Japan: Peeps at History - John Finnemore

The Coming of Christianity

After the death of Yoritomo his house fell upon evil days. There was no one of his family who could fill his great place, and the ruling power slipped into the hands of the Hojo clan, who retained it for more than a hundred years (A.D. 1200-1333).

Their rule is marked by one great event, the attack made upon Japan by the great Mongol prince, Kublai Khan, in 1281. Kublai Khan, one of the greatest conquerors the world has ever known, had overrun China with his hordes and subdued it. He heard that there was great wealth in Japan, and he resolved to add the islands to his vast empire. He sent a huge army of one hundred thousand men in three thousand vessels and attacked the island of Kyushu. The Japanese rose fiercely against the invader and overthrew the vast host with immense slaughter. This was by land, and by sea a terrible storm arose, a fierce typhoon, and dashed in pieces Kublai's fleet. Never before or since has an invader dared to set foot on the soil of Japan. The Hojos at last fell, and they fell because they forgot their place. In 1318 they attacked the Emperor Go-Daigo and drove him from the throne. But the country at once rose against them and hurled them from power. Go-Daigo was restored to the throne, but soon a dispute arose about the crown, and a second emperor was set up by some powerful nobles of the north. For some sixty years there were two emperors in Japan, one at the "Northern Court," the other at the "Southern Court." The Northern emperor was supported by a powerful clan, the Ashikaga, and with their aid he became supreme. The head of the Ashikaga became the Shogun, and this office stayed in their family from 1333 to 1565.

[Illustration] from Peeps at History - Japan by John Finnemore


The Court of the Ashikaga Shoguns became famous as a centre of learning and refinement. Some of them were men who loved the arts and gave their patronage to painters and writers, and the palaces they built are among the most beautiful buildings in Japan. But for the country at large this time of the Ashikaga rule was wretched in the extreme. The day when a strong man like Yoritomo had kept order in the land was long since gone, and the great lords led their armies against their neighbours and there was no one to hinder them.

These lords were known as Daimyos. The word "daimyo" means "great name," and was the title given to the head of a powerful family. He lived in a strong castle supported by his retainers, the Samurai of his clan, and ruled the country around just as a great English baron ruled his estates in our own feudal times. The Daimyo was the baron, the Samurai were the knights who followed his banner. A powerful Daimyo was often followed by many thousands of Samurai, and the whole of this great train had to be supported by the husbandmen who cultivated the land of the Daimyo. Thus, when Daimyo fought with Daimyo and armies marched across the fields, the husbandman suffered from friend and foe. The friend required his grain as a matter of course, the foe plundered and destroyed. Here and there was found a district where a strong Daimyo lived quietly and kept the peace, but such spots were few and far between in these Middle Ages of Japan.

Although Marco Polo had told the European world of Japan towards the end of the thirteenth century, it was not until 1542 that Europeans gained the coast of the island empire. The first to land in Japan were some shipwrecked Portuguese sailors. But a few years later a Portuguese traveller named Mendez Pinto reached Kyushu, the southern island, and he and his friends were kindly received by the authorities, who showed great eagerness to learn all they could about the Portuguese.

[Illustration] from Peeps at History - Japan by John Finnemore


Pinto greatly delighted the Japanese by firing off a matchlock which he had with him, and he also taught them how to make powder. This was the first time that fire-arms had been seen in Japan, and the Japanese armourers at once began to make match-locks for their own people. These clever craftsmen turned out guns in large numbers until, before many years, matchlocks were in common use in the land. These weapons continued in use until modern times, when the Japanese army laid down the clumsy old matchlock of the fifteenth-century style to seize the breech-loader of to-day.

Pinto made two voyages to Japan, and on the second of these, in 1547, a strange incident occurred, an incident which had very important consequences. The ship was about to set sail from Japan when two men came down to the shore, flying from the pursuit of a body of horsemen. The fugitives begged the Portuguese to take them on board to save their lives. This was done, and no attention was paid to the pursuers, who demanded their return. The men were carried to Malacca, and here they were brought into the presence of the great Catholic missionary and saint, Father Francis Xavier. Xavier's thoughts were already strongly turned towards Japan, and he took deep interest in the fugitives, one of whom was Anjiro, a man of importance, and the other his servant. The two Japanese became Christians and were baptized, Anjiro receiving the name of Paul, his servant the name of John. They learned the Portuguese language and proved faithful assistants in the work upon which Xavier's heart was set—the conversion of Japan to the Christian faith.

He sailed to Japan with them in 1549 and landed in Satsuma, a province of Kyushu, where Anjiro's friends lived. They were received in very friendly fashion by the ruler of the province, who gave permission to them to preach the Christian religion, and Xavier laboured among the Japanese of those parts with much success. In 1550 he crossed to the main island and made his way to Kyoto, the capital. Here he was not well received by the authorities, but he preached in the streets and made a deep impression on the people. In 1551 he left Japan after a stay of two years and three months, intending to establish a mission in China. But he died the next year, in the forty-sixth year of his age, and his body was carried to Goa and buried there.

Xavier had left followers in Japan to continue the work he had begun, and the Christian faith spread rapidly. At the same time the foreign trade of the country grew apace. The Portuguese were still the only Europeans who sought Japan for trading purposes, and their ships became well known off the coast. The port of Nagasaki was handed over to them, and it became a Christian city. Missions were established in all directions, churches were built in the capital and many other cities, and the Jesuit fathers who spread the faith were heard eagerly in many a village and hamlet.

In 1582 a mission was sent to the Pope, and the long journey was made in safety. Rome itself can hardly have seen a stranger sight than that day, more than three hundred years ago, when two Christian Japanese princes rode through the streets, clothed in robes stiff with magnificent embroidery, bearing in their girdles the two swords, the mark of their rank, and escorted by a splendid train of Roman princes, papal soldiery, and great officials of the Vatican. Amid a thunder of guns and the cheers of a vast crowd of the people the Japanese princes gained the Hall of Audience, and bent low before the Pope, Gregory XIII. The Pope received them with great honour; he "hastened to raise them up and kissed their foreheads." Before the end of the century some of the greatest men of Japan had become Christians, and in the provinces under their sway the converts could be numbered by the hundred thousand.