When the Cross Meets the Samurais (Part 3c)

Christianity in Central Japan (Kansai / Kinai region)

 Map of Japan, with the Kansai region (central Japan) circled in black and various locations indicated

Central Japan, also known as the Kansai (関西) region in modern times or the Kinai (畿内) region in historical times, is home to the most influential cultural, political and religious centres for the Land of the Rising Sun. Located in the southern-central region of Japan’s main island of Honshu (本州), this region includes, amongst others, the imperial capital of Kyoto, which is also the most important cultural, political and intellectual centre of the entire nation throughout imperial times. Besides, such important cities during the period of the Jesuit missionaries as Nara, Osaka and Sakai are strategically situated within central Japan.

Being the imperial capital of the land, it takes no rocket scientist (or expert historian) to know that Kyoto was home to many powerful nobles, daimyos, warriors and scholars of the era. Therefore, if Christianity were to make a significant presence and enjoy stability on Japanese soil, it must first successfully establish itself in Kyoto and the surrounding region. Realizing the utmost vitality of this fact, Father Francis Xavier thus set out for Kyoto in 1550 with the hopes of gaining the favour of the Emperor and propagating the gospel in the imperial capital. Nonetheless, due to various unforeseen circumstances, Father Xavier had no choice but to return from the imperial capital with nothing but disappointment.

 Kyoto, the ancient capital and cultural centre of Japan

Despite this initial failure to properly establish a mission in Kyoto and thus spread the gospel there, perseverance and persistence on the part of the Jesuit missionaries subsequently paid off in the decades to come. What Father Xavier could not achieve in this regard, Father Gaspar Vilela accomplished with considerable success. With that, we shall now focus our attention on the missionary efforts of the Jesuits in central Japan in general and Kyoto in particular.

A) Father Gaspar Vilela

If you recall what I wrote in the previous part of this article, you would remember that Father Gaspar Vilela was actively involved in propagating the gospel and pastoring Japanese Christian communities in Bungo Province and the port-city of Hirado after his arrival in Japan. In 1559, after the mission in Hirado was quashed by angry mobs, Father de Torres assigned Father Vilela the challenging task of travelling all the way to the imperial capital of Kyoto in order to accomplish what Father Xavier had attempted but failed in the past. Thus, Father Vilela left Bungo with a few missionaries and Japanese Christians, and embarked on the important journey to Kyoto with nothing save for a few supplies and the power of prayer.

Even before entering the imperial capital, Father Vilela and his companions had already shaved their heads and dressed themselves in traditional Japanese clothing so as to resemble Buddhist monks. This was a vital move so that firstly, they would not attract too much unwanted attention unto themselves as foreigners and secondly, they could blend in well with local customs and thus give Christianity a more Japanese impression. Having brought very little supplies with them, they thus faced their first missionary challenge – accommodation. Fortunately, a kind resident in the capital provided them a humble place to stay – a place formerly used as a horse stable. Hence, the missionaries willingly took up their “residence” in the place of poverty and began propagating the gospel almost immediately.

 An artist's impression of Jesuit missionaries preaching to the Japanese people (in this picture, Saint Francis Xavier)

News about the arrival and teachings of the Catholic Christian missionaries spread like wildfire throughout Kyoto. In subsequent days, substantial numbers of people thronged to their humble “residence” to listen to Father Vilela’s preaching. The numbers of people who came to visit the missionaries swelled considerably with each passing day up to the extent that the missionaries had no choice but to shift to a larger residence, which was still as uncomfortable but a little bit better than the former “residence.” Even in this new residence, enormous crowds incessantly came to listen to all that Father Vilela had to say. It was said that there were so many people who wanted to listen to Father Vilela that his assistants literally had to stand at the door to prevent people from forcing their way in. Despite Father Vilela’s mounting popularity, conversions and baptisms were minuscule in number, mainly because of strong opposition from Buddhist monks in the capital.

Not long after, Father Vilela and his companions were forced to shift out and find residence in another place after the landlord of this current location chased them out under pressure from Buddhist monks. Shifting into their new place, which was also a place of poverty, Father Vilela finally managed to baptize at least 100 people into the Christian faith. Nevertheless, due to pressure from Buddhist monks, even the landlord of this new place then requested the missionaries to leave and find lodgings elsewhere. After a “nomadic” period of drifting around from one residence to another, Father Vilela and his companions were finally able to settle down in a large house in June 1560, from which they could effectively spread the gospel for a few years.

Without support or recognition from the local authorities, Father Vilela knew very well that his efforts of propagating the gospel in the imperial capital would be easily subjected to harassment from both the authorities and the public at any time. In order to overcome this problem, Father Vilela attempted and succeeded in obtaining an audience with the Shogun, Ashikaga Yoshiteru (足利義輝) (1536 – 1565) in December of the same year. The audience, however, was not very fruitful, because Yoshiteru did not express the slightest willingness to grant official permission or support for Father Vilela to continue his activities in Kyoto. In spite of that, Father Vilela did make himself more well-known after the audience, as increasing numbers of visitors came to his residence to listen to him.

 Shogun Ashikaga Yoshiteru (足利義輝) (1536 – 1565)

Since the Shogun neither granted any official permission nor provided support for Father Vilela’s work during the audience, opposition against the missionaries, particularly from Buddhist monks, could not be effectively stopped. They tried their best to prevent people from converting and undergoing baptism, and did all in their power to force Father Vilela and his companions out of the capital. In the light of all these challenges, Father Vilela, with the help of some friends and a friendly Buddhist monk, managed to attain an official permit from the Shogun that would permit the missionaries to stay in Kyoto, be exempted from all taxes and military service, and be protected from any form of harm or opposition that their adversaries would pose against them. In other words, although Shogun Ashikaga Yoshiteru did not fully support the missionaries, he did offer them protection from their adversaries at the least. Permission from the Shogun was, however, insufficient for Father Vilela to propagate the gospel in some parts of the capital and its surrounding areas, and Father Vilela had to also obtain permission and protection from local daimyos such as Miyoshi Nagayoshi (三好長慶) (1522 – 1564) and Matsunaga Hisahide (松永久秀) (1510 – 1577), which were all granted.

 Daimyo Miyoshi Nagayoshi (三好長慶) (1522 – 1564)

Success in propagating the gospel in Kyoto up to this stage was not as much as what Father Vilela had expected. Subsequently, he left Kyoto temporarily in the fall of 1561 to attempt to spread the gospel and begin a new mission in the neighbouring port-city of Sakai. Sakai, commonly dubbed the “Venice of Japan”, was home to numerous wealthy merchants who were largely uninterested in the gospel as well. Consequently, Father Vilela was able to baptize only about 40 people within the whole year he spent there.

After spending a year in Sakai, Father Vilela and his companions returned to Kyoto in the fall of 1562 to continue their work of spreading the gospel in the imperial capital. Nonetheless, even after a year of Father Vilela’s absence in the capital, opposition against him and his companions did not die off completely. This time, the Buddhist monks who strongly opposed the Jesuit missionaries appealed directly to the daimyo Matsunaga Hisahide who had earlier granted permission for Father Vilela to propagate the gospel. As a daimyo and a Buddhist himself, he could not ignore this appeal. Hence, he decided to investigate thoroughly the teachings and principles of Christianity by means of a debate, to see whether Christianity itself was contradictory to traditional Japanese beliefs and philosophies and could thus be rendered illegal and seditious.

The stage for the debate was thus set in the nearby city of Nara (奈良), whereby Hisahide had selected two highly revered and learned scholars in the region to challenge Father Vilela, namely Yuki Tadamasa (結城忠正) and Kiyohara Ekata (清原). Father Vilela accepted the challenge, and participated in the debate along with a Japanese Christian brother. The debate took place in summer 1563 and became a remarkable turning point for Christianity in Japan.

 A view from the city of Nara (奈良)

Undoubtedly, this debate struck an unexpectedly tremendous success for the missionaries and Christianity in general. It was through this debate that Father Vilela was finally able to convince many members of the Japanese nobility of the validity of the gospel and consequently bring more people into the Christian faith. Prominent scholars, nobles and daimyos such as Yuki Tadamasa and Kiyohara Ekata themselves, Takayama Tomoteru (高山友照) and his son Takayama Ukon (高山右近), who formerly posed strong opposition against Christianity and the missionaries, became amongst the new converts whom Father Vilela had the privilege to baptize after the debate. Although Matsunaga Hisahide himself was not amongst the new converts, many of his subordinates were convinced of the validity of the gospel as well and eventually received baptism. Hisahide became more supportive of the missionaries and Christians in the region and offered increased protection for Father Vilela and his companions by silencing the opposition from the Buddhist monks.

 Christian daimyo Takayama Ukon (高山右近) (1552 - 1615)

The debate was indeed a remarkable turning point for Christianity in Japan. Prior to the debate, Father Vilela often had to carry out missionary activities amidst poverty, and many of those who accepted baptism hailed from poor backgrounds, consequently giving the impression to the Japanese people that Christianity was a religion of the poor and sick. Nonetheless, as a result of the debate, Christianity was finally able to penetrate into the upper classes and nobilities, thus guaranteeing it a stable and recognized position in the Japanese society. With the conversion and baptism of many influential figures such as those mentioned above, in addition to support provided by non-Christian rulers such as Hisahide, Christianity spread very rapidly not only within the imperial capital of Kyoto, but also in many of the neighbouring provinces and cities which include, amongst others, Nara and Takayama (高山). Hence, the gospel effectively became an immediate success throughout central Japan, ironically as a result of the debate which was originally intended to disprove Christianity and humiliate the Jesuit missionaries.

B) Father Louis Frois

In the previous part of this article, I have mentioned that Father Louis Frois arrived at the port of Yokoseura in Kyushu Island in 1563 with Father John Baptist de Fonte, an Italian priest. As far as propagating the gospel in Kyushu was concerned, Father Frois perhaps contributed only a little compared to most of the other missionaries of his era who were in Japan. Nonetheless, as I’ve mentioned before this, his contributions to the propagation of the gospel in Kyoto are undoubtedly far from little.

 A statue of Father Louis Frois erected in Nagasaki

After being assigned the task of spreading the gospel and assisting Father Vilela in Kyoto, Father Frois left Kyushu in the winter of 1564, being accompanied by Brother Louis d’Almeida. Together, they reached the port-city of Sakai in January of the following year. Despite having travelled a highly demanding and challenging journey, Father Frois refused to stay long in Sakai and decided to leave the port-city almost immediately in order to meet up with Father Vilela as soon as possible.

After travelling for a few more days, Father Frois reached the imperial capital of Kyoto on February 1, which was coincidentally the day of the Japanese New Year. Father Frois was welcomed warmly by Father Vilela and the Japanese Christian community there. Since Father Frois’ arrival coincided with the festive period of the Japanese New Year, Father Vilela decided to arrange an audience for him with the Shogun, Ashikaga Yoshiteru, in order to obtain the favour of the Shogun towards the new missionary and thus allow the latter to be involved in the propagation of the gospel in the capital. Subsequently, the audience was arranged immediately in the Shogun’s palace and both the Jesuit priests, being accompanied by a number of Japanese Christians, managed to obtain the favour of the Shogun.

 New Year atmosphere in modern-day Japan

Having done so, Father Frois subsequently started his work of spreading the gospel the following day. He paid particular attention to strengthening the religious lives of the members of the Japanese Christian communities there, besides being a proponent for large-scale adaptations of local Japanese customs and culture into Catholic Christian festivals and observations such as Christmas, Easter and Lent. Father Frois also made it a point to learn and understand Buddhism in depth by listening to Buddhist sermons, and reading and learning Buddhist scriptures under the instruction of a former Buddhist monk.

Equipped with more manpower on the part of the missionaries, the spread of Christianity could thus be intensified in the capital and its surrounding provinces. This was, however, accompanied by the intensification of opposition against the missionaries and the Japanese Christian community in general. Buddhist monks in the capital tried their best to obtain a decree that would ban all Jesuit missionaries from Kyoto and subsequently stop the spread of Christianity. After some attempts, the Buddhist monks succeeded in obtaining such a decree from Emperor Ogimachi (正親町天皇, Ōgimachi-tennou) (1517 – 1593), the Emperor of Japan at that time. Precipitated by the unexpected death of Shogun Ashikaga Yoshiteru later in 1565, the Jesuit missionaries found themselves in imminent danger and thus had to leave Kyoto for Sakai immediately until things settled down.

 Emperor Ogimachi (正親町天皇, Ōgimachi-tennou) (1517 – 1593)

Soon after arriving in Sakai, Father Vilela received instructions from Father de Torres to return to Bungo on Kyushu Island. Consequently, Father Frois became the sole remaining Jesuit priest in central Japan, but he was no doubt well-equipped for this challenge after having familiarized himself with the mission in Kyoto and the ways of traditional Japanese culture. Father Frois wasted no time in Sakai, whereby he diligently propagated the gospel in the rich port-city and managed to baptize at least 300 people there.

Meanwhile, the Japanese Christian nobles and daimyos in Kyoto did all they could in their capacities to have the decree repealed, but to no avail until four years later. They finally saw hope when Oda Nobunaga (織田信長) (1534 – 1582), who was then a relatively insignificant daimyo residing in Gifu (岐阜), gradually increased his power and sphere of influence in central Japan in 1568. (Oda Nobunaga is famed in Japanese history for being the most powerful daimyo of his time and the initiator of Japan’s unification after the Sengoku Period. Recall that I’ve mentioned in Part 1 that the Sengoku Period was the era when Japan was plagued with civil wars and political upheavals without a definite central authority in place.)

 Oda Nobunaga (織田信長) (1534 – 1582), the first of the three greatest daimyos involved in the reunification of Japan

As Oda Nobunaga rose to power in central Japan, he installed Ashikaga Yoshiaki (足利義昭) (1537 – 1597) as the new Shogun to replace his dead brother and Wada Koremasa (和田惟政) (1536 – 1571) as the new governor of Kyoto. Wada Koremasa was in very good terms with the Jesuit missionaries and Japanese Christians, thus he used his influence to allow Father Frois to return to Kyoto in March 1569. Koremasa was also very supportive of Father Frois and his missionary efforts, assuring the missionaries of continual protection from their adversaries.

Through Koremasa, Father Frois also had the privilege to have audiences with Nobunaga himself and subsequently Shogun Ashikaga Yoshiaki. During Nobunaga’s meeting with Father Frois, the great daimyo asked him many questions about his purposes in coming to Japan and his activities whilst in the country. Nobunaga, who himself possessed a strong disliking towards Buddhist monks, was extremely pleased with Father Frois’ replies and subsequently became very good friends with the Jesuit missionary.

 An artwork illustrating Oda Nobunaga and Father Louis Frois in conversation

Both Nobunaga and Yoshiaki were very supportive of Father Frois’ work in spreading Christianity throughout central Japan, although they themselves did not convert. With official edicts issued in favour of the Jesuit missionaries, Father Frois could now carry out his missionary efforts with minimal harassment from his opponents for several years. Indeed, nobody dared to pose much opposition against the Jesuit missionaries and Japanese Christian communities as long as Oda Nobunaga was alive and in authority.

In 1570, Father Gnecchi-Soldo Organtino (1530 – 1609), an Italian Jesuit missionary, arrived at Kyoto to assist Father Frois. With more manpower, increasing support from Japanese Christian nobles and daimyos, as well as solid protection from Nobunaga, Christianity spread so quickly throughout the provinces of central Japan that the missionaries finally decided to construct a large church in Kyoto. Overlooked by Father Organtino and supported by Nobunaga, the first ever proper church in Kyoto, built with traditional Japanese architecture, was completed in 1575. Subsequently, Father Organtino also contributed greatly to the construction of another church and Catholic Christian monastery in Azuchi () in 1580.

The first ever church and monastery in Kyoto, built in 1575, illustrated on a Japanese folding fan

After spending several productive years in central Japan, Father Frois was finally recalled to Kyushu by his Superior in 1576, leaving the mission in Kyoto to Father Organtino.

Main References:
1)      Cieslik, H. (1954), Early Jesuit missionaries in Japan 3: Gaspar Vilela: The apostle of Miyako, Jesuits of Japan, viewed 29 November, 2010, <http://pweb.sophia.ac.jp/britto/xavier/cieslik/ciejmj03.pdf>

2)      Cieslik, H. (1954) Early missionaries in Japan 4: Father Louis Frois: Historian of the mission, Jesuits of Japan, viewed 29 November, 2010, <http://pweb.sophia.ac.jp/britto/xavier/cieslik/ciejmj04.pdf>

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