|Below: Tokugawa Ieyasu (left) and one of the many fruits of his rule (right)
On 14 February 1614, Tokugawa Ieyasu, “retired” Shogun and de-facto ruler of Japan, promulgated his Christian Expulsion Edict. How ironic that he chose Saint Valentine’s Day to set in motion the juggernaut that would, like a steamroller, smash into oblivion every public, visible manifestation of Christianity—that “religion of love and union” that his predecessor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, had first attacked in 1587 with his own Expulsion Edict.
Hideyoshi had decreed: “I do not want this religion: a religion of love and union, which is therefore harmful for this kingdom.” To press his point, he crucified 26 Christian men and boys on a mountainside overlooking Nagasaki bay on 5 February 1597.
His successor Ieyasu’s 1614 edict declared: “the Kirishitan band have come to Japan … longing to disseminate an evil law … so that they may change the government of the country, and obtain possession of the land.”[i] In reality, though, far from aiming to ‘change the government of the country, and obtain possession of the land,’ the Jesuit mission to Japan strove to win souls to Christ so that the people of Japan themselves might ‘obtain possession’ of Heaven.
The question of whether or not the men bringing Christ to Japan were plotting to “disseminate an evil law” the ruler might well have left to the judgment of the Japanese people themselves. Saint Francis Xavier records that:
The bonzes [i.e. the native Buddhist clergy] were much displeased at [the mission’s success], and when they were present at the sermons and saw that a great number became Christians daily, they began to accuse them severely for leaving their ancestral religion to follow a new faith. But the others [i.e. the converts] answered that they embraced the Christian law because they had made up their minds that it was more in accordance with nature than their own, and because they found that we [Christian missionaries] satisfied their questions while the bonzes did not. [ii]
Indeed, Saint Francis Xavier held the Japanese in such high regard that, after his providential arrival in Kagoshima on 15 August 1549, he was inspired to report:
By the experience which we have had of this land of Japan, I can inform you thereof as follows,–Firstly the people whom we have met so far, are the best who have as yet been discovered, and it seems to me that we shall never find among heathens another race to equal the Japanese. [iii]
He found no other race their equal because of the disposition of the Japanese to embrace the truth, once it had been clearly presented to them and all their doubts confuted.
Furthermore, the mission’s goal was clearly not to ‘change the government of the country,’ and the missionaries’ reward was just as clearly not to ‘obtain possession of the land’ as Ieyasu had falsely claimed. Rather, their goal was to change human hearts and lead sinners to Christ, and their reward was the joyful anticipation of hearing: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant … enter thou into the joy of thy lord’[iv] once they themselves had passed from this life into Heaven. Another letter of Saint Francis Xavier’s makes this clear:
The labours which are undergone for the conversion of a people so rational, so desirous to know the truth and be saved, result in very sweet fruit to the soul. Even at Amanguchi [Yamaguchi], when the King allowed us to preach the faith and a vast concourse of people gathered round us, I had so much joy and vigour and delight of heart, as I never experienced in my life before. … These things made me so overflow with joy, that I lost all sense of suffering. Would to God that these divine consolations which God so graciously gives us in the midst of our labours might not only be related by me, but also some experience of them be sent to our European Universities, to be tasted as well as heard of! Then many of those young men given up to study would turn all their cares and desires to the conversion of infidels, if they could once taste the delight of the heavenly sweetness which comes from such labours, and if the world knew and was aware how well the souls of the Japanese are prepared to receive the Gospel, I am sure that many learned men would finish their studies, canons, priests, and prelates even, would abandon their rich livings, to change an existence full of bitterness and anxiety for so sweet and pleasant a life. And to gain this happiness they would not hesitate to set sail even to Japan.[v]
Setting sail to Japan from Portugal in the mid-sixteenth century involved great risk: besides the dangers of scurvy, amoebic dysentery, food poisoning, starvation, shipboard fires, and countless communicable diseases, there were typhoons, shipwreck, and pirates to be feared. No wonder then that time and time again, when their Japanese hosts asked the missionaries why they had braved such dangers to sail to the very end of the earth, to faraway Japan, the answer so astonished the natives: these fearless men had come to save human souls, pure and simple.
Rather than ‘longing to disseminate an evil law … so that they may change the government of the country, and obtain possession of the land,’ then, the Jesuit mission that opened Japan to Christ sought a much more lasting reward, an eternal one, as described by Christ Himself: ‘But lay up to yourselves treasures in heaven: where neither the rust nor moth doth consume, and where thieves do not break through, nor steal. For where thy treasure is, there is thy heart also.’[vi]
Where Saint Francis Xavier’s heart and treasure were, he himself made clear in closing his letter of 29 January 1552:
So now I will end though I know not how to end when I am writing to my dearest fathers and brothers, and about my joys in Japan too, the greatness of which I could never express, how ever much I might wish to do so. I end my letter then, begging and imploring God to vouchsafe to unite us some day in the bliss of heaven. Amen.[vii]
To unite him with all his brethren in Christ, that is, including—if God would grant his dearest hope—every last precious human soul in Japan.
[i] C.R. Boxer, The Christian Century in Japan. (Manchester: Carcanet, 1993) p. 318.
[ii] St. Francis Xavier: Letter from Japan, to the Society of Jesus at Goa, 1551
[iii] St. Francis Xavier: Letter from Kagoshima, Japan, to the Society of Jesus at Goa, November 1549.
[iv] Matthew 25:21, Douay Rheims Bible, excerpt.
[v] The Life and Letters of St. Francis Xavier, v. 2, Henry J. Coleridge, S.J., ed. (London: Burns and Gates, 1872.) p. 349.
[vi] Matthew 6:20-21, Douay Rheims Bible.
[vii] The Life and Letters of St. Francis Xavier, v. 2, Henry J. Coleridge, S.J., ed. (London: Burns and Gates, 1872.) p. 349