Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/Japanese fragments - Part 4


JAPANESE FRAGMENTS.

BY CAPTAIN SHERARD OSBORN, R.N.

CHAPTER IV.

European relations with Japan appear to have culminated about 1577; then it is that we read of that embassy to Rome, which is the only one on record, previous to the one that has recently reached the United States. The envoys on that occasion did not, however, come from the emperor, but from the almost independent princes of Bungo, Arima, and Oruma. We gather that this embassy sailed from Nangasaki, and, after many dangers, reached Macao at the entrance of the Canton river. Detained there for nine months, for want of shipping, they eventually proceeded to Malacca, but being attacked by enemies they were pillaged and evil entreated before reaching that place. Passing on to Hindostan they travelled to Goa, and were received in great state by the Portuguese viceroy. Embarking thence in a Portugal ship, they sailed for Europe, and at last disembarked in the Tagus, after a three years voyage, from Japan! Brave shows and pageants here awaited them, and Mr. Buchanan and the White House at Washington must exert themselves if they desire the comparison to be given in favour of the United States of to-day against the courts of the kings of Portugal and Spain in those times. We are told how they journeyed through Talavera and Toledo to where Philip of Castille entertained them with splendour and kindness in his palace of the Escurial; and how he displayed his treasury overflowing, because the Plate fleet had just arrived safe from the Americas!

We wonder whether Mr. Gladstone will be able to show our Japanese friends an equally pleasing sight in Downing Street, or whether the first Lord can report as favourably of the present employment of Her Majesty’s ships.

We are afraid to say how long the Japanese envoys spent in Alicante, Majorca, and Minorca, and may merely tell that they landed in Pisa, and that the Duke of Florence received them right royally. Rome welcomed them with the greatest pomp; first marched his Holiness’ life-guards in rich and costly habits; then the Switzers; then the attendants of the cardinals glittering in gold and carnation silks. How one envies the fair sex—the sensation which visions of such bravery must occasion. The princes and nobility with kettle-drums beating a rare symphony preceded the Japanese envoys curiously attired, after their manner, in garments embroidered with birds and flowers, they each had two swords—it was remarked—and that the hilts and scabbards were rich with pearls and diamonds. Thus they marched in proud array until they entered the presence where sat his Holiness, surrounded with cardinals and bishops in Pontificalibus, a wilderness of croziers, crosses, and surplices, exceeding all the gorgeous shows ever before seen in Rome or Miaco. Here the envoys kissed his Holiness’ feet, and publicly announced their mission, and it was, that “To the most zealous and chief vicar supplying Christ’s place on earth, the prince and holy father!” one Trimus, king of Bungo, threw himself in all humility at his most blessed feet!

It was difficult in those days to get to Rome from Japan, but it appears to have been a still more hazardous undertaking to get back again for, in spite of apostolic blessings, the unfortunate envoys took nearly five years to return home—a home which they reached only in time to find it a sad scene of misery and bloodshed. Indeed, we never hear anything more of them than that they did return; and then in a few years afterwards, when martyrdom awaited all professors in the faith of Rome, we read of one of these poor envoys proudly accepting death and torture, “for he who had kissed the feet of the Vicar of God would not recant”—a generous resolution which speaks volumes for the nation that can produce such men.

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Doctor and Patient. (Fac-simile.)

In the year 1578, the storm which had so long threatened was about to burst upon Japan, but not before some of the calmer and wiser of the Christian clergy had foreseen it must soon arrive. The three great princes of Bungo who had first received the Christian sacrament were dead; wars and rebellion followed in their states. The Jesuits were not wanting in that crisis, they toiled most fearlessly; there were fifty-five of them, or twenty-three priests and thirty-two laymen, whose life was one constant pilgrimage, wandering from place to place, cheering the faithful, threatening the backsliders. Religious dissension, it is allowed, was the main cause of this distracted condition of the interior of Bungo; and added to that, the reckless indifference to life which the natives exhibited when once their passions were aroused. Just about this time, too, a terrible calamity aroused the fears and suspicions of the governing classes against all the religious bodies, whether native or foreign. The Emperor Nobananga, after suppressing with great bloodshed one rebellion of the native priesthood, was traitorously slain by an assassin in his own palace; and the Christians with him lost their best friend and ally.

The court of this potentate vied in magnificence, we are told, with the most brilliant ones of Europe in that day; and on perusing all the minute details given by Charles the Second’s Master of the Revels, we cannot but come to the conclusion, that, Christianity apart, the Japanese nation in 1577, and up to 1650, were quite as civilised, and quite as advanced in most of the arts and sciences, as we were in England. The reception of the Japanese envoys at Rome was not a jot more magnificent than the grand tournay held by the Emperor Nobananga at Miaco to receive some present sent him by a Pope. We there read how he caused a vast space to be levelled, three times as large as the great square of Lisbon; how it was set round with the tents and pavilions of all his princes and barons; how it was filled with men in rich liveries; how the good priests could not find words to extol sufficiently the gorgeous richness of the velvets and brocades, the tapestries; the long lines of gentlemen bravely attired; the flags, and the noise of barbaric music. The Emperor in state opens the tournay, and receives the papal present—a chair of state. Then there are courses, jousts, tournaments, and fights, in which the Emperor Nobananga carries off many prizes. The scene winds up with gladiatorial displays, in which there is a regular fray and shout as of battle, “their gorgeous armours and shining weapons glittering under a bright sun, and forming a noble picture of war,” only marred, says the priestly chronicler, by the savage expenditure of human blood by the combatants in the heat of battle.

Taiko-Sama, the Commander-in-Chief of the murdered Nobananga’s armies, was no ordinary man. On the death of his patron, he fell upon the rebellious native priesthood and nobility, and either destroyed them, or caused them to submit to his power. In a short time he assumed the imperial authority, and took care to make it be felt in the most remote portions of the empire, where his former master had had little, if any, power. He appears early to have suspected the disinterestedness of his foreign visitors, and to have decided on adhering to the old faith of Japan, taking care, however, to still farther reduce the temporal authority of his spiritual coadjutor the Mikado. It was now that the Christians began to reap the fruits of the cupidity of the mercantile fraternity, and the thoughtless conduct of religious fanatics. There are some curious documents extant upon the native view of the conduct of Europeans in those days, which it would be well for our politicians and others of the present day to peruse; for assuredly we are, by the inconsiderate conduct of Europeans, tending again in the present day to awaken similar feelings of hostility.[1] We there read that a Minister of State thus addresses Taiko: “Be wary, oh, my Liege! of these Christians; mistrust the union that exists amongst them. * * * Bethink thee what destruction there hath been of our temples and holy establishments, so that our provinces seem as if they had been laid waste by fire and sword. These priests proclaim that they have come from afar to save us from perdition; but may not some dangerous project lurk beneath this fair pretext. Have you not an example in the recent revolt of the bonzes of Osaca? Now treachery may be hid under the cloak of religion. The Europeans are not less traitorous, be assured. They have in Nangasaki a perfect fortress; by it they can obtain foreign aid. Not a moment should be lost if you consult the safety of the State!” Others called attention to the drain of gold and silver, and to the deficiency of the currency in the State; and whilst Taiko was hesitating how to act—for, though severe, he does not appear to have been a cruel man—the conduct of the Portuguese and Spaniards, lay and clerical, was most rash and intemperate, and all calculated to bring on a crisis. There had been local risings in many parts of the empire; the church at Miaco had been destroyed, the fathers escaping with difficulty. Christianity had been early uprooted from the island of Sikok, and death in many shapes began to threaten the native converts in Kiu-siu. The doubts and misgivings of these converts are exemplified in an original Japanese letter, happily preserved amongst Jesuit archives. The writer, a native nobleman, writes as follows to his spiritual father:

“Aware that your reverence intends to return, I hasten to inform you of the state of affairs here. Subsequent to your departure hence, I became desirous of baptism, and unwilling to await for your return, I sought the rite at the hands of the priest at Funay, and an opportunity soon after occurring, I had the good fortune to recover all my states except the city of Fata, whither retired my enemy, Tosaquami, with some six hundred followers, but with very little prospect of being long able to hold out. Mindful of my vows to God for the benefits thus accruing, I immediately ordered a church to be built, as well as an abode for the holy fathers, and assigned them revenues in perpetuity. Furthermore, I caused similar houses to be constructed elsewhere in my kingdom, and all my subjects, seeing I was thus powerfully aided of the Lord, were on the point of becoming Christians likewise, when most suddenly the whole kingdom revolted against me, and I had to flee to my present retreat, Nangaxima. To this hour I cease not to lament my fate before the Lord; and I own some doubts have arisen in my mind at the success of these rebels, seeing that they are pagans, or whether their good fortune is to be attributed to the multitude of my sins. I therefore beg your reverence to recommend me in your prayers, and to send some one to resolve my doubts,” &c. &c.

This curious confession of a half-converted mind bears date about 1576, and comes from a prince of Tosa. We hardly need a better proof of how weak was the foundation upon which the Christian faith rested, the material advantages of the aid of Providence being evidently those upon which the worthy Prince placed most importance.

In the year 1587 Taiko sent two commissioners to the head of the Jesuit church in Bongo, calling for categorical answers to the following questions: Why do you and your associates use force in the promulgation of your creed? Why do you invite my people to the destruction of the public temples and persecution of native priesthood? Why do your countrymen consume cattle, so useful to man and needful for agricultural purposes? Finally, Why do your traders kidnap my subjects, and carry them off as slaves. The replies, couched in terms of no great humility, denied the employment of force in conversion, but pleaded holy zeal as the cause of the destruction of the false gods, and that the bonzes brought ridicule upon themselves by the absurdities they upheld; they regretted the slaying of oxen, and promised to check it; and, without denying the charge of a traffic in human beings being carried on, they said it was in the power of the native authorities to check it if they pleased. Full of wrath at this unsatisfactory explanation, the Emperor launched an edict against farther promulgation of Christianity, and ordered professors of it to quit his realms. Of course, the authorities at the Portuguese and Spanish settlements in the East rushed to the rescue of their co-religionists; but it was only by moral support that they dared to act against a warlike sovereign and a people whose desperate courage was respected by all who had intercourse with them. The Emperor answered all such protests calmly and rationally. He replied to the Viceroy of Spain: “Place yourself in my position, the ruler of a great empire, and suppose my subjects were to enter it on pretence of teaching a new doctrine. If you subsequently found that they merely made such professions a mask for subverting your authority, would you not treat them as traitors? Such I hold the fathers to be to my state, and as such I treat them.” Taiko, however, was prudent in the measures he took to discountenance a faith which evidently struck at the root of imperial authority as established in Japan; and, by way of giving vent to a certain pugnacity visible in his Christian subjects, he directed large armies of them to the conquest of the Corean Peninsula, and encouraged them to not only settle there, but if they pleased, to exercise their spirit of propagandism upon the inhabitants of that country. This policy was so successful, that during his reign Japanese influence and authority is said to have become paramount in that little known country, and it was only uprooted by subsequent interference of the Court of Pekin. The forbearance of Taiko-sama was misconstrued by some zealots from the Philippines, who persisted in landing and preaching in spite of his interdict. The Emperor issued a warrant, ordering them to be executed; and twenty-three priests suffered death at Nangasaki in 1797,—a fearful example of Taiko’s power, intended evidently to warn the forty thousand Christians then living in and about that city of the consequences of incurring his displeasure or disobeying his laws.

When, moreover, it is remembered that these twenty European Christians were the only ones executed during the ten years the edict had been in force against them, it would be hardly fair to accuse Taiko of cruelty—and even in this case, political as well as religious reasons may have had much weight in occasioning so large an execution. The authorities of Macao and Manilla had fiercely resented the action of Taiko-sama against their priesthood, and wantonly executed some of his subjects in the former city, as well as committed an act of bloodthirsty piracy upon a Japanese vessel off the shores of the Philippines. These acts were not likely to mollify the temper of an Eastern despot, and perhaps one of the ablest men who ever ruled over Japan. He died soon afterwards, but not before his energy, bravery, and skill had imperishably enshrined his memory in the love and admiration of his countrymen. To this day, the name of Taiko-sama, or the most high and sovereign lord, is, we are told, spoken of with reverence throughout the empire. His valour, abilities, and devotion to the interests of Japan still form the theme of her poets and painters—and it pleases the idiosyncracy of this people that their great warrior-statesman—their second Sin-fuh—combined great talents with a rough, unpleasing exterior. All impartial foreign writers bear testimony to the abilities, and we almost say virtues, of this extraordinary man, who may be said to have reformed and reconstituted the Japanese Empire, and left it much as we now find it. When he ascended the throne—to use his own words—he found the kingdom distracted with civil wars, the native bonzes endeavouring to grasp the supreme power, so as to re-establish the Theocracy as founded of old, the Christianised chiefs attempting to throw off their allegiance to the imperial power, and the whole land a scene of turmoil. He devoted himself to the task of regenerating his country: he omitted nothing to make all men esteem him for valour and earnestness of purpose. By energy and firmness he fully succeeded, and lived to see the state ruled as one nation, instead of sixty petty kingdoms. “Severe I may be deemed,” says Taiko, “but I am only so to the evil doers: the good repose confidently under my protection, and Japan is now a rock which may not be easily shaken from its foundation.”

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A Japanese Hero in the Rain taking off his Hat to a Lady of Surpassing Beauty. (Fac-simile.)

The martial spirit which Taiko called into existence amongst his followers, exists still throughout the whole of the upper classes. Military rank takes precedence of mere literary merit, contrary to what is the case in China, and we find the Japanese of the higher classes rank far before those of the neighbouring continent in personal bravery, and they possess in a great degree that spirit of chivalry, honour, and generosity which in this country is said to define a gentleman. The Jesuit records, as well the writings of Kaempffer and others, are replete with instances illustrative of these qualities in the Japanese, and under trials of no ordinary nature. We even find in the sketches and illustrations sold in the shops, abundant proof that these qualities are still looked upon with love and interest. We see a picture of two horsemen charging a host of enemies; in another place, a single-handed knight holds a drawbridge, and flings his foes into the moat: a royal army, under a great leader, quells a host of rebels. Women are not deficient in this quality of valour, or devotion to duty; and we see the lovely daughter of a great sea-king rewarding with her hand the gallant leader of a victorious army. Better still, we see, when war’s alarms are laid aside, little touches of nature, which make the whole world a-kin. We read of Japanese Portias, who will not survive disgrace;—of others, whose gentle wit saves a husband’s life and honour; and last, but not least, we hail such proofs of the civilisation of these Eastern people as are evinced in the little sketch on the opposite page.

A distinguished general—it may be the great Taiko-sama himself, although we fear the officer is not half ugly enough—encounters a beautiful maiden, in a heavy shower of rain. She has taken shelter under some rose-bushes;—most appropriate shelter for one so lovely. But in spite of rain, and despite of rank, the gallant son of the Japanese Mars uncovers to salute one so surpassingly beautiful—whilst she, blushing, trembling, with downcast looks, acknowledges his courtesy, by presenting flowers. A charming idyl—a picture of the combination of military and social virtues worth a whole book full of type. There is, of course, a dark side to Japanese, as well as European society; we will touch upon it hereafter, but let us for the present carry these traits to their credit.


  1. Some of these may be found in the “Memorials of Japan,” edited by Thos. Rundall, Esq., and published by the Hakluyt Society.