St. Francis Xavier
By the end of the Muromachi period, the first Europeans had arrived. The Portuguese landed in southern Kyushu in 1543 and within two years were making regular port calls. The Spanish arrived in 1587, followed by the Dutch in 1609. The Japanese began to attempt studies of European civilization in depth, and new opportunities were presented for the economy, along with serious political challenges. European firearms, fabrics, glassware, clocks, tobacco, and other Western innovations were traded for Japanese gold and silver. Significant wealth was accumulated through trade, and lesser daimyo, especially in Kyushu, greatly increased their power. Provincial wars were made more deadly with the introduction of firearms, such as muskets and cannons, and greater use of infantry. [Source: Library of Congress]

Christianity had an impact on Japan, largely through the efforts of the Jesuits, led first by Saint Francis Xavier (1506- 52), who arrived in Kagoshima in southern Kyushu in 1549. Both daimyo and merchants seeking better trade arrangements as well as peasants were among the converts. By 1560 Kyoto had become another major area of missionary activity in Japan. In 1568 the port of Nagasaki, in northwestern Kyushu, was established by a Christian daimyo and was turned over to Jesuit administration in 1579. By 1582 there were as many as 150,000 converts (2 percent of the population) and 200 churches. But bakufu tolerance for this alien influence diminished as the country became more unified and the openness of the period decreased. Proscriptions against Christianity began in 1587 and outright persecutions in 1597. Although foreign trade was still encouraged, it was closely regulated, and by 1640 the exclusion and suppression of Christianity had become national policy. [Ibid]

In 1614, the Sendai feudal lord Date Masamune dispatched a trade mission to Spain and Rome. The delegation was led by Hasekura Tsunenaga, who stayed in Coria del Rio for a while. Today, a number of people in the town, including Juan Francisco Japon, are named Japon, or Japan in Spanish, and claim to be descendants of samurai who accompanied Tsunenaga on the trade mission. [Source: Yoshiharu Fujiwara, Yomiuri Shimbun, November 13, 2012]

Cipangu on a map in 1453, first known Wetsern depiction of Japan

Websites and Sources on the Edo Period: Essay on the Polity opf the Tokugawa Era ; Wikipedia article on the Edo Period Wikipedia ; Wikipedia article on the History of Tokyo Wikipedia; Making of Modern Japan, Google e-book ; Wikipedia article on the Momoyama Period Wikipedia ; Christianity in Japan: Japan-Photo Archive of Christianity ; Wikipedia article on Christianity in Japan Wikipedia ; Catholic Encyclopedia Article on Japan (scroll down for info on Christianity in Japan) ; History of Japanese Catholic Church ; Artelino Article on the Dutch in Nagasaki ; Samurai Era in Japan: Samurai Archives ; Artelino Article on Samurai ; Wikipedia article om Samurai Wikipedia Sengoku Daimyo ; Good Japanese History Websites: ; Wikipedia article on History of Japan Wikipedia ; Samurai Archives ; National Museum of Japanese History ; English Translations of Important Historical Documents


Marco Polo and Japan

Marco Polo
Marco Polo was the first European to write about Japan. It is unlikely that he visited Japan. Most likely his accounts are based on what he heard about Japan in China and from sailors he met. in the latter half of the 13th century Marco Polo, a man from Venice, Italy, wrote a book entitled “The Description of the World”:in which he introduced the country of Japan to the Western world as Jipang. or Cipungu, “the land of gold.” His book was mostly a collection of his experiences and information about his journey through central Asia and China.

Isodore of Seville claimed in the 7th century that the Garden of Eden was in far-eastern Asia but it was impossible to reach because God had sealed off the route to it with a flaming sword. Maps produced for centuries afterwards showed the Garden of Eden not far from present-day Japan. When Columbus reached the Caribbean in 1492, he was trying to reach India and the Spice Islands via Cipungu, the name that Marco Polo used in his descriptions of Japan.

In 1299 Marco Polo wrote in “The Description of the World”: “I tell you that this palace is of...unmeasured wealth.” Its roof is sheathed in gold “in such a way as we cover our house with lead.” Even the floors are gold, “more indeed than two fingers thick. And all the other parts of the palace and the halls and windows are likewise adorned with gold.” Waters of the coast yield “red pearls — very beautiful and round and large.”

Marco Polo wrote that Japanese fashion their idols "in a variety of shapes, some of them having the heads of oxen, some of swine, goats and many other animals. Some exhibit the appearance...of three heads, one of them in its proper place, and one upon each shoulder...The various ceremonies practiced before these idols are so wicked and diabolical that it would be nothing less than an abominations to give an account of them...Putting their prisoners to death they cook and eat the body, in a convivial manner, asserting that human flesh is above others in the excellence of its flavor."

The Sea of Japan Marco Polo wrote "contains no fewer than seven thousand four hundred and forty four islands, mostly inhabited. It is said that of the trees which grow in them, there are none that do not yield a fragrant smell. They produce many spices and drugs, particularly lignum-aloes and pepper, in great abundance, both white and black. It is impossible to estimate the value of the gold and other articles found on the island, but their distance from the continent is so great, and the navigation attended with so much trouble and inconvenience, that the vessels engaged in the not reap large profits."

Columbus and Japan

Japan was one of the places Columbus was looking for when he discovered America. In the margins of his copy of Marco Polo’s “The Description of the World” he wrote “gold in the greatest abundance” and “red pearls” next to one of the passages about Japan. According to his calculations, Columbus estimated that the distance between the Canary Islands and Japan was only about 2,600 miles (compared to actual distance of about 11,300 miles).

The oldest surviving, globe produced in 1492, showed the Cape Verde Islands off of west Africa only a short distance from Japan. A sailing route from Europe to Asia was first speculated upon by a Florentine geographer named Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli. Basing his argument primarily on reports by Marco Polo, he suggested in 1474 that a sailor would first come across the mythical island of Antila and then Cipangu (Japan), a land "most fertile in gold, pearls and precious stones, and they cover the temples and royal residences with solid gold." From Japan Toscanelli estimated it was about 1,500 miles to the Asian mainland with its spices and precious stones. Columbus described a similar route and it is believed that he got the idea from Toscanelli.

Columbus notes in Marco Polo's book

Columbus brought with him a letter of introduction from the Spanish monarchs to the King of Japan with a blank space for the ruler name and an Arabic-speaking scholar who was supposed to translate it for him.

On Hispaniola Columbus found Indians with gold. The Indians told him that their gold came from a placed Cibao, which Columbus interpreted as being Cipangu (Japan). While Columbus was on board his ship making plans to meet the King of Japan, just after midnight on Christmas Day, the “Santa María” drifted onto a coral reef and split open and filled with water.

In the reports from his voyages Columbus presented evidence on why he believed that he would find the golden-roofed temples of Japan and the court of the Great Khan on his next voyage. He left out vital information of the voyage to prevent competitors from following his route.

First Europeans in Japan

The first Europeans to arrive in Japan were three Portuguese merchants from a shipwrecked Chinese junk that washed up on a small island 65 miles south of Kyushu in a typhoon in 1543. The Japanese called the Portuguese who landed in Japan “Southern Barbarians” because they arrived mostly in the south. The Japanese were suspicious of foreigners because Japan's delicately-balanced system of semi-autonomous domains could easily be disrupted by foreigners who could offer their services, money or technology to one faction or daimyo.

The shipwrecked merchants arrived in Japan about 50 years after the Vasco de Gama rounded Cape of Good Hope and reached India and 30 years after the Portuguese established their trading empire with the seizure of Goa. Led by the explorer Jorge Alvares the Portuguese arrived on southern coast of China in 1513. Since the Chinese were forbidden from trading with Japan, the Portuguese served as middlemen for trade in Asia, trading pepper from Malacca, silks from China and silver from Japan. Chinese porcelain was greatly valued because the technique was unknown outside of Asia. [Source: Smithsonian magazine]

A 17th century folding screen with images of Portuguese depicts them with pantaloons, hats, moustaches, sideburns and enormous, ugly noses. The Portuguese established a trading center in Nagasaki at the invitation of the daimyo of Omura, a Christian convert. A Christian settlement grew up around the port and a lucrative trade route was set up between Goa, Macau and Nagasaki. Many Japanese goods made their way to Europe via Spanish merchants who traded with Japanese merchants in Manila in the Philippines as early as the 16th century.

Spain’s “Manila Galleons” that traveled between Asia and Acapulco between 1568 and 1815 often included a stop in Nagasaki.The setting for the famous opera “Madam Butterfly”, Nagasaki was initially used by Portuguese, and later by Spanish, Dutch and English traders. Christian culture, European products and foreign knowledge about things like shipbuilding, mining, printing, and medicine arrived in Japan through Nagasaki's port and had a profound influence on the archipelago.

William Adams--The model for the character John Blackthorne in James Clavell’s novel “Shogun”---was washed on Kyushu in 1600 after leaving England two years earlier. Within a few years he befriended Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, married a local beauty (ignoring the fact he had a wife in England) and was granted a fiefdom close to Edo. He never returned to England and died in Japan in 1620.

Dutch and Chinese settlement in Nagasaki

In the Edo Period the Satsuma domain — now Kagoshima — had to deal with foreign vessels sailing close to the region. So many shipwrecked sailors appeared on it shores the clan had their own foreign language translators The head of the clan — particularly Shimazu Shigehide (1745-1833) and Nariakira (1809-1858) — were interested in absorbing Western ideas and technology and through their contacts with the Dutch in Nagasaki developed Japan’s first hydropower station and blast furnace. The Satsuma clan not coincidently was instrumental in the Meiji restoration , which brought an end to samurai culture and introduced Western thought to Japan.

Dutch in Japan

Shipwrecked sailors from the Dutch ship “Liefde” (Charity) were washed ashore near present-day Usuki in Oita Prefecture on April 19, 1600. The “Liefde” was last ship left afloat from a five ship convoy that left from Holland two years earlier. Two of the shipwrecked sailors became famous in Japan: the British navigator Will Adams (See Above) and the Dutchman Jan Joostem after whom the Tokyo neighborhood of Yaesu is named.

The restrained, rational, businesslike and humanist approach of the Dutch was more to the liking of Japanese than the fanatically religious and greedy approach of Spanish and Portuguese.

A Dutch trading post was set up on Hirado Island of Kyushu in 1609. From 1640 to 1853 the Dutch were the only foreigners allowed to trade with Japan. The Dutch at first traded from Hirado and then moved to Deshima, a 13-acre island in the harbor of Nagasaki, in 1641.

Deshima was a tiny, man-made, fan-shape island in Nagasaki Bay that was about twice the size of a football field. Here the Dutch traded sugar, spices, sharkskin and sappanwood from Southeast Asia and wool and exotic items like "unicorn tusks" (narwhal tusks) from Europe for camphor, ceramics and lacquerware from Japan.

Book: “Japan and the Dutch: 1600-1853" by Grant Goodman, Richmond, Surrey (Curzon Press, 2000).

Christianity and Guns Arrive in Japan

17th century Nagasaki
The Spanish Jesuit missionary Saint Francis Xavier (1506-1552), cofounder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), landed in Kagoshima in 1549. At that time Nagasaki was an important trade center between Japan and Portugal and the Jesuits established a headquarters there.

Christianity advanced very quickly, especially in southern Japan, Over 300,000 Japanese were baptized and one daimyo even sent a delegation to visit Pope Gregory XIII in Rome. As was the case with early Buddhist sects, Christianity spread quickly because of political unrest, weak government and lack of central authority. By 1600, the number of Christians reached 300,000 and peaked in the 1630s, when as many as 750,000 Japanese, or 10 percent of the population were born in Christian families or had converted to Christianity.

The Portuguese brought primitive muskets called harquebuses. Before the Portuguese arrived, the Japanese had never seen muskets or any other kind of firearm. After witnessing their power, some daimyo immediately ordered their smiths to copy the Portuguese weapons. The first muskets weren't very well made. Many blew up when they were fired. But the Japanese quickly mastered the technology. Within 30 years the Japanese armies carried more guns than any other armies in the world.

Firearms and Christianity complicated the already complicated feudal war between the daimyos. One daimyo, Oda Nobunaga organized his army into European-style ranks and equipped them with muskets, temporarily de-ritualizing the traditional method of fighting, and blew away his rivals army in a "torrent of fire" in the decisive battle of Nagashino in 1575.

Image Sources: British Museum and Brooklyn University

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2016

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