The 17th Century Japanese Samurai Who Sailed to Europe, Met the Pope & Became a Roman Citizen

Image via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

We learn about intre­pid Euro­peans who sought, and some­times even found, trade and mis­sion­ary routes to Chi­na and Japan dur­ing the cen­turies of explo­ration and empire. Rarely, if ever, do we hear about vis­i­tors from the East to the West, espe­cial­ly those as well-trav­eled as 17th-cen­tu­ry samu­rai Haseku­ra Tsune­na­ga. Sent on a mis­sion to Europe and Amer­i­ca by his feu­dal lord, Date Masumune, Haseku­ra “set off on a quest to earn rich­es and spir­i­tu­al guid­ance,” Andrew Milne writes at All that’s Inter­est­ing. “He cir­cum­nav­i­gat­ed the globe, became part of the first Japan­ese group in Cuba, met the Pope, helped begin a branch of Japan­ese set­tlers in Spain (still thriv­ing today), and even became a Roman cit­i­zen.”

Haseku­ra was a bat­tle-test­ed samu­rai who had act­ed on the daimyo’s behalf on many occa­sions. His mis­sion to the West, how­ev­er, was first and fore­most a chance to redeem his hon­or and save his life. In 1612, Haseku­ra’s father was made to com­mit sep­puku after an indict­ment for cor­rup­tion. Stripped of lands and title, Haseku­ra could only avoid the same fate by going West, and so he did, just a few years before the peri­od of sakoku, or nation­al iso­la­tion, began in Japan. Trav­el­ing with Span­ish mis­sion­ary Luis Sote­lo, Haseku­ra embarked from the small Japan­ese port of Tsuki­noura in 1613 and first reached Cape Men­do­ci­no in Cal­i­for­nia, then part of New Spain.

“Sev­en years before the Mayflower head­ed to the New World,” Mar­cel Ther­oux writes at The Guardian, Haseku­ra “crossed the Pacif­ic, trav­eled over­land through Mex­i­co, then sailed all the way to Europe. He was accom­pa­nied by about 20 fel­low coun­try­men — in all like­li­hood, the first Japan­ese to cross The Atlantic.” They set sail on a Japan­ese-built galleon — called Date Maru, then lat­er San Juan Bautista by the Span­ish. “The expe­di­tion spent sev­en years trav­el­ing one-third of the globe,” notes PBS in a descrip­tion of  “A Samu­rai in the Vat­i­can,” an episode of Secrets of the Dead.

Sote­lo and Haseku­ra made for­mal requests for more mis­sion­ar­ies in Japan, deliv­er­ing let­ters from from Haseku­ra’s lord, the daimyo of Sendai, to the King of Spain and Pope Paul V. But the samu­rai’s most press­ing pur­pose was the estab­lish­ment of trade links between Japan, New Spain (Mex­i­co), and Europe. In his 1982 nov­el, The Samu­rai, Shusaku Endo dra­ma­tized the exchange the Span­ish mis­sion­ar­ies made for such intro­duc­tions, hav­ing a priest say: “In order to spread God’s teach­ing in Japan… there is only one pos­si­ble method. We must cajole them into it. Espana must offer to share its prof­its from trade on the Pacif­ic with the Japan­ese in return for sweep­ing pros­e­ly­tiz­ing priv­i­leges. The Japan­ese will sac­ri­fice any­thing else for the sake of prof­its.” This was not to be, of course.

The Span­ish gam­bled on trade open­ing up Japan for the kind of mis­sion­ary col­o­niza­tion they had achieved else­where, using Haseku­ra’s mis­sion as a proxy. Haseku­ra gam­bled on a Chris­t­ian mis­sion to save his life. Though his own accounts are lost, it seems he came to gen­uine­ly embrace the faith, becom­ing a con­firmed Catholic under the name Philip Fran­cis Fax­e­cu­ra. Dur­ing his mis­sion, how­ev­er, the Shogun, Toku­gawa Ieya­su, banned Chris­tian­i­ty in Japan on penal­ty of death, in advance of the expul­sion of the Span­ish and Por­tuguese by his grand­son, Toku­gawa Iemit­su, in 1623. What became of the explor­er samu­rai when he returned to Japan in 1620 is unknown, but his dece­dents were exe­cut­ed for prac­tic­ing his new­found faith. He would be the last vis­i­tor to the West from Japan until the Toku­gawa Shogu­nate sent the so-called “First Japan­ese Embassy to Europe” in 1862, over 200 years lat­er.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Hear the First Japan­ese Vis­i­tor to the Unit­ed States & Europe Describe Life in the West (1860–1862)

Meet Yasuke, Japan’s First Black Samu­rai War­rior

Dis­cov­er Japan’s Old­est Sur­viv­ing Cook­book Ryori Mono­gatari (1643)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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