RGSSA Library Catalogue

Wednesday 24 June 2015

Discovering Asia: Discovering Japan

The final entry in the “Discovering Asia” series on the early travel narratives in the collection of the Royal Geographical Society of South Australia—

Discovering Japan

The existence of Japan had been known for some time to Europeans but real contact with the West did not begin until the Portuguese established trade relations in the mid-16th century and began sending out their Christian missionaries. This contact lasted for nearly a century, and then Japan instituted a policy of isolationism, closing its borders to foreign influences. Not surprisingly, in the isolationist years few works on Japan were published in the West. After contact was re-established in the 19th century, European travellers began heading eagerly for Japan, and things Japanese became intensely fashionable in Europe, influencing art in particular.


1543: The First Portuguese Black Ships

Japan’s contact with the West began in 1543, when Portuguese traders arrived. They set up a trade route linking Nagasaki to Goa, on the western coast of India, where they were already established.
“A Portuguese Nanban carrack, 17th century.” (Wikipedia}

The large Portuguese carracks had their hulls painted black with pitch, and the term “black ships” came to represent all western vessels.

The Japanese gained modern firearms, with refined sugar, optics and other inventions. Later, silver from Japan was exchanged with silk from China via Macao.

1549: St Francis Xavier Arrives in Kyushu

The first Christian mission to Japan began in 1549 with the arrival of the Jesuit Francis Xavier. Christianity spread along with the spread of trade, with eventually about 300,000 converts, mostly peasants but, significantly at a time of great internal conflict in Japan, some daimyo (warlords).

1609: the Dutch Arrive; 1613: the English Follow
In 1609 a Dutch mission finally arrived and an English trade expedition four years later, in 1613. Both companies received shuinjo from the shogun, permitting them to trade in Japan, the Dutch in 1611, the English in 1613. On both occasions the expatriate Englishman William Adams played a part in securing the trade privileges, but he exaggerated his rôle.

1637: East-West Relations Deteriorate
The Shimabara Rebellion, suppressed in 1637, was blamed on the Christian influence. Tighter and tighter restrictions were placed on the Portuguese traders and Jesuit missionaries.

1639: The Shogun Tokugawa Closes Japan
In 1639 all foreigners were expelled from the Japanese mainland by the shogun Tokugawa. The Portuguese traders were confined to Dejima island at Nagasaki. Isolationism became the policy. Japan remained cut off from Western influences until 1853.


The RGSSA holds a mixture of early texts and later editions or translations which relate to the period of early European contact with Japan. They include two accounts of extraordinary lives: those of the Portuguese Fernão Mendes Pinto and the Englishman William Adams.

An Early Account of Portuguese Jesuit Missions

“The Jesuits in Japan and China (1542-1618)” (Volume III, page 316-412), In:

PURCHAS, Samuel, 1577?-1626.
    Haklvytvs posthumus, or, Pvrchas his Pilgrimes.
London, 1625. 4 vols.
    (York Gate Library 2071-2076)

Pinto in Asia: Facilitator or Adventurer?
Pinto claimed in his autobiography (Peregrinação) to have been the first to introduce modern firearms (“arquebuses” or “harquebuses”) to the Japanese, when he landed at Funai (modern Oita) around 1452 or 1543.

PINTO, Fernão Mendes, -1583
    [Peregrinaçam. English]
    The voyages and adventures of Ferdinand Mendez Pinto, the Portuguese, done into English by Henry Cogan; with an introduction by Arminius Vambery. An abridged and illustrated edition. London, T. Fisher Unwin, 1891.

His book was published posthumously in 1614, with an English translation appearing in 1663. Scholars disagree about its historical accuracy, including the firearms story, but some aspects have been verified. Pinto was from a poor family, and first went to sea as a ship’s boy. During his extensive travels he underwent amazing vicissitudes, with several episodes of imprisonment and enslavement. He went first to India, from 1537 to 1538, then through Ethiopia, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf (circa 1538). His second, much longer, series of Asian adventures took place from 1539 to 1558. In the East Indies he was based in Malacca (then under the Portuguese), establishing diplomatic alliances with local rulers against the sultanates of northern Sumatra.

Pinto in Japan
After his initial landing in 1542 or 1543 (accounts vary) Pinto was back and forth to Japan for about fourteen years, facilitating Portuguese trade. At one point he was shipwrecked on the Ryukyu Islands. Having earlier left Japan with a Japanese fugitive, he returned in 1549 with Saint Francis Xavier’s Jesuit mission. Pinto himself joined the Society of Jesus in 1554, donating a large sum from his trading to it. He left Japan again after Francis Xavier’s death, but was back there with the Jesuit leader’s successor from 1554 to 1556. He became viceroy to Portuguese India’s ambassador to the daimyo of Bungo, on Kyushu. However, he left the Jesuits in 1557, and finally departed from Japan.

    After this he went back to Portuguese Malacca, was sent briefly to Burma (Myanmar), and then Banten, in Java, after pepper, a trip from which he did return but only after shipwreck and enslavement. Finally, via Siam (Thailand), he returned to Portugal.

A Portuguese Jesuit Missionary & Linguist:
    João Rodrigues in Japan, 1576-1610
Rodrigues, who went to Japan as a boy of 15, arrived just in time to experience Japanese society before the country was closed. His works provide an insight into this significant early phase of the “East-meets-West” drama.
Rodrigues, João, 1558-1633.
    [História da Igreja do Japão. Part 1, books 1-2. English]
    João Rodrigues's account of sixteenth-century Japan. London, Hakluyt Society, 2001. (Works issued by the Hakluyt Society; 3rd. ser., no. 7)

Having entered the Jesuit Society in Japan in 1576, Rodrigues began missionary work there in 1583. His early studies and complete mastery of the Japanese language impressed Toyotomi Hideyoshi (or “Emperor Taicosama”, 1536?-1598), who made him a favourite and his personal interpreter. Rodrigues’s early works were issued in Japan: a comprehensive work on the Japanese language, Arte da lingoa de Iapam (“Japanese Language Art”, Nagasaki, 1604), and a Japanese-Portuguese dictionary (Nagasaki, 1603), translated centuries later into French by Pagès (Paris, 1862).

    The troubles which would lead to the installation of the shogunate and the closing of Japan were increasing during this period, and some of them involved foreigners. In 1610 Rodrigues was forced to leave Japan as the result of an incident in which Japanese sailors were killed. He then based himself in Macao, where he would die in 1633. There he worked on his history of the Jesuits in Japan, Histôria da Igreja do Japão (“History of the Japanese Church”), published in 1634.

    It is extraordinary that at this time, with the Spanish Inquisition at its height, and Catholics and Protestants at one another’s throats in Europe, Rodrigues provides an open-minded account of aspects of Japanese culture, even to the extent of praising the holiness of the Buddhist monks. Well-versed in both Western and Eastern cultures, he was a sympathetic and knowledgeable bridge between the two. His personal practice of taking tea served to advance him within Japanese society at a time when aesthetic interests and intellectual sophistication were greatly valued. Three full chapters of his História are devoted to the tea ceremony, chanoyu. His work gives us a fascinating and unique picture of Japanese life at the turn of the 16th century as viewed by a foreigner who was able to experience it as an insider. With Japan closed to the Western world, we may look in vain for another such sympathetic attempt to bridge the gap between the Western and Japanese cultures in the following two and half centuries.

    Hubert Cieslik. “Early Missionaries in Japan 7. Father Joao Rodriguez (1561-1632): ‘The Interpreter’”, Japanese Christian History, Sophia University Tokyo, Japan.

The Japanese “Boys’ Delegation to the West”: 1582-1586
In 1582 Alessandro Valignano, the Visitor to the Jesuit Mission in the East Indies, organised a trip to Europe for four teenage Japanese boys, two of whom represented important Christian daimyo (the Tensho Era Boys’ Embassy, 1582-1590)

Gualtieri, Guido, active 16th century
   Relationi della venuta degli ambasciatori Giaponesi a Roma sino alla partiti di Lisbona: raccolte da Guido Gualtieri. Roma, per Francesco Zannetti, 1586.

Sande, Duarte de, 1531-1600.
    Japanese travellers in sixteenth-century Europe: a dialogue concerning the mission of the Japanese ambassadors to the Roman Curia (1590). London, Hakluyt Society, 2012. (Works issued by the Hakluyt Society; 3rd ser., no. 25)

The boys left Japan on 20 February 1582 and disembarked in Lisbon on 11 August 1584. They then travelled through Portugal, Spain and Italy as far as Rome, the highpoint of their journey, before returning to Lisbon to begin the long voyage home in April 1586. They reached Nagasaki on 21 July 1590, amidst great rejoicing, more than eight years after their departure. During their travels in Europe they had audiences with Philip II, King of Spain and Portugal, and with Popes Gregory XIII and Sixtus V, and were received by many of the most important persons in the places they visited.

    Guido Gualtieri, a contemporary Italian scholar and writer, recounts the visit of the young Japanese to Rome and traces the history of the relations maintained by the Vatican, through the Jesuit Order, with the Far East. Although his picture has been seen as a slightly idealised one it nevertheless manages to present more than just the Western point of view. Until the boys’ arrival the Euro-Japanese encounter had been almost exclusively one way: Europeans going to Japan. The Embassy was an integral part of Valignano’s strategy for advancing the Jesuit mission in Japan and raising further support in Europe.

    As part of the plan, a book consisting of thirty-four colloquia detailing the boys’ travels was compiled and translated into Latin by “Eduardo de Sande” (i.e., Duarte de Sande, 1547-1600), under Valignano’s supervision. It was published in Macao in 1590 with the title De missione legatorvm Iaponensium ad Romanum curiam. The Hakluyt edition is the first complete version of this rich, complex and impressive work to appear in English, and includes maps and illustrations of the mission, and an introduction discussing the context and the subsequent reception of the book.

The First Englishman Arrives: William Adams in Japan, 1600-1620
William Adams (1564-1620) was the first Englishman to reach Japan. He shipped aboard the Dutch ship Liefde in 1598 as pilot, in a fleet of five ships heading for the Spice Islands via the Strait of Magellan and the Pacific Ocean. The fleet was scattered as it sailed into the Pacific and the men on the Liefde, having only heavy broadcloth to trade, which they knew was not wanted in the Spice Islands, headed for Japan, of which they knew nothing. They reached Japan on 12 April 1600 with only twenty-four men alive.

“Voyage by the Magellan Streights to Japon, 1598-1611” (Vol. I, page 125-[131]), In:

PURCHAS, Samuel, 1577?-1626.
    Haklvytvs posthumus, or, Pvrchas his Pilgrimes. London, 1625. 4 vols.
    (York Gate Library 2071-2076)

“The letters of William Adams, 1611-1617”, In:

Rundall, Thomas (editor)
    Memorials of the Empire of Japon in the XVI and XVII centuries. London, Hakluyt Society, 1850. (Works issued by the Hakluyt Society; no.8)
    (York Gate Library 2120)

Adams did not, surprisingly, vanish without a trace. In 1611 the merchants of the East India Company in England were astounded to receive a letter from Japan, written by Adams several years earlier. He had become an advisor to the ruling shogun, received great favours from him, taken a Japanese name, and was now offering his services as advisor and interpreter. The English sent out a mission which arrived in 1613 in ships under the command of Captain John Saris. Their aim was to set up a trading station (“factory’) at Hirado in the southwest. The trading post was headed by Richard Cocks (or Cockes). Adams’s claims for his influence on the two shoguns under whose reigns he lived are said by modern scholars to have been exaggerated, largely by himself. The English certainly did not establish themselves permanently as traders in Japan. Adams died before Japan was closed to foreigners, living out his life as a “gentleman of Japan” very comfortably. Does his story sound oddly familiar? It was the inspiration for the best-selling novel, Sho-gun.

    After his death in 1820 Adams was largely forgotten. Modern myths about him date from 1872, when an Englishman, James Walters, claimed to have discovered the tombs of Adams and his Japanese wife. There is no historical proof of such an attribution of these and other artefacts.

    (For a modern scholarly view of Adams, see Derek Massarella. “William Adams/Miura Anjin: man/myth”,

In the history of the European discovery of Asia, Adams’s importance is of course that his letter was the encouragement needed for the East India Company to send a party to Japan. The RGSSA Library holds works on the man who captained the expedition, John Saris (d. 1646), and the man who became leading trader at the English “factory”, Richard Cocks (1566-1624).

Saris, John, d. 1646.
   The voyage of Captain John Saris to Japan, 1613, edited from contemporary records by Sir Ernest M. Satow. London, Hakluyt Society, 1900. (Works issued by the Hakluyt Society; 2nd series, no. 5)

“Eighth Voyage set forth by the East Indian Societie, wherein were employed three ships, under the command of Capt. John Saris. His course and acts to and in the Red Sea, Java, Moluccas, and Japan (by the inhabitants called Neffoon, where also he first began and settled an English Trade and Factorie)...”, 1611-14, In:

    Haklvytvs posthumus, or, Pvrchas his Pilgrimes. Vol. I, p.334

COCKS, Richard, d. 1624.
    Diary of Richard Cocks: cape-merchant in the English factory in Japan, 1615-1622, with correspondence, edited by Edward Maunde Thompson. London, Hakluyt Society, 1883. (Works issued by the Hakluyt Society; no. 66-67). 2 vols.

”Relation of what passed in the General's absence going to the Emperour’s Court. ‘VVhereunto are added divers Letters of his and others, for the better knowledge of Japonian affaires’” [on Richard Cocks], In:

    Haklvytvs posthumus, or, Pvrchas his Pilgrimes. Vol. I, p. 395.

The Last European Witness? François Caron Sees the Closing of Japan

François Caron (1600-1673), born in Brussels to French Huguenot parents, served the Dutch East India Company (VOC) for thirty years, rising from cabin boy to Director-General at Batavia (now Jakarta), only one grade below Governor-General. He was later to become Director-General of the French East Indies Company (1667-1673). He first went to Japan in 1619, and left in 1641, after the 1639 banishment of the VOC’s Dutch traders to Hirado Island.

    The RGSSA has the 1663 English translation of his work on Japan, and a French version in Thévenot’s travel compilation of 1696.

CARON, François, 1600-1673.
    A true description of the mighty Kingdoms of Japan and Siam. Written originally in Dutch by Francis Caron and Joost Schorten: and now rendred into English by Capt. Roger Manley. London, printed by Samuel Brown and John de l’Ecluse, 1663.
    (The section on Siam is a brief account written by Schouten.)

“Relation du Japon par François Caron, avec les Remarques d’Hagenar desavouées par M. Caron...” (Vol. I, 30 & 31), In:

THÉVENOT, Melchisédec, 1620-1692
    Relations de divers voyages curieux...  Nouvelle edition, augmentée de plusieurs relations curieuses.... Paris, chez Thomas Moette, 1696, 2 vols.
    (York Gate Library. 2077)

Caron provides a meticulously organized record of Japanese customs and commerce in the early years of the 17th century, describing many facets of the way of life, covering not only those useful for commerce, but also a mass of background information, including, amongst many more topics:

Geography:   “How great the Countrey of Iapan is & whether it be an Island or no.”

Justice:         “What qualitie & authority the supreame Magistrate hath. His dwelling place, magnificence & Traine.” “Their manner of Justice. What Crimes they punish most severely.”

Religion:       “What Divine Service they use. What Churches they have. What Priests they entertain. What Sects are prevalent among them. The persecution of the Romish Christians.”

Home life      “How this Nation lives in their Houses and Families. How they receive each other, and of their Hospitality. Of their Conjugal State. Of the bringing up of their Children.”


This post was researched and created by Kathy Boyes 

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