When the Cross Meets the Samurais (Part 1)

A nation torn asunder by raging battles
A nation plagued by intrigue and vengeance
A nation conquered by dissenting factions
A nation beleaguered by avarice for dominance
Such is the summarized description of the Land of the Rising Sun, when the nation existed amidst civil wars and political discord from the middle of the 15th century to the beginning of the 17th century. This period, historically known as the Sengoku Period (戦国時代, Sengoku-jidai) (1467 – 1573), marks the era when Japan was plagued with civil wars and political upheavals, without a definite central authority in place. Central powers once held by the Emperor and the shogunate (Japanese central government) deteriorated and were gradually replaced by daimyos (local territorial warlords) who exerted political influence over their respective territories. To make matters worse, these daimyos waged constant wars against one another, plunging the nation into deeper unrest.

It was during this era of turbulence that the renowned apostle of Catholic Christianity, Francisco de Jaso y Azpilicueta, better known as Saint Francis Xavier, ventured into Japan to bring the gospel and introduce Catholic Christianity.

A Japanese artwork depicting the Sengoku Period  (戦国時代, Sengoku-jidai) (1467 - 1573)

Saint Francis Xavier (1506 – 1552), a Catholic Christian missionary born in the town of Javier, Kingdom of Navarre (present-day Spain), is perhaps most famed for his extensive missionary activities in Goa of India, Malacca of present-day Malaysia and Ambon and Maluku Islands of present-day Indonesia. Nevertheless, some of you may actually be unaware of the fact that it is this noble saint who is also credited for introducing Catholic Christianity and laying its initial foundations in the far-east nation of Japan.

Being one of the founding members of the Society of Jesus, also known as the Jesuits (a missionary order within the Catholic Church), Francis Xavier spent much time carrying out missionary activities in several regions in India and Southeast Asia. It was in Malacca that Father Xavier first heard about the Land of the Rising Sun and thus obtained the inspiration to bring the gospel to the nation.

 Saint Francis Xavier (1506 - 1552)

In December 1547, whilst in Malacca, a Portuguese captain by the name of Jorge Alvares brought a Japanese samurai named Anjiro (アンジロ) to meet Father Xavier. Apparently, Anjiro had killed someone back in his home country and was now fleeing Japan, accompanied by two of his servants. He boarded a Portuguese ship, whereby he met Captain Jorge Alvares. At the captain’s suggestion, Anjiro decided to meet the “Holy Father” to confess his sins, since his conscience was disturbing him. He then met Father Xavier, in whom he was greatly impressed at the “Holy Father’s” charisma and kindness. From Anjiro, Father Xavier learnt more about Japan and its people. In one of their conversations, Father Xavier asked Anjiro, “If I went to Japan, would the people become Christians?” Anjiro then replied:

“My people would not immediately become Christians, but they would first ask you a multitude of questions, weighing carefully your answers and your claims. Above all, they would observe whether your conduct agreed with your words. If you should satisfy them on these points, by suitable replies to their inquiries and by a life above reproach, then, as soon as the matter was known and fully examined, the king, the nobles and the educated people would become Christians. Six months would suffice; for the nation is one that always follows the guidance of reason.”

(Ropp, 1997)

Under Father Xavier’s guidance, Anjiro decided to accept Catholic Christianity. Anjiro was then sent to a missionary college in Goa, India, where he received baptism, learnt Portuguese and was trained as a Catholic missionary. Finally, after undergoing sufficient training and attaining passable proficiency in the Portuguese language, Father Xavier decided to set off for Japan with Anjiro.

 The voyages of Saint Francis Xavier

In August 1549, Father Francis Xavier, accompanied by Spanish missionaries Father Cosme de Torres (1510 – 1570) and Brother Juan Fernandez (d. 1567), as well as Anjiro and his two servants, landed in Kagoshima (鹿児), the capital of the then Satsuma Province (薩摩, Satsuma-kuni) on the Japanese island of Kyushu (). Upon arriving in Kagoshima, Father Xavier and his fellow missionaries were warmly welcomed into Anjiro’s home, in which they stayed throughout their time spent in the city. Father Xavier’s first impression of the Japanese was indeed favourable, in which he described them as such:

“The people with whom we have thus far conversed are the best that we have yet discovered; and it seems to me that, among pagan nations, there will not be another to surpass the Japanese. They are a race of very fine manners and generally good and not malicious, a people of an astonishingly great sense of honour, who prize honour more than any other thing.”

(Yusa, 2002)

Shortly after arriving in Kagoshima, Father Xavier was invited to meet the daimyo (territorial warlord) of Satsuma Province, Shimazu Takahisa (島津貴) (1514 – 1571). It must be noted that, at that time, trade between Portuguese merchants and the Japanese was gradually growing, particularly around Kyushu Island. Hence, upon meeting Father Xavier, Takahisa was under the impression that he could acquire more trade from Portuguese merchants through the Jesuits. He thus gave them a very warm welcome. Without hesitation, the daimyo granted Father Xavier’s request of permitting the Jesuits to preach the gospel throughout Takahisa’s domain. Takahisa issued an edict ensuring freedom for the Jesuits to preach the gospel and permitting anyone within his domain to freely convert to Catholic Christianity.

Location of Kagoshima (鹿児), with Satsuma Province (薩摩) coloured red

One of Father Xavier’s biggest problems in reaching out to the Japanese was the language barrier. To Xavier, Japanese was a difficult language to learn. For the first few months in Kagoshima, Father Xavier and his Spanish companions tried learning Japanese from Anjiro, but only Brother Fernandez could passably master the language. Xavier, on the other hand, relied mostly on Anjiro to serve as a translator when communicating with the locals.

Father Xavier also wrote a summary of Catholic Christianity, which was translated into Japanese with Anjiro’s assistance. Translating the summary was a major headache, as the Japanese language of that era hardly had any suitable terms to accurately express Christian teachings. Various Buddhist terminologies had to be adapted to express Christian concepts, in which some of these terminologies wrongly expressed the tenets of Christianity. Perhaps the most notable blunder in this matter was translating the name of God into Japanese. Back then, there was no Japanese term that could accurately express the biblical God, so Anjiro suggested the name Dainichi () instead, which is actually the Japanese name of Vairocana, the celestial Buddha. As such, this became a source of confusion for the Japanese people when Father Xavier preached the gospel to them. He only realized this grave mistake when he was in Yamaguchi later during his mission in Japan.

Shimazu Takahisa (島津貴) (1514 – 1571), daimyo of Satsuma Province

For the period of one year that Father Xavier stayed in Kagoshima, he did much in preaching the gospel to the Japanese, albeit with difficulty. He would frequently preach in public places for everyone to hear. Most of his preaching involved reading out aloud the translated summary in Japanese, occasionally adding in some additional information with Anjiro’s help for translation. Father Xavier’s public preaching attracted large crowds, which not only consisted of commoners, but also Buddhist monks and aristocrats under Takahisa. Initially, Father Xavier’s preaching caused much confusion, in which many people thought he was a Buddhist monk preaching a different sect of Buddhism. This was because of two reasons: firstly, he came, after all, from India, the birthplace of Buddhism and secondly, he mistakenly used the term Dainichi to refer to the biblical God.

Many a times, Father Xavier’s public preaching drew jeers of laughter and ridicule as a result of his poor pronunciation in the Japanese language, coupled with the facts that the summary was badly translated and that the gospel was a new and strange teaching in the eyes of the Japanese. Despite all these, Father Xavier was still able to convey the fundamental essence of the gospel to them, probably either by his charismatic personality or his powerful ability to preach. This was proven by the fact that, during the later months of his stay in Kagoshima, the local Buddhist monks started to realize that Father Xavier’s preaching was distinctly different from Buddhism, consequently pressurizing Takahisa to expel the Catholic missionaries from Satsuma Province.

An artist's impression of the arrival of Francis Xavier and his companions in Kagoshima

Initially, Takahisa chose to ignore the pressure from the local Buddhist monks and continued ensuring freedom for the propagation of Catholic Christianity within Satsuma. However, when more Portuguese merchants started docking their trade ships in Hirado () rather than Kagoshima, Takahisa was angered by this and subsequently banned Catholic Christianity throughout his domain. As a result, Father Xavier was forced to leave Kagoshima in August 1550, after spending one year there. Nonetheless, Father Xavier’s missionary activities in Kagoshima were not in vain. He successfully baptized approximately 150 Japanese there who accepted Christianity, some of whom were serving directly under Takahisa in his castle. Many others were impressed and convinced by Father Xavier’s message, but they did not accept baptism out of fear of the numerous, powerful and influential Buddhist monks.

Finally, in August 1550, Francis Xavier left Kagoshima on a Japanese ship, accompanied by Father de Torres, Brother Fernandez, Anjiro’s two servants and a Japanese Catholic convert bearing the Spanish name of Bernardo, who was a young samurai. (Bernardo’s actual Japanese name has been lost in history.) Before leaving, however, Father Xavier entrusted the spiritual care of the newly-founded Christian community in Kagoshima to Anjiro.

In the next part of this article, I will be describing Father Xavier’s subsequent journey throughout Japan.

Statues of Saint Francis Xavier (centre), Anjiro (left) and Bernardo (right) in Xavier Park, Kagoshima

Main References:
1)      Ropp, M. (1997), Francis Xavier and the Land of the Rising Sun, theRopps.com, viewed 5 July, 2010, http://www.theropps.com/papers/Winter1997/FrancisXavier.htm

2)      Yusa, M. (2002), Japanese religious traditions, Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, N.J.
Part 1 – Francis Xavier’s arrival in Japan & initial missionary activities in Kagoshima
Part 2 – Francis Xavier’s subsequent missionary activities and travels throughout Japan
Part 3 – Missionary activities carried out in Kyushu, central and northern Japan by subsequent missionaries arriving in Japan
Part 4 – Reception of Christianity by the Japanese people of the era
Part 5 – Persecution and decline of Christianity

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