The First European Description of Japan, 1585|
Nobody seems to want to go to prison and yet it has provided a surprising number of people with the opportunity and some might say inspiration for some of the most moving literature that the world has ever known. Consider the Travels of Marco Polo, which was committed to paper in 1298, while Polo was in a Genoese prison. The Travels encouraged generations of Europeans to dream of far-away lands abounding in fabulous riches that were strange and exotic—where men might have long tails and heads like dogs. Although Polo wrote at considerable length of China (Cathay), what particularly fired the imaginations of Europeans were his brief comments about an island to the east of China called Cipangu. According to Polo it was inhabited by a good-looking people with fair complexions and good manners who were awash in gold, fine pearls, and precious stones.
Little more was heard of Cipangu until 1549, when Francis Xavier initiated a sustained Jesuit commentary on what was now referred to as Japão. The Japan that Portuguese sailors and Jesuits “discovered” in the 1540s was a society in the throes of profound changes, including a rapidly expanding and highly mobile population, increased urbanism and trade, and political instability, evidenced by frequent wars between aspiring members of a feudal warrior class, the bushi or samurai. In Japan, as in Europe, a religious elite wielded considerable power, including fielding armies of Buddhist monks who sought to protect and expand the interests of particular temples and sects.
Map 1. Jesuit Missionary Activity in Asia to 1585
When Portuguese traders and the Jesuits happened on the south coast of Japan, both were embraced by a small number of Japanese lords or daimyo who sought to use Christianity and Western goods, including firearms, to advance their political interests. Between 1549 and 1585, a relatively small number of Jesuit missionaries, beginning with Francis Xavier, used this window of opportunity to establish some 200 churches with upwards of 150,000 Japanese converts, principally on the southern-most island of Kyûshû.
In 1585, at the very height of Jesuit success, a twenty-year veteran of the Jesuit mission to Japan, Luis Frois (1532–1597), drafted the earliest systematic comparison of Western and Asian cultures. Frois’ comparative study apparently was not conceived as a book to be published. The manuscript, which is thirty-three folios, with text front and back, was written in Portuguese and has no title per se. Just below “Jesus [and] Mary”—a dedication at the top of the first page—the first line of the manuscript reads tratado em que se contem muito susinta e abreviadamente algumas contradisões e diferenças de custumes antre a gente de Europa e esta provincia de Japaõ (see Figure 1). The same line in English reads: treatise containing in very succinct and abbreviated form some contrasts and differences in the customs of the people of Europe and this province of Japan. The bottom half of the title page and page two of the Tratado list fourteen chapters on subjects as varied as gender, child rearing, religion, medicine, eating, horses, writing, ships and seafaring, architecture, and music and drama. Interestingly, whereas most Jesuit missionary texts from the period are dramatic narratives (i.e. epistles/letters, histories, dialogues) intended for the public as well as a Jesuit audience, the Tratado is a catalogue of over 600 numbered distichs or brief couplets, again divided among fourteen chapters. The following distich is from Chapter 9 (Figure 2), which is titled “Physicians, Medicines and Mode of Healing:”
Here Frois sought to convey to fellow Europeans (implied by “us” and “our”) how the Japanese perceived Western medical practices as harsh or invasive. Similarly, in the following distich from Chapter 2, which is entitled “Women, Their Persons and Dress,” Frois rather dispassionately described the Japanese attitude toward female chastity:
1. In Europe a young woman’s supreme honor and treasure is her chastity and the inviolate cloister of her purity; women in Japan pay no mind to virginal purity, nor does a loss of virginity deprive them of honor or matrimony.
As detailed below, we believe Frois and his Jesuit superior, Alessandro Valignano, drafted the Tratado as a pedagogical tool to explain Japanese customs to European Jesuits recently arrived in Japan. Quite unlike Marco Polo or other would-be ethnologists (e.g. Mandeville, Isidore of Seville, Pliny, Herodotus), including contemporary and fellow Jesuit, José de Acosta, Frois based his comparative study almost entirely on first-hand observation. Moreover, rather that relegate Japanese difference, excepting perhaps Buddhism, to Homo monstrum or the work of the devil, Frois attributed it to rationally-based choice. As suggested, this understanding that civilized and European were not necessarily the same thing undoubtedly sprang in significant part from Frois’ many years studying the Japanese language and his more than twenty years residence in Japan. Paradoxically, Frois’ generosity—the many instances where he states or implies that Japanese customs were on a par or even superior to European practices—remains problematic, inasmuch as it is Frois, the European (not the Japanese), who judges, makes distinctions, categorizes, and pronounces. Moreover, for all his respect, neither Frois nor his fellow Jesuits recanted their “mission from god,” even when it led—as it often did—to the razing and burning of temples and the upending of many thousands of Japanese lives.
Figure 1. Photocopy of Title Page of Tratado
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