THE NAMBAN EXPERIENCE
Luis Francisco Martínez Montes
Namban-jin strolling along a Japanese street
Silence, the extraordinary novel by Endo Shusaku, deals with the aftermath of the failed encounter between the Christian West and Japan during early Modernity. The cinematic translation of the novel by Martin Scorsese has brought that almost neglected episode in history to the attention of a broader public, also in Spain. In fact, the attraction the Japanese feel towards many things Spanish surprises most Spaniards visiting Japan for the first time. Japanese women, as any expert will corroborate, are particularly apt at mastering the infinite nuances of flamenco dancing. At the heart of the Shibuya trendy shopping district in Tokyo there is a narrow pedestrian street named España. Not far from the temple of Ise there is an entire amusement park inspired on Spanish history and architecture. One of the most delicious Japanese spongy cakes is called Castela, after Castilla, one of the formative kingdoms of Spain. Tellingly, the best Castela cakes are still made in Nagasaki, a port city opened for limited foreign trade at the instigation of a Spanish missionary, Cosme de Torres, in 1571. Although all these facts could be considered as just anecdotic examples, among many others, of Japan’s appetite for the exotic, they are related to a fascinating, albeit frustrated episode in the early modern history of globalization.
Make the trip back from Japan to Spain and if you go to Coria del Rio, a small town close to Seville, you will see the statue of a Japanese nobleman by the name of Hasekura, who led an Embassy from the land of the rising sun to Spain in 1614. As a side effect of his trip, since some members of his retinue never returned to Japan and settled among the local population, Japón (Japanese in old Spanish) became a family name not uncommon in Andalusia. Even today, there are around a thousand Japones in Spain tracing their origins back to that diplomatic episode, including a famous soccer referee.
The Embassy led by Hasekura to Spain was part of a pattern of interaction between both countries, which started with the arrival of the Jesuit Francisco Xavier at Kagoshima, in southern Japan on 15 August 1549. He was accompanied by two other Spaniards and by a renegade Samurai, Yajiro whom they had encountered in Malacca and was to become Xavier’s interpreter during his mission.
The Spanish presence in Japan was to last several more decades, until the edicts promulgating the banning of foreigners were issued by the Tokugawa regime. Thus Japan entered into a period of self-imposed semi isolation that was broken by Commodore Perry’s gunboat diplomacy more than two centuries later. During that interval, only a testimonial Dutch presence was allowed to remain in Japan, confined to the remote island of Dejima.
To English- speaking audiences accustomed to the televised version of Shogun, the best-selling novel by James Clavell, the Iberian presence in Japan is associated with the Black Ship ran by avaricious Jesuits and with papist conspiracies to impose Catholicism by force on a tolerant land. Of course, Clavell’s protagonist, an English pilot at the service of the Dutch, was to be commended for his efforts at disrupting any contacts between the Japanese and the hated Spaniards and Portuguese. In fact there is a tradition of American scholarship on Japan dating back to the late XIX century based on the denigration of the Iberians. The purpose, of course, was to show that the best possible version of Western civilization, the one the Japanese and other Asians should follow, was represented by the rising spirit of capitalism embodied by the Anglo-Saxon and other protestant nations. Besides, at that time the US had already an eye on the Spanish possessions in the Pacific so any means were useful in weakening the moral stance of the adversary.
So, it is in that context that we can quote the words of William E. Griffis, an American teacher in Tokyo and respected author of one of the first histories of Japan in English, dated 1876, for whom the arrival of the Iberians in Japan brought to the island nothing more than “troubles innumerable. The crop was priescraft, political intrigue, religious persecution, the Inquisition, the slave trade, the propagation of Christianity by the sword, sedition, rebellion and civil war“.
Needless to say, the reality of the encounter between the Iberian nations and Japan was far more nuanced than the apocalyptic picture depicted by Mr. Griffis and his followers to this day. Exploring and divulging that experience may teach us something about how globalization is being constantly made and unmade by the complex interweaving of myriad threads. It can also demonstrate that the history of globalization has many dimensions and protagonists other than the archetypical City banker or the Californian computer geek. It can finally show us the possibilities and limits of dialogue and understanding among civilizations in testing times. Prior to the Spanish missionaries setting foot on Japanese soil, some Portuguese traders and adventurers had landed in the country in 1543. Their most revolutionary effect in the history of Japan was the introduction of the musket. The mastery and dissemination of the new weapon was to prove instrumental in tilting the balance of power among the different warlords in the civil wars that were ravaging the archipelago. The two other novelties brought by the Iberians were a new religion and alternative patterns of trade and interaction with the outer world. Since they had reached Japan from the south the Japanese called both Portuguese and Spaniards Namban-jin or Southern Barbarians, a term used for people like the Vietnamese or Malays with whom the Japanese had established relations since long. Later on, Namban came to denote both an art style blending Iberian and Japanese influences and a period in the history of Japan from 1543 (date of the arrival of the first Portuguese), to 1614-1639 (promulgation of the successive Seclusion Edicts by the Tokugawa regime).
Castle of Himeji, built in Japan during feudal times
Contrary to the prevailing American vision, the arrival of the Namban-jin was not the cause of civil war or religious discord in Japan. The country had been in a state of upheaval long before the first encounter with the Europeans. Significantly, in Japanese history that lasting period of inner strife is known as Sengoku Jidai, the “Country at War”. What was at stake was nothing less than the final destiny of Japan either as a motley collection of fiefdoms or as a unified polity.
No doubt those were troubled times for Japan. Conflicts among disputing feudal warlords were prevalent in the absence of an effective central government, as the Emperor was secluded in Kyoto. The Shogunate was also a declining force, a shadow of its former self under the powerful Ashikaga family. Religion was also involved in the state of anarchy, since the numerous Buddhist sects confronted each other, sometimes violently, for securing the favor of the most powerful warlords. Zen monasteries in particular were notorious for their efforts at monopolizing the limited trade exchanges with China at the exclusion of other Buddhist schools.
So when Francisco Xavier and his Jesuit companions landed in Japan they had to face a number of apparently insurmountable difficulties. Ignorance of the language, strangeness of customs, fierce opposition by the local priests and the maddening intricacies of the Japanese political scene were only the main ones. But against all odds, after a few years they had succeeded in establishing a burgeoning religious and, yes, trading presence in Japan. Ultimately, that very success was to cause the final undoing of the first encounter between Europe and Japan.
Albeit the Jesuits were funded by a Spaniard and are usually associated with Spain, theirs was from the beginning a multinational enterprise that combined a high degree of centralization with an outstanding capacity of adaptation to local circumstances.
In short, they were probably the first and still to our days one of the most successful “glocal” enterprises. Their experience in Japan is paradigmatic of the way they operated when entering into a foreign “market” for converting souls and, when necessary to sustain their mission, also for making profit.
To start with, the first Jesuit missionaries in Japan were masters at changing tactics when appropriate. It was not necessarily out of duplicity, but out of necessity. At first, following their earlier experience in India, Xavier and his followers tried to approach the local population in a humble way, trying to reach out to the poor.
But when they were despised and humiliated by the proud daimyos and the powerful Buddhist monks of Kyoto because they were behaving like beggars, they tried a different tactic. From then on, while caring for the lower classes, for whom they erected the first hospitals and orphanages in Japan, the Jesuits concentrated their efforts on converting some of the most powerful daimyos together with their closest entourage. For achieving the second goal two means were put into effect. The first was to act as intermediaries with the Portuguese factories in mainland Asia, securing that Portuguese carracks and later Spanish galleons would touch land in territories controlled by converted warlords, so adding to the latter wealth and power and concomitantly helping to secure much needed financing for the missions.
The second, and most innovative one, was to start a policy of “Japanization” so that the missionaries would eat, speak and conduct themselves generally in a manner befitting the Japanese customs. It was the beginning of one of the most interesting, but alas short lived, processes of mutual acculturation in modern history. Thus the Jesuit missionaries pioneered a cultural exchange between Europe and Japan with repercussions still in our days. The first European books printed in Japan were translations into the vernacular of religious works by Spanish authors like Fray Luis de Granada. Romanji translations of Japanese classics like the Heike Monogatari were printed for the benefit of Europeans learning Japanese. The first systematic grammars and dictionaries of Japanese in those times were also compiled with the kana adjacent to the Chinese ideograms, thus inaugurating the method by which generations of foreigners try to master Japanese to this day.
Apart from bringing the first printing press with movable metal type to Japan, the Jesuits and other Namban-jin also introduced Western painting, music, astronomy, cartography, medicine, gastronomy (many European and American products entered the Japanese diet then) and even fashion in dress and language. Many Japanese daimyos, samurais and even kabuki actors adopted the habit of wearing Iberian dresses and the Japanese language became interspersed with words of Portuguese and Spanish extraction: tabako (tobacco), karuta (card), kappa (coat), bidro (crystal), pan (bread) or even tempura, the Japanese meal whose etymology is related to the Latin “temporas”, a time of fasting before Eastern.
Even the chanoyu or tea ceremony was influenced by the Namban style, since quite a few tea masters became Christians and/or were seduced by the estheticism of the Catholic liturgy. As an example, there still remain several tea cups of the renowned Oribe School with a cross designed on them. Significantly, all the major Jesuit residences in Japan had a tearoom with the corresponding utensils to receive local dignitaries.
But probably the most visibly attractive products of the Namban era were the Namban byobu or picture screens depicting Iberian motives with a Japanese technique (normally the yamato- e used by the local Kano school). Many of those screens, now in European, American and Japanese museums or private collections, show scenes with Namban-jin arriving at Japanese ports or mingling with the locals in the streets, markets or theatres. Invariably, the Iberians are painted with prominent noses and exaggerated mustaches.
Comparative anthropologists as they were forced to be due to the circumstances, the first Jesuits in Japan soon started to draw parallelisms between their new country and their land of origin. In this respect, the situation in Japan at the time of Francisco Xavier’s arrival resembled that of Spain some generations before. Javier’s aristocratic family had been involved in the fight for Spanish unification, albeit on the defeated side. So he could well understand the psychology and motivations of the different warlords.
Tea House with a view of Mount Fuji, by Katsushika Hokusai, circa 1830.
Also, he and his fellow Jesuits were soon attracted by many aspects of the Japanese code of conduct prevalent in the upper classes. The importance attached to honor and personal dignity, the strict discipline and sense of duty towards the superiors and the readiness to risk one life in the pursuit of a higher goal, were traits of character praised in imperial Spain as well as in the statutes of the Order. No wonder that on receiving the first reports from Japan,
the most prominent Jesuit author of the time, Baltasar Gracián, whose books on ethics in a changing world are still read in business schools today, concluded that the Japanese were the Spaniards of Asia.
Unfortunately, that comparison held also truth when it came to the methods used in both countries for achieving political unity. Spain had expelled the non-converted Jews in 1492 (both England and France had done the same centuries before, which is no excuse, of course) and Japan was about to apply the same policy to most foreigners under the first rulers of the Tokugawa dynasty. When at the end of the XVI century Toyotomi Hideyoshi emerged as the most powerful warlord and effectively put an end to the period of civil war in Japan, he rapidly realized that his dreams of political hegemony could be endangered by the success of the Namban-jin and in particular of the Jesuit missions. He was afraid of the divided loyalties of many Christian daimyos and their servants.
He thought about dispensing with the foreigners and their religion as the easiest solution to his predicament, but there was a practical problem. Though he promulgated some edicts forbidding Namban religion, he soon realized that he could not do without Namban trade. So he initiated a policy of limited toleration punctuated by episodes of outright persecution, like the one culminating in the public execution of the first Spanish and Japanese Christians in Nagasaki in 1597.
Meanwhile, he explored possibilities to open up trade with other actors apart from the Portuguese and the Jesuits. He also tried to divert the attention of the Christian daimyos by embarking them on his ill-fated attempts at conquering Korea. In fact, the first European to enter Korea was the Jesuit Gregorio de Céspedes, who accompanied the Christian Japanese army as a chaplain and wrote a detailed description of the military campaign.
Furthermore, several events came to complicate the position of the Namban-jin. The first one was the opening up of Japan to other religious orders apart from the Jesuits in 1593. From that moment on, Dominicans, Franciscans and Augustinians were allowed to enter Japan from Manila thus undermining the ascendancy achieved by the Jesuits and entering into competition with them in the “market” for souls.
In reciprocity, several Japanese ships were permitted to visit Manila every year. A small Japanese community settled in the Philippines where even Japanese samurai warriors were enlisted by the Spanish authorities in the defense of the Manila Galleons. Ultimately, as relations between the Spanish Philippines and Japan grew closer, the climate of political mistrust became more evident. The Governor General of Manila was worried by alleged attempts by Hideyoshi to use the Japanese community there as a fifth column to evict the Spaniards. Inversely, the Japanese caudillo and his successor, the first Tokugawa, Ieyasu, resented the ever growing presence of Namban merchants and priests in their territories.
In this context, the arrival of the English and the Dutch, two protestant nations eager to challenge the dominant position achieved by the Iberians proved to be fatal for the first European encounter with Japan. The new comers soon engaged in a negative propaganda campaign against the Iberians, who reciprocated in kind. While Protestants were conspiring against Catholics and the other way around it was all too easy for the Japanese to manipulate them and set European against European. At the end of the day all became losers.
Curious Japanese Watching Dutchmen on Dejima, by Katsushika
Hokusai, circa 1802. at the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde, Leiden.
As political relations worsened, the Spanish crown and the religious orders tried to mend fences. To that end, several diplomatic missions were sent to Japan from Manila and vice versa. As a result of those contacts, several more additions were made to the catalogue of Namban novelties reaching Japan. For instance Ambassador Luis Navarrete brought the first elephant to Japan as a gift to Hideyoshi in 1597. The elephant was called “Don Pedro” and its arrival was celebrated in Japanese contemporary chronicles. Another Ambassador, Sebastián de Vizcaíno, was the first to bring Jerez wine (sherry) also as a compliment to his Japanese hosts in 1611.
Most significantly, in his second Embassy, Vizcaíno got into contact with Date Masamune, the daimyo of Sendai, in northern Japan. The daimyo asked to establish direct commercial relations with Mexico and Spain. With the help of Spanish experts he built the first Japanese galleon, the San Juan Bautista, also called in Japanese the “Date Maru”, in 1613. A full-scale replica of this ship can still be contemplated at the port of Ishinomaki.
It was precisely on board the San Juan Bautista that Ambassador Hasekura and his retinue travelled to Mexico and then to Spain with the consequences already noted. But Hasekura’s Embassy was ill-timed. While he was negotiating further contacts between Spain and Japan, an important development took place in his own country. In 1614 Tokugawa Ieyasu issued the Christian Expulsion Edict prohibiting all Christian activity among Japanese. The shogun also limited foreign trade first to Hirado and Nagasaki and finally only to Dejima under the most restrictive terms.
Hasekura Tsunenaga converted to Catholicism in Spain, Anonymous, 1615
Sendai City Museum, Miyagi, Japan.
The edict of 1614 initiated a fully- fledged campaign of extermination against Christians in Japan. At the time of its promulgation the number of Japanese Christians was around three hundred thousand. Thirty years later only several thousand hidden converts had survived the executions and forced recantations. For centuries, Christians in Japan had to pray underground and in secret. As in the extraordinary novel by Endo Shusaku, himself a Christian, an ominous Silence fell on them.
The end of the Namban experience had also important consequences for the further development of Japan. For the first time in its history a country that had always been opened to foreign influences was forced to remain in a state of semi isolation by its own rulers.
When their country was reopened by force by the American “Black Ships” in 1853 the Japanese were confronted with a more powerful foreign threat than had been the case during the Namban period. From then on, isolation was not a viable alternative to engagement with the outer world. What Japan did under the Meiji Restoration was to adopt the methods of the West at the peak of its expansion and adapt them to a national self-image that had been forged during the Tokugawa regime and its policy of restricted contacts with the world. The results of that unique experiment, for better and worse are well-known. Pendulum-like, Japan tried to play the game of the great powers with their same aggressive cards…and failed.
Only after the defeat of its militaristic adventure could Japan engage the world anew. It was its third attempt at opening up to a global reality increasingly dominated by the West. On previous occasions, first with the Namban-jin and then with the “red haired” Anglo-Americans, the contact ended dramatically.
At the third attempt, Japan finally found a peaceful way to blend the foreign with the local, the West with the East, thus embarking on a fascinating and unique path of modernization. Along the way, its formidable economic success prepared the ground for today’s shifting of power from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
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