Christian Japanese in the Portuguese Empire: circulation and production of normativities in Japanese lay communities (1540s-1630s)

Christian Japanese in the Portuguese Empire: circulation and 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 arrived in Tanegashima in 1543 aboard Chinese junks, and in doing so, they initiated the first contact between Japan and Europe. 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, over 300,000 Japanese Christians had been baptised; however, during this same period of time, the number of Catholic spiritual leaders from Europe present in Japan remained more or less the same, which made carrying out their duties increasingly difficult. As a result, the Japanese Christians began to form their own lay communities, oversee their churches, and formed groups of lay practitioners such as dojuku, kanbo and jihiyakusha, ie laymen with special roles in the performance of Christian rites. In a part of the world dominated by various forms of Buddhism and Confucionism, after their conversion, Japanese Christians communities became more influential and challenged the organisation of a new Japan unified by Ieyasu Tokugawa and his shogunate. Within a few decades, this amalgamation of conversions, political arrangements in a ‘land of warring states’ (sengoku), and general instability transformed the political landscape into a unique structure of governance consisting of samurais, daimyos, Jesuit leaders, a bishop and shoguns.

My project aims to uncover a legal history from the viewpoint of the common people and their legal cultures from the 1540s to the 1630s — one that goes beyond the history of the few religious emissaries, their ecclesiastical politics and intellectual concerns. I am particularly interested in the production and circulation of normativities in the Christian Japanese lay coommunities, 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, embraces in its concept a definition beyond the application of legal instruments commonly attributed to the period of analysis. Given that religion in the 16th and 17th centuries played a different role in quotidian life through Christianism and the Catholic Church, on the one hand, and Buddhism and Confucionism, on the other, I do not look at the local legal praxeology as two separate and distinct phenomena – eg how the arrival of Christians changed the everyday life of Japanese people, or how Portuguese legal history was affected through this contact. Instead, I seek to go beyond this dichotomy and ascertain how complex normative systems of different jurisdictions and traditions contributed to the emergence of unique normative practices.

I want to question the formation of a global empire itself, the fixation and relativisation of local powers and governance in a space and time under a peculiar process of unification by a bakufu. The definition of this space has to consider that missionaries and captains from Europe and Christian Japanese in such a distant place were in a close contact with other parts of the Iberian empires, such as Lisbon, Rome, Manila, Goa, Nagasaki and Macau (the latter of which’s Diocese served as the headquarters of the Portuguese Padroado in the East). In order to make this complexity visible, I will entangle sources from different jurisdictions in local archives around the world, especially the pragmatic literature produced in this period, the legal tradition adopted from China through the Ritsuryō system(never literally applied to Japan), and also the daimyōs local normativities. Through these lenses, I will analyse how multinormativities in one specific space was able to decentralise geographical points of an empire as well as manifest plural governance in order to write a global legal history.

Image: Arrival of the Europeans in Japan, Nanban Byōbo (lit. “Southern Barbarian screens”), Edo period, first quarter 17th century, Mary Griggs Burke Collection, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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