Jesuits in Japan: Fact from Fiction!

In my debut Shinobi mystery, Claws of the Cat, ninja detective Hiro Hattori must protect–and literally save the life–of Father Mateo Avila de Santos, a Portuguese Jesuit working as a missionary to Kyoto’s lower classes.

Father Mateo is fictitious, but real Jesuit missionaries were living and working in Kyoto in 1565.

The first Portuguese Jesuits arrived in Japan in 1549, and shortly thereafter, Father Francis Xavier established Japan’s first mission, at Kagoshima. Ten years later, after an audience with Jesuit Father Gaspar Vilela (who appears in the Shinobi novels as Father Mateo’s superior, even though Father Mateo’s work is separate from the historical Jesuit mission in Kyoto), the Japanese shogun granted permission for Jesuit priests to live and proselytize in Kyoto.

Father Vilela and a handful of other Jesuit priests established a “church” and a mission in Kyoto, but despite their efforts Christianity remained a fringe religion, frowned upon by the ruling samurai class. In 1563, a samurai named Matsunaga Hisahide (who had ulterior motives for supporting the Jesuits’ work) arranged a series of religious debates that helped promote acceptance of Christianity among the samurai.

Father Vilela directed the Jesuit mission in Kyoto (with periodic visits to other parts of Japan) until the autumn of 1565, when political unrest caused the Japanese Emperor to expel all Christian missionaries from the Japanese capital.

Father Mateo and his “mission to the commoners” are creations of my imagination, designed to ensure that Hiro and Father Mateo had the freedom to investigate murders without departing or detracting from the well-documented efforts of Father Vilela and the other Jesuits working in Kyoto in 1565. By creating a fictitious, separate “church,” I can maintain the integrity of the storyline, and the characters, without altering or disrespecting the historical Jesuits who worked (and in many cases, died) in Japan.

Within those parameters, however, I tried to make Father Mateo and his missionary work as historically accurate, and true to the Jesuits’ philosophy and practices, as I could.

The existence of a smaller, separate mission like Father Mateo’s actually makes historical sense in terms of medieval Japanese culture and the Jesuit philosophy of evangelization through cultural immersion and understanding. Given the radical separation between samurai and members of the “lower” social classes, the Jesuits could easily have permitted a separate mission like Father Mateo’s because it would permit a priest to communicate with commoners who would not have been comfortable – or welcome – in the presence of samurai.

Portuguese Jesuits continued to work in Japan after their expulsion from Kyoto in 1565 until the Tokugawa shoguns expelled all foreigners from Japan in 1639. Some returned to the capital, while others continued to work in other cities or in the villages and countryside. Historically, the Jesuits’ impact on Japan is reflected in Japanese art and culture, and though Japan did not become a “Christian nation” as Father Xavier hoped, the Jesuit presence in Japan helped create a bridge that bound Japan to Europe, and opened trade, in ways that ensured the island nation would never again be thoroughly isolated from the larger world.

Boston College recently hosted a display of Japanese art and artifacts from this period. If you missed it in person you can see some nice images on the YouTube video of the exhibit.