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  • The Japanese Mission to Europe, 1582-1590: The Journey of Four Samurai Boys Through Portugal, Spain and Italy
  • Adriana Boscaro
The Japanese Mission to Europe, 1582-1590: The Journey of Four Samurai Boys Through Portugal, Spain and Italy. By Michael Cooper. Kent, U.K.: Global Oriental, 2005. xix + 240 pages. Hardcover £45.00.

What did the Western world know about Japan before the first half of the sixteenth century? Nothing, apart from the fact that Marco Polo in 1299 had written about a land called Cipangu which he had never visited, but which he described as rich in gold. This motivated cartographers to draw on their maps, mappa mundi, and globes an island of varying shapes surrounded by small dots (Sebastian Münster in his 1546 map relates that it is an archipelago of 7,448 islands) and with the unambiguous caption: "This island is called Zipangri (or Cipangu, Cipango) by the Venetian Marco Polo."

The situation began to change from the middle of the sixteenth century with the arrival of the Jesuit missionaries, who had established themselves in Goa on the western coast of India and reached Japan from there. Francis Xavier was the first to land, in Kagoshima, in southern Kyushu, in 1549, and he was soon followed by others. At the beginning the Jesuits sent back to Europe short reports, and then long letters, in which they described the way of life of the country, gave political news, tried to understand habits and customs, and reported on the difficulties and successes of their missionary work. Luckily for us, once the mission had been established, the Jesuits had to send a yearly report to Rome on everything that had happened the year before: these writings are a mine of information on every aspect of Japanese life. But although they were printed in Latin, Italian, French, and German, these letters reached only a limited number of readers, and most Europeans remained unaware of the existence of a land called Japan.

In 1585, however, an event occurred that brought Japan to wide attention: a delegation of four young boys from the island of Kyushu arrived in Europe to pay homage to King Philip II of Spain and Pope Gregory XIII. The aim of the organizer of the delegation, the Italian Alessandro Valignano, S.J., Visitor of the Jesuit missions in Asia, was twofold: on the one hand Valignano wanted to demonstrate to the Pope the achievements of the Jesuits in Japan, obtain financial aid, and renew the Jesuits' monopoly on missionizing the archipelago; on the other, he hoped to make the [End Page 412] Japanese aware of Europe. The Jesuits complained that the Japanese (not understanding the meaning of their missionary work) thought they had come to Japan to escape from an even poorer life in Europe. To have some Japanese witness the splendor and richness of the European courts would serve, Valignano hoped, to change such opinions. Known as Tenshō shōnen shisetsu (The Boys' Embassy of the Tenshō Period) or Tenshō ken'ō shisetsu (The Tenshō Embassy to Europe), the small group of some ten people headed by the Jesuit Diogo de Mesquita (Valignano could not guide the mission through Europe as he had wished, but waited in Goa for their return) toured Portugal, Spain, and Italy for twenty months in 1584-1585, on a journey lasting eight years and five months from Nagasaki and back.

Valignano originally intended the embassy to be a modest affair. For reasons that had nothing to do with the Japanese themselves, however, but rather the political relationship between the Italian city-states and the Pope, the journey from Lisbon to Madrid, Florence, Rome, Ferrara, Venice, and Milan resulted in triumphal cavalcades, and the "ambassadors" were treated like royalty. As Donald F. Lach later wrote: "That the [boys] put Japan on the map for most Europeans is beyond doubt" (quoted p. x).

The present book, the first complete and annotated report of the whole journey, offers a detailed account of the background of the embassy and the boys' experiences. To the author, Michael Cooper, the former editor of Monumenta Nipponica and a scholar trained in Japanese and Portuguese, we already owe a...


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