Think Piece

Valignano’s Sumario and the Early Modern Jesuit Discourse about Japan

by guest contributor Friederike Philippe

By Friederike Philippe

The early modern period was characterized by growing and more far-reaching global connections. European travelers, seafarers, merchants, and missionaries reached ever more distant places and encountered numerous ‘new’ cultures along the way. The experience of confrontation with previously unknown cultures triggered the need of re-defining and re-understanding the outline of the European worldview. In order to adjust the imago mundi, new types of travel literature were filled with representations of the Other and, simultaneously, repositionings of the Self.

One fairly new institutionalized actor within the European expansion project was the Jesuit order, founded only in 1534. The order made it its core vocation to send missionaries throughout the world to convey the Catholic doctrine. Hence, when Europeans came to know of a ‘new’ land in the very far East around 1543, Jesuit priests were the first—and for the first 30 years the only—missionaries to travel to Japan. As compensation for a lacking monastic communal life, the Jesuit order built an information network that soon operated globally from the East to the West Indies. Within this network, letters and other writings from each mission station were sent to the order’s main office in Rome, collected there, and then forwarded to the various mission provinces for further circulation and reproduction. This constant exchange of information created a sense of community and affiliation among the order’s members. Additionally, the network provided not only Jesuits with news about the different mission places, but also (lay) scholars of the European Republic of Letters: Jesuits regularly wrote mission reports containing information about, for example, country-specific customs and traditions that were decidedly intended to ‘edify’ both the order’s internal leadership and the wider European readership. Profiting from the constant access to and flow of information, it became common use for Jesuit and non-Jesuit scholars to (re-)use Jesuit writings for scholarly works about the newly ‘discovered’ countries.

One of the most renowned representatives of the Jesuit mission to Japan was Alessandro Valignano (1539-1606), who first arrived there in 1579. As appointed Visitor of the Jesuit Province of Japan, he was assigned to head the steadily growing Japan mission that counted already over 150.000 converts in the 1580s. Additionally, Valignano was tasked to write an outline of the missionary history of Japan. He was to synthesize personal knowledge acquired during his stay with reports by other Jesuits into an overarching account, which was completed in 1583 and promptly distributed via the Jesuit information network.

Portrait of Alessandro Valignano, 1599. Artist unknown.

Valignano’s Sumario de las Cosas de Japón starts with two chapters describing and evaluating the Japanese regarding traits and customs. In the first chapter, he lists traits he perceives as positive: in comparison to “not only other people of the Orient, but also … of Europe” (5), the Japanese were, for example, more polite, better educated and alphabetized, more patient and self-controlled, and, last but not least, more ‘rational’ (5-24). Pre-Enlightenment, ‘rationality’ referred to the concept of natural law, which was thought to precede any religious (Christian or non-Christian) teaching. According to this law, every human, even without ever having heard of specific Christian teachings, could instinctively distinguish good from evil and thus understand the moral concepts of Christianity. Reason, it was assumed, would lead to a natural understanding of God and his law as the only true one. By characterizing the Japanese as ‘rational’, Valignano thus sets up the missionary endeavor as strongly promising: it would be nothing less than ‘natural’ for the Japanese to follow the Christian faith. Conveniently, this assertion also served as a rhetorical tool to legitimize the continued financial, personnel, and spiritual support of the Japan mission vis-à-vis the Catholic Church in Rome and the Portuguese crown, as the Jesuits held a dual function as representatives for both institutions.

Moreover, all the character traits of the Japanese mentioned in Valignano’s description refer to a specific set of values that can be dubbed ‘Jesuit-Catholic.’ Jesuit spirituality embraced education, honesty, piety, patience, and humility not only as reformed expressions of Catholic faith. In the context of Catholic Reform and confessionalization, Jesuits also propagated their spirituality as the only ‘true’ Christian way of life. By attributing traits to the Japanese that clearly correspond to the Jesuit values of ‘true’ faith, Valignano turns them into images of ideal Christians – and thus of the Jesuits themselves— and sets them positively apart not only from other non-Christians, but also from non-Tridentine Catholics. Considering that the Sumario was intended for publication in denominationally divided Europe, it becomes clear that Valignano intended for the reader to take the Japanese as a positive example for ‘true’ Christian values. The ethnographic description was thus conceived and constructed from the context of an inherently European conflict. Valignano instrumentalized his interpretation to not only take a position regarding the intra-European denominational conflict, but also to actively influence it.

After seemingly putting the Japanese on a pedestal, though, Valignano directly relativizes their high standing at the end of the Sumario’s first chapter: While “it cannot be denied that the Japanese people are noble, courteous, of very good natural disposition and intellect, so much so that in many things they are ahead of … the people of Europe,” they are nevertheless “far inferior to them in others” (24). This ‘inferiority’ is discussed in more detail in the second chapter. Here, Valignano associates the Japanese with six of the major Christian sins—pride, irascibility, envy, lust, avarice, and gluttony—as well as with the breaking of several biblical commandments, namely idolatry, manslaughter, adultery, lying, and greed (25-33). Although the Jesuit self-image as embodiment of ‘right’ and ‘true’ morals functions again as reference point for evaluating Japanese traits, this time the evaluated traits clearly contradict biblical values and the ‘correct’ way of life. As a result, the description of the Japanese centers on striking otherness as they are pejoratively characterized as having fallen into a blasphemous, heretical way of life and thus constitute an explicitly negative example that is not to follow.

What follows, however, is a rhetorical twist, in which Valignano claims that the ‘negative’ traits of the Japanese are due to the ‘bad’ influence of Buddhism and Buddhist monks (28). Despite their disposition to ‘rational’ thinking, the Japanese can thus be rescued from the “darkness” with the “light of the Holy Gospel” (28). Valignano accentuates that ‘sinfulness’ is not inherent to the Japanese nature, and that overcoming the ‘negative’ influence of the Buddhist monks is therefore possible—again a rhetorical tool to emphasize the mission’s prospects of success und secure material support.

The argumentative outline of the two chapters reveals the complexity of Valignano’s ethnographic description. Instead of being presented as a monolithic entity, the Japanese are broken down into two categories: Japanese laypeople, who can be ‘saved’, and monks as ‘lost souls.’ Moreover, the Japanese laypeople are simultaneously depicted as both a positive, ideal-Catholic and a negative, heretical example. This leads to their concurrent and paradoxical hierarchical placement both above all other non-Christians and (non-Tridentine) Europeans and below Christian Europeans. Following the theory of Third Space, the production of ethnographic knowledge is performed in a discursive interstice, in which unambiguous markers of difference are suspended and the Other hybridized. As a result, the Japanese can never be located within the European because of the ascribed otherness and associated hierarchization. But they can neither be clearly located within foreign Japan because of the ascribed similarity to or even sameness with the Catholic-European self. Finally, and more broadly, conflict-ridden Europe appeared just as heterogenous as Japan in the Jesuit worldview as exemplified by the Sumario: a homogeneous cultural community of Christian Europeans at the hierarchical top of all ‘civilized nations’ was only an ideal (to be striven for) and disturbed by both the Reformation and ‘misguided’ pre-Tridentine Catholicism.

At the end of the second chapter, Valignano finally concludes: “The Japanese have customs and habits so different from those of all other peoples that it seems they have made a deliberate effort not to be like any people. What this looks like cannot be imagined, … the difference and contrariety is so great that it cannot be described and understood” (33-34). Drawing a picture of utter contrariness that is unimaginable, indescribable, and thus incomprehensible for Europeans, Valignano demonstrates how the Jesuits’ own horizon of knowledge, oriented along post-Tridentine values and inner-European contexts, complicates and ultimately limits the categorization of the Japanese. As a result, the Japanese are put into a special position: Because of the paradoxical simultaneity of seeming resemblance with and striking difference from ‘Orientals’, Europeans, and (even) Tridentine-Catholics, the Japanese contrariness is deemed incompatible with Jesuit categories of knowledge and their otherness as absolute.

Excluding the Japanese from European-Catholic categories of knowledge ultimately serves Valignano as a basis to justify his restructuring of the missionary work in Japan toward accommodative methods as the only way to ensure the continuity and success of the mission in Japan in the Sumario (230). In addition to contextualizing the ethnographic description within inter-European denominational conflicts, he also presents them against the backdrop of conflicts within the Catholic Church regarding institutional requirements and restrictions for missionary work. The descriptions in the Sumario thus also served to secure Valignano’s own position as having the authority to make decisions individually on the basis of local experience and not only after consultation with Church superiors in Rome. Valignano perceived those as ignorant of local conditions und thus inapt to make appropriate decisions – a position he would later defend, not without success, several times to his superiors.[1] Besides the goals of educating a European readership about the Japanese, missionizing them in favor of Tridentine Catholicism, and ensuring support for the mission, Valignano’s interpretation of the Japanese was shaped by his own power-political goals within the Jesuit order.

While the descriptions in the Sumario were strongly purpose-bound and connected to mission-political goals, the broader Jesuit stereotyping narrative about the Japanese as a constitutive Other resonated deeply with European intellectuals and exercised authority over European discourses about the Japanese for well over 100 years, even when decontextualized from its missionary and order-internal context. Only during the Enlightenment was it questioned, with none other than Voltaire complaining in his Essai sur les Mœurs: “I don’t know why the Japanese have been called our moral antipodes; there are no such antipodes among peoples who cultivate their reason.” Valignano might have, above all, self-servingly sought to emancipate himself from restrictions imposed by the order and the papacy, as well as to establish moral authority over non-Europeans and European non-Catholics alike. Ultimately, his Sumario is a striking example of the functionality of the Jesuit order’s information network and how the latter enabled ethnographic information produced outside of Europe by one actor to become authoritative, canonized knowledge within the early modern Republic of Letters.

[1] See confidential notes about negotiations of P. Gil de la Mata with Superior General Claudio Aquaviva, Archivium Societatis Jesu Romanum, Section Japan 3, 76, quoted here from: Schütte (1951), 364.

Friederike Philippe is a doctoral fellow at Global Intellectual History Graduate School (Freie Universität Berlin). Her research focuses on early modern global knowledge production and circulation networks with a special emphasis on European- Japanese intercultural encounters.

Featured Image: Kanō Naizen (1570-1616), folding screen depicting the arrival of Europeans at a shore in Japan, ca. 1600. Courtesy of the Kobe City Museum.

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