Japanese Literature: An Introduction for Western Readers

By Donald Keene | Go to book overview
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THE first Europeans to visit Japan were some Portuguese adventurers who reached one of the outlying islands in 1542. Seven years later St. Francis Xavier introduced Christianity to the country with considerable success, and for almost a hundred years from the time of the first Portuguese visitors, the Japanese engaged in trade and other relations with Europeans, including Portuguese, Spaniards, Dutch and English. Converts to Christianity were made even among important members of the military aristocracy, and some Japanese dignitaries went on embassies to Europe and America, chiefly in connection with religious matters. But increasingly repressive measures against Christianity were adopted by the government, beginning in the late sixteenth century, in an effort to wipe out what was considered to be a threat to the security of the country. The government feared that Christian converts might divide political loyalties, and might even facilitate the invasion of the country by a European power. The example of the Philippines, conquered by the Spaniards in the sixteenth century after intense missionary activity, served as a warning to the Japanese, and by 1639 both the Spaniards and Portuguese had been forbidden to visit the country. Of the other nations which had traded with Japan, England had left voluntarily, finding the business unprofitable. The Dutch remained and were the only Europeans allowed in Japan until the country was opened to foreigners in the middle of the nineteenth century.

During the time that the Catholic missionaries were most active in Japan, at the end of the sixteenth century, they printed


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Japanese Literature: An Introduction for Western Readers


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