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Luis Frois: jesuit missionary and author

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The Tratado was discovered after World War II by Josef Franz Schütte, S.J., in the Real Academia de la Historia, in Madrid, Spain.[14] In 1955, Sophia University published a German-language edition of the manuscript, edited and translated by Schütte.[15] The edition also contains a transcription of the original Portuguese, which has been used by scholars to generate editions in Japanese, Chinese, French, Spanish, and modern Portuguese. Somewhat surprisingly, this is the first critical, English-language edition of the Tratado.

Although the Tratado is not signed and lacks other direct evidence of authorship, scholars universally have followed Schütte in attributing the manuscript to Luis Frois.[16] There are striking, substantive similarities between the Tratado and a table of contents for an otherwise missing Part I of Frois’ Historia de Japam,[17] which was written around the same time as the Tratado. Moreover, Frois was perhaps the only Jesuit who had the knowledge of Japanese language and culture that is evident in the Tratado.[18] This knowledge, and Frois’ substantial respect for Japanese customs, is apparent in the letters Frois wrote during the years preceding the drafting of the Tratado.[19]

Frois was born in Lisbon in 1532 and was given the name Polycarp at birth. Not much is known about Frois, although it is apparent that he was born into a mercantile or otherwise affluent family that could provide him with a quality education. In practical terms this meant learning to read and write in Portuguese and Latin.[20] This education made possible at age thirteen Frois’ employment as an apprentice scribe in the Royal Secretariat in Lisbon. Although by 1545 rag paper and the printing press had ushered in a communication revolution, the functioning of government and society, more generally, still hinged on scribes who drew up all manner of decrees, contracts, legal decisions, exams, licenses, etc. Scribes essentially operationalized the wishes of the rich and powerful; they were accordingly respected and well paid.

During Frois’ childhood, his city of birth, Lisbon, was the hub of Portugal’s far-flung empire—an empire secured financially in 1498 when Vasco de Gama stunned the Western world by reaching India and establishing a sea route to Far Eastern markets.[21] For the next sixty years or so Portugal enjoyed a near-monopoly on the importation of pepper and other expensive spices.[22] Frois as a child would have watched ships from Asia, Africa and America arrive in Lisbon harbor—unloading slaves, precious spices, gold, and all manner of exotic plants and animals.[23] (In 1515, King Manuel I staged a fight between an elephant and a rhinoceros for the amusement of the queen!)[24] And then there were the parades of new found peoples from places such as Africa, Brazil, and India.

In 1540, King John III of Portugal invited a new religious order, the Society of Jesus, to Lisbon. The Jesuits (Francis Xavier and Simon Rodriguez) began a mission at All-Saints Hospital and quickly won popular acclaim for their work with the city’s poor and infirm.[25] The young Polycarp apparently was among those impressed by the black robes, for Frois rather suddenly—at age sixteen—abandoned his career as a scribe and entered the Society of Jesus, taking as his new first name, Luis. Within a month, during the spring of 1548, Frois left home forever, sailing from Lisbon down the west coast of Africa, around the horn of Africa, and then on to India.[26]

Frois undertook a two-year novitiate in Goa at the recently-founded Jesuit College of Saint Paul. Goa already had a reputation as a colonial paradise, seemingly celebrated by Camões in his 1572 epic poem Os Luisadas.[27] Frois, however, was destined for the priesthood and followed his novitiate with a “tertiary” year, during which he essentially demonstrated he had internalized a Jesuit identity. The heart and soul of this identity is the “Spiritual Exercises” of Ignatius of Loyola. The Exercises involve a stepwise progression of prayer and reflection, during which the Jesuit engages God in a “devout conversation”—a conversation that ideally endures with regular infusions of grace, helping the individual Jesuit realize and perfect his vocation.[28] In 1551, the main vocation of the Jesuits was missionary work—attending to the corporal and spiritual needs of European Catholics and the innumerable gentiles lately “discovered” in Goa and other parts of Asia.[29]


Map 2. Jesuits in Japan, 1585

Having completed his novitiate and tertiary year, Frois left Goa in 1554 and travelled to Malacca. Here he worked for three years before returning to Goa in 1557 to complete his studies as a scholastic.[30] Because of his talents as a writer,[31] Frois was tapped to serve as assistant to the Jesuit Provincial of India, who entrusted Frois with the annual report for India and other correspondence with the Church and the Society of Jesus in Portugal and Rome.[32] During these early years—in 1553, to be precise—Frois had the opportunity to meet Francis Xavier, the Basque Jesuit who landed at Kagoshima in August, 1549, initiating the Jesuit mission to Japan. While the Jesuits took satisfaction in winning souls from among the poor, dark-skinned peoples of Goa, the Japanese and Chinese had white skin and were as civilized as Europeans![33] Or so Francis Xavier wrote in his stirring letters, which Frois undoubtedly read before they were bundled with other letters from Asia and shipped from Goa to Europe.

Frois was ordained a priest in 1561 and apparently petitioned to be sent to Japan,[34] for late in 1562, at age thirty, he left Goa and sailed first to Macao and then on to the southern-most Japanese island of Kyûshû. Here during the previous decade, the Jesuits and Portuguese traders—with their access to guns and silk—had been embraced by the powerful daimyo of Bungo, Õtomo Yoshishige. With the daimyo’s blessing, Fathers Torre and Vilela and several Jesuit brothers followed up on Francis Xavier’s initial success and baptized perhaps a thousand or so Japanese, mostly in and around the town of Funai. Several hundred additional converts were made during brief visits to various parts of the island such as Satsuma, Yokoseura, Hakata, and Hirado.[35] Jesuit success in Funai among Õtomo’s subjects was enhanced in 1557 when a former merchant and surgeon turned Jesuit, Luis de Almeida, used his personal fortune to open a hospital and foundling home for needy Japanese.[36]

Frois spent his first two years in Kyûshû (1563–1564) in Takashima and the port town of Hirado, where he continued his study of Japanese and attended to a small Japanese-Christian community as well as Portuguese merchants and sailors who visited the port on a regular basis.[37] Once his proficiency in Japanese was established, late in 1564 Frois was sent to the main island of Honshu and the capital city of Kyoto, to work with Father Gaspar Vilela. Earlier the Jesuits had used their friendship with the daimyo of Bungo, Õtomo, to secure an audience with the shogun, who allowed Vilela in 1560 to begin missionary work in and around the capital city. By the time Frois arrived in Kyoto, Vilela and a remarkable Japanese assistant named Lourenço had won over a number of prominent daimyo and their samurai supporters. However, no sooner did Frois arrive in the capital, during the summer of 1565, when the shogun was assassinated and fighting raged between competing daimyo, which forced Frois and Vilela to flee Kyoto. Frois moved to Sakai where he worked for the next four years, devoting part of his time to preparing Japanese-language editions of the catechism, lives of the saints, sermons, and other texts for mission converts.

In 1568, the ever-changing political landscape of Japan witnessed the political maturation of Oda Nobunaga (1534–1582). Nobunaga was a minor warlord from Owari Province who spent a decade out-smarting and out-muscling fellow clansman and neighboring warlords. In the fall of 1568, Nobunaga triumphantly marched into Kyoto, where he installed a new shogun, who was in turn embraced by the emperor. Both the shogun and emperor were beholding to Nobunaga, but not so the Buddhist monks of the powerful Tendai sect who resided near Kyoto on Mt. Hiei. In part to counter the monks’ influence,[38] Nobunaga allowed the Jesuits to return to Kyoto. The following year (1569), Frois was the first Jesuit to take up residence in the city, which had a population of close to 100,000.[39] Like Lisbon, Kyoto was home to the Imperial court. For centuries, it had been Japan’s economic, political, and cultural center.

It had been seven years since Frois arrived in Japan and clearly he had mastered Japanese. Nobunaga was a difficult man to impress but apparently got on well with Frois,[40] whom he granted permission to proselytize within his domain. Frois and a handful of fellow Jesuits, notably Organtino Gneechi-Soldo, enjoyed considerable success in the region about Kyoto over the next eight years or until 1577, when civil strife, coincident with a challenge to Nobunaga’s rule, once again forced Frois and his Jesuit colleagues to flee central Japan and take refuge to the south, in the province of Bungo. It was while serving as the local superior of the Bungo mission that Frois received word that the Jesuit “father visitor,” Alessandro Valignano, had arrived in Japan to conduct an inspection of the mission. As visitor, Valignano enjoyed the authority of the Father General of the Society, meaning that he could make whatever changes he felt necessary, regardless of the views of the local Jesuit superior, Francisco Cabral.

Valignano knew or soon learned of Frois’ impressive grasp of the Japanese language and culture and made Frois his assistant and translator. For the next three years (1579–1582) Frois travelled to various parts of Japan, helping Valignano assess Jesuit operations. At the end of Valignano’s inspection in 1583, at age fifty-one, Frois was entrusted by Jesuit superiors to write a history of the Jesuit mission enterprise. Much of Frois’ subsequent career as a Jesuit (Frois died in 1597) was spent writing this multi-volume work, which covered the entire history of the Jesuit experience in Japan until 1593.[41] As noted, an extant prologue and table of contents for Frois’ Historia is strikingly similar to the Tratado.[42] The title page of the Tratado bears a date of June, 1585, indicating that it was written at roughly the same time as Part I of Frois’ Historia.


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