Courtiers and Christians: The First Japanese Emissaries to Europe

By Brown, Judith C. | Renaissance Quarterly, Winter 1994 | Go to article overview

Courtiers and Christians: The First Japanese Emissaries to Europe


Brown, Judith C., Renaissance Quarterly


ON AUGUST 15 84 FOUR JAPANESE emissaries arrived in Lisbon. Strictly speaking, they were not the first Japanese to arrive in Europe, but they were the first official delegates sent by Japanese feudal lords. And they were the first to return to Japan after a European sojourn.(1) Some historians have argued that "no Japanese emissaries, before or since, aroused comparable interest or enthusiasm" among Europeans.(2)

Much has been written about this visit, both in the sixteenth century and closer to our own, but while there is no doubt about the warmth of the welcome, judgments about its meaning and importance have differed sharply. In the late nineteenth century, Guglielmo Berchet reluctantly concluded that despite European enthusiasm and the triumph of the travelers over enormous obstacles during the journey, the embassy was of no consequence because by the time it returned to Japan in 1587, it encountered a hardening of attitudes against Europeans.(3) Donald Lach, on the other hand, stresses the importance of the embassy for Europe, even as he acknowledges that the impact on Japan was blunted: "Whatever influence they may have had upon the progress of Christianity in Japan, there can be no question about the impact they made in Europe. Their visit was the subject of much talk, many letters by a vast circle of correspondents, and no fewer than fifty-five publications . . . Even in countries which it did not visit, the mission had the effect of immediately stimulating interest in Japan . . . That the legates put Japan on the map for most Europeans is beyond doubt."(4)

This article will not assess the relative merits of these positions nor focus primarily on the motives for the embassy or its impact on the Japanese. Instead, I would like to reflect on certain aspects of European reactions to the embassy, particularly the implications of the extraordinary public displays that greeted the emissaries. These displays have been seen as examples of Renaissance curiosity about the world and man and as specific illustrations of European interest in the Other. Yet, as I hope to show, the reception of the Japanese emissaries is better understood as a conjuncture of favorable forces within European politics than as a demonstration of interest in a different and alien culture. Moreover, even if some Europeans may have been genuinely curious about their Japanese visitors, it was simply not the case that the European public was equally fascinated by the arrival of the Japanese. The reception of the emissaries varied not just from city to city but among different social groups. A closer look at these differences and at the gap between the official receptions and more spontaneous responses call tell us much about European perceptions of the Other and about the varieties of outlook within European society.

The reflections that follow have been stimulated by previously unused documents in the Florentine archives. The documents, generated by the ducal bureaucracy, allow us to glimpse the variety of European responses in ways that are not possible in the published accounts that appeared shortly after the completion of the embassy.

The idea for the embassy came from Alessandro Valignano, the Jesuit Visitor to the Orient. Sent to Asia in 1574, Valignano had embarked on an ambitious program of conversions to Christianity by strengthening contacts with native rulers, urging the Jesuits to become more familiar with Japanese culture, and building seminaries to train Japanese clergy and teach the laity about European culture and religion. By the early 1580s he was eager to attract the attention of Europeans to the success of his mission so as to bring much needed financial backing for further work. Despite the relatively large number of conversions, the resources of the small Japanese feudal lords who had converted to Christianity had not sufficed to underwrite his projects.(5) The embassy would also show the Japanese the wealth and the power of Catholic Europe, thus making Jesuit claims more believable to a people accustomed to think of themselves as the center of civilization and skeptical about the advantages of European culture and religion.

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