Japan and the Europeans: the Christian Century (1543 – 1641)
What follows has been a work in progress over several years as a class most recently presented at the SCA Colegio de Iberia, June 5, 2021. Check out the promotional video clip from the event. Creating it
has given me a greater appreciation of voice artists. 

Reader Note: Japanese names are rendered surname first.


1296 CE:
  Marco Polo’s Travels contains a hearsay account of the 1281 Mongol expedition against “Cipangu.” This is the first known mention of Japan in a European source.

1494, Sept. 5:  Portugal ratifies the Treaty of Tordesillas, dividing lands discovered outside Europe along a meridian about halfway between Cape Verde (claimed by Portugal) and Cuba and Hispaniola
(claimed for Castile and Leon). Lands to the east of the line belong to Portugal and lands to the west to Castile and Leon.

LEFT: The Planisphere of Domingos Teixeira, 1573, Bibliotheque National de France. Note the vertical line dotted line down the center.     RIGHT: The Treaty of Tordesillas, Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal.)


RIGHT: Tanegashima is at center bottom of this map of modern Kyushu.     RIGHT: First Japanese-built musket, Teppokan Firearms Museum, Nishnoiomote City, Tanegashima, Japan.  Compare to photo from Lidin’s Tanegashima: the arrival of Europe in Japan.

1543, Sept. 23:  Storms drive a Chinese junk with two Portuguese traders aboard to the island of Tanegashima. Because the vessel had come in from the south, the Europeans are dubbed “namban” or
“nanban” (“Southern barbarians”).

During an audience with the local daimyo, Tanegashima Tokitaka, the Portuguese demonstrate the use of a matchlock musket. Tokitaka immediately purchases one and

tasks local swordsmith Yaita Kinbee Kiyosabe with figuring out how to make copies. Legend has it that he married his daughter Wakasa to one of the Portuguese in

exchange for the secret to manufacturing muskets.

Tanegashima becomes a center for gun and gunpowder production to the point that the name becomes synonymous with the weapon. By 1544, news and the technology

spread eastward into Kyushu. 


1545: Regular trade with the Portuguese begins.

ABOVE: A kurofune (black ship) arriving in port, Kano Uchizen, c. 1600, Kobe City Museum.

1547:  While in Malacca (Malaysia) founder of The Society of Jesus Francisco Xavier is introduced by a Portuguese ship captain to a Japanese named Anjiro who
wished to confess his sins. Anjiro converts to Christianity not long after, taking the baptismal name Paulo de Santa Fe.


1549:  Fr. Xavier arrives at Anjiro’s home town, Kagoshima, Satsuma province. The local daimyo grants him permission to preach. Xavier is later expelled from

Satsuma due to conflict with local Buddhist priests. Xavier goes to Miyako (Kyoto) hoping to obtain a license to preach from the Shogun, but is turned away.


1550:  More Jesuit missionaries arrive in Hirado. Fr. Xavier continues on to Yamaguchi with a converted Japanese known as Bernardo. Daimyo Ouchi Yoshitaka
is not Impressed enough to offer support.

1551:  Fr. Xavier fails to make contact with the Emperor in Miyako (Kyoto) and returns to Yamaguchi, this time bearing gifts and announcing himself as an official

representative of the Portuguese Viceroy of India and the Bishop of Goa. Ouchi Yoshitaka grants permission for Xavier to preach, gives him an empty monastery to

quarter his mission in. Xavier visits Bungo, puts Fr. Cosme de Torres in charge of the Japanese missions and leaves Japan for China.
The missionaries are forced to flee Yamaguchi when civil unrest breaks there.

1552:  Francisco Xavier dies in China.
LEFT: Francisco Xavier by an anonymous Japanese painter, 16th c. Kobe Municipal Museum of Namban Art, Kobe, Japan.


1560:  Fr. Gaspar Vilela arrives in Kyoto, gains the support of Oda Nobunaga, and establishes Kyoto as a center of Christian activity.
ABOVE: “Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary,” consecrated in Kyoto in 1576, attributed to Kano Shoshu, late 16th c., Kobe City Museum.

1561: Following murders of foreigners in Hirado, Omura Sumitada offers Portuguese traders a safe haven in Yokose-ura. By 1563, Sumitada and his retainers are baptized.  Taking the name “Dom Bartolomeu,”
he is sufficiently radicalized to destroy shrines and temples, deface his ancestors’ graves and force compulsory conversions on the people in his domain.


1569: Fr. Luis Frois visits the building site of Nijo Castle in Kyoto and presents Oda Nobunaga with a glass jar containing hard candy comfits (konpeito).


1570: “Dom Bartolomeu” Omura creates a port at Nagasaki and permits Jesuits to establish a church there.


1571: Port of Nagasaki opens to trade.

1575:  Oda Nobunaga defeats Takeda Katsuyori at Nagashino with the effective use of approximately 1000 men armed with muskets.

1581: Oda acquires an African servant of Fr. Valignano’s, having been fascinated by his color not coming off when ordered to scrub himself. Accounts are sketchy as to the actual transaction, but the
tall, strong African, dubbed Yasuke, is given money, a house and a sword and enters Oda’s service as a retainer.


LEFT: Oda Nobunaga by Kano Motohide, 1583. Chokoji Temple, Toyota City, Aichi Prefecture.      RIGHT: Detail of the Battle of Nagashino showing deployment of musket use, 18th c. folding screen, Tokugawa Art Museum, Nagoya.

1582:  Three Christian daimyo, Arima Harunobu, Otomo Yoshihige and Dom Bartolomeu Omura, appoint four envoys to visit the Papal court in Rome. The Tensho embassy consists of Mancio Ito, Miguel Chijawa,
Julian Nakaura and Martino Hara.

Jesuit Visitor Valignano reports that Japan has some two hundred churches and 150,000 converts to Christianity, all the work of 75 priests.

Oda Nobunaga is assassinated (or forced to commit suicide), after being betrayed and ambushed by Akechi Mitsuhide. Toyotomi Hideyoshi subsequently defeats Akechi Mitsuhide and assumes Nobunaga’s authority.

1584:  The Tensho envoys arrive in Lisbon after visits to Macao, Kochi and Goa.
LEFT: News From The Island Of Japan” describes the four emissaries to Rome and their Jesuit companion. Produced by Michael Manger in Augsburg in 1586. British Museum. RIGHT: Portrait of Don Mancio by Domenico Tintoretto, 1585, Fondazione Trivulzio, Milan.


1585:  The Japanese envoys meet with Pope Gregory XIII in Rome. They are subsequently ordained as Jesuit priests. 

Fr. Luis Frois publishes a systematic comparison of Japanese and Western culture, the Tratado em que se contêm muito sucinta e abreviadamente algumas contradições e
 diferenças de costumes entre a gente de Europa e esta província de Japão
(A brief and abbreviated treatise of some contradictions and differences in customs between
the people of Europe and this province of Japan.)

Toyotomi Hideyoshi is appointed kampaku (chancellor to the Emperor).

Right: Toyotomi Hideyoshi, 1599. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.

1587: Christian convert Maruyama Antoniyo (Toan) opens a shop in Nagasaki, selling a Portuguese sweet bread made of flour, cane sugar and eggs called kasutera

(a corruption of Pao de Castela, also known as pao de lo).

July 24, after a visit to Kyushu, Toyotomi Hideyoshi writes to Jesuit Vice-Provincial Gaspar Cohelo demanding Japanese slaves “who have up until now been sold in India

and other distant places be returned again to Japan. If this is not possible, because they are far away in remote kingdoms, then at least have the Portuguese set free

the people whom they have bought recently. I will provide the money necessary to do this.”  Days later, Hideyoshi issues his first ordinance to expel the missionaries.

It is not enforced.
ABOVE: Toyotomi Hideyoshi, 1599. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.

1588: April: Duarte de Menezes, Portuguese Viceroy of India, writes to Hideyoshi protesting the suppression of Christians in Japan.


1590:  Fathers Ito, Chijawa, Nakaura and Hara return to Japan. Their notes of their travels are published in Europe that year as De Missione Legatorum Iaponensium ad Romanam Curiam by Fr. Duarte de Sande.

1593: Spanish Franciscan missionaries arrive from Manila and build churches in Kyoto and Osaka.

1596, October 19, the San Felipe is shipwrecked at Urado, Shikoku. The cargo of the Spanish vessel is seized by the local daimyo, and the incident is brought to Hideyoshi’s attention for intervention. During
the investigation, the ship’s pilot shows his interviewer a map and insinuates that Spain uses missionaries as a first wave to conquest, and claims that Spain and Portugal had the same king.

1597: In response to the San Felipe incident, Toyotomi Hideyoshi crucifies 26 Christians (six Franciscan friars, and twenty Japanese Franciscan and Jesuit converts) in Nagasaki. Hideyoshi dies in 1598, his death
kept secret by the Council of Five Elders to preserve morale.
1600, April:  A Dutch ship, the Liefde, makes landfall near Bungo. Local Jesuits convince the authorities that the Protestant crew are pirates and the crew is imprisoned. Their navigator, an Englishman named
William Adams is taken to meet Tokugawa Ieyasu, then guardian of the minor taiko (Imperial regent).


October 21: Tokugawa Ieyasu defeats Ishida Mitsunari’s western faction at Sekigahara, becoming undisputed master of Japan.

1600-ish?: (Earliest manuscript date unknown, one survives from the late Edo period): Namban Ryorisho (Southern Barbarian Cookbook), a collection of Iberian recipes is

compiled, possibly by Morita Shiro Uemon whose name appears on the colophon of the earliest extant manuscript. Sweets and breads incorporating sugar and eggs, and

several dishes featuring chicken including one called “tempurari” are among the recipes. A modern English translation can be found here.


1603:  Tokugawa Ieyasu is granted the title of Shogun by the Emperor.

1604: Ieyasu orders Adams to build a western style ship in an attempt to circumvent the Portuguese monopoly on the silk trade. Adams will build two ships for the Shogun.

The first volume of Fr. Joao Rodrigues’ Arte de Lingoa de Iapam (Art of the Language of Japan) is published in Nagasaki. Rodrigues goes on to attempt a multiple volume
Historia da Igreja do Japão (History of the Japanese Church) which is never completed.

1609, July 2:  Ships from the Dutch East India Company arrive in Japan. With Adams’ assistance, the Dutch are granted trading rights. By September, a trading factory is
established in Hirado.


1612:  Fr. Ito Mancio dies in Nagasaki.

Portrait of Tokugawa Ieyasu, early Edo period, Osaka Castle

:  Adams assists in obtaining trading rights for the English East India Company and makes several trading expeditions with the Company over the next several years. Only three English ships will make the
trip to Japan.


1613 - 1617: Hasekura Tsunenaga, a vassal of Date Masamune, leads a group of samurai, merchants, sailors and servants, as well as some 40 Spaniards and Portuguese on an embassy to Spain and the Vatican,
 traveling by way of Cape Mendocino (now California), Acapulco, Mexico City and Havana. The mission to promote trade and meet with the Pope occurs even as relations between the shogunate and
the Jesuit missions deteriorate. Hasekura’s journey takes him to the courts of Spain, France and Italy before he returns to Japan.
Related image
LEFT: Hasekura Tsunenaga, AKA “Don Filippo Francesco Faxioura, 1615, Sendai City Museum.
RIGHT: Hasekura Tsunenaga by Claude Deruet, 1615. Collection Borghese, Rome.


1614:  The Shogun outlaws Catholicism, prompted by fraud perpetrated by a Christian vassal and concerns that the Portuguese and Spanish would make attempts to colonize Japan as they had in the
Phillipines and the Americas. All European priests are ordered to Nagasaki for deportation. Christian converts are ordered to renounce the faith, churches are destroyed. The Dutch are permitted to
remain in their factory enclave in Hirado, having convinced the shogunate that their interests are strictly limited to trade.


1620:  Adams dies at Hirado. The shogunate institutes another ban on Christianity.

1622: Francisco Xavier is canonized by Pope Gregory XV. In that same year, more than fifty Japanese and Europeans are martyred in Nagasaki.


1624:  Tokugawa Iemitsu (Ieyasu’s grandson) becomes shogun. He bans foreign books, forbids travel by Japanese subjects or ships outside of Japan. 


1629:  Fr. Hara Martinao dies in Macao, having been banished in 1614.


1633:  Father Nakaura Juliao is martyred. Chijawa Miguel, who left the Jesuits some time before 1601, also dies in 1633.


1636:  Construction begins on the artificial island of Dejima, near Nagasaki.

1637:  Shimabara Rebellion breaks out in response to over taxation and famine by a predominantly
Christian population. The shogunate executes some 37,000 rebels.  Others are deported to Macao or the Philippines.

1639: Portuguese merchants are expelled from Dejima, their ships are banned from Japan.

1640: 61 members of a Portuguese delegation from Macao sent to reopen relations are executed at



1641:  The Dutch move their trade factory to Dejima.  They continue to trade in compliance with the restrictions of the shogunate into the 19th century.

1853, July 8:  American ships under command of Commodore Matthew Perry anchor in Edo Bay. 


1854, March 31: Japan and the United States sign the Treaty of Kanagawa, opening ports at Shimoda and Hakodate to American trade and allowing American ships to re-provision in Japanese ports.



RIGHT:  Dejima in a print by Jacob van Meurs, 1669.  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dejima_arnoldus_montanus_1669.jpg  LEFT: 19th c. block printed broadsheet showing Perry’s black ships.  https://bostonraremaps.com/inventory/kawaraban-admiral-perry/



Cooper, Michael, Ed. Joao Rodrigues's Account of Sixteenth Century Japan (Hakluyt Society Series 3, Volume 7)  (Hackluyt Society, 2002).

Frois, Luis, SJ and Reff, Daniel T. The First European Description of Japan, 1585: A Critical English Language Edition of Striking Contrasts in the Customs of Europe and Japan by Luis Frois, S.J. (Routledge, 2015).


Gill, Robin D. Topsy-turvy 1585 (Paraverse Press, 2004). An edited/abridged translation of the Frois book.

Hall, John Whitney. Japan From Prehistory to Modern Times (University of Michigan, 1991).

Levenson, Jay A. Encompassing the Globe: Portugal and the World in the 16th and 17th Centuries (Smithsonian Books, 2007).


Lidin, Olaf. Tanegashima: the arrival of Europe in Japan (Copenhagen, The Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, 2002). A PDF is available at http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:789497/FULLTEXT01.pdf


Milton, Giles. Samurai William (New York: Penguin Books, 2002).

Nelson, Thomas. “Slavery in Medieval Japan” (Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 59, No. 4, Winter 2004), pp. 463-492.


Okamoto, Yoshitomo. The Namban Art of Japan (New York: Weatherhill/Heibonsha, 1972).


Rath, Eric. Food and Fantasy in Early Modern Japan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010).

Rogers, Hiromi. ANJIN – The Life & Times of Samurai William Adams 1564-1620 As Seen Through Japanese Eyes (Folkestone, UK: Renaissance Books, 2016).


Sindemann, Kerstin-Katja. “Japanese Buddhism in the 16th Century: Letters of the Jesuit Missionaries” (Bulletin of Portuguese-Japanese Studies, vol. 2, June 2001). http://redalyc.uaemex.mx/redalyc/pdf/361/36100206.pdf


1975 novel by James Clavell.
1980 network TV miniseries. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt9425954/
2024 FX/Hulu streaming series. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2788316/

, directed by Martin Scorsese. An examination of faith and conscience under duress as a pair of Portuguese priests try to find their mentor during the period of persecution. Based on the 1966 novel by Shusaku Endo. 

Magi, Tensho Keno Shonen Shisetsu. TV series, available on Amazon Prime, Japanese with subtitles. A fictionalized account of the Tensho Embassy.

Age of Samurai: Battle for Japan. Netflix’s ambitious train wreck that couldn’t decide whether it wanted to be a documentary or a graphic novel on film, and was not helped by loss of their original director, budget cuts and Covid-19 – and it almost completely ignores the influence of Europeans in Japan. Still, the 6 part series it manages to convey the bloody complexity of the Warring States period and they hired some good scholarly commentators. 

Yasuke. Fantasy-based anime inspired by the African who ended up in the service of Oda Nobunaga. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt9310330/
A feature film about Yasuke was to star the late Chadwick Boseman, but I haven’t heard anything recently about whether it will be going forward with a new actor.

Copyright Lisa A. Joseph 2024