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  • Conquering Demons: The “Kirishitan,” Japan, and the World in Early Modern Japanese Literature by Jan C. Leuchtenberger
  • Peter Nosco
Conquering Demons: The “Kirishitan,” Japan, and the World in Early Modern Japanese Literature. By Jan C. Leuchtenberger. Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan, 2013. 240pages. Hardcover $65.00; softcover $25.00.

One of the more vexing problems in the study of the social and cultural history of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Japan concerns the memory of Christianity. The common wisdom on the subject has long been that after Christianity was proscribed in the 1610s and the priests were subsequently expelled, most Christians in Japan renounced their faith, and the few who did not were driven underground. Because of the absence of priests, the Catholic Church had long tended to discount the integrity of the faith of these underground Christians. In a remarkable reversal, however, on 15 January 2014 Pope Francis said of them, “They maintained, even in secrecy, a strong spirit of community because baptism made them become one single body in Christ: they were isolated and hidden, but they were always members of [End Page 275] the people of God, of the Church.”1 Japanese scholarship on the Tokugawa state has generally exaggerated the effectiveness of the Bakuhan state’s efforts to eradicate the despised creed and has tended to represent Tokugawa religious life as if the waters simply closed over Christians, Christianity, and their memory with nary a ripple.

More recent scholarship in English has challenged this narrative, though often indirectly, by focusing on anti-Christian rhetoric of the early seventeenth century. Building on the work of George Elison’s Deus Destroyed (Harvard University Press, 1973), both Nam-lin Hur’s Death and Social Order in Tokugawa Japan (Harvard University Asia Center, 2007) and Kiri Paramore’s Ideology and Christianity in Japan (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2009) demonstrate how anti-Christian rhetoric contributed in various ways to the formation and subsequent character of the early modern Japanese state. But left unaddressed in this scholarship has been the intriguing question of whether what Charles Boxer and others have styled “Japan’s Christian Century” survived in the popular imagination of subsequent centuries, and if so, in what manner.

The volume under review adds an important dimension to this earlier scholarship by focusing on the demonized Christian/European Other in both seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Japanese literature, thereby taking us away from the world of ideology and political rhetoric and into the world of narrative and popular memory. Conquering Demons begins with the official end to the European missions to Japan in 1614 and carefully traces the image of Christian missionaries and priests—author Jan Leuchtenberger argues in favor of the Japanese term “Kirishitan”—through their caricatured appearance in three works: Baterenki (History of the Padres), Kirishitan monogatari (The Christian Story), and Kirishitan shūmon raichō jikki (True Account of the Arrival of the Kirishitan Sect in Japan). Leuchtenberger then extends the analysis into late-Edo discourse up to and including Aizawa Seishisai’s 1825 Shinron (New Theses).

Except for Shinron, the exact dates of these works are not known. Baterenki dates from around 1610, when European priests were still much in evidence. Kirishitan monogatari dates in printed form from 1639, but the fact that the Shimabara Rebellion of 1637–1638 is unmentioned in most variants of the text indicates that it was almost certainly written earlier. Kirishitan shūmon raichō jikki dates from the Kyōhō era (1716–1735), i.e., the first twenty years of the culturally liberal bakufu of Tokugawa Yoshimune (r. 1716–1745). Although their precise dates are uncertain, the sequence of these three works is crystal clear, and so in Conquering Demons we have for the first time in English a study that provides a sense of the “evolving discourses on Japan and its Others,” whereby the Kirishitan Other is transformed from “a relentless would-be conqueror to a grotesque and uncanny foreigner who uses money, magic, and medicine to lure the gullible” (pp. 4–5). The volume also includes annotated translations of Baterenki and Kirishitan shūmon raichō jikki, the latter in a variant titled Nanbanji [End Page 276] monogatari (Tale of...


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