In 1549, the Jesuit priest and missionary Francis Xavier landed in Kagoshima on the island of Kyushu. With him were two Jesuit missionaries, three Japanese converts (including their translator Anjiro), and one Chinese convert. Despite the danger of evangelizing in a war-torn country and the language barrier, it was not long before this small yet hardy group gained their first few converts. These events are recorded on the Biblical Timeline with World History during that time period.
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The First Jesuits in Japan
In 1543, a couple of Portuguese traders landed on the island of Tanegashima and became the first Europeans to establish contact with the Japanese. Although they did not stay long, they made a lasting impact in war-torn Japan when a local warlord bought the arquebus they brought along for the trip. The warlord ordered his craftsmen to copy the arquebus, and the result was the Tanegashima, the firearm used widely by samurais during the conflicts of the Sengoku period (1467-1603).
On August 16, 1549, Father Francis Xavier and two fellow Jesuit missionaries landed in Kagoshima. Two years before their arrival in Japan, Francis Xavier had met a Japanese fugitive-turned-pirate named Anjiro (Yajiro) in Malacca. He was able to convert Anjiro to Christianity and the new convert soon took the name “Paulo de Santa Fe.” Xavier naively believed the good things he heard from Anjiro about Japan and its people.
Xavier was able to convert the pearl fishermen of southwest India to Christianity, but he believed that Portugal’s exploitative colonization was incompatible with the message of the gospel. He had been thinking of leaving the Jesuit base in Goa and establish instead a new mission in another country. The arrival of Anjiro gave him the perfect opportunity to travel to Japan and introduce Christianity to its people.
After wrapping up his work in Goa, Francis Xavier and his companions stopped briefly in Malacca and then sailed to Japan. With him were two European Jesuits, Anjiro, two other Japanese converts, and another Chinese convert. His first convert, Anjiro, would serve as his translator.
He was surprised the moment he and his companions arrived in one of Japan’s southernmost islands. Kagoshima, a port city on the island of Kyushu and Anjiro’s hometown, was far from Japan’s then capital of Kyoto. Xavier learned later on that although an emperor ruled Japan, he was virtually impoverished and that local warlords held the reins of power. Wars were the norm, and he did not encounter the Japanese equivalent of European universities.
Despite the shock, Francis Xavier and his companions were welcomed warmly by Anjiro’s family and the townspeople. The newly arrived Europeans were fascinated with Japan and its people, and the feeling was returned by the people they encountered. It was not long before Xavier was able to convert Anjiro’s mother and sister to Christianity.
With the help of Anjiro, Francis Xavier was able to secure an interview with the young and curious daimyō Shimazu Takahisa. The daimyō, himself a devout Buddhist, became fascinated with the image of the Virgin and Child that the priest brought along as a present for the emperor. He saw its similarity to the goddess of mercy Kannon and proceeded to worship the image. Members of the daimyō’s household soon followed suit. More than a month after their arrival in Japan, the daimyō allowed his vassals to convert to Christianity.
Francis Xavier and Father Cosme de Torres wrote down everything they thought the Japanese people needed to know about the Christian doctrine during the winter of 1549. Anjiro translated the text to his own language, but it was not known how well he translated the text. Their translator’s daughter soon converted to Christianity, and she was followed by a ronin the Europeans later named “Bernardo.” “Bernardo the Japanese” later became one of Xavier’s first disciples. He would later travel to Europe in 1552 but died in Coimbra seven years later.
Xavier gained converts, but his inadequate knowledge of the language hampered his efforts. Buddhist monks of the Shingon sect also forced daimyō Takahisa to withdraw his support from Christianity, so the missionary left in a hurry for Kyoto (Miyako or capital). He left Anjiro behind to carry on his mission in Kagoshima while he traveled northward to secure an audience with Emperor Go-Nara. Cosme de Torres, the lay brother Juan Fernández (who, by then, had become quite fluent in Nihongo), and the Japanese converts Bernardo and Matteo accompanied him on his journey north.
They stayed for a while in Hirado Island where Portuguese traders docked their armed and richly-laden ships. In a letter written later in 1552, he boasted that he managed to convert more people in Hirado than in Kagoshima. They soon left Hirado and continued north to the city of Yamaguchi to seek an audience with the shogu Ōuchi Yoshitaka who was a known intellectual and scholar. He was known to welcome Confucian, Buddhist, and Shinto scholars in his domain, so Xavier thought that there was no reason for him to deny access to Christianity. He left Torres behind in Hirado, while the rest of the companions traveled with Xavier during the winter of 1550. They arrived in Yamaguchi in late January 1551 and preached to the inhabitants of the city as soon as it was possible.
They were summoned by the shogu Ōuchi Yoshitaka to explain their reasons for coming to Japan. Xavier discussed the Christian doctrine to the shogu for an hour but made the fatal mistake of criticizing the ruler’s dissolute lifestyle. His group was soon dismissed, and they were forced to leave Yamaguchi after seeing that only a few people converted to Christianity. The journey to Kyoto was difficult because they made it in the dead of winter. The roads were also full of danger as fighting flared out every now and then, as well as the presence of bandits in the countryside.
They reached Kyoto, but Emperor Go-Nara refused to see them (possibly because of his shame in his poverty). According to Xavier, the Emperor was “not obeyed by his own people” so they stopped seeking an audience with him. The shogun Ashikaga Yoshiteru was equal to the emperor in prestige, but he, too, held little sway among the daimyōs. Children followed and mocked them on the streets, while monastery doors remained closed to them.
The trip was a failure for Xavier and his companions, but not a total waste of time. He returned to Yamaguchi and stayed there for a while to ponder where they did wrong. He realized that in Japan the people considered them “barbarians,” or outsiders. He had to adapt to its culture if he was to successfully evangelize in the country.
After a brief stay in Yamaguchi, the group returned to Hirado to take back the luxurious gifts from the Viceroy of the Indies and the Governor of Malacca which they left behind for safekeeping. They then returned to Yamaguchi and gave these gifts to shogu Ōuchi Yoshitaka. The governor was impressed this time, and he allowed them to preach on the streets of Yamaguchi. He also allowed the group to occupy a monastery where they preached and discussed various topics (even science) with the ever curious and perceptive Japanese audience. The number of Christian converts in Yamaguchi increased, but the Jesuits failed to convert the shogu who did not want to let go of his concubines.
Language and miscommunication remained one of the greatest obstacles in Xavier’s mission. Fernández was still the only person who could speak, read, and write in both languages, and the rest remained monolingual. They also started to attract the jealousy of the local priests whose food and clothing depended on the alms given by the people.
In the middle of September 1551, Xavier received a letter from Otomo Yoshishige, the yakata of Bungo province. He was being summoned to Oita (Funai) where a Portuguese ship captained by Duarte da Gama just docked. He was welcomed warmly by da Gama when he arrived in Oita, and he soon became friends with Otomo (Sorin) Yoshishige. He received from da Gama the news that he was being recalled by the authorities in Europe and they would set sail for Goa in two weeks.
He received distressing news while staying in Oita. A rebellion led by Sue Takafusa had flared up in Yamaguchi and their patron, Ōuchi Yoshitaka, had been deposed. Xavier was able to breathe a sigh of relief when he heard that his Jesuit friends were safe after they were sheltered by the wife of a nobleman. Luckily, the regime that replaced Yoshitaka’s was also friendly to Christianity.
The Japanese converts Bernardo, Matteo, Antonio, and Joane sailed with him to Goa on November 21, 1551. An ambassador sent by Otomo Yoshishige also accompanied them, but Xavier left Torres and Fernandez behind in Japan to continue the mission. By early 1552, his group had arrived in southwest India. He wanted to establish a new mission in China and he left India once again in late 1552. The Chinese authorities refused to grant him entry upon his arrival off the coast of Guangdong. While waiting for his permit to enter China, Francis Xavier suddenly fell ill and died on December 3, 1552, in Shangchuan Island. His remains were then taken back to Goa. Japan’s first evangelist was 46 years old when he died.
Elisonas, Jurgis. The Cambridge History of Japan: Early Modern Japan. Edited by John W. Hall. Vol. 4. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Lacouture, Jean. Jesuits: A Multibiography. Translated by Jeremy Leggatt. Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 1995.
Toon, S., and David Michell. The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by J. D. Douglas and Earle E. Cairns. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996.
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