The Tensho embassy

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Podcast Transcript

In 1582, a Japanese nobleman by the name of Lord Otomo Sorin sent a group of envoys to Europe. 

The entire round trip of their journey took eight years, and along the way, they visited several European countries and met multiple European heads of state, including two popes.

It was hoped that their mission would revolutionize relations between Europe and Japan.

Learn more about the Tensho Embassy and the first Japanese mission to Europe on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

If you have been listening to this podcast long enough, you will have noticed a theme that has come up several times. What happens when cultures come in contact with each other? 

The story of the Tensho Embassy is one of cultural contact, but it is also something much more.

The story starts with the first European arrivals in Japan. 

The first Europeans to arrive in Japan did so completely by accident. In 1543, a Portuguese ship was blown off course by a typhoon and became shipwrecked on the island of Tanegashima in the southwest of Japan.

This accidental landing led to a host of changes in Japan. The Portuguese introduced firearms to Japan. In fact, for a long time, the Japanese referred to these early firearms as “Tanegashima.”

The Portuguese began trading with the Japanese, and the Japanese initially welcomed trade with the people whom they called nanban-jin, or ‘southern barbarians.’ 

This trade also opened up the door for Christianity to enter Japan. The Japanese at first thought that the Portuguese were from India and that Christianity was some sort of Indian religion.

In 1549, Francis Xavier arrived in Japan. Xavier was one of the early founding members of the group known as the Society of Jesus, which most people know as the Jesuits.

The Jesuits are worthy of their own episode, given how influential they were all over the world.  

The early efforts of missionaries in Japan were rather ham-fisted. They didn’t adapt to local customs and had a difficult time with the Japanese language. 

This began to change with the arrival of Alessandro Valignano to Japan in 1579.

Just as an aside, when Valignano arrived in Japan, he came with his assistant, Yasuke, who was from Africa and later became a samurai. It is a fascinating story in its own right and will be the topic of a future episode.

Valignano was sent to take over the Jesuit mission to Japan, and when he arrived, he was shocked at what he saw. 

He later said in his own words, that the Jesuits would “… regard Japanese customs invariably as abnormal and to speak disparagingly of them. When I first came to Japan, ours (the crowd usually follows the leader), showed no care to learn Japanese customs, but at recreation and on other occasions were continually carping on them, arguing against them, and expressing their preference for our own ways to the great chagrin and disgust of the Japanese.”

Valignano changed the entire approach of trying to convert the Japanese and establish the Catholic Church in Japan. 

He purchased a former Buddhist monastery and converted it to a Catholic seminary. However, he didn’t change the design and decoration to make it more western. He kept it as it was.

The priests who were trained there were allowed to dress as Buddhist monks, which people were familiar with, not Western friars. They ate Japanese food, not Western food. 

He overhauled Japanese language instruction for the Jesuits in Japan, many of whom could barely speak Japanese even after a decade of living in Japan. All new missionaries were required to take a two-year intensive course in Japanese.

His efforts found success, especially in the conversion of several key daimyo’s in Japan. Daimyos were feudal lords who ruled over a particular area. One in particular. ?mura Sumitada granted the Jesuits control over a port in what was then a small fishing village called Nagasaki. 

The Jesuits used trade from Nagasaki to fund their mission in Japan. 

However, Valignano had a problem. Back in Europe, they thought the Japanese to be barbarians. Valignano had to convince the church and royal officials that Japan was in fact a highly developed culture that was worth investing in.

By the same token, the Japanese still thought of the Europeans as barbarians. He wanted to show the Japanese the richness of Christian culture, which was very difficult to do given how far away they were from each other. 

A solution to the problem came to Alessandro Valignano after a meeting with Oda Nobunaga. Nobunaga was sort of the grand shogun of Japan who had unified most of Japan under his rule. He wasn’t the emperor, but he was the de facto leader of Japan as the imperial regent. 

Nobunaga wasn’t a Christian and was never really a patron of the Christians in Japan, but he did tolerate their presence and saw a use for them as they opened up Japan for trade in valuable goods. 

In a meeting with Nobunaga, Valignano was supposedly given a silk tapestry intended to be a gift for the pope to demonstrate the cultural achievements of Japan. 

Valignano thought that this was a great idea, but then he realized that he shouldn’t be the one to present it to the pope. It should be presented to the pope by Japanese Christians. 

In Valignano’s mind, this would kill two birds with one stone. A group of Japanese Christians who could tour Europe to meet the pope and other heads of state would improve their perception of Japan, and a small group of Japanese who toured Europe could come back to Japan and tell everyone about the accomplishments of the Christian world. 

He conferred with several prominent Christian daimyos, led by ?tomo S?rin, and they selected four young men, approximately 14 years old, who would travel to Europe to represent Japan. 

The spokesman for the group was to be Ito Mancio, the son of It? Yoshisuke, one of the regional daimyos. Mancio had been baptized a Christian and had studied Latin. 

Accompanying him were three other sons of high-ranking christian daimyos: Miguel Chijiwa, Giuliano Nakaura, and Martino Hara. All of those were the Christianized names they took when they were baptized.

The diplomatic became known as the Tensh? embassy as it took place during the Tensh? period, named after the Japanese emperor at the time.

The group set sail on February 20, 1582.  They were accompanied on the first leg of the journey by Valignano.

From there, in March, the four boys and Valignano sailed to Malacca, Kochi, and Goa in India. 

In Goa, Valignano parted with the boys, wrote them letters of introduction, and the group set sail in September for Portugal along with Father Nuno Rodrigues, who took Valignano’s place.

The boys used the time aboard the ship productively. They received lessons in Latin and in Japanese from a Japanese Jesuit who came with them. They were admonished not to neglect their studies in their mother tongue.

Finally, after two and a half years in transit, the group finally arrived in Lisbon on August 10, 1584.  

As they later wrote, On 10 August, we reached the port of Lisbon. The flood of joy we experienced as we entered that port is almost beyond the power of words to express; because it was the end, at last, of the troubles and difficulties. and because we could now feast our eyes on an amazing range of new things.

In Lisbon, the boys, now over 16, had the proverbial red carpet rolled out for them. They were toured around the city in the personal coach of the Cardinal of Lisbon.

They were amazed at what they saw. For the first time, they experienced glass windows. They saw the rich and poor. Cathedrals and hovels. 

Over their first few weeks, they visited almost every church, hospital, and royal residence in Lisbon.

After their whirlwind tour of Lisbon, they met with Albert VII, Archduke of Austria and the Viceroy of Portugal. It was here that they unveiled the silk tapestry that had been sent with them from Oda Nobunaga, who, unbeknownst to them, had been killed just months after they left Japan. 

Albert had been reading updates sent from the Jesuits in Japan and was up-to-date on the domestic political situation in Japan. The boys were surprised as they assumed no one in Europe knew or cared about Japan.

As for the tapestry itself, it showed the castle of a great ruler. The boys had never actually seen the tapestry themselves until it was unveiled.

From Lisbon, they next went to Spain. They went to Toledo and then to Madrid. On November 14, they met with King Philip II of Spain. 

They were shown maps to demonstrate the size of Philip’s empire, which they stressed was the largest in the world….and it was. 

By the time they got to Spain, they had become the talk of Madrid. People lined up to see them in their white Japanese robes. 

When they arrived in the presence of the King, they did as they were trained to bow rather than prostrate themselves on the floor as they would have had to in Japan. 

They presented official documents from ?tomo S?rin, and to their shock, the king hugged Ito. 

Philip was fascinated by the boys and asked them countless questions about their country, and the day after their first meeting, the Queen immediately had a Japanese-style gown created.

After a month in Madrid, they moved on, slowly going through Spain, and eventually traveled to Italy, where they arrived on March 1, 1585.

They worked their way through Italy, meeting aristocrats until finally arriving in Rome on March 22. 

They entered Rome with an escort provided by Pope Gregory XIII.  By this time, word had spread of the four Japanese boys, and they were being referred to as magi, a reference to the wise men from the east described in the bible. Large crowds came out to see these Christians from the east. 

Pope Gregory was quite ill but was determined to meet them. Geographers at the time thought that Japan was larger than India or Arabia, and these four, now young men, represented the future of the church. 

In the formal meeting with the Pope, they finally presented him with the tapestries which were gifted by Oda Nobunaga. He presented the young men with many gifts and honors and spent days asking them questions. 

However, on April 10, just 18 days after they arrived, Gregory XIII died. 

The new pope was Pope Sixtus V. During his coronation on May 1, all four were given prominent roles during the ceremony. Soon after, Sixtus honored all four of them by making them knights in the Order of the Golden Spur. 

They spent the rest of 1585 traveling through Italy, Spain, and Portugal, visiting Mantua, Verona, Milan, Genoa, and Barcelona.

By April 1586, they were in Lisbon and ready to begin their voyage home. 

The journey back home took much longer than the journey there. With stops in various Portuguese settlements along the way in Mozambique, Goa, and Macao, they arrived back in Japan on July 21, 1590….eight years after they had first left. 

Things had changed dramatically in Japan over the last eight years. The new Imperial Regent had expelled the Jesuits, and Valignano returned to Japan to smooth things over. 

He did eventually get an audience with the new regent where the four young men were present. The audience was a hit as the regent peppered the four with questions about Europe, just as the boys had been questioned in Europe about Japan. 

It seemed like Valignano’s plan had worked. All four were ordained Jesuit priests, and a book was written about their adventure, which was to be used in classrooms of Japanese students. 

However, by 1603, a military government known as the Tokugawa shogunate came to power and eventually banned Christianity under the penalty of death. 

Mancio It?, the group’s spokesman, died in 1612 after an illness. 

Martino Hara was banished from Japan and fled to Macau in 1614.

Miguel Chijiwa left the Jesuits in 1601 and renounced Christianity. He died in 1633. However, in 2017, his grave was exhumed, and it was discovered that he was buried with a rosary, giving question to if he had actually abandoned Christianity at all.

Julian Nakaura did not flee Japan, nor did he abandon Christianity. Rather, he went underground to minister to the hidden Catholic community in Japan. He was captured, tortured, and executed in November 1633.

He was beatified by the Catholic Church in 2008.

Despite the grand plans for the Tensho Embassy, it had very little long-term impact on Japan or Europe. The Tokugawa shogunate closed Japan off from the outside world. There was another embassy sent to Europe and the Americas in 1613, but it was never received with the same enthusiasm the Tensho Embassy was.

There wouldn’t be another formal delegation sent by Japan to Europe for over 250 years.