Women Religious Leaders in Japan's Christian Century, 1549-1650

By Farge, William J. | The Catholic Historical Review, January 2011 | Go to article overview

Women Religious Leaders in Japan's Christian Century, 1549-1650


Farge, William J., The Catholic Historical Review


Asian Women Religious Leaders in Japan's Christian Century, 1549-1650. By Haruko NawataWard. [Women and Gender in the Early Modern World.] (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing. 2009. Pp. xvi, 405. $124.95. ISBN 978-0-754-66478-9.)

C. R. Boxer coined the term Christian Century and used it in the title of his book, The Christian Century in Japan, 1549-1650 (Berkeley, 1951).The use of this term, which refers to the years from the arrival of St. Francis Xavier in Kagoshima to the Tokugawa government's banning of trade relations with Catholic Europe, is controversial. George Elison in his book Deus Destroyed: The Image of Christianity in Early Modern Japan (Cambridge, MA, 1973, p. 1) and Ronald Toby in State and Diplomacy in Early Modern Japan: Asia in the Development of the Tokugawa Bakufu (Stanford, 1991, p. 8) are of the opinion that the Christian mission in Japan had no lasting cultural influence. Scholars on the other side of the controversy- such as Robert Bellah in Tokugawa Religion: The Cultural Roots of Modern Japan (Glencoe, LL, 1957) and Andrew Ross in A Vision Betrayed: The Jesuits in Japan and China, 1542-1742 (New York, 1994)- claim a much more significant influence for Christianity in Japanese society.

Haruko Nawata Ward, in her well-researched book, enters into this controversy and argues that the Christian mission had a significant cultural and social impact on Japan. Through her detailed analysis of the activities of Christian women such as Hosokawa Tama Gracia (1563-1600), Ward provides strong evidence to show that the Jesuit mission was successful in ways that have been overlooked by historians. She convincingly argues that Christianity empowered women to make their own decisions about their lives: to take vows of celibacy as nuns or to choose their own marriage partners. The Christian community gave women opportunities to exercise leadership in ministries of teaching, persuading, preaching, and works of mercy, all of which was perceived as a threat in an increasingly neo-Confucian society (see p. …

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