Early Jesuits Adapt to Japan, 1580s

From African Samurai, by Geoffrey Girard and Thomas Lockley (Hanover Square, 2019), Kindle pp. 60-62:

Now that he was here to see it for himself, the actual state of the mission in Japan, unsurprisingly, had not met Valignano’s expectations.

In particular, there was significant discord between Japanese converts (especially the most senior ones not used to being gainsaid in their own domains), and the non-Japanese missionaries (who often behaved as if they knew everything). To meet the grievances of the Japanese community, Valignano quickly held consultations to identify ways in which the earlier mission had been mismanaged. These included overly strict discipline, racial discrimination in admittance to holy orders, an insistence on the superiority of European ways and a refusal to support the learning of the Japanese language by some senior Europeans—in particular the mission superior, Cabral.

Another problem Valignano faced was that most Europeans did not appear very civilized to the locals who saw them as, frankly, vulgar. By comparison, the Japanese were consistently well mannered. Valignano wrote, “even the children forbear to use inelegant expressions among themselves, nor do they fight or hit each other like European lads.” Upper-class Japanese people, particularly, considered Europeans dirty, ill-mannered and ignorant of proper comportment. The Japanese were also used to daily bathing, and the ability to eat without touching food with their hands—both customs Europeans of the time customarily scorned.

Having identified these impediments, Valignano issued decrees on how Jesuits should conduct themselves and adapt more to local norms. (Though, even the relatively broad-minded Valignano still balked at bathing regularly and forbade his charges, including the Japanese and African ones, from doing so.) By the time he left Japan for the first time in 1582, he’d already opened three more seminaries with the aim of training locally recruited brothers and priests. The mission relied upon its native Japanese followers to help celebrate masses, marriages and funerals in Japanese, and for diplomacy in many cases. Until Valignano’s arrival, Jesuit policy had forbidden Japanese men from becoming full members; they, instead, had to remain as semipermanent acolytes. One of the most important things Valignano would do during his tenure as Visitor was facilitate the first non-Europeans becoming full Jesuit members and ordained priests in Japan.

Then, to make Catholic priests’ status more recognizable to the Japanese, Valignano reorganized the mission structure to more closely resemble that of the social organization of the Nanzen-ji Temple in Kyoto. Japanese religion at this time had become a fusion of imported Buddhist beliefs and native animist beliefs, hence, Buddhist “saints” were worshipped in the same places as ancient animist gods called kami. Sometimes kami and Buddhist saints eventually mixed in together and became one entity. Buddhism itself, was divided, sometimes violently, by sect, some of which, like Zen, had their origins abroad, and others, like Nichiren, which started in Japan. Valignano copied their ranking system so locals would understand the social standing of the Jesuits and know which priests were more senior. Initially the priests had intentionally dressed poorly, marking their vows of poverty, but Valignano changed that, and they smartened up, or at least made sure their clothes were clean. This made the Japanese more open to the new religion, because it looked more like traditional ones, respectable, blurring the lines somewhat and gaining the Catholics more respect.

Valignano also directed the missionaries and other Jesuit workers to systematically learn as much Japanese as possible. Only then, when they could speak directly to the locals in their own tongue, could they truly reach out across Japan for the Church. Perhaps influencing his plans, Valignano was particularly taken with the Japanese language, calling it “the best, the most elegant, and the most copious tongue in the known world,” adding, “It is more abundant than Latin and expresses concepts better.”

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