Perceptions of missionary failure
of the early modern Jesuit enterprise in Japan
Talks / Lecture
Join Dr Linda Zampol D'Ortia as she considers different understandings of missionary failure, analysing the tensions they created in the Jesuit mission in Japan from 1524 to 1639.
Dr Zampol is an NLA Fellow in Japan Studies, supported by the HS Williams Trust
Speaker: Lynda Zampol (L)
Location: National Library of Australia
Date: 9 March 2018
L: So before we start I wanted to thank the Harold Williams Trust for this opportunity and the staff of the Library for their help and kindness. Today I will speak of signs of God and how that interpretation influenced the missionary policies adopted by the Jesuit missionaries in 16th century Japan. The Japanese Jesuit Mission is famous for its accommodation to local culture, to its openness to the Japanese way of life. However today I will concentrate less on the human means used to strive for the conversion of the country and more on the understanding the missionaries had of the presence of God and providence and his favour towards the enterprise. Hopefully the importance of this kind of interpretation of signs will become evident during my talk as God’s favour would in the Jesuit world view make the difference between a successful and a failed mission.
The year is 1549. Jesuit missionary, Francis Xavier, the apostle of the Indies lands in Japan to find a divided country. Japan had been in this condition since the end of the Onin war in 1477 which weakened the central control of the Ashikaga shogunate over the country and the Emperor. The following period of civil war is known as Sengakuji, the warring states period and ends conventionally with the position of the last Ashikaga Shogun in 1573. The Sengoku period was characterised by the rise and fall of military leaders, the singodimejo, who rejected central control, covered territories for themselves through armed conflict and ruled independently over them.
Thanks to the quick urbanisation and economic development of the country various new social forces were emerging alongside the [dimejo] 2:00 such as the great Buddhist complexes, villages, regional communes, leagues of warriors and peasants who all fought among themselves for dominance.
Around 1542 a small group of Portuguese had landed on Tanegashima Island. Soon a flourishing trade was established between the Portuguese Asian network and the southern ports of Japan. By the end of the 1570s the Portuguese would buy silk in mainland China and ship it with a yearly fleet from Macau to Nagasaki where they resold it for a high profit. On this fleet often travelled Jesuit missionaries too who were moving to Japan in the hopes of converting its people. But what is a Jesuit and what was he doing in Japan?
The Society of Jesus is a Catholic order founded by St Ignatius Loyola and his early companions among whom there was Francis Xavier. The Society or company was approved by [Pope Paul] in 1540. Its members are known as Jesuits. The main objectives of the Society were the propagation of the faith and the helping of souls through what the Jesuit called our way of proceeding. This is a specifically Jesuit way of understanding their identity and their mission and how to obtain their objectives in the world.
To become a member of the Society a Jesuit took three vows, poverty, chastity and obedience. Some Jesuits also took a special further vow to obey the Pope in regard to missions. After its founding in the second half of the 16th century the Society evolved rapidly, adapting to the quickly changing early modern world, thanks to its ability to engage with it and to be more flexible than the older religious orders. The Society did not seek refuge from the p<inaudible> 3:58 of the secular world in a convent, preferring instead to live and work in it. By Loyola’s death the company had evolved as an order active in the world, founding colleges, fighting Protestants, becoming the driving force behind numerous activities of the Catholic reformation. It had also spread to the four corners of the world with the organisation of many missionary enterprises in the lands that Portugal and Spain were conquering outside Europe and in some they weren’t.
We have seen that the objective of the Society of Jesus was overall the greater [help] 4:38 of souls therefore a crucial point for interpreting the Jesuit world view and behaviour is to understand whose souls exactly are the objects of this effort of salvation. When depicting Jesuit ministry there is a tendency in historiography to prioritise it seems to save other people’s soul which is caused by the Society of Jesus predisposition to work in the world as opposed to rejecting it. This has created the image of the altruistic Jesuit, preoccupied only with the salvation of other people that is commonly found in literature. However studies by Thomas [Cohen and Loclossy] 5:19 have refuted this stereotype and shown that the majority of the missionaries indeed displayed the balanced concern for their own soul and for those of others.
Since the ministries carried out to save other people’s souls could also bring about the salvation of the worker’s own soul the mission represented a perfect ground to obtain both. Additionally missions to the gentiles carried the allure of martyrdom which would bring certain salvation.
However even if it was an excellent starting point being part of a missionary enterprise among the gentiles was not necessarily enough to save one’s soul. Francis Xavier too was aware of this [barrier] 6:10. In the so-called [grey] 6:10 letter from Japan of 1549 he admonishes his [confrer] 6:16 to be aware of giving for granted their own salvation just because they are successful missionaries. In other letters he exerts them to always strive for perfection in themselves. That is always more important to God than whatever actions they might do for his greater glory.
But how did a Jesuit strive for perfection? How did entering the Society of Jesus help a man to save his soul? Let’s return to the three solemn vows of poverty, obedience and chastity as they constituted the core of the traditional salvific structure of Christian religious orders. The Jesuits were striving to imitate Jesus Christ and as such they were supposed to keep perfect chastity and apostolic poverty. Keeping chastity did not appear to be a widespread problem in Japan while instead it appears to have been for example in the Indian missions. And we’ll discuss poverty later on.
Other religious orders used the range of ascetic practice to help their souls such as fasting, penance, [fasillation] 7:24. However this Society of Jesus’ engagement with the world prevented its members to engage deeply in these kind of practices. Loyola therefore proposed obedience as the main tool of spiritual discipline and self-denial. Holy obedience was to be understood always as obedience to God. The superior giving the orders stood in the place of Christ. Additionally the superior was to be obeyed however not only because he was experienced and prudent and for God’s sake but because he would interpret God’s will for those under him. So obedience represents basically sort of double connection with God.
When a personal interaction was not possible the respect of holy obedience was to be obtained through a systematic epistolary exchange between the courier, the main centre in Rome, the secondary centres in Europe and the various peripheries of mission. This step of governing has been called [letter] 8:29 governance. While as we can see in this passage from the constitutions different opinions were accepted and even welcomed obedience represented a key element for the structure of the Society. The consequent chain of obedience that linked the novice to the general and through him the company to God was also key connecting element of the whole Society of Jesus. It reaffirmed the ties among the members of the Society and encouraged cohesion and harmony. It maintained unity of action and therefore it nurtured the single body of the Society. It follows that divisions and internal conflict were a clear sign of failure, that something had gone wrong and that they had lost the favour of God. If as a whole the Society wanted to obtain salvation there was a need for unity and cohesion.
In his seminal work, The First Jesuits, John O’Malley highlighted how the idea of mission when mentioned in the fourth [vow] 9:32 indicates an itinerant ministry that is carried, and I quote, through the world for the greater help of souls. So again it was a tool to engage with the world.
The idea of mission was so important that the founders of the Society – that as mentioned it was addressed by a special fourth vow according to which they were to accept any and all the orders of the book regarding missions. The [idea] 10:03 of mission was so important for the founders of the Society that as mentioned it was addressed by a special fourth vow according to which they were to accept any and all orders of the Pope regarding missions.
Since in this case the concept of soul and of person were identical the activities carried out by the missionaries in the end proved to be numerous and varied. Arguably the most famous Jesuit missionary is Francis Xavier. He was the founder of the mission in Asia and was sent there by John III of Portugal. As Catholic King John III had rights similar to the Pope’s and obedience to his authority fell under the fourth vow.
The Portuguese crown following the Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494 with the Holy See and Spain was considered as holy rights over half the world. The King also had the rights and obligations to the evangelisation of these lands and the aegis of the real Portuguese Padroado. By the end of the 16th century the Jesuits were present in numerous parts of the so-called new world, operating in Asia and the Americas under the Portuguese and Spanish Padroados.
As you can see in this map Xavier travelled many times to the continent following the Portuguese trade network and founding many missions. The centre of the Portuguese presence in Asia was Goa in India so that’s the location of the Jesuit Asian headquarters too of the missions officially dependent from Lisbon and obviously Rome.
Xavier worked in Japan from 1549 to 1551 and died in 1552 on the island of Shangchuan while trying to enter China to bring the Gospel. The missionary method that Xavier applied during his travels already contained the seeds of what has been called Jesuit accommodation. This is an open-mindedness that fostered a tendency to adapt to their missionary way of proceeding to different cultures and languages.
The most famous missions that developed this method of [accommodazio] 12:55 were arguably the Chinese mission in the figure of [Matorici and the Mudari one with Roberto Denoble] 13:02. The Japanese mission too made use of policies of accommodation under the guide of visitor, Alessandro Valignano, as we will see later.
The mission in Japan was considered as one of the best enterprises of the Society. Since the time of Francis Xavier Japanese people were described as very rational and therefore already inclined to accept Christianity which was considered the most rational of all, being the only true one. Their culture was considered highly polished and their skin white, all in contrast with the people of south Asia, considered inferior.
God was understood to be tending to the Japanese mission as he had done with the primitive church. The conversion of the whole country was seen as imminent as Japan would be given to the Roman church as compensation for the loss of England to the Protestants.
Let me now present a short overview of the history of the Japanese mission. As already mentioned in 1549 Xavier arrived in Japan. He quickly understood that it was necessary to have the Japanese that he cared to preach successfully in a country that was not under the political influence of any Christian nation. Between 1551 and 1570 Cosme de Torres was superior of the mission. Conversions proceeded slowly thanks to the help of those feudal lords interested in the silk and arms trade with the Portuguese [caracs] 14:26. The house in Kyoto not being able to count on this kind of help was particularly forward in its accommodation to Japanese culture. This was also allowed by the fact that the head of the mission was stationed in Kyushu and could not control where the activities of the Jesuits of the capital. Between 1570 and 1580 strict adherence to European models of apostolic life was imposed by Francisco Cabral and we’ll talk about him more later on.
In 1581 visitor Alessandro Valignano organised the mission. Due to different reasons, among which missionary burnout and disagreements with the visitor, Francisco Cabral <inaudible> 15:07. In 1587 Toyotomi Hideyoshi who had power nearly over the whole country issued the first edict of expulsion of the missionaries. In 1614 the Jesuits were officially expelled from Japan by the Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu. Between 1533 and 1539 the country was closed to almost all foreign contacts. This policy called Sakoku would be maintained until 1866.
To present some considerations of the perception of missionary failure as it relates to the Japanese mission I will now consider the years  16:03 to 1600. During these years there are various instances when failure was perceived as imminent. Let’s start with Francisco Cabral in the ‘70s. Born on the island of San Miguel of the Azores in a family of noble [regions] 16:17 Cabral travelled to India in 1550 as a soldier under the orders of the Viceroy. At the end of 1554 he entered the Society of Jesus where he soon had the position of Master of Novices and Rector.
In 1558 he was tasked with general visitation of the mission of Japan after worrying gossip had reached Goa that the missionaries there were wearing silk. The Provincial ordered Cabral to put a stop to this use as it was against the vow of poverty and forbade silk completely. When he arrived in Japan Cabral’s worst fear proved true. Not only the Jesuits were indeed wearing silk, material that was prohibited explicitly by the constitutions but most of the missionaries justified it as the only way in which the Japanese would accept them.
According to Cabral with this behaviour the missionaries were jeopardising the whole mission, not only their own salvation, believing that human means were more important than spiritual integrity. Cabral therefore listened to his [breath] 17:25 and doubts regarding safety and evangelisation, did a couple of experiments on his own and decided that they were unfounded. As soon as he introduced the common Jesuit dress in the mission, the black cotton cassock, he, and I quote, started feeling God’s favour with him. He however was deeply troubled by the lack of obedience displayed by the other missionaries. Even two years later he was still finding in their houses forbidden objects such as richly decorated blankets, pillows and silk.
This was however not Cabral’s only problem. In 1573 the trade fleet coming from Macau had sunk in front of Nagasaki port, taking with it all the funds of the mission, a number of sorely needed missionaries and the new visitor, [Consalo Alvarish] 18:19, who was supposed to substitute Cabral as head of the mission while Cabral possibly returned to India.
Around the same time the Provincial of India, [Antonio de Quadres II] 18:36, died, leaving the province without head. This death Cabral interpreted as a punishment from God for the sins of the Japanese mission. When this happened Cabral attempted to initiate some reforms to help the mission. He wrote many letters to Rome but the first reply he received was only 1577. He felt powerless to initiate any kind of reform by himself because there were no funds available. As much as he was disgusted with it he never banned the portion of the profits that the Society received from the silk trade. And though such connection generate as candles and was probably against the vow of poverty he called it, and I quote, the [carac alms] 19:20 and left it at that.
Another probable reason for this impasse was that by carrying out reforms without the permission of Rome he might accidentally go against the will of God since the chain of obedience had been severed. [Letter] governance had failed him. With time Cabral’s mood took a turn for the worse. He saw the misfortunes of the mission as a clear – statements of God’s displeasure. The missionaries had broken and some still were breaking the vows of poverty and obedience. Regarding this latter he had no hope of re-establishing a link with Rome as the rest of the Society seemed to have abandoned the mission. He doubted the quality of Japanese converts who even if numerous did not qualify as a sign of a healthy mission.
By the end of the decade Francis Cabral was in full burnout, completely isolated and [on a power trip] 20:28 on top of that. Missionary activity therefore, instead of being a way of saving the souls of the Japanese and of the missionaries had become a quagmire in which the latter were not saved and the first were either not reached by the proselytising efforts or did not make the excellent converts that they were supposed to be. Often they were converted by Japanese Christians who Cabral had thought had been favoured by God to spread his word instead of the European missionaries.
He was convinced that the mission was doomed since the spirit of the Society which helped reaching the will of God had dried out. Not even martyrdom, one of the main reasons that led the missionaries on the field, was a possibility anymore since God had abandoned them.
When visitor Alessandro Valignano arrived in Japan in 1579 he had a rather nasty surprise. Instead of finding the cradle of a new Christianity in the image of the primitive church he found the mission in total disarray. The situation was indeed very different from how it appeared in the correspondence.
This is the visitor’s pointed report to the general on the situation. Valignano agreed with Cabral’s impression that the mission was on the brink of ruin but he clearly held a different opinion on the causes. The problems he identified as were – was the division existing between the European missionaries and the Japanese who worked in the mission as preachers or helpers. Cabral’s refusal of having his missionaries learn Japanese as he considered any attempt futile. And finally the refusal to adopt Japanese etiquette in the houses of the Society and when dealing with both gentile and converted natives which was offending to the Japanese obviously. The mission was also chronically underfunded and understaffed.
The arrival of the visitor was gift of providence that initially helped Cabral out of his disconsolation. However he soon realised that Valignano did not intend to follow the path of his predecessor and instead aimed at accommodating the Jesuit way of proceeding to Japan. The visitor prepared a plan to overhaul evangelisation in the country and he adopted different tools for this such as the use of Japanese etiquette and honorific practices, the opening of a college, seminaries and a noviciate for Japanese people.
Those he proposed were understood as human solutions, that is practical things men could do while hoping God would help them. They did not answer to the other kind of common doubts among the missionaries. How could they be sure that Cabral was not right and that God had not abandoned them? After all the signs seemed to be rather negative. A question seemed to have plagued the mission at large. If Japan was like the primitive church where were the miracles? The gift of tongues, the prophecies, the martyrs, the excellent converts. And why seemed the mission plagued by disasters every time it reached some measure of success? How could they be sure that the mission in Japan was not doomed to fail?
In the following decade Valignano would elaborate complex answers to these doubts. He needed to persuade the Jesuits that the mission was not doomed and to be able to do it he would read the signs of divine grace and providence just as Cabral had done before him.
In 1583 Valignano gave his first interpretation of these signs. It is not true, he wrote, that there are no miracles in Japan. The actual miracles of Japan were the persecutions and disasters the mission had suffered. History had proved that when a disaster struck the church would rise again after it, stronger than before. For example the Shogun was killed after showing some favour to the missionaries and allowing them into the capital and the fathers had been expelled from Kyoto. But later on Nobunaga invaded it, deposed the new shogun and showed more favour and friendship to the returned Jesuits.
Now the Kyoto mission was flourishing. These kind of disasters were God’s gifts. As such they were proof that the mission held God’s favour. his interpretation appears to have been successful among the missionaries and survive even the general ban of Christianity of 1587.
The following year a veteran of the mission writes, it is a great mercy of God that he permits this persecution because according to his secret judgements he never gave the gift of miracles in Japan as he did in the primitive church so this other remedy of persecutions which seeded the primitive church too is very necessary in Japan for many reasons. The main one is that the Japanese feel in us, or maybe better through us, the existence of a creator, God and Lord for whose service and love and zeal for souls and their salvation we suffer exile and persecution in Japan. When there is peace there is little harvest.
Unsurprisingly Cabral and Valignano had completely different readings of the ban that hit Christianity in 1587. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, now ruler of most of Japan and Reagent of the Emperor had suddenly with no manifest reason issued a decree banning the Christian missionaries from the country. Cabral, while admitting the possibility that the church might profit in time of this persecutions [added] 26:33 in the past, look at them as a punishment from God for having ignored the institute and the rules of the Society. Cabral pointed at Valignano as the cause of this disaster. He was spending way too much for the mission, giving too many gifts to people in power, all of these according to Japanese [use] 26:53. So it was the only solution to placate God was to return to his original plan for a simple church.
The complaint that Valignano had been spending too much appears to have been common among the Portuguese administrators of the Indian province. Father [Hedonimosieri] 27:11, for example, accuses him of having collected a lot of money for the organisation of an embassy to Hideyoshi that was supposed to put an end to the persecutions. According to him instead it had been expensive failure due to impatience and refusal to accept the divine plan for the country. I would be happy, he concludes, to see instead some of our missionaries die for the faith as we know his wish would be granted in a couple of years.
Valignano on the other hand answered by elaborating more complex interpretation of the events in the country. He admitted again that God had not given the Japanese church the same gifts of the primitive church. He identifies the reasons as follows. The apostles of the primitive church had been chosen by Jesus to carry out the very important task of laying out the foundations of the whole church, the Jesuits not so much. There was no need for a gift of tongues because all over Japan spoke one language only which could be easily learnt. And he clearly had India in mind as a comparison here. And finally the primitive church had to find against the world that was completely controlled by the devil. Now the devil did not have the same strength anymore. Still, Valignano went on, it was not true that God had not given any gifts and mercies to the Japanese church.
And we can see some examples here of gifts that Valignano stated that God had given to the Japanese church so for example the will of the Jesuits to come to Japan at all, the perseverance in the face of so many dangers of say missionaries, their ability of conserving their [rituim] 29:13, and speaking of the Japanese, for example, the respect that the Japanese authority has shown to the missionaries. And the church as a whole, if we consider that its survival was a great gift of God even when faced with these persecutions. And the disobedience that the Japanese showed sometimes toward their masters to protect their Jesuits.
One great gift that God gave to the Japanese church was the exorcisms. There were plenty of exorcisms going on in the whole country and you can easily see them in the Jesuit letters so they’re quite famous. And again God had given the ability to learn Japanese easily to the missionaries so that also was great gift. And the favour that the Japanese authorities showed at all towards these foreign missionaries and the fact that though the mission was really underfunded it never collapsed which was the proof of the faith that the missionaries had towards God and the total abandonment they had to God’s will. And according to Valignano all these gifts made clear that God was showing particular love towards the Japanese church and therefore a change of policy was not needed.
I hope I was able to give at least an overview of the importance of the reading of divine signs in the early modern Japanese mission. The interpretation could deeply influence the decisions of those Jesuits who were in charge of the mission policy and as such needed to complete overhauls of the mission itself. Alessandro Valignano, whilst he set his rules for Japan, strove to support a positive reading of these signs and reassure the missionaries under him that the mission would be successful. Francisco Cabral on the other hand was determined to prove to the general in Rome that everything pointed to the displeasure of God and that if countermeasures were not taken immediately the enterprise would end in failure.
In their attempts to understand and follow God’s plan these two men revealed completely different understandings of what it meant to be a Jesuit and a missionary in 16th century Asia. Thank you.
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