A Jesuit on Japan

An infrequent topic on this blog has been Japan and the Japanese who for a variety of reasons remain fascinating to me. The main being that I am married to a Japanese woman with whom I have children and I lived there for just shy of ten years. Though this reason doesn’t entirely explain my fascination.

Of keen interest to me is the culture of the Japanese which I last considered in my review of the late Michael Crichton’s 1992 novel Rising Sun. This imparted knowledge of Japanese culture through the character of John Connor. I took issue with a number of the fictional Connor’s observations but overall, I got the impression Crichton had done his homework well before writing the novel. The topic of this post will be the Jesuit missionary Alessandro Valignano’s 1580 report on his experiences in Japan. This is quoting from The Christian Century in Japan 1549-1650 by C.R. Boxer which I am in the middle of reading. 

Before proceeding I want to state that while my previous commentary (and no doubt some of what foll0ws), might show some distaste for aspects of Japanese culture, I am on the whole, very fond of them. In fact I would consider a lot of my criticism in the familial sense as we are all more acquainted with the shortcomings of those we love and so too — their virtues. The Japanese have the latter in abundance but the former certainly exist too.

It is fascinating to read an account that is well over 400 years old that retains so much truth today. To say that the centuries in between were eventful is quite an understatement and that so much of the national character remains unchanged despite all of this is incredible.

Boxer notes before providing extended portions of Valignano’s Sumario that:

Jesuits were the only Europeans who from first to last had a good front-seat view of [early modern Japanese history]; and the accounts of these intelligent and (up to a point) trained observers are all the more welcome because of the silence or untrustworthiness of many of the native records on crucial points.

Something that made it easier for the Catholic missionaries initially was that they arrived in the middle of the Sengoku-jidai (戦国時代) which was a long period of civil war. This also conveniently made the more advanced European arms attractive to the warring Japanese. It was when the nation was finally unified under Tokugawa Ieyasu that Christianity was ruthlessly stamped out and largely remained so until Commodore Perry forced open the nation over two hundred years later. So this was also a brief moment in history where external observers could learn about the country before virtually all access was aggressively cut off to outsiders for centuries.

I will be quoting portions before offering my own commentary. He does discuss a variety of aspects about Japan and the Japanese but I have chosen a few that were close to my own observations. 

Boxer quotes from the following point:

The people are all white, courteous and highly civilized, so much so that they surpass all the other known races of the world. They are naturally very intelligent, although they have no knowledge of sciences, because they are the most warlike and bellicose race yet discovered on the earth.

One who is even partially familiar with the Japanese might nod along to all but the end of the second sentence. But I would would argue that the warlike aspect of the Japanese soul was not extinguished in the fires of the Second World War — only made dormant. The Japanese are still an incredibly regimented society as one can easily observe by going to a school sports day or morning meeting at almost any business. That or simply watch a major rail station one morning and observing how smoothly so many move through limited space in almost perfect order. If it became necessary, prudent or perhaps just desirable: their martial spirit could be quickly revived.

On the one hand, they are the most affable people and a race more given to outward marks of affection than any yet known. They have such control over their anger and impatience that it is almost a miracle to witness any quarrel or insulting words in Japan, whether with one another or with foreigners; in such wise that even if they are killed, they do not revile thereat, neither do they even complain or grumble about bad luck.

Anyone with only passing familiarity with the Japanese can attest to their politeness, grace and self-control. However Valignano’s very next sentence states that:

On the other hand, they are the most false and treacherous people of any known in the world; for from childhood they are taught never to reveal their hearts, and they regard this as prudence and the contrary as folly, to such a degree that those who lightly reveal their mind are looked upon as nitwits, and are contemptuously termed single-hearted men. 

It took me more time to notice how deceitful the Japanese could be and how readily they will lie. This isn’t just me either as I’ve heard exactly the same from many people. There is a little hyperbole above but it isn’t unearned. The Japanese have never been known for emotional outbursts though I did live there long enough to witness a few. In general, they are masters of putting on a false-face and will unashamedly say almost anything to maintain it. I have also suggested this is actually the primary reason they are so enthusiastic about literally wearing masks. This could understandably build up emotional pressure which it seems social events such as end of year company parties are used to relieve. That or out these frustrations on their family which seems quite common.

A little later on he comes back to the stating that:

Among other things, they are accustomed never to discuss affairs of moment face to face, but always through an intermediary; so much so, that even fathers and sons never ask nor discuss any questions of importance with each other, nor counsel nor warn each other save through a third person; all of which renders very slow and difficult the dispatch of any weighty business with them.

I don’t know how true this remains within families but it remains in their culture to this day as many frustrated foreign businessman will readily tell you. They also still make complaints indirectly and will be all smiles until you receive their complaint through a superior. Valignano also states that “when they wish to kill somebody, just when they are about to do so, they show him more politeness, and kind words, in order the better to effect their intention.” Thankfully, I can’t attest to this but I certainly believe it.

Japanese etiquette and cleanliness is another topic which despite the poverty across the nation during this time was still the best in the world as it remains today:

…everyone in general, and the nobles in particular are served and treated so cleanly and honorable, that it is a marvel to see how despite so much poverty they can keep such cleanliness and good breeding; although their dress, food, ceremonies, and all else they have or do, are so different from those of Europe and all other known races, that it seems as if they purposely contrive to do everything clean and contrary to everyone else. Thus we who come from hither from Europe find ourselves as veritable children who have to learn how to eat, sit, converse, dress, act politely, and so on.

I can only improve on this description by reminding readers that this passage is over 400 years old.

Some of the difficulties associated with converting the population are covered as would be expected from a missionary. 

They hold some horrible sins to be positive virtues and the are taught as such by their bonzes [Buddhist monks] and priests, particularly was regards the accursed sin [of sodomy] which is allowed free rein to an extent that is as unspeakable as unbelievable. Likewise they have many iniquitous customs and laws so unjust and contrary to natural reason, that it is an exceedingly difficult thing to persuade them to live in conformity with our law. Withal, when they do become Christians, they leave off cultivating these vices and are much addicted to religion and the celebration of the divine cult. That they frequent the churches and the sacraments and treat holy things with great reverence and outward humility.

Finally, since this people is the best and most civilized of all the East, with the exception of the Chinese, so it is likewise the most apt to be taught and to adopt our holy law, and to produce the finest Christianity in all the East, as in fact it already is.

This accursed sin remains in the nation though it is now more a problem in previously Christian countries. Today their is widespread access to pornography and self-abuse is apparently rampant in Japan though it wasn’t a topic I ever inquired about in polite conversation. I have read elsewhere that the samurai class took a dislike to missionaries along with the bonzes because both groups practiced the accursed act. I assume in both classes it was pederasty.

On the topic of conversion itself, I believe the Japanese will eventually convert en masse and would have centuries ago had Tokugawa himself converted. I also believe the Japanese would soon reach the levels of the Irish in piety and the French in the beauty of the faith when they do. They will truly be the Catholic Jewel of Asia but just as it was 400 years ago, their hearts remain mostly hardened toward Christianity. Being a notoriously materialistic and paradoxically superstitious people, I hope and expect the collapsing economic system will awake them to spiritual reality.

This entry was posted in Japan, Religion, Society and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.