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  • Women Religious Leaders in Japan's Christian Century, 1549–1650
  • Julie Robarts
Ward, Haruko Nawata, Women Religious Leaders in Japan's Christian Century, 1549–1650 (Women and Gender in the Early Modern World), Aldershot, Ashgate, 2009; hardback; pp. 422; 12 b/w illustrations; R.R.P. £65.00; ISBN 9780754664789.

Haruko Nawata Ward's work is a study of the apostolic ministries of Japanese women converts to Christianity during the Portuguese Jesuit mission to Japan, which began with the visit of Francis Xavier in 1549. She describes the personal, social and religious struggles of women who became proselytizers and catechists working alongside and supporting the Jesuits. One of the reasons the Christian faith was attractive to these women was that it offered the hope of salvation equally for women as for men, while Shinto-Buddhist beliefs held that after death most women would suffer eternally in the hell of 'blood-lake' (ketsubon) due to the impurity of women's bodies as evidenced by the blood of menstruation and child-birth. State suppression of Christianity began in 1587, but the Edict of Expulsion of the Padres was only enforced after 1612, to be followed by several decades of deportations and executions of Japanese Christians. By 1640 there was little trace in the urban centres of the Christian communities that had grown in some cases to the tens of thousands (around 60,000 in Nagasaki and surrounding areas in 1583). Some communities fled to mountainous regions, however, where Christian traditions survived into the twentieth century.

Ward argues that, contrary to Jesuit policies and some official reports sent back to Europe that prescribed a very limited role for women, the Society of Jesus found women invaluable to the establishment and growth of the mission and the conversion of Japanese women and men in every social rank. Women converts who exercised leadership in the missionary enterprise were most frequently of high social rank, highly literate, and versed in Shinto-Buddhist dialectic and scholarship. In accordance with their practices of cultural accommodation, Jesuits made use of Zen methods of disputation [End Page 259] between teacher and devotee and cited authorities in the creation of Christian catechisms and other religious literature in Japanese, with women featuring as protagonists in central texts such as the Myōtei mondō. Ward seeks women's own understanding of their new vocations in the mainly Portuguese Jesuit literature and documents such as Luís Fróis' História de Japão, paying careful attention to their former religious beliefs and practices, and the volatile political climate of the period. She also draws on the fragmentary evidence of the lives of her protagonists available in Japanese chronicles.

After an introduction, the work is divided into four parts, each focusing on a type of ministry: Nuns, Witches, Catechists and Sisters. The study relies on biographical and historical detail to relate the stories of individual women, and their relationships with the Jesuits, their families and dependents. Each section of the book begins with a helpful preface to introduce the protagonists and main arguments and ends with an epilogue summarizing the writer's conclusions.

The three chapters in part one examine the lives of women who chose monastic vocations, living in community: Hibaya Monica (c.1549–77), Naitō Julia (c.1566–1627) and her community in exile, the Beatas of Manila (1615–46). Part two is a study of the wife of the diamō Ōtomo Sōrin, whom the Jesuits represented as a witch, and named Jezebel due to her efforts to resist the conversion to Christianity of her family and court of Bungo. Ōtomo-Nata Jezebel (whose own name was not recorded in any surviving sources) affirmed her identity as a priestess of the Shinto-Buddhist sect of Hachiman (p. 119). Part three looks at Hosokawa Tama Gracia (1563–1600) who was recognized by Frois as a great scholar and teacher (p. 205), and other women catechists in her circle and beyond: Kihohara Ito Maria (n.d.), Catarina of Tanba (c.1515–c.1587), Kyōgoko Maria (c.1543–1618) and Kyakyjin Magelena (d. 1600). Part four concerns the works of mercy and ministry to the poor undertaken by women in the...


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pp. 259-261
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