Monday, October 6, 2014

The First European Description of Japan, 1585: A Critical English-language Edition of Striking Contrasts in the Customs of Europe and Japan by Luis Frois, S.J.

Written records of first encounters with Japan are a dime a dozen. They range from detailed, vivid and compelling ones (see Kaempfer’s The History of Japan: Together with a Description of the Kingdom of Siam, 1690-92, Edward J. Morse’s Japan Day by Day, 1877, 1878-1879, 1882-1883) to colorless, mundane ones (see Mrs. Hugh Fraser’s A Diplomat’s Wife in Japan and Sir Rutherford Alcock’s The Capital of the Tycoon: A Narrative of a Three Years’ Residence in Japan). Despite the varying appeal of the subject matter, the possibilities explored by these narratives have created a need to search more rigorously for the historical conditions and experiences that transpired when foreigners came in contact with Japan for the first time, as these events were numerous, exciting and momentous for everyone involved. I’m pleased to say that the first English translation of Luis Frois’ Striking Contrasts in the Customs of Europe and Japan falls in the former category I just mentioned. The translators and editors of this fascinating book allow the reader to discover in Luis Frois’ animated and insightful observations of 16th century Japan a country and a people that are as complex and cultured as the Europeans who, at the time, were deeply entangled (with various degrees of success) in  expeditions to conquer, civilize and Christianize all the ‘barbarian,’ heathen lands of the barely explored Asiatic regions. The astonishing quality of this book is that it gives a balanced, fair-minded evaluation of Japanese mores and customs by a Jesuit priest at the height of Christian missionary zeal around the globe. 

The book consists of 600 numbered brief couplets divided among fourteen different chapters which range from Children, their upbringing and customs to Drama, farces, dancing, singing, and musical instruments. Amid these chapters one can find Temples and things related to worship and religion, Japanese eating and drinking habits and Construction of houses, roads and gardens. The assortment of topics seems limitless. No cultural or social detail is spared as one can see from the chapters on Japanese books and writing and Women, their persons and dress. But what stands out above and beyond Luis Frois’ original writing is the meticulous work that the editors of this edition have poured into annotating and explaining each couplet. These annotations and explanations make up the bulk of the book. The editorial thoroughness shines in the identification of the historical background of all of Frois’ assertions; it is also present in the exhaustive research that went into locating the exactness of his pronouncements regarding both European and Japanese people. The editors also take the time to correct any inaccuracies and misconceptions which Frois inserted in his work as a result of poor judgement, although these are hard to come by and seem to be unintentional rather than the outcome of explicit prejudice. To give you an example, one particular couplet makes reference to the application of makeup:

15. Women in Europe think it unattractive for their face powder and makeup to be noticeable; women in Japan think the more layers of white powder applied, the more genteel.

The editors then proceed to give an accurate overview of the circumstances surrounding Frois’ observation:

Cosmetics as well as jewelry were popular in Europe, although the Church frowned on make up, “Because, to give oneself over to the arts of the toilet pertains to a harlot, and not to a woman who is truly good.” Certainly Japanese women, on formal occasions, out-did their European counterparts in the foundation department, as the prolific playwright Saikaku has a female character apply two hundred layers of powder… The Japanese from time immemorial have valued white skin, especially for women. Still, it would be wrong to identity Japanese women in masse with heavy make-up. The Spanish merchant Avila Giron, writing a couple decades after Frois, noted that it was primarily married women, “as a mark of honor,” who were accustomed to putting on a little powder and a touch of color on their lips, to hide the dye that came off on their lips when they stained their teeth black.

The rest of the book is structured in the same way. Each couplet is followed by paragraphs of interesting contextual information which develop Frois’ assertions beyond their intended use. But before I go into greater detail about the motives behind the Tratado (as the compilation of couplets is known in its original Portuguese) I should address one very important question: who was Luis Frois? The book’s Introduction clarifies this issue in a very engaging way. 

Frois was born in Lisbon in 1532 and became a Jesuit friar at the age of sixteen. Before he headed out to Japan, Frois built up his missionary experience by traveling to the west coast of Africa and to India. Living in these foreign lands and coming into contact with non-European cultures would prove invaluable to Frois’ work in the Tratado. In 1553 he met with Francis Xavier (1506-1552), the priest who started the first Jesuit mission to Japan. After being ordained as a priest in 1561, Frois was sent to Japan to continue the mission’s work. He arrived in 1563 at a time when many powerful daimyos from Kyushu had already been converted to Christianity and the Portuguese silk and gun trade was in high demand, facilitating baptism and increasing foreigners’ access inside Japan. Frois spent a few years in Kyushu learning the Japanese language then he departed for Kyoto where a number of daimyos had already become Christian. After Oda Nobunaga marched into Kyoto in the fall of 1568, Frois retook his residence in the capital after being forced earlier to flee due to violent domestic disputes. Nobunaga was friendly towards Frois whom he allowed to proselytize within his domain undisturbed. By the time Frois died in 1597 the Jesuit order had gained 150,000 Japanese converts and had established around 200 churches. Frois’ Tratado played no small part in the accomplishment of these feats.

The Tratado was written at the request of Alessandro Valignano (1539-1606), “father visitor” who came to Japan in 1579 to perform an inspection of the Jesuit mission. At the time the mission was undergoing internal decline. Recent Japanese converts were quitting as fast as orders came from the superiors. Valignano also recognized in the racism perpetuated by Jesuit friars towards the converts  whom they viewed as inferior due to their “strange” customs and whom they forbade to become priests or members of the Jesuit order  another factor for the mission’s downturn. Adding to this inopportune environment was Valignano’s gloomy pronouncement that “Japan is not a place which can be controlled by foreigners, for the Japanese are neither so weak nor so stupid a race as to permit this, and the King of Spain neither had nor ever could have any power of jurisdiction here.” He then went on to observe that “there is no alternative to relying on training the natives in the way they should go and subsequently leaving them to manage the churches themselves.” In order for this to be achieved, new strategies had to be employed: European Jesuits had to behave like Japanese, religious texts had to be translated into the native language and the Japanese had to be inducted into higher orders so that they could go and disseminate the religion themselves. Valignano quickly recognized in Frois’ mastering of the Japanese language a unique opportunity. He commissioned Frois to write an explanatory text that could function as a guide for missionaries who wanted to come to Japan and proselytize. Valignano was of the opinion that cultural and social understanding — an early forerunner to present-day “soft power” diplomacy — would benefit the church better. Thus the Tratado saw the light of day.

Returning now to the book under review, it is noteworthy to mention that there hasn’t been an English translation of Frois’ text until this Routledge edition. The Tradado was translated into Japanese, Chinese, German, French and Spanish. The Japanese edition is particularly popular with the readers, having reached half a dozen printings. I would like here to state my agreement with the editors about the scholarly significance of this book being finally translated into English. This is not only an important document for any historian who wants to learn more about the depths of interaction between Japan and Europe in the 16th century: it also allows us to see Christianity as more than a menacing threat or terror that sought to convert new people and appropriate new riches at any cost and by any violent method. In Frois’ couplets one senses a profound respect and curiosity towards the baffling foreign customs of the Japanese, a people whose culture and social practice could not be more different from their European counterparts. On the whole, Frois’ observations never descend into fantasy. It is this particular factor which distinguishes Frois from other writers who have experienced their first contact with Japan. As a counterpoint, I would like to point out that during his first expedition to Japan, Commodore Matthew Perry learned about the country from a book entitled Japan and the Japanese. In John Dower’s words, this book 

…paired synopses of prior writings with a selection of illustrations that revealed how odd and exotic the little-known [Japanese] heathen still remained in the imagination of Westerners. These thoroughly fanciful graphics conjured up a world of bizarre religious icons commingled with sturdy men and women wearing Chinese-style robes, holding large and stiff fan-shaped implements, even promenading with folded umbrella-like tents draped over their heads and carried from behind by an attendant.

I have included some of these “fanciful” depictions below. 

During Perry’s time, quite a few accounts “dwelling on the persecution of Christians and inhospitable treatment meted out to castaways, spoke derisively of a land that had regressed ‘intro barbarism and idolatry.’” Idolatry bothered Frois as well. His discomfort and irritation with Buddhist monks pours from every couplet contained in the chapter Concerning the bonzes and their customs. The harsh, disparaging views towards Buddhism show us a different side of Frois, one that’s antithetical with the rest of his assessments. His intolerance however could be excused by the historical circumstances in which Jesuit missionaries found themselves competing against Buddhist monks for converts on unfavorable terms. Also, the institutional, authoritarian closed-mindedness regarding other denominations which was communicated by the Church in Rome did not help Frois’ discernment between bad and good Buddhists. Here are some of his most unkind remarks:

2. Among us, one subsequently professes vows to be pure of soul and chaste of body; the bonzes profess vows to all manner of inner filth and all the nefarious sins of flesh.

3. Among us, a vow of poverty is made to God and worldly riches are shunned; the bonzes fleece their followers and seek countless ways to increase their wealth.

16. Our religious focus their principal efforts on interior purity and cleanliness; the bonzes keep their dwellings, gardens and temples extremely clean, but keep their souls abominable.

17. Among us, we are keen to avoid deceit, hypocrisy and adulation; the bonzes of Japan live off these and consider them an extremely powerful means of making a livelihood.

While some of these observation were occasionally true when concerning individuals, Frois was being dishonest in portraying the various Buddhist sects as a monolith. Buddhism was split into many dissimilar movements as was Christianity after the Protestant Reformation. His inspiration in writing negatively about the local religious traditions could also be traced to a letter written by Francis Xavier in 1552 in which he wrote the following:

…our greatest enemies are the bonzes, because we expose their falsehoods…they used to make the people believe that it is impossible for persons in general to keep those five commandments [abstaining from sex, theft or lying, homicide, killing and eating any creature or drinking wine]…and that, therefore, they would observe them for the people, on the condition of the people giving them maintenance and honor. They give their word that if anyone goes down into hell he will be delivered by their intervention and labor. We, on the contrary, proved to the people that in hell there is no redemption, and that no one can be rescued from it by the bonzes and bonzesses.

Regardless of his inadequacy in portraying Japanese religious matters fairly and unbiasedly, Frois’ observations remain generally clean of prejudice. His Tratado successfully achieves what it sets out to do: introduce Japanese culture to a European audience. This is done methodically and satisfactorily by employing equal terms of comparison and contrast. In the 16th century, when means of transport were undeveloped and inaccessible, one could only fantasize about faraway lands and strange people and customs as the ones captured in Frois’ description of Japan. Sadly, the Tratado’s limited circulation and its inaccessible text had to wait a long time to be discovered and an even longer time to be published into English. I’m thrilled to announce that this current edition rectifies all the previous shortcomings. 

Works cited: 

Fróis, Luís. The First European Description of Japan, 1585: A Critical English-language Edition of Striking Contrasts in the Customs of Europe and Japan by Luis Frois, SJ. Eds. Richard K. Danford, Robin Gill, and Daniel T. Reff. 2014.

Dower, John W. "Black Ships & Samurai: Commodore Perry and the Opening of Japan (1853–1854)." Visualizing Cultures, http://ocw. mit. edu/ans7870/21f/21f 27.

Credit for the pictures from Japan and the Japanese goes to Visualizing Cultures Website, developed by MIT.

1 comment:

  1. As you enjoyed this, you might also check out Topsy-Turvey 1585, long or short version -- or both -- for a longer treatment of some of the contrasts and various bibliographic leads ...