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The island where the West met Japan

The encounter between Japanese and Westerners at Tanegashima would soon lead to a popular Christian rebellion

The island where the West met Japan

The Shimabara Rebellion broke out at the end of 1637. (Image: YouTube)

When Francis Xavier arrived in Japan, he wrote many letters to his old university friends, including Father Simon Rodriguez — then adviser to the king of Portugal — with the aim of warning the kings of Portugal and Spain that they had no right to invade Japan and thus transform it into yet another European colony.

A few years earlier Portuguese sailors had visited Japan and heard rumors about significant silver deposits in the country. This news made Japan a coveted prey of colonial powers. The reason that Xavier was advocating preventing the Iberian kingdoms, with their powerful armies, from transforming Japan into a new land of conquest was the finding that the indigenous peoples never obtained any kind of material benefit from the occupation of foreign powers.

The Navarrese Catholic missionary didn't know it yet, but the Japanese did obtain one material benefit from the foreigners. That was firearms. And those firearms were used against Xavier’s own mission.

Tanegashima is an island to the southeast of Kyushu, stretching 60 kilometers from north to south and 20 kilometers from west to east. This is where Westerners and Japanese first met and you can still visit the exact spot today, although not many come, and even fewer make the long walk down the steps to the actual beach.

What happened some five centuries ago here was not just a mere encounter between two cultures; it was an exchange of information, specifically technical information that ended up changing the whole Japanese culture.

The Japanese were amazed at the foreigners, but not so much for their strange looks

On Sept. 23, 1543, a Chinese junk approached the Tanegashima shore. The ship was dispersed by a storm to Cape Kadokura, the southernmost tip of the island. It moored in a small cove, Maenohama, where it was spotted by some peasants.

The chief of the village was called to the shore and here he met a Chinese man who was accompanied by two silly-looking fellows, as from then on the Portuguese and other Westerners would be always represented by Japanese artists as having big noses and rough beards.

Here the party started communicating in their only common language — Chinese characters drawn on the sandy beach, which is still the same way of communication in China between different groups speaking mutually incomprehensible dialects. They usually draw the Chinese characters on paper.

And so the Chinese mediator for the Westerners did. And he wrote the words that stand for “southern barbarians,” an epithet the Chinese bestowed on the Europeans when they first met them.

The Japanese were amazed at the foreigners, not so much for their strange looks but because of a loud noise that emanated from a long oblong-shaped instrument they brought with them — an arquebus, a forerunner of the shotgun.

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The Japanese immediately copied this instrument, ensuring that not only would their country be inaccessible but also serving as a threat to those very foreigners who first sold it to them, especially when they arrived as missionaries and, as Francis Xavier did, started converting Japanese by the thousands.

The majority of the rebels came from the island of Amakusa, where the Christian faith had deeply taken root

One incident in particular links the legacy of Christianity in Japan and the use of the gun. It is the Shimabara Rebellion, led by a man named Shiro.

Today, the statue of Shiro is the first image we see in the small port of the town of Onike on the island of Amakusa. In addition to the samurai kimono and the katana held in his left hand, Shiro wears a large ruff (always present in Japanese representations of merchants who came from Portugal) and a cross around his neck.

The majority of the rebels came from the island of Amakusa, where the Christian faith had deeply taken root thanks to the conversion of a local daimyo (lord).

The revolt broke out at the end of 1637. It seems that the trigger was the killing of a tax commissioner by a farmer who had witnessed the killing of his family in the barbaric manner in which certain operations were conducted. When taxes could not be collected because the peasants simply did not even have enough to eat, they were punished with torture.

The practice of mino-odori, the dance of the mino, was one of these terrible punishments. The unfortunates were undressed, their hands and feet were tied, they were then surrounded with straw busts and set on fire. The victims due to atrocious suffering threw themselves on the ground trying in vain to put out the fire, thus giving the impression of a macabre dance.

Out of 30,000 rebels, not even one survived

The rebels — a thousand peasants, a quarter of whom were women — led by Shiro headed to Tomioka castle where the daimyo resided. But the attack was repulsed. Overwhelmed by government forces using the newly introduced firearms, the rebels were forced to cross the strait by boat to take refuge within the perimeter of Hara castle on Shimabara island. At this point other peasants joined the rebels, so much so that their numbers reached 30,000.

They resisted until April the following year. The final assault was carried out, followed by three days of massacres. Out of 30,000 rebels, not even one survived. Thousands of severed heads were hoisted on spikes all around the castle as a warning to future rebellions.

In the Christian museum of Amakusa, you can now admire a replica of the banner (the original is in the warehouse and is exhibited only once a year) used by the rebels during the siege of Hara castle. From the unusual square shape of about one meter on each side, it was to symbolize unity and determination but also the unwavering faith of the rebels.

In the end, the rebels were only subdued thanks to the very noisy instrument that two Portuguese merchants brought along naively unaware of the future consequences.

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