The Fate of Christianity in 16th and 17th Century

Myths, Missions, And Mistrust:

The Fate of Christianity in 16th and 17th Century Japan

Japan’s history during the 16th and 17th century is quite spectacular and so it comes as no surprise that these centuries were also two of the most important in Japan’s history. In his article entitled, “Myths, Missions, and Mistrust: The Fate of Christianity in 16th and 17th Century Japan,” Nelson explores the failures of the Christian conversion operation that was brought to Japan by the Jesuits missionary Francis Xavier. Nelson (94) argues that one of the main reasons for the demise of Christianity was the Japanese rulers who saw the missionaries and, to a larger extent, the Christian religion, as troublesome. Perhaps this is due to the fact that Christian missionaries were overtly disrespectful of Japanese customs and they were interested in spreading Christianity as quickly as they could (e.g., the baptism of “ten to twelve thousand souls”). Still, the Christian missionaries were determined and they were simply “acting on cultural beliefs and ideologies formed in and transported from Europe” (94). But Nelson’s argument is that the missionaries made some key mistakes in their undertaking related both to “understanding Japanese priorities and in choosing appropriate strategies for their missionizing” (94). Because of this, Christianity was viewed as seditious and the rulers in Japan were not about to let these foreigners threaten their kingdoms.

Christianity during the 16th and 17th century was closely related to colonialism and this is reiterated by Nelson (2002) by the examples he gives of the Spanish and the Portuguese using Christianity to help set up their spice route. European monarchies knew the importance of trade during that time and thus they put much money and manpower into finding routes. Exploration for economic purposes led to the establishment of colonies (94). Military opportunism, also closely related to Christianity, was a constant worry to the Japanese. They were aware of the power of the Spanish and what they had done in Mexico and they were always looking for ways to defend their country from this type of domination.

Nelson (95) makes it clear that what the Christians wanted to do in Japan was something that had been done in the Americas and of what is today Cuba. He states that the purpose was not just to convert pagans but it was also “to influence the replication of European civilization and economy in its favor by working closely with (and, when necessary, leaning heavily upon) the Spanish administrators (95). Just as the conquistadors and missionaries perhaps found “few ‘intelligible’ customs or social patterns within the cultures of the Aztecs,” the same thing would undoubtedly happen in a place like Japan where life was so dramatically different than it was in Europe. Interestingly, Nelson (95) points out that the Aztecs were not completely unintelligible as a people or as a society. They were “highly organized into distinct social classes and had fashioned cities and villagessimilar to European patterns. More important for the missionaries’ work were a number of religious beliefs potentially resonant with Christianity” (95). However, unsurprisingly, the missionaries did not use the religious beliefs that were resonant with Christianity as a stepping tone to Christianity, which makes one wonder if the missionaries were taking into account any of the local customs or beliefs of the people that they were coming into contact with — either in Mexico or Japan. This is one of the most important flaws in the whole Christian conversion mission in Japan.

There were some rulers that were not only intolerant of Christianity; the ruler Oda Nobunaga was a warlord who did not like the influence of Buddhism (Ross: 98). There was so much instability in Japan at this time, according to Nelson, that it was not difficult for the Christians to simply move around and find places (like in Nobunaga’s realm) where they could spread the word of Christianity. “Japanis always revolving like a wheel; for he who today is a great lord, may be a penniless nobody tomorrow” (Boxer 1951: 74; Nelson 98). Nelson (99) points out that Nobunaga like the anti-Buddhist attitude of the missionaries; however, he also notes that the historian George Sansom argued that Nobunaga did not hate Buddhism, he simply did not like the way that it managed to interfere in political matters. Some Buddhists sects came to be wary of Christians because of Nobunaga’s liking for them; it was the fact that Nobunaga thought that the Christians knew their place and the Buddhist monks did not that was the main difference for Nobunaga’s like for one and contempt for another.

Nelson (99) suggests that, with a lot of effort on the Jesuits’ part, Christianity was slowly and surely making its way into mainstream Japan, however, Nelson states that “it is doubtful they [the missionaries] ever really trusted their converts’ religious beliefs. This was probably even confused more by the fact that Xavier had to rely upon Yajiro, a translator who worked for him, who had to use Buddhist vocabulary or terms in order to convey Christian ideas and beliefs to the Japanese (100). Nelson (99) points out that this made it very likely that Christianity was just seen as another sect of Buddhism. There is no doubt then why the missionaries would doubt their converts’ religious beliefs as it seems that they were apparently being instructed on Buddhist tenets if the vocabulary used was one associated with Buddhism.

Japan was so different from European culture at the time and it is no doubt that they found the Christian “way” strange. Nelson (100) discusses some of the negative ideas associated with Christians at the time using “the fact they ritually consumed ‘human blood’ (red wine)” as an example of how Christians could negatively be viewed. The problem again seems to be that the missionaries had little regard not only for the Japanese culture but they also seemed to disregard the fact that their rituals and beliefs may look utterly peculiar and (cannibalistic) when taken out of context.

since the Japanese were primarily centered on the communities in which they lived — where local deities were attentive to specific petitions concerning livelihood, political stability, or family life — the Jesuit message of a nonlocal, transcendent kingdom of God must have seemed even stranger than the men who espoused it. For farmers to consider themselves somehow independent of their neighbors and then to fashion this independence into an autonomous spirituality would have been impossible from a conceptual point-of-view (Endo et al. 1977: 217; Nelson 100).

Nelson is sufficiently able to express the problems that missionaries encountered while in Japan while at the same time point out some of their biggest and most fatal flaws when it came to conversion. He notes that today there is a presence of Christianity in Japan, mainly in the wedding industry at Christmas shopping time (107) and, interestingly enough, he is able to make a quite fascinating association with Christianity and its economical reasons for spreading during the 16th and 17th century and today how the “trappings of Christianity” are just “another accessory for modern consumer life” (107).

Works Cited

Nelson, John. “Myths, Missions, and Mistrust: The Fate of Christianity in 16th and 17th

Century Japan.” History and Anthropology. Volume 13 (2), pp. 93-111, 2002.

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