Christian Nagasaki

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The Dream of Christian Nagasaki: World Trade and the Clash of Cultures, 1560-1640, McFarland&Company, Jefferson, NC., 2016, xii, 286 páginas. Volver a Hesselink, Reinier H. Bibliografía Japón.

Four Empires Connected by the Global Silver Trade

It was in China that the Portuguese were finally forced, after more than a century of discoveries and empire building, to make the epochal change from raiders who sometimes traded to traders who would never admit to raiding. (posición 153 de 8933)

cheap Japanese silver to China, where the metal was worth twice as much as in some countries in Europe.12 Although the big warrior leaders in Japan were steadily absorbing the small fry of independent warrior landholders in their vicinity, the relationships between the more powerful warlords were characterized by a technological stand-off, where the balance of power tipped to the best-organized, the most ferocious or daring among them. Due to increasing warlord exploitation of the mineral resources at their disposal and improvements in the mining techniques employed in the first half of the sixteenth century, by 1550 Japan had acquired a large surplus of silver, the more so because the warriors generally had little use for the soft metal.13 (173)

The coming of the Portuguese in the waters off East Asia and their introduction of portable firearms into Japan’s civil war radically changed the technological stand-off between the warlords.14 From the Japanese perspective, the second half of the sixteenth century is the story of the political reunification of the country by those who used their resources to buy, copy, adopt, stockpile and improve the new weaponry and its tactics. We will have to keep this process in mind as we see it illustrated in a close-up of the environment in which Nagasaki came into existence. In the second half of the sixteenth century, China was absorbing silver from three main sources. The first of these was Japan. The other two were the newly discovered mines of the Americas, i.e., the silver mines of Mexico and Peru. Peruvian silver was shipped to Panama and from there to Spain, or clandestinely (179)

through Brazil to Portugal. Thence, it was exported again to India, and eventually used to buy Chinese manufactures, either to sell in Japan or to bring back to Goa and Portugal. Mexican silver was used, in part, to pay for the Spanish thrust across the Pacific and ended up in Spain’s colony in the Philippines, where the Spanish similarly were using it to buy superior Chinese products.15 Four ports came into existence at around the same time with essentially the same function: that of shipping silver to China. These four ports were Macao, Acapulco, Manila and Nagasaki. Macao was founded and built between 1555 and 1557 as the entry point for Japanese silver into China.16 Around the same time, Acapulco became the usual starting point for Spanish ships crossing the Pacific.17 Manila was founded in 1571, and the first streets of Nagasaki were also built in that very same year. The only difference between the latter two ports (186)

was that silver from the Americas was carried from Manila to China in Chinese junks, while silver from Japan was carried to Macao in Portuguese vessels.18 Thus, in the second half of the sixteenth century, silver was connecting four empires: the Chinese empire, the Spanish empire in the Americas, the Portuguese thalassocracy in Asia, and the reemerging Japanese empire. With the exception of China, these empires were still growing or just starting to grow in 1560. And so, while the flow of silver may have linked them together, they were competitors where the accumulation, concentration, and consolidation of power was concerned. (193)

Christian Missiionaries Overseas

Christianity as brought overseas in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, therefore, should be treated as an essentially ideological discourse that helped expand, consolidate, and justify the newly acquired powers of Portugal and Spain. (198)

In Japan, the upper class was made up of warriors, and so (however unlikely it may sound) the Jesuits, at first, behaved in a more warlike manner than in any other place in the world.21 They became the founders of a military colony, called Nagasaki.22 Considering the rules of the Society that had been hammered out during the decades of the Council of Trent (forbidding the pursuit of worldly power, church office, and the accumulation of wealth on the part of its members), to be in charge of a military stronghold represented at best a grey area between being in the world and belonging to the world.23 The only major concern for the pragmatists, however, was to keep their interest in and management of such worldly projects as quiet as possible. In fact, the problem lay in the contradiction between a Society of Jesus ostensibly dedicated to spiritual goals and its priests in Japan having founded a (211)

strategic stronghold dedicated to monopolizing the China trade brought by the Portuguese merchants. Without the China trade, it was impossible for the mission to survive in Japan.24 The object of Jesuit control of Nagasaki was always that it should be direct only for as long as it took for Japan to adopt Christianity, for after that the believers themselves would, just like in Europe, support the priesthood. Nagasaki, in fact, was one of the few places in Japan where this goal was actually reached. For a few short years after 1614, when all remaining priests had to go underground, the town supported its shepherds until they had all, one by one, been caught in the net of the authorities. (218)

The decision was made to use the knowledge of the Japanese language and customs acquired by the members of the mission up to that time to become intermediaries between Portuguese and Japanese merchants, the former as ignorant of the latter as the latter were of the former. In other words, from the 1560s onwards, the Jesuits became what Philip Curtin in his thesis on merchant diasporas has called “cross-cultural brokers.”26 To better perform this function, and in order to be able to use the trade for the purpose of strengthening the mission, it soon became clear that the order needed a safe harbor for the yearly arrival of the Portuguese carrack, known in Portuguese as the nao, or “the Ship,” and in Japanese as kurofune or the “Black Ship.” (230)

If there ever was a seminal moment for the Christian mission in Japan, it was the baptism of a small regional warlord, Ōmura Sumitada, on the west coast of Japan’s southern island of Kyushu. After fourteen years of missionary work, he (237)

was the first from Japan’s sixteenth century ruling class to convert. In contrast to Ōtomo Yoshishige, the daimyo of Bungo on the island’s east coast, whom the mission’s leader Cosme de Torrès had courted for six years between 1556 and 1562 but who had kept the religion at arm’s length even while favoring the missionaries, Sumitada converted within less than a year of his first contact with a European; no wonder he was hailed back in Europe as someone particularly touched by the grace of God. It was in his domain that the Jesuits decided the new port was to be established. (243)

While in the twelve years before 1562 the Jesuits possibly (250)

baptized some six thousand Japanese, in the twenty-four years that followed the number of baptized Christians reached an impressive one hundred and seventy thousand.28 Costa 1998, pp. 94-5 (256)

The Prohibition of Christianity

It was Hideyoshi’s invasion of Kyushu that in 1587 sounded the death knell for Nagasaki’s independent existence. Even worse, Japan’s new ruler was informed about Christian effrontery in destroying the native religious sanctuaries of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples wherever it made converts in Japan. As a consequence, he prohibited the religion, told the padres to leave Japan, and annexed (269)

Having come to East Asia via Mexico and the Philippines, where they had provided ideological support for Spanish rule, the mendicants were unprepared for the delicate situation in Japan. Soon they were making the same mistakes for which the Jesuits were already being punished, and so enraged Japan’s hegemon that he ordered six of them to be crucified in Nagasaki in 1597. (279)

Where Nagasaki was concerned, the problem was how to uncouple trade from the missionaries and their religion, which Ieyasu clearly recognized for the ideological discourse it was and so rejected as proper for his subjects. (285)

By late 1613, they had convinced the hegemon that it was now possible for the officials representing him in Nagasaki to dispense with the padres and to conduct trade on their own terms and with their own interpreters. Therefore, in early 1614, Ieyasu proscribed Christianity throughout Japan. This is known as the second prohibition. (291)

Since the last quarter of the sixteenth century, competitors from Europe’s northern Atlantic littoral had joined the rush for overseas riches with smaller ships but armament superior to anything the Portuguese and Spanish could muster. If the sixteenth century had been that of the Portuguese and Spanish overseas empires, the seventeenth century was going to be that of the Dutch and the English trading networks. The fact that these two nations were sending ships to do business on the island of Hirado, not far from Nagasaki, without the help from any missionaries is certain to have contributed to the final decision to expel all the padres and their helpers from Japan.(303)

Torrès himself behaved like a great merchant or a small regional lord, traveling around the territory of the mission with a large retinue of followers and supporters, wearing silk clothing, dealing in guns and ammunition, gold and silver, silk and slaves. When news of this behavior reached Goa and the Portuguese were duly scandalized, a new superior was sent out to put an end to this development. From 1570 on, all the Jesuits in Japan were forced to wear their black cotton sotanas, even though (321)

At that time some of the most gifted Japanese brothers began to run out of patience, thus “proving,” in the eyes of the European Jesuits, that because of their lack of obedience, indeed, they had not deserved to be entrusted with the priesthood.

A World Steered by God and the Devil (345)

Reseña de Stephen Turnbull (Leeds) en The Journal of Japanese Studies, vol. 46, nº 1, invierno 2020, p. 165-169. Disponible en internet en DOI:, más información en [consultado el 5 de agosto de 2022].

The history of Nagasaki is a fundamental part of the interaction between Japan and the West during the time once referred to almost casually as [End Page 165] Japan's Christian Century. This book returns us to that concept, but by no means triumphantly. Instead the Christianization of Japan is presented as an unfulfilled dream, for which the Jesuit enclave of Nagasaki would become a powerful symbol. Fortified twice—first in wood by the early missionaries and then in formidable stone following Nagasaki's donation to the Society of Jesus—it would flourish for a short time as a European colony in all but name until being confiscated by Hideyoshi.

Nagasaki was the third choice as the base for the Portuguese mission within the friendly domain of the kirishitan daimyō Ōmura Sumitada. Two promising alternatives, Yokoseura and Fukuda, had proven vulnerable to attack, while Nagasaki possessed a deep natural harbor situated within a sea gulf protected by its naga saki (long cape). The land immediately around was almost completely undeveloped, but its defensive capacity was evident, and indeed a small fort had been erected at its highest point by Nagasaki Jinzaemon, a retainer of the Ōmura baptized as Bernardo, who guarded the place that bore his name. After much land clearance and building, Nagasaki became the normal anchorage for the annual naó (trading vessel) from 1571 onward. It also became a safe refuge for Christian families who had been uprooted from their old homes for one reason or another, and the Jesuit historian-missionary Luís Fróis notes people moving to the settlement from the Amakusa Islands and the Shimabara Peninsula. Nagasaki would play a vital part in the story of the Jesuit mission in Japan and would gain even more significance when the Portuguese were expelled from Japan in 1639 because, as the home of a handful of Dutch traders, it became Japan's only window on the European world for over two hundred years.

Hesselink tells the story of Nagasaki's first century of turbulent existence in immense detail. No one who reads it can fail to learn something new, because there is just so much included. Take, for example, the story of how the Jesuits were challenged on their own doorstep in 1573 by the hostile Fukabori Sumimasa, described by Fróis as "a great pirate" and the "avowed enemy of God's laws" whose territory lay at the tip of Nagasaki's cape. Francisco Cabral, the Jesuit leader in Japan, had to leave Nagasaki by ship, so Fukabori planned an attack on him. The Jesuits had, however, anticipated just such a move and assembled a fleet of seven ships equipped with firearms. Fukabori nevertheless assaulted them with alacrity, killing five or six men using his own musketeers and capturing one of the ships. The other Portuguese vessels retreated hastily to Nagasaki, forcing Cabral to take a different route overland and giving the pirate leader a symbolic victory over the European incomers.

The ambush showed the Jesuits how vulnerable the seaborne approach to their precious settlement of Nagasaki could be, but worse was to come later that same year. Following Fukabori's example of aggression, his brother Saigō Sumitaka advanced overland against Nagasaki. The inhabitants fell into a panic and fled to the wooded hills around, taking with them their most [End Page 166] precious sacred objects from the churches, which they believed would soon come under attack. Bernardo Nagasaki was on the point of surrender when a messenger arrived with the news that his overlord Ōmura Sumitada was still alive and was urging him and the Christian population of Nagasaki to stand firm until order could be restored. The Jesuits gathered their flock and the decision was made to give Nagasaki its first proper fortifications by erecting a perimeter fence around the promontory and cutting a ditch through its land side. "And so," writes Fróis in his Historia, "it became a fortress: the place that is now Nagasaki."

Saigô Sumitaka moved quickly to stop the defense works being completed, bringing boats up close to the fence, discharging guns into the town, and forcing the population to use the cover of darkness for their foraging and ditch digging. The subsequent and little-known siege of Nagasaki lasted throughout winter of 1573-74. Frustrated by the continued resilience of the defenders, the brothers decided upon a major assault to wipe the Christian community from the face of Japan. The attack was launched shortly after midnight during the week of Easter when houses and other buildings outside the perimeter were burned in preparation for an assault trough the fence. It was a demoralizing experience for the defenders who where convinced that their end had come, but four Christian samurai originally from Shiki on the Amakusa Islands chose to disregard the advice of their priest to sit tight and instead sallied out from Nagasaki in a suicidal attack. So sudden and unexpected was the assault that nine of the enemy leaders were cut down before the brave Nagasaki men were themselves killed. Seeing what they had achieved by their example, their fellow defenders followed them in a furious advance and drove the besiegers back to their boats. The enemy commanders ordered a withdrawal and Nagasaki was saved.

Hesselink goes on to describe in colorful detail much better known events such as Hideyoshi's takeover of Nagasaki and the city's precarious position under the Tokuwaga. We are introduced intimately to a host of characters including the sophisticated and wily Murayama Toan, who plays an unexpected role as defender of the faith when the Christians of Nagasaki come under dire threat. Here Hesselink's command of his sources, and his careful selection of them, shows him at his best. Correspondence by Bernardo Avila Girón is harnessed to paint an unforgettable picture of the series of penitential procession that took place in Nagasaki in 1614 as the inhabitants demonstrate their willingness to accept martyrdom. It was an extraordinary theatrical spectacle of self-inflicted harm whereby the ritual of flagellation was taken to an extreme, with the traditional flagellant whips being abandoned for somethings much more painful. The procession included those:

naked from the waist upwards, with their torsos wrapped in thorny vines, on top of which they wore a mat woven of thin reeds serving to make the thorns enter their flesh... Then there were those who carried two boulders hanging from both ends of a pole that rested on their shoulders... There was one man who carried two entangled snakes over his naked flesh that would bite him from time to time as was proved by the wounds he already carried.

Later pages deal with the great martyrdoms in much the same way, and effectively that is where the book ends, with the dream of a Christian Nagasaki shattered forever.

The dream has been built open an aspiration that may always have been unrealistic. The most cursory glance at European missionary work anywhere in East Asia reveals how it depended on successful trade links and also how those links had to be backed up by the creation of overseas bases defended by military force. It was a process regarded by an earlier generation of historians as bein virtually unstoppable, the inevitable triumph of superior Western technology in the form of firearms and oceangoing sailing ships. If one confines the study of Iberian expansion to the Spanish conquest of the Americas and the rapid elimination of Inca and Aztec power by a handful of conquistadors, the process indeed look overwhelming, but the situation in Asia was very different. The new mode of contact and development would not be that of the arrival of a steely-eyed European adventurer raising his flag on a beach and conducting an ad hoc ceremony of possession on behalf of his own monarch. The East Asian rulers were used to dealing with foreigners, so diplomacy became the norm. To some extent, the Western dominance that had carried everything with it in the Americas could be controlled in East Asia, and even when international diplomatic relations were not sufficiently developed to provide a cordial partnership, conflict could be contained and European power counterbalanced. This is precisely what happened around Nagasaki, and Hesselink paints a vivid picture of the neighboring hostile forces and the conflicts that developed.

Hesselink clearly has plentiful resources at his disposal. He as used sources in several languages and moves effortlessly between those in Portuguese and Japanese. He acknowledges the support he has received, including from leading scholars who read the manuscript prior to its publication. Despite this, however, The Dream of Christian Nagasaki makes an entertaining though somewhat disjointed read. The chapters are themed -sometimes awkwardky- around named individuals, which, while adding to the personal nature of the narrative, can be a little disruptive because we have to read about the birth and early career of the person involved before returning to the flow of the argument. For this reason, the book is more of an anthology of stories about people associated with Nagasaki. It is a work for dipping into, a valuable reference book full of exciting plums, but in view of Hesselink's travels "several times around the world", The Dream (169) of Christian Nagasaki could perhaps have been better. And there are a few occassions on which, despite his linguistic skills, Hesselink comes up with some clumsy expressions, for example that found in his description of the 1565 attack on the Portuguese fleet in Fukuda Bay, based on Fróis Historia. The captain major, we are told, is struck on the head by a Japanese musket ball. He survives, according to Hesselink, because he is wearing a "demostration helmet" (p. 38), a strange use of words that are simply translated in Matsuda's Japanese rendering of Fróis's phrase as "bullet-proof." Nevetherless, The Dream of Christian Nagasaki is a valuable addition to the material available about its subject, particulary in terms of the extensive manuscript sources Hesselink has drawn on.

These are, however, minor criticisms of a major addition to the corpus of work already available about Nagasaki. The Dream of Christian Nagasaki is clearly a labor of love, and as the pages go by the reader is drawn vividly into the world that flourished there for such a short time. Many history books inform, but few can genuinely move their readers, and I can think of no better introduction to the topic than this fascinating book.