Historical Tales: 12—Japanese and Chinese - Charles Morris

The Progress of Christianity in Japan

The fact that such a realm as that of Japan existed remained unknown in Europe until about six centuries ago, when Marco Polo, in his famous record of travel and adventure, first spoke of it. He knew of it, however, only by Chinese hearsay, and the story he told contained far more of fable than of fact. The Chinese at that time seem to have had little knowledge of their nearest civilized neighbor.

"Zipangu"—the name he gives it—is, he says, "an island in the Eastern Ocean, about fifteen hundred miles [Chinese miles] from the mainland. Its people are well made, of fair complexion, and civilized in manner, but idolaters in religion." He continues, "They have gold in the greatest abundance, its sources being inexhaustible. To this circumstance we are to attribute the extraordinary richness of the sovereign's palace according to what we are told by those who have access to the place. The entire roof is covered with a plating of gold, in the same manner as we cover houses, or more properly churches, with lead. The ceilings of the halls are of the same precious metal; many of the apartments have small tables of pure gold, of considerable thickness; and the windows have also golden ornaments. So vast, indeed, are the riches of the palace that it is impossible to convey an idea of them. In this island there are pearls also, in large quantities, of a pink color, round in shape and of great size, equal in value to, or even exceeding, that of the white pearls. There are also found there a number of precious stones."

This story is as remote from truth as some of those told by Sindbad the Sailor. Polo, no doubt, thought he was telling the truth, and knew that this cascade of gold and pearls would be to the taste of his readers, but anything more unlike the plainness and simplicity of the actual palace of the mikado it would be hard to find.

For the next European knowledge of Japan we must step forward to the year 1542. Columbus had discovered America, and Portugal had found an ocean highway to the spice islands of the East. A Portuguese adventurer, Mendez Pinto by name, ventured as far as China, then almost unknown, and, with two companions, found himself on board a Chinese junk, half trader, half pirate.

Returning from market


In a sea-fight with another corsair their pilot was killed, and soon after a fierce storm blew them far off shore. Seeking to make the Loochoo Islands, they lost them through lack of a pilot, and were tossed about at the ocean's will for twenty-three days, when they made harbor on Tané, a small island of Japan lying south of Kiushiu. Pinto, after his return to Europe, told so many marvellous stories about Japan that people doubted him as much as they had doubted Marco Polo. His very name, Mendez, was extended into "mendacious." Yet time has done justice to both these old travellers, who either told, or tried to tell, the truth.

The Portuguese travellers were well received by the islanders,—who knew not yet what firebrands they were welcoming. It took a century for Europeans to disgust the Japanese so thoroughly as to force the islanders to drive them from the land and put up the bars against their return. What interested the Japanese even more than their visitors were the new and strange weapons they bore. Pinto and his two comrades were armed with arquebuses, warlike implements such as they had never before seen, and whose powers filled them with astonishment and delight. It was the era of civil war in Japan, and the possession of a new and deadly weapon was eagerly welcomed by that martial people, who saw in it visions of speedy success over their enemies.

Pinto was invited to the castle of the daimio of Bungo, whom he taught the arts of making guns and gunpowder. The Japanese, alert at taking advantage of the discoveries of other people, were quick to manufacture powder and guns for themselves, and in the wars told of in our last few tales native cannon were brought into use, though the razor-edged sword continued the most death-dealing of their weapons.

As for the piratical trader which conveyed Pinto to Japan, it sold its cargo at an immense profit, while the three Portuguese reached China again rich in presents. This was not Pinto's only visit to Japan. He made three other voyages thither, the last in 1556, as ambassador from the Portuguese viceroy in the East. On this occasion he learned that the islanders had made rapid progress in their new art of gun-making, they claiming to have thirty thousand guns in Fucheo, the capital of Bungo, and ten times that number in the whole land of Japan.

The new market for European wares, opened by the visit of Pinto, was quickly taken advantage of by his countrymen, and Portuguese traders made their way by hundreds to Japan, where they met with the best of treatment. Guns and powder were especially welcome, as at that time the power of the Ashikaga clan was at an end, anarchy everywhere prevailed, and every local chief was in arms to win all he could from the ruins of the state. Such was the first visit of Europeans to Japan, and such the gift they brought, the fatal one of gunpowder.

The next gift of Europe to Japan was that of the Christian faith. On Pinto's return to Malacca he met there the celebrated Francis Xavier, the father superior of the order of the Jesuits in India, where he had gained the highest reputation for sanctity and the power of working miracles. With the traveller was a Japanese named Anjiro, whom he had rescued from enemies that sought his death, and converted to Christianity. Xavier asked him whether the Japanese would be likely to accept the religion of the Christians.

"My people will not be ready to accept at once what may be told them," said Anjiro, "but will ask you a multitude of questions, and, above all, will see whether your conduct agrees with your words. If they are satisfied, the king, the nobles, and the people will flock to Christ, since they constitute a nation that always accepts reason as a guide."

Thus encouraged, Xavier, whose enthusiasm in spreading the gospel was deterred by no obstacle, set sail in 1549 for Japan, accompanied by two priests and Anjiro, the latter with a companion who had escaped with him in his flight from Japan.

The missionary party landed at Kagoshima, in Satsuma. Here they had little success, only the family and relatives of Anjiro accepting the new faith, and Xavier set out on a tour through the land, his goal being Kioto, the mikado's capital. Landing at Amanguchi, he presented himself before the people barefooted and meanly dressed, the result of his confessed poverty being that, instead of listening to his words, the populace hooted and stoned him and his followers. At Kioto he was little better received.

Finding that a display of poverty was not the way to impress the Japanese, the missionary returned to the city of Kioto richly clothed and bearing presents and letters from the Portuguese viceroy to the emperor. He was now well received and given permission to preach, and in less than a year had won over three thousand converts to the Christian faith.

Naturally, on reaching Kioto, he had looked for the splendor spoken of by Marco Polo, the roof and ceilings of gold and the golden tables of the emperor's palace. He was sadly disenchanted on entering a city so desolated by fire and war that it was little more than a camp, and on beholding the plainest and least showy of all the palaces of the earth.

Returning to the port of Fucheo for the purpose of embarking for India, whence he designed to bring new laborers to the virgin field, Xavier preached with such success as to alarm the Buddhist bonzes, who made futile efforts to excite the populace against him as a vagabond and an enchanter. From there he set out for China, but died on the way thither. He had, however, planted the seed of what was destined to yield a great and noble harvest.

In fact, the progress of Christianity in Japan was of the most encouraging kind. Other missionaries quickly followed the great Jesuit pioneer, and preached the gospel with surprising success. In less than five years after the visit of Xavier to Kioto that city possessed seven Christian churches, while there were many others in the southwest section of the empire. In 1581, thirty years after Xavier's death, there were in Japan two hundred churches, while the number of converts is given at one hundred and fifty thousand. Several of the daimios were converted to the new faith, and Nobunaga, who hated and strove to exterminate the Buddhists, received the Christians with the greatest favor, gave them desirable sites for their churches, and sought to set them up as a foil to the arrogance of the bonzes.

The Christian daimios went so far as to send a delegation to the pope at Rome, which returned eight years afterwards with seventeen Jesuit missionaries, while a multitude of mendicant friars from the Philippine Islands and elsewhere sought the new field of labor, preaching with the greatest zeal and success. It is claimed that at the culminating point of proselytism in Japan the native Christians numbered no less than six hundred thousand, among them being several princes, and many lords, high officials, generals, and other military and naval officers, with numerous women of noble blood. In some provinces the Christian shrines and crosses were as numerous as the Buddhist shrines had been before, while there were thousands of churches, chapels, and ecclesiastical edifices.

This remarkable success, unprecedented in the history of Christian missionary work, was due in great measure to certain conditions then existing in Japan. When Xavier and his successors reached Japan, it was to find the people of that country in a state of the greatest misery, the result of a long era of anarchy and misrule. Of the native religions, Shintoism had in great measure vanished, while Buddhism, though affecting the imaginations of the people by the gorgeousness of its service, had little with which to reach their hearts.

Christianity came with a ceremonial more splendid than that of Buddhism, and an eloquence that captivated the imaginations of the Japanese. Instead of the long series of miseries of Buddhist transmigration, it offered admission to the glories of heaven after death, a doctrine sure to be highly attractive to those who had little to hope for but misery during life. The story of the life and death of Christ strongly impressed the minds of the people, as compared with the colder story of Buddha's career, while a certain similarity between the modes of worship of the two religions proved of the greatest assistance to the advocates of the new creed. The native temples were made to serve as Christian churches; the images of Buddha and his saints were converted into those of Christ and the apostles; and, aside from the more attractive doctrines of Christianity, there were points of resemblance between the organization and ceremonial of the two religions that aided the missionaries in inducing the people to change from their old to the new faith.

One of the methods pursued in the propagation of Christianity had never been adopted by the Buddhists, that of persecution of alien faiths. The spirit of the Inquisition, then active in Europe, was brought to Japan. The missionaries instigated their converts to destroy the idols and desert the old shrines. Gold was used freely as an agent in conversion, and the Christian daimios compelled their subjects to follow them in accepting the new faith. In whole districts the people were ordered to accept Christianity or to exile themselves from their homes. Exile or death was the fate of many of the bonzes, and fire and the sword lent effect to preaching in the propagation of the doctrine of Christianity.

To quote a single instance, from Charlevoix's "History of the Christianizing of Japan," "In 1577 the lord of the island of Amacusa issued his proclamation, by which his subjects—whether bonzes or gentlemen, merchants or traders—were required either to turn Christians, or to leave the country the very next day. They almost all submitted, and received baptism, so that in a short time there were more than twenty churches in the kingdom. God wrought miracles to confirm the faithful in their belief."

Miracles of the kind here indicated and others that might be quoted were not of the character of those performed by Christ, and such methods of making proselytes were very likely to recoil upon those that indulged in them. How the result of the introduction of European methods manifested itself in Japan will be indicated in our next tale.