16th-Century Japanese Historians Describe the Oddness of Meeting the First Europeans They Ever Saw

Go to Japan today, and the coun­try will present you with plen­ty of oppor­tu­ni­ties to buy pantabako, and tem­pu­ra. These prod­ucts them­selves — bread, cig­a­rettes, and deep-fried seafood or veg­eta­bles — will be famil­iar enough. Even the words that refer to them may have a rec­og­niz­able ring, espe­cial­ly if you hap­pen to be a Por­tuguese-speak­er. Japan­ese has more than its fair share of nat­u­ral­ized terms, used to refer to every­thing from the kon­bi­ni on the cor­ner to the riizanabu­ru prices found there­in, but none of them are as deeply root­ed as its terms import­ed from Por­tu­gal.

Rela­tions between Japan and Por­tu­gal go back to 1543, when the first Por­tuguese sailors arrived in the south­ern Japan­ese arch­i­pel­ago. Impres­sions of this encounter are includ­ed in the video above, a Voic­es of the Past com­pi­la­tion of how actu­al six­teenth-cen­tu­ry Japan­ese his­to­ri­ans described their unex­pect­ed vis­i­tors. “A south­ern bar­bar­ian ves­sel came to our shores,” writes one of them, anony­mous­ly. From it “emerged an unname­able crea­ture, some­what sim­i­lar in shape to a human being, but look­ing rather more like a long-nosed gob­lin, or the giant demon mikoshi-nyūdō.”

This grotesque, unin­tel­li­gi­ble crea­ture turned to be a bateren; that is, a padre, a mis­sion­ary priest come to spread the kirishi­tan reli­gion in this dis­tant land. In this pri­ma­ry task they faced severe, ulti­mate­ly insur­mount­able chal­lenges, but as the first Euro­peans to make con­tact with Japan, they also hap­pened much more suc­cess­ful­ly to dis­sem­i­nate West­ern con­cepts and tech­niques in agri­cul­ture, sci­ence, and art (not to men­tion dessert cul­ture). Their intro­duc­tion of the gun, described in detail by anoth­er con­tem­po­rary his­to­ri­an, also changed the course of Japan­ese his­to­ry, doing its part to make pos­si­ble the uni­fi­ca­tion of Japan in the fol­low­ing cen­tu­ry.

Kurusu in hand, these bateren argued that one should devote one­self to Deusu in order to avoid eter­nal con­dem­na­tion to inheruno and gain admis­sion to paraiso. There were con­verts, though per­haps not in num­bers as large as expect­ed. Then as now, the Japan­ese had their own way of going about things, but in the six­teenth cen­tu­ry, they had rulers inclined to crack down hard on sus­pi­cious for­eign influ­ence. The last sec­tion of the video con­tains tes­ti­mo­ny of a show­down staged between Chris­tian­i­ty and Bud­dhism, a debate in which the bateren seemed to have put on a poor show. Defeat­ed, they were either expelled or exe­cut­ed, and not long there­after, Japan closed the doa — as they now call it — for a cou­ple more cen­turies.

Relat­ed con­tent:

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

The His­to­ry of Ancient Japan: The Sto­ry of How Japan Began, Told by Those Who Wit­nessed It (297‑1274)

What Hap­pens When a Japan­ese Wood­block Artist Depicts Life in Lon­don in 1866, Despite Nev­er Hav­ing Set Foot There

A Japan­ese Illus­trat­ed His­to­ry of Amer­i­ca (1861): Fea­tures George Wash­ing­ton Punch­ing Tigers, John Adams Slay­ing Snakes & Oth­er Fan­tas­tic Scenes

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

Hear an Ancient Chi­nese His­to­ri­an Describe The Roman Empire (and Oth­er Voic­es of the Past)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities and the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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