Christian Japanese women in the Portuguese empire: the production of normativities in Japanese lay communities (1540s-1630s)

Christian Japanese women in the Portuguese empire: the production of normativities in Japanese lay communities (1540s-1630s)

Research Project

The Portuguese overseas expansion established many points of contact around the globe, changing culture and legal practices in different parts of Africa, Brazil, India, China and Japan. Portuguese traders initiated the first contact between Japan and Europe when they arrived in Tanegashima in 1543 aboard Chinese junks. Francisco Xavier, the first Jesuit in Japan, arrived in Kagoshima in 1549, where he began preaching and establishing agreements with local leaders. Later, an increasing number of missionaries went to Japan, started their evangelical mission and attempted to forge alliances with daimyos and shoguns. Within a few decades, hundreds of thousands of Japanese Christians had been baptised; however, during this same period of time, the number of Catholic spiritual leaders from Europe present in Japan did not follow the fast growth, which made carrying out their duties increasingly difficult. As a result, Japanese Christians began to form their own lay communities and to oversee their churches through the work of both male and female lay practitioners. Although scholars have called some attention to the important position that certain laymen (such as dojuku, who played special roles in the performance of Christian rites) held in the lay brotherhoods, the role of women in the development and diffusion of Christianity and in normative practices in these communities remains to be properly explored.

I therefore particularly focus on lay brotherhoods as loci of the production of normativities. In order to contextualise the missionaries’ sources about the lives of the converted and the mission in Japan, the project goes beyond the history of the few religious emissaries, their ecclesiastical politics and intellectual concerns. Even though I analyse missionaries sources such as letters, reports, questions on daily life issues, pragmatic literature, and histories of Japan that circulated throughout the Iberian empires, my approach takes into consideration also Japanese legal history and sources in Japanese. The aim is to write a legal history based on religious practices as normative cases considering both traditions – not only those found in the works of the Jesuits, chroniclers and merchants but also the normativities present in the Japanese sources, ideas, spirituality, habits and daily life. Normativity, in this sense, should be understood to extend beyond the application of legal instruments commonly attributed to the period of analysis. Religious normativities need to be included, as religion played an important role in people’s everyday life in the 16th and 17th centuries, irrespective of whether they professed Christianity, a type of Buddhism, Shintoism or Confucianism. However, I do not look at the local legal praxeology in Japan and Portugal as separate and distinct phenomena – ie how the arrival of Christians changed the everyday life of Japanese people, and how Portuguese legal history was affected through this contact. Instead, I seek to overcome this dichotomy in a transnational perspective and ascertain how complex normative systems of different jurisdictions and traditions contributed to the emergence of practices, principles, discourses, rules and norms, particularly concerning marriage, inheritance and kinship systems, repudiation and divorce. In doing so, I want to demonstrate how the role of women in the confrarias redefined social positions and legal categories as they were culturally translated and adapted locally.

Located at the intersection of legal history, women’s history, gender studies and global history, my project relies on the uses of local sources from different jurisdictions in archives around the world, especially the pragmatic literature produced in this period, the legal tradition adopted and adapted from China through the Ritsuryō system, the normativities from other Japanese historical periods (eg Nara, Heian, Muromachi) and also the daimyōs’ local normativities. Through these lenses, I will analyse how the normative knowledge in one specific space was able to decentralise geographical points of an empire, surpass borders and nationalist discourses in order to write a women’s global legal history in the Portuguese Empire.


Image: Rakuchū rakugai zubyōbu - Scenes in and around the Capital, 17th century, 洛中洛外図屏風
Mary Griggs Burke Collection, Gift of the Mary and Jackson Burke Foundation, 2015

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