How will these resources help you?

This topic may not be an obvious one, yet it sheds light on how Catholicism spread over the world. The experiences of the Jesuits in Japan are also interesting as they show just how complex cross-cultural encounters were at the time. When the first Jesuit missionaries arrived in Japan in 1549, they found a highly developed society. Many of the people held Shinto or Buddhist beliefs that were part of their daily lives. Francis Xavier, a Navarrese Catholic missionary who was co-founder of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), established himself in Japan (and other parts of Asia) with the aim of converting local populations to Christianity. Under his leadership, Catholicism spread on the island, but it was not an easy process and was met with resistance. Tensions rose between the Japanese state and the Jesuits. Japanese people who converted to Catholicism were seen as traitors and persecuted alongside the Jesuits. Using these fascinating resources, which consider both the European and Japanese perspectives, you can start interesting discussions on cross-religious and cultural encounters during the early modern period. 

An overview

The Japanese Martyrs

by Alec Ryrie, Gresham College, (online lecture, 11 March 2020)

In this video, we are given an overview of what happened in Japan when the Jesuits arrived. The lecture will allow teachers and students alike to fully comprehend the complexity of this topic. A good way to use this resource would be to watch the first half in one session and discuss the different topics raised: travel, religious missions, how European people viewed Japan, how the Jesuits targeted people, and the importance of power structures and the respect of Japanese ways. In another session, the second half of the video could lead to a discussion on how Christianity was perceived and persecuted in Japan. Ryrie engages with the themes of persecution, violence and atrocities. These themes can be linked to what was happening in Europe at the time with the French religious civil wars and later – in the seventeenth century – with the persecution of Puritans throughout Europe. 

A useful resource

They came to Japan: An Anthology of European Reports on Japan, 1543–1640

by Michael Cooper (edited by), published by The University of Michigan Press, (1995), 9780939512737

This anthology features carefully collected European reports on Japan between 1543 and 1640. These descriptions of Japanese society, life and culture are vital to understanding the dynamic between the Europeans and the Japanese. Using this resource, you could divide students into groups to discuss specific points and topics, such as ‘daily life and customs’, ‘art and culture’, or even ‘Buddhism’, where you could discuss how Europeans perceived this unfamiliar religion that was so entrenched in the Japanese way of life.

A fictional case study

Silence (film)

(2016), directed by Martin Scorsese

This film focuses on the experiences of 17th century Portuguese Jesuit priests, whose goal was to help maintain and spread Catholicism in Japan. The story is set in the time when it was common for Japanese converts to live in hiding to avoid the persecution that resulted from the Shimabara Rebellion against the shogun ruler. The film shows their struggles, including persecution of Catholic priests and converts by the Japanese authorities. Alongside the two other sources mentioned above, the film will help students understand the complexity behind the spread of Catholicism in Japan but also, and most importantly, it will help them to gain a better understanding of what cross-cultural/religious encounters really meant during the early modern period. 

Further materials

Deus Destroyed: The Image of Christianity in Early Modern Japan (Chapters 1 and 4) by George Elison, published by Harvard University Press, (1988), 9780674199620 Find this book
Dr Estelle Paranque is Assistant Professor in Early Modern History at the New College of the Humanities, part of the Northeastern University Global Network. She has published extensively on Elizabeth I of England, Catherine de Medici, the French kings and queen consorts and Anglo-French diplomatic relations. She is the author of Elizabeth I of England Through Valois Eyes: Power, Diplomacy and Representations in the reign of the queen, 1558–1588 (2019) and Blood, Fire, and Gold: Elizabeth I of England and her French rival Catherine de Medici (2022).

Text © Estelle Paranque, 2021-2023