By Robert Schreiter, C.PP.S.


Xavier in Japan

Japan—or the "Silver Islands" as it was called—had only been discovered by the Portuguese in the year when Xavier arrived in Asia (1542). The stories about its wealth and the sophistication of its society dazzled many—Xavier among them. In 1547, when Xavier had arrived in Malacca, a Portuguese sea captain whom he knew, Jorge Alvarez, introduced him to a young Japanese man who had accompanied him from Japan. His name was Anjiro. He was of the Samurai caste, and had committed a murder in Japan. He had first been confined to a monastery, but had escaped and taken refuge on Alvarez’s ship and had sailed with him in 1546 to Malacca. The weight of his past sins bore down upon him, and Alvarez had suggested he meet the "holy Padre," as Xavier was known. He already spoke some Portuguese. The encounter with Anjiro and Anjiro’s accounts of Japan immediately enchanted Xavier, and brought him to set his sights on bringing the gospel to Japan. As Georg Schurhammer, the great scholar of Xavier’s life and work, put it:

…during this brief time he experienced with Anjiro and especially with Alvarez…had opened a view into an entirely new world: a great, populous land, a highly educated people, intellectually curious, receptive to the truth of Christianity, approachable on the grounds of reason—completely different from the ignorant fisherfolk of South India or the headhunters of the Moluccan Islands. Here Christ was calling! (op. cit., 8).

Early in 1548, Xavier wrote back to Europe:

It seems to me that within two years I or another of the Society will go to Japan. In the meantime, Angero [sic] will learn better Portuguese, and we will instruct him in the faith. We will translate the entirety of Christian doctrine, with an extensive explanation of the articles of faith into the language of Japan, since Angero can write the Japanese characters very well.5

For Xavier, nothing surpassed Japan as a possible place for bringing the gospel. In writing to the entire Society of Jesus, he exclaimed: "They are the best people that have yet been discovered, and it seems to me that never will another people be found among unbelievers that surpass the Japanese."6 In April 1549 Xavier set sail for Japan with two other Jesuits, Anjiro (now baptized and a professed Jesuit Brother with the name Paul of the Holy Faith), two other Japanese, and two servants. He arrived on the coast of Japan on 15 August. He had mapped out his campaign for bringing the gospel to Japan. He would go first to the Emperor, and then to the universities to engage intellectuals. There he would also study Buddhist texts in order to understand what would be needed to win the people of Japan for Christ. As soon as the ground for evangelization had been laid, Xavier planned to call upon Europe, especially his confreres in Coimbra and Rome, to leave their universities to engage the scholars in Japan. (He would appeal especially for Dutchmen and Germans, since one of the major universities, at Bandou, lay in the north. Those denizens of Northern Europe would be able to endure the cold there.)

We see in Xavier’s plan a combination of both a time-honored mode of evangelization and a new one. Much of the conversion of Europe had involved bringing tribal and political leaders to Christ, with the understanding that their subjects would then follow. He intended to use the same strategy in Japan. What he did not know was that, at that time, the Emperor was overshadowed in political power by other warlords and especially the Daimyo. During this period (known as the Tokugawa period in Japan), the Emperor would not gain preeminence until the restoration of the Emperor Meiji in 1868. Upon arriving in Japan, Xavier quickly adjusted his strategy on that front. Eventually, he did meet the Emperor Yoshitaka at Yamaguchi, and presented himself as the envoy of the governor of India, offering the Emperor gifts of such novelty and lavishness as the Japanese had never seen: a great chest with elaborate clockwork, a glockenspiel, two pairs of spectacles, a mirror, brocaded garments, books, and Portuguese wine. When the Emperor wanted to reciprocate with gifts of silver and gold, Xavier refused them, asking only for the right to preach and to accept converts. Yoshitaka granted him this, promulgating a decree that would allow Xavier to proclaim his new Law (as the Emperor called it), and decreeing as well that no one would harm him. He also gave Xavier a vacant monastery for his use.

The turn to the universities of Japan was more innovative. Xavier was impressed by the size and extent of these institutions, and he both visited them and welcomed curious monks and nuns to his own residence. He was known to go to the universities and there read aloud from the compendium of Christian doctrine that he and Anjiro had prepared. He had for his own use a text of it written in Latin script. His hearers were amused by his pronunciation, but were also impressed by his dedication and his evident holiness. In the convent in which he now dwelled, he was soon giving two lectures a day, which was followed by disputations. The themes went far beyond the religious; astronomy, meterology, and geography were often discussed. Again, his curious audience was impressed by the range and extent of his knowledge.

To turn to the intellectuals and to engage in debate was, for the most part, an innovative approach to evangelization. To take such a task indicated Xavier’s implicit understanding that to convince a society such as Japan’s of the superiority of his teaching, he had to impress his hearers with the extent of his knowledge as well as persuade them by the passion of his convictions. While there are some examples earlier in history of taking this approach to intellectuals (among the Apologists of the second and third century, and the dialogues of Ramon Llull in Spain in the 13th century), Xavier’s approach probably owed more to his own university education in Paris, and the vigorous debates that were carried out there with Lutherans and Calvinists. Both the education he received, and the emphasis on disputation that still played such a large role in university pedagogy, certainly inclined him to this strategy. Believing in the universality of reason, such an approach to evangelization may not have struck Xavier as what we would call inculturation; but as we shall see later, it was to become an important means of bringing the gospel in the next generations of Jesuit missionaries.

Besides looking at the audiences to which Xavier addressed himself, and the means he used to address them, it is worthwhile to focus on some more specific, religious, and theological issues that he chose to address.

In his presentation of Christian faith in Japanese, Xavier had chosen the name "Dainichi" to represent God, the term that the Shingon sect of Buddhism used to designate the source of all things. Xavier presented Dainichi as the creator of all things, the ultimate goal of the immortal soul. This discussion of creation would have sounded odd to Buddhists, since the common belief was that all things were always in origination and in disappearance like foam on the wave of the sea. This alien teaching raised all kinds of questions for the monks: Was this God good or evil? If he was good, why had he created evil, such as the devil, suffering, and eternal hellfire? The often heated debates resulted, however, in no one accepting the Christian faith.

It was only sometime later that an incident precipitated a change. Brother Fernandez, one of Xavier’s companions, was preaching in the street, when one of his hearers came and spit in his face to show his contempt. Fernandez maintained his composure, calmly wiped the spittle away, and then continued to preach. Such self-control impressed his hearers and led them to believe that, although his preaching sounded to them absurd, a teaching that could bring about such demeanor was worth serious consideration. One member of the audience followed Fernandez back to his dwelling and began instruction in Christian faith. Others soon followed him.

However, this success began to arouse resistance from some of the monks. One of the bonzes began to question him further about this Creator. Did he have color or form, and from whence had he come? Xavier replied that he had neither form nor accident, that he was pure Substance and did not derive from any element but was, rather, the creator of all of them. He was the origin of all things, was omnipotent, good, wise, and eternal. The bonzes declared themselves satisfied, stating that although this foreigner spoke a different language and wore an unusual garb, his teaching, and their own were the same.

This sudden turn of mind on the part of the Shingon bonzes puzzled Xavier and made him suspicious. To be sure, Shingon Buddhists appeared to have much in common with Catholics: they used rosaries and incense, they wore vestments for their religious services, and chanted in choir together. He had seen a representation of their God, Dainichi, as having no body but having three heads. Could this all be vestigial elements from the teaching of Thomas the Apostle, or was it the work of the devil? When he questioned them about other Christian doctrines, such as the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the redemptive value of Christ’s death, the bonzes had no response.

Xavier had adopted "Dainichi" as the name for God, thinking that this was indeed the god worshipped by Shingon Buddhists. He was told that the word meant "Great Sun" (dai nichi); the Sun, after all, was believed to be the origin of the Japanese people. But from his converts he came to learn that Dainichi was indeed at the center of Shingon belief, but was not a personal god at all. It was closer to what philosophers had called material prima, matter without form. Moreover, Dainichi also had an obscene connotation: as the source out of which all things originated, it also was a term for pudenda.

Up to this time, Xavier had gone through the streets with his companions, shouting "Pray to Dainichi! (Dainichi no ogami are)" Now, realizing that he had been tricked by the devil, he returned to the streets, saying "Do not pray to Dainichi! (Dainichi no ogami naso)" (Schurhammer 1928:30).

Resolved not to be so entrapped again, he insisted now on using on the Latin "Deus" for God. This, he hoped, would avoid any misunderstanding in the future. This maintaining of the Latin form for the word "God" brought its own problems, however. "Deus" (or the Spanish "Dios") sounded much like the Japanese "Dai uso," which means "great lie." This was hardly an improvement over Dainichi. Indeed, for many decades thereafter, Buddhists would mock Christians by calling their God "Deus" (ibid., 1928:38-39).

Xavier sought to settle this problem by preparing a text which he completed with Anjiro’s help, in both Latin and Chinese characters. Although this text has been lost, it appears from a later Jesuit missionary that the Chinese Tenshu was chosen to designate the concept "God." Tenshu, a Chinese term (and written in Chinese characters) is generally translated "Lord of Heaven." This remained in use until early in the 17th century, when a Japanized form of "Deus"—"Deusu" was introduced. Protestant missionaries in the 19th century introduced a Japanized form of the English "God"—Gotto as an alternative. Toward the end of the 19th century the term kami came to stand for the Christian God. Kami means "spirit" or "deity" (ibid., 1928:40f).

Xavier’s dilemmas with translating a term as fundamental to religious belief as "God" illustrates one of the principal issues in inculturation. In Xavier’s time it could still be believed that there could be a word-for-word semantic equivalence between languages. Although Xavier has a formidable reputation as a linguist, having learned Tamil, Malay, and Japanese, his actual command of these languages was far from perfect. Schurhammer believes that Anjiro, Xavier’s teacher in Japanese, was quite gifted linguistically, but did not have much formal education. Young Brother Fernandez, who was only 22 years of age when he arrived in Japan, exhibited a far superior command of the language than Xavier. The semantic ambiguities that go with many of the languages of East Asia (where tone can change the meaning, where the characters with which a word is written can also change the meaning), were something that Xavier was yet to discover.