mandatory. This also contributed to the embrace of altars.
Note that while the Jesuits under Valignano embraced Japanese architectural styles for Jesuit residences and schools, Valignano warned against constructing Catholic churches that might resemble a “devil’s temple.”
As we have seen, the Japanese attach great significance to the relative heights of people and things. Thus, even if Japanese Buddhists had a choir, its members would not be seated above the altar and the abbot.
Perhaps this reflects the difference between the private devotion that seems to be at the heart of Buddhism and Christian rites and rituals that emphasize community, such as communion, where Christians share the body of Christ. In fact, despite an occasional small bell being struck, Japanese chanters are usually out of synch with each other, as chanters freely pause to catch their breath. Be that as it may, it is more likely that the difference stems from the fact that there was more and cheaper printed matter in Japan than in Europe. It may also derive from the Japanese practice of sitting: It is easy to share a book while standing (as Europeans usually do when singing), but it is clumsy when sitting cross-legged.
“Our books” presumably refer to Holy Scripture and the works of the Latin Church Fathers, which often were bound in leather volumes that had hinged metal clasps to guard the contents from unauthorized readers as well as silverfish, the wingless insect that eats paper and the glue in book bindings. Much to the consternation of Martin Luther and other reformers, the Church insisted that only clergy were properly trained to read and interpret the Bible or the Latin texts of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and other Christian theologians.
The scroll, which was popular in the West during antiquity and the Middle Ages, continued in use longer in Japan, probably because the vertical ordering of Japanese characters (rather than the left-to-right ordering of written Latin) permitted the scroll to be rolled open horizontally, which is no more tiring or less efficient than turning a page. But the Japanese also had folded books at this time, and before long most sutra would be printed on long pages folded accordion style into books. Since the paper was thin, the pages were printed on only one side.
5. Our images for the most part are painted retablos; all of the images in the bonzes’ temples are sculpted.
Frois is probably correct that most Catholic devotional images were retablos—panels of wood with low-relief paintings of scenes from the Bible and the lives of the saints. Note that canvas was only beginning to replace walls and wood panels as the preferred substrate for painting. Today in Lisbon’s Ancient Art Museum one can view Nuno Gonçalves’ multi-panel retablo of the Adoration of Saint Anthony of Padua, who hailed from Portugal. Gonçalves’ work is an outstanding example of fifteenth-century Portuguese painting. During Frois’ lifetime Portugal also imported thousands of retablos by Flemish painters. Indeed, the demand was so great that Flemish artists moved to Lisbon and Evora, where they adopted Portuguese names (e.g. Francisco Henriques) and opened workshops that made Portugal a center of painting on wood. Still, Catholic churches in sixteenth-century Portugal and elsewhere were well known for their three-dimensional images created in stone or on polychrome wood, depicting various saints and, of course, the crucified Christ. Indeed, Protestant reformers pointed to an abundance of these lifelike images as proof that the Church had promulgated idolatry.
Buddhist images (and to Frois’ credit he did not use the pejorative term idol) were generally cast or carved in wood. Note that this contrast makes sense so long as one is focusing on the altar; paintings and images appear elsewhere in Buddhist temples. These paintings range from the black and white Zen daruma (i.e. a depiction of Bodhidharma, the Indian monk who purportedly brought Ch’an/Zen to China) and portraits, which are usually in a side room or office rather than the main temple, to luridly colored paintings of hell, which Frois himself comments on elsewhere (Chapter 4, #25). Curiously, neither Frois nor any other Jesuit (as far as we know) mentioned the most important painted image of esoteric Buddhism, the mandala. Whereas Christians come close to God through scripture, Buddhist monks meditate upon true nature or cosmic principles using this complex abstract painting, which can be mesmerizing.
Oil-based paint became popular among Flemish painters in the early fifteenth century and subsequently was embraced by artists elsewhere in Europe, in part because oil paints were much easier to mix than tempera and yielded the rich variety of colors emphasized by Frois. Portuguese painters such as Grão Vasco, who developed the Manueline art style, were noted for their use of gem-like colors.
Generally, the manifestation of the Buddha best reflecting the philosophy of a particular sect (and/or the founder, who was himself such a manifestation) was covered in gold. Images of the founder often took up as much space in a Buddhist temple as images of Christ or the Virgin Mary in Catholic churches of the sixteenth century. These figures were indeed gilded, as were decorative lotus leaves and flowers. But, as Frois knew, not all Buddhist statues were covered with gold. For instance, Buddhist temples generally feature guardian demons that are usually painted red. Many temples also have images carved of plain stone depicting “the 500 followers of Buddha” who realized enlightenment, as well as the bodhisattva Jizo (a “patron saint” of children, women, and travelers who was/is particularly popular in Japan as well as Korea). Sometimes the lifelike sculptures of Buddhist saints had simulated pores and implanted hair.
Frois clearly exaggerates to suggest that Buddhists really worship either gold or deities whose spiritual worth has been conflated with material preoccupations. This is like the pot calling the kettle black, given the enormous amounts of gold and silver looted from places such as Mexico that was applied to images and the interiors of Catholic churches during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But maybe Frois knew little of this extravagance, as he left Portugal in 1548, just about the time the Baroque period was getting under way.
Many Europeans were impressed, some of them favorably (e.g. Kipling) and others less so (e.g. Vivero y Velasco) by the immense statues of Buddha (daibutsu, literally ‘large Buddha’) that were cast or carved in various parts of Japan beginning as early as the seventh century (i.e. the Asuka daibutsu in Nara). The great size of the statues conveyed in part the salvific power of the Buddha, and perhaps more so, the power and authority of the Japanese rulers who commissioned them. Perhaps because Christianity is about God becoming man and saints who remain human despite infusions of grace, it has favored religious images that approximate human proportions. (Michelangelo’s Pieta follows human proportions, whereas his David, unveiled in Florence in 1504, is some seventeen feet tall). Interestingly, in Frois’ own Lisbon, the people seemingly broke with this tradition in 1950 when they erected an enormous statue of Christ the King (itself inspired by the enormous statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro completed in 1931).
Considering the fact that there were also countless small rakan and Jizo sculptures, which Frois never mentions, one might ask Frois: Why give only one side of the story? Clearly it was to suggest that Buddhism was about worshipping fantastic figures in gold more akin to the devil than the one true God.
Tengu, or minor guardian demons, are regularly found standing guard in Buddhist temples (they drive away evil spirits or guard this or that Buddhist treasure). However, not all these fearsome red statues were of such minor figures. Many if not most of Buddhism’s “horrid and frightening demons” are converted or appropriated local deities, not unlike “our” cynocephalic Saint Christopher, who, according to legend, was from a race of dog-headed people.
Demons are a peripheral aspect of most Buddhist sects and temples, although in some places their significance can loom large. Many fishing villages in Japan, for instance, recognized and prayed to a powerful tengu, depicted as a long-nosed goblin with mountain, and hence, wind-influencing ability. Then there is the patron god of the blacksmith, the “Metal Mountain God.” His better-known manifestation, Fudomyo-o, literally “the unmoving-light=bright-king” (perhaps better known as a manifestation of Mahavairocana, the central Buddha in the Shingon esoteric worldview), was thought to sit fast upon a metal-filled mountain, his countenance glaring like molten ore, with an upraised sword in hand to sever the deep-seated appetites of the flesh.
Frois knew from first-hand experience that Buddhist images were not only diverse and complex but that some were actually beautiful. In one of his early letters he described a thousand gilded sculptures of “Kannon, the son of Amida”: “There is a shining halo behind each statue … The beautiful faces are so well carved that, but for the fact that it is a temple of Amida, this scene would make a good composition of place for a meditation on the ranks and hierarchies of the angels.” Note that Kannon, rather than being the son of Amida, was understood by the Japanese to be a manifestation of Amida’s compassion; often Kannon is depicted as an attendant to Amida together with the bodhisattva Seishi. In the Japanese Buddhist imaginary, local (and imported) deities were seen as manifestations of a particular Buddha who took on “local” forms to better affect human lives. Buddhism, rather than compete with Shinto kami and shrines, incorporated them into the Buddhist worldview. Thus, most Shinto shrines and deities were given a place within the Buddhist system, which was dominant up until the Meiji Revolution.
10. Our bells toll and have a clapper on the inside; the bells in Japan do not move and are struck on the outside with a pole that is drawn outward away from the bell and brought forward again to strike it.
Frois does not exaggerate. The largest bells (and they are genuine concave bells) are struck by logs measuring one foot thick by ten feet long that are swung by a group of men. Kipling, at the end of the nineteenth century, wrote of being awoken by what he thought was an earthquake in Kyoto and discovering it was a twenty-foot bronze bell hanging five feet from the ground on a nearby hillside. The bell at the Buddhist temple of Chion-in weighs more than seventy tons and is two meters in diameter and six meters tall.
Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples with Shinto connections have yet another, quieter type of bell that visitors gong by swinging a rope with a knot, which functions like a clapper. These bells, which are usually hung about ten feet off the ground, are rung after making an offering or a wish, or just for the fun of it.
Church bells were first used in Europe to summon worshippers and sound an alarm. Christians under Muslim rule in what was to become Portugal (in Gharb al-andalus) were not allowed to ring church bells. As Frois suggests, following the reconquest (circa. 1249), Christians rang their church bells with gusto.
Even if Japanese bells could toll, they probably would not have been used for celebration, since continual loud noise meant a state of emergency. (The Japanese were shocked at a related European practice, the use of cannon or gunfire to salute a visiting dignitary.) In Japan, watchmen in towers hit smaller bells rapidly with a stick in the event of robbery or fire.
In both cultures monks marked the passage of time, although Christian religious may have done so making finer temporal distinctions, using mechanical clocks. During the fourteenth century gear-driven clocks with their own escarpment or power source (previously clocks were powered by the gravitational pull of water or sand) became widespread in Europe. Clocks and clock towers were coincident with the rise of towns and the beginnings of mercantilism, when men and women increasingly began working away from home in small factories and were paid an hourly rather than a day’s wage. Clocks that marked each hour of the day also became common in monasteries, where religious life already centered on chanting prayers and psalms at appointed times of the day (i.e. the Divine Office).
In 1551 Francis Xavier introduced the mechanical clock to Japan, giving it as a gift to feudal lord Yoshitaka Ohuchi of Suo (the old name for the eastern part of what is now Yamaguchi Prefecture). It seems that in this contrast and the two that follow, Frois sought not only to emphasize the distinctive way the Japanese marked time, but to suggest (“the Japanese have only …”) that the Japanese system was somehow deficient or an impediment to the time-conscious life led by religious in Europe. And yet neither Frois nor other Europeans complained about the Japanese being late (excepting perhaps nobles who stayed up all night talking and partying). The water clock mentioned by Frois (rôkoku in Japanese) had been in use in China and Japan for over a thousand years before Frois arrived, and according to the Nihon-shoki (the “Chronicles of Japan”), Emperor Tenchi produced a water clock in 671. Sand clocks, similar to the European hourglass, also were becoming popular during Frois’ time, and Rodrigues mentions bonzes using “very ingenious fire clocks” that burnt a dry scented powder that was laid out in furrows. Rodrigues went on to suggest that these fire clocks were used effectively to “know the hour of prayer and when to ring or sound the bells in their temples.”
During the Nara and Heian eras (710–1185) the Japanese actually followed a twenty-four hour system called teijiho, which was similar to what Europe was using when Frois wrote. Several centuries before the arrival of Europeans, Japan’s ruling elite switched to a varying-length system (futeijiho), which better accommodated the common folk, who marked time using the sun or a sundial.
The Japanese system referenced here by Frois could arguably be said to denote the same twenty-four hours recognized by Europeans, since each set of six hours was actually subdivided into a total of twelve units. Each hour marked the midpoint of a time unit denoted by an animal in the Chinese zodiac. This meant that when the hour struck, one-half of the zodiac animal’s time was over and one-half still remained. If we think of the ‘before’ and ‘after’ portions as distinct halves of the same hour (e.g. the pre-rat and the post-rat portions of the hour), the total number of hours comes out to a dozen for the day, and a dozen for the night.
In the older uniform hour system first promulgated by the Japanese Court, each of the twenty-four hours in a day (called shinkoku) was subdivided into four quarters, so one could speak of Rat one or Cow three and thus be specific to within thirty minutes. Thus, if the Japanese of Frois’ time can be said to have had half as many hours as we do, at one point in time the Japanese had twice as many.
This distich and the previous one clearly leave a lot unsaid with respect to how the Japanese kept time. They provide further evidence that the Tratado was intended as a teaching tool, a collection of statements that served as a point of departure (rather than a definitive statement) for understanding Japanese society and customs.
When using their fingers to count, the Japanese consistently fold their open fingers down. Counting down was a practice common to many cultures, including the Romans, who did it in a more confusing, partial manner. But why does Frois begin his count at six? The answer may be that dawn (the sixth hour) was considered the start of a new day.
There is a wonderful irony here, considering that Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines long occupied and thus protected old-growth forests, while Christians often toppled trees worshipped by pagans and viewed forests as the haunt of thieves (e.g. Robin Hood), ghosts, and evil spirits. While the Christian tradition of adorning churches with boughs, rushes, and flowers stemmed in part from Celtic and Germanic traditions that sacralized nature, perhaps more important was the Gospel of John (12:13), which relates how Jesus was met by a large crowd waving palm fronds while en route to Jerusalem for the Passover before his crucifixion.
With “windows” as tall as doors and as wide as walls the Japanese temple or house is open wide to nature. Compare this with a Christian church, where the windows function not to reveal nature but to harness sunlight for the purpose of relating a narrative in stained glass.
Candles in Europe were made from tallow and less smelly and more expensive beeswax, using the dip-and-drip method, hence the thick base and taper. The Japanese relied on sebiferous trees (mostly the “wax tree” or sumac) for vegetable tallow, which was best shaped by hand. Japanese wax tends to drip less and runs just enough to look good hanging down from the upper edge, while not covering the surface of the candle, which often was decorated with an auspicious and artistic motif.
Edward Morse, who visited Japan in the late nineteenth century, suggested that the wick used by the Japanese was made from the dried pith of a woody shrub or rush belonging to the Junaceae family (the rush plant is also used by the Japanese to make their tatami). The reed not only burned slowly and consistently, but as the candle got low one could place the remaining inch or so on top of a new candle, meaning there was very little waste.
The Japanese pull their beads (juzu, literally “bead count”), which are arranged in a circle, down into the hand with the right thumb, one bead at a time, one for every syllable of the sutra. While the Japanese who use beads today still pull them down in this way, Catholics no longer consistently push theirs forward. Many unwittingly work their rosaries in the “Japanese” way. Perhaps the biggest difference is that whereas the Japanese move along at high speed (the beads of fast chanters make a gear-like noise as they rapidly hit together), Catholics move their beads rather slowly, one prayer at a time.
Buddhists identified hair with worldly desire. Shaving the head also was thought to help ensure a favorable rebirth, hence the custom of referring to a person’s death as jobutsu, or “attaining Buddhahood.” This was part of the appeal of Buddhism as a religious system that managed death and the afterlife.
During the Edo period (1603–1868) this custom of shaving the dying was relaxed somewhat, allowing the shaving to occur after, rather than before, death. Eventually, the practice of shaving the head of the deceased was minimized to only a portion of the head, or even simply going through the motions of shaving.
The elongated casket remains the preferred packaging for Europe’s dearly departed, although the quality of the casket still tends to vary by class. “Theirs” refers to the coffins of the commoners in some, and possibly most parts of Japan. Cornwallis, writing in 1857, described the Japanese casket as “a sort of tub” about three feet high, two and half feet in diameter at the top, and two feet at the bottom. These caskets, which were once made of pottery, in the nineteenth century were made of wood. They were known as “quick-tubs” (haya-oke) because they could be constructed on the spot by a specialist in barrel making (there were no undertakers per se).
Christians anticipate the resurrection of the dead, which some scripture (e.g. 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18) suggests will begin with a trumpet call and other great signs in heaven, hence the logic of being buried face up, preferably with the body oriented east-west with the deceased’s head positioned so as to view the dawn of the “day of judgment.” With respect to the Japanese, Frois wrote in 1565 that the hands of the deceased were pressed together like someone praying, with the head bent toward the ground. The hands were not always in this position, but the fetal position was standard in Japan. With the hair shaved off, we get an image of a baby in the womb of the earth. Practically speaking, the fetal position reduces the size of the casket and the labor involved in excavating and then backfilling a grave. This also made it easier to transport the deceased; Japanese art shows the casket dangling from a pole that is carried easily by two men.
Christians long have favored burial over cremation, partly because of a belief in the inseparable nature of body and soul (affirmed theologically in the fourth century CE), and partly because of the early and enduring importance of the cult of the saints and their relics, which emphasized preservation of the body (or body parts).
The Japanese have an equally long tradition of burying their dead (the corpses of nobility often were left in mountain caves, a custom also practiced by Old Testament Jews). The Buddhist priest Dosho (628–700 CE) is said to have been the first person cremated in Japan. The practice subsequently spread with the embrace of Buddhism, particularly Jodo-shinshu, which held that prompt dissolution of the body facilitated transmigration and rebirth. Although the embrace of Confucianism by Japanese elites during the Edo Period (1603–1867) led to a prohibition on cremation among commoners, the practice quickly became the norm once the prohibition was lifted in the late nineteenth century.
Today close to 95 percent of Japanese dead are cremated. Most families, nevertheless, have “grave” sites, where a portion of the cremated remains may be interred. As noted earlier (see 1 above), what Frois never mentions is that there is a device common to most of the Far East but not found in the West by which the dead and the living may be consoled without going all the way to the cemetery: a fine wooden shrine, usually about the size of a bathroom medicine cabinet, with doors that swing open in front. Inside there is a place for a picture or, nowadays, photograph of the deceased, as well as shelves in front where one can burn incense and place offerings and flowers. It often holds a small urn with some of the aforementioned remains, generally including the nodobotoke, a bone called literally the “throat-Buddha,” which we know as the Adam’s apple. Often this warm custom ignorantly has been portrayed as “ancestor worship.”
Homes in Europe and the United States still display religious images such as the Last Supper or placards bearing “God Bless this Home.” Europeans also once placed gargoyles, crosses, and other Christian and pagan symbols on the outside of homes, churches, and castles to ward off evil spirits.
The Japanese, perhaps like most people, concentrated their efforts on keeping out the bad and bringing in the good. Thus, gates, doors, and doorframes were and are the most common places to post images and sayings. In 1690 Kaempfer observed many of these protective devices, which were printed on a half-sheet of paper:
The most common is the black-horn’d [sic]Giwon … the Ox-headed Prince of Heaven, whom they believe to have the power of keeping the family from distempers, and other unlucky accidents, particularly from the Sekbio, or Smallpox, which proves fatal to great numbers of their children. (Fig.99.). Others fancy they thrive extreamly [sic] well, and live happy, under the protection of a countryman of Jeso, whose monstrous frightful picture they paste upon their doors, being hairy all over his body, and carrying a large sword with both hands, which they believe he makes use of to keep off, and as it were to parry all sorts of distempers and misfortunes, endeavoring to get into the house. On the fronts of the new and pretty houses, I have sometimes seen Dragons, or Devil’s heads painted with a wide open mouth, large teeth and fiery eyes.
In Chapter 4 (#36) Frois makes it seem like the food at these funerals was all for the bonzes. That is not the case, as there were/are many guests other than the bonze (or bonzes). Today in Europe and America it is not at all uncommon to follow a funeral, particularly for someone who has lived a full life, with a “party” where relatives and friends of the deceased eat, drink, and are respectfully merry. Such funeral banquets have a long history dating back to the Middle Ages; they provide a symbolic way of reconstituting a community that had been fragmented by death.
While the Japanese do not practice complete seclusion and find the laying in period and funeral a good time to see old friends and receive their condolences, there was and still is a type of limited seclusion called mo, or mourning. It is virtually universal for the bereaved to refrain from marrying and from exchanging the customary greeting cards or visits on the following New Year; they send out a special card ahead of time asking others not to send them greetings.
25. Among us, someone who turns away from the faith is considered a heretic and an apostate; in Japan they change from one sect to another whenever they want, without any infamy.
Today one might suggest that the Japanese side of this distich bespeaks the greater religious tolerance of the Japanese as compared with European Christians. Here, as elsewhere (see Chapter 4, #13, #24), Frois chose to cast the Buddhist “search for truth” as unprincipled eclecticism.
Frois is seemingly referring to the public part of the first step to becoming a bonze (there is more going on in private that Frois ignores, including long hours of meditation and mastery of sutras). Rather than the novice simply putting a book on his head, the novice lifts a book containing the cherished sutras of the sect over and slightly in front of the head, as if offering something to a superior or receiving something from the same, thus showing reverence for the teachings of the sect.
Frois ignores the fact that Catholics beseeched innumerable saints, particularly Mary, for favors in this life and the next. Technically, that is according to Catholic theology, the saints had no power other than access to God Almighty. Arguably, many Catholics lost sight of this fact when they established a special relationship with Mary, Saint Ann, Saint Sebastian, Saint Roque, etc.
In Japan, the native religion (Shinto) and the imported religion (Buddhism) managed to retain separate niches: gods for this life and gods for the next, respectively. When Buddhism first came to Japan, there was considerable friction, as rulers who favored different belief systems argued over the merits of each and their respective efficacy or responsibility for epidemics and other natural disasters. In the end, “live and let live” won out and there was some amalgamation and a division of interests (call it specialization). The introduction and spread of Christianity in Europe during the early Middle Ages also entailed accommodation with paganism (hence the Christmas tree), although the Church as an institution never has been comfortable with this reality and on occasion (e.g. the witch hunts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) has violently sought to “purge” itself of paganism.
Today in Japan, it is more common to hear people speak of “Shinto for birth and Buddhism for death” (or Shinto for happy occasions and Buddhism for sad ones). However, this division is dynamic rather than absolute. Thus, every year there is a political debate in Japan about the propriety of politicians visiting one of Japan’s main Shinto shrines (the Yasukuni-jinja) to honor those who fought and died for their country.
This is the only distich in these two faith-related chapters that even mentions Shinto. It is not clear why the Jesuits paid so little attention to this somewhat regionally-specific folk religion (although there are prominent national Shinto shrines such as Ise). Perhaps it was because Shinto at the time had an informal priesthood (i.e. prominent families led rituals) and lacked a doctrinal system. Shinto’s profound yet simple belief in powerful yet mysterious forces that manifest themselves in life (kami) gave rise to innumerable local shrines where people engaged the divine, purifying their souls and seeking renewal.
As noted earlier, in 1585 most European religious art or painting still was being done on wood panels (retablos) rather than on canvas. Wonderful examples of this religious art from Frois’ lifetime are on display in Lisbon’s National Museum of Antique Art (Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga), including Nuno Gonçalves’ “Adoration of Saint Vincent,” six-panels of oak done in oil or tempera celebrating Saint Vincent of Saragossa, who is Lisbon’s patron saint.
Although painting on paper might not seem very permanent, Japanese pictures were commonly rolled up and stored when not hung up for viewing, which minimized their exposure to the elements. The scrolls usually have a cloth backing and margins, and wooden ends, which not only help hold the scroll open but improved the image in the same way that a frame improves an oil painting.
One can find wonderful black and white sketches in European art (e.g. Michelangelo’s notebooks or Rembrandt’s Portrait of Saskia), although these generally were not considered finished works of art, but rather studies in preparation for a painting in oils, hence Frois’ unstated wonder at the fact that Japanese ink drawings were worth so much. Had the Japanese drawings conveyed a Christian theme, Frois presumably would have acknowledged their aesthetic beauty. Some seven years after the Tratado was written, Frois noted in a later volume of his Historia that Japanese students being trained by the Jesuits were reproducing paintings from Rome so perfectly that it was impossible to tell the original from the copy. “So, with God’s help,” Frois concludes, “Japan won’t lack men who can keep all her churches full of fine images and satisfy the [aesthetic needs of the] gentry.”
Frois’ word choice here (amdão em mulas) evokes an image of a parish priest astride a mule. While perhaps accurate, some Catholic prelates such as bishops often travelled in litters—picture a comfortable closet of sorts suspended from poles that was carried by humans or mules.
In Japan, Xavier made a point of walking so as not to be perceived as being yet another Buddhist high priest, who, like other well-off Japanese, were carried in sedan chairs. These chairs hung from two poles and were generally carried by two men.
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