Academic journal article The Comparatist

Japanese Encounters with Latin America and Iberian Catholicism (1549-1973): Some Thoughts on Language, Imperialism, Identity Formation, and Comparative Research

Academic journal article The Comparatist

Japanese Encounters with Latin America and Iberian Catholicism (1549-1973): Some Thoughts on Language, Imperialism, Identity Formation, and Comparative Research

Article excerpt


Almost one century after Cortes had conquered Nuova Espana in 1519, the Japanese delegation on board the San Juan Baptista docked in Acapulco on January 28, 1614. Consisting of more than 100 Japanese members, this delegation was lead by Hasekura Rokuzaemon Tsunenaga (1571-1622), a vassal of the Lord Date Masamune (1567-1636). The ship had set sail on October 28, 1613 from the port of Tsukinoura and took nearly three months to cross the Pacific Ocean. On board was Luis Sotelo (1574-1624), a Franciscan priest from Seville, who had accompanied the delegation. Upon his return to Europe, Sotelo dictated his experiences to an Italian archivist, Scipione Amati, who compiled the document Historia del Regno de Voxu in 1615. (1)

In this history, Luis Sotelo triumphantly reported that seventy-eight Japanese were baptized in Mexico City, although the extant church records, as noted by Van C. Gessel, (2) make no mention of such event. It was also reported that a group of twenty or so Japanese sailed from Veracruz on June 10, 1614. One may presume that they passed Puebla in 1614 on their way to the Gulf of Mexico. They were probably the first Japanese countrymen to make the journey across the Atlantic Ocean. On November 3, 1614 they met Pope Paul V, but this audience produced little in terms of concrete results. The Tokugawa Shogunate, founded by Ieyasu (1543-1616), had expelled the Christians in 1613, the year of Hasekura's departure. So, while the delegation was abroad, its goals had already been abandoned in Japan. On his way home, Hasekura received orders to stay in Manila for several years. It was only in 1620 that the Japanese authorities allowed him to return home. When Hasekura died two years later in 1622, his diary was confiscated and destroyed. The loss of this first-hand document makes it difficult to reconstruct this initial Japanese encounter with the new world. It was also in 1622 that Luis Sotelo disguised himself and made his way back to Japan. The priest was arrested and executed. His martyrdom took place on August 25, 1624.

This diplomatic mission fascinated Endo Shusaku (1923-1996), the Japanese Catholic writer, and it became the inspiration for his novel The Samurai (1980; translated into English by Van C. Gessel in 1982). (3) The narrator of the novel, Velasco, is faithfully modeled after Luis Sotelo. In this book, Endo examines his own faith while, at the same time, his psyche while analyzing the mental and spiritual suffering of the Japanese people as a whole. Endo asks: why did all those who were involved in the mission have to suffer for the sake of Christianity? Was their suffering redeemed? Indeed, the writer's life-long concern was with human suffering and, in particular, the passion of Christ. Recent studies in comparative literature have re-examined Endo's novels from the post-colonial perspective. In this paper, I would like to briefly discuss three issues that are relevant to the historical and cross-cultural range of Endo's literary creation and place them within the larger context of our discipline. (4)


Christian encounters with Japan challenged the notion of universality. Firstly, European exposure to the Japanese language raised fundamental questions concerning how to incorporate it into the pre-existing system of knowledge. It is well known that Saint Francois Xavier's (1506-1552) letters from Japan led Guillaume Postel (1510-1581) to believe that Japan was the Kingdom of Prester John. Postel believed that the Japanese language offered the key to solving the Christian mystery. (5) Half a century later, in 1606, the Jesuit Joan Rodriguez (1561?-1639), a famous interpreter who was based in Japan, compiled and published Arte da lingoa de Iapam in Nagasaki. The book was the first grammar of Japanese ever written in a European language. Its description of Japanese grammatical structure was groundbreaking. Rodriguez regarded the particles of the Japanese language (the so-called te-ni-woha) as equivalent to the inflections in European languages. …

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