Luis Frois

15 August 2020

(1532 – 1597)

The Area of Expertise: Christianity/Japanese Politics and Buddhism
The Book Selected: History of Japan, Chuo Koron, 2000
Professionalism: The Jesuit Missionary in Japan (from 1563 to 1597)
Translated by the extraordinary efforts of:
Kiichi Matsuda (1921 – 1997) – Professor of Kyoto University of Foreign Studies and
Momota Kawasaki (1915 – 2019) – Professor of Kyoto University of Foreign Studies

Achievements: His book is regarded by all credible authors as the indispensable materials to write about history of this most precious and inspired time in the Japanese politics. No records surpassed his detailed accounts in a rebellious, turbulent, but confident period in Japan. Especially, Luis Frois then followed up directly with two superb rulers in this so-called – the Age of Warring Countries/the basic unit equivalent to the current Prefecture in Japan. First, Shogun Ashikaga Yoshiteru who was highly respected by his warlords and once indispensable for the Catholic Churches’ expansion in Japan. Secondly, Oda Nobunaga, the ultimate ruler of the time for Japanese reunification, by whom Frois was invited 18 times for the meeting in various different occasions. 

In 1543, a wrecked Portuguese ship arrived in Tanegashima island where they taught the technology of new matchlock-gun to native blacksmith. The Portuguese also informed them of the gunpowder and its manufacturing method. With this new weapon technology, Japan was gradually breaking the internal military deadlock among regional warlords. The encounter marked also Japan’s first direct diplomatic negotiation with the modern West. Since then, the scope of Japanese politics was also rapidly changing, where a new idea had to be injected. 

Oda Nobunaga fully took his advantages in this suddenly-emerged situation in Japan. No other warlords were so keen and interested in such matters. He was a most-rarely talented master. Without another genius, Frois, however, we wouldn’t know the life and death of these extraordinary leaders and what they were trying to accomplish in the islands state of Japan/Iapam or Nippon. 

The modern social science had finally arrived to the Japanese public arena. A degree of the depth in his analysis to understand the vital issue for Japan was perfectly unleashed in order to get accurate conclusions. Frois also tried to exercise his fair judgements, in writing with his own criticism, on all the facts over the important political events and movements that he witnessed and identified during this most significant period in the Japanese history, in a way no Japanese contemporaries could match. In this sense, his book is so remarkable and valuable to all the Japanese who are anxious to learn the nature of the Japanese politics today.

A quick review on Japanese history up to that point to better clarify his arguments for the Western readers. The state of Japan was formed by a very similar manner to what was experienced in the British and Irish Isles. 1) The various Altaic invaders entered from the Korean peninsula to the Japanese Islands as the Anglo-Saxons and other tribes did so from the European continent (from 5th to 8th century in Japan). 2) The state of Japan was firmly established in 645 and it gave Japan a similar political effect to the Norman conquest. The name of Japan became the Empire (although China preferred to call it as a ‘Country’) of Rising Sun. 3) Then, similar to the Viking (as the second wave of Germanic) invasions, many other Altaic (possibly included some Aryans too) tribes entered from the north by ships and via land, Sakhalin and Hokkaido, (from 8th to 11th century in Japan) and settled mainly in the Tohoku regions. 

How about the books on History of Japan before Frois? The people were more interested in communicating with own Japanese-syllables (devised as the first one in East Asia). The notable progress was made on prose, proverb and short poem. Among those, the world’s oldest novel, The Tales of Genji, was beautifully written by Murasaki Shikibu, a court lady. This cultural progress was also the political strength of Japan. For instance, the people of Okinawa, above all, preferred Japanese simpler writing to the Chinese. 

But there were also a few written histories made by the state. Three important books are: A) The Ancient Affairs, B) The History of Japan and C) The Later History of Japan. B) was written by authentic Chinese manner for diplomatic purpose about myths of human gods and the origin of the Japanese state. (NB – Independent Japan soon became a source of hopes among the Korean states because they all knew that the territory of Japanese archipelago was much larger and safer from China than the peninsula – despite the fact that its entire areas were yet to be measured.) A) was written in more Japanised manner, sometimes using the basic form of Japanese syllable. And, C) was later added for the backgrounds of the restructuring by Buddhism in contacts with continental powers. 

It was a credible and rather creative efforts of politics how the Japanese founders set up its own political core for the State of Japan in its geopolitical situation. Since then, the Japanese economy took a solid long-term trend upward. With a solid economic expansion up to the 13th century, a prosperity in the Tohoku countries emerged as a renowned region for its supreme products of horse, sharp sword and gold, manufactured by technologies and species brought from the continent. After having been informed by the Chinese/Altaic Yuen Dynasty, Marco Polo reported about Japan for the first time to Europe by the 14th century – as the country with a plenty of gold. 

Then, Cristopher Columbus supported by his only fund-raiser, the Queen Isabella of Spain, set sail in both believing to reach Japan or Cippangu/India, to accidentally find the American continent in 1492. The voyage also proved the globe geographical latitude of Toscanelli was right in principle but wrong in details. Following this success, the Portuguese/Vasco da Gama arrived in Calicut, India in 1498. Bearing in mind such history and the reality of Japan at the time, the policy of Portugal, and later Spain, was not to conquer this islands state but to establish a solid diplomatic relationship. 

After the arrival of Francisco Xavier in 1549, the local warlords were the most important contact to establish a church. Many people and warlords in Kyushu and the southern end of Honshu welcomed him and accepted Christianity. Since Frois’s arrival, however, the powers of the Imperial court and that of the Shogunate were gradually increasing. From the beginning, therefore, Frois had to take a political role to negotiate all the religious matters with various power-holders as an essential part of his job. Meanwhile, as a tradition, the Emperor himself (or Empress herself) was tightly guarded by his court nobles not to see ‘foreign evils’ – included the Chinese Emperor in definition. Until the Meiji Restoration, this ancient practice of diplomacy had to be remained in Japan.

The Japanese Buddhism as state religion was strengthened by Emperor Kanmu from 8th century onward. He gave his sanction to establish the Enryaku Temple on Mount Hiei to protect the new imperial capital Kyoto. Since then, to study at this religious complex was regarded as a prerequisite step to a most authentic career in Japanese Buddhism, except the older temples and their sects in Nara. 

The founders of newly-created Japanese Buddhist sects, who became influential all over Japan, were also all come out from Enryaku Temple. From a strategic viewpoint, the temples on Mount Hiei were constructed in a vital location between the capital and the road to Lake Biwa and further roads down to all Northern and Eastern regions. The drawback was, however, this castle-like place had relatively small flatland area. The Imperial court were fully aware of this potential weakness and danger; therefore, they also built much larger and extended (in terms of manpower) temples on Mount Koya – means highland – in the further south of the capital. 

The founders of these principal temple-complexes were Monk Saicho and Monk Kukai respectively, both studied Chinese Buddhism by state fund in a Eurasian/Global Empire of Tang/Altaic China. Saicho was a sincere local monk. Kukai initiated his career as an academic in Chinese studies, and his knowledge about China was much wider and accurate, so as his Chinese writing. 

To expand Christianity in competitions with such a gigantic religious reality in Japan, Frois had no other choice but to get involved in the activities of Japanese Buddhists. Due to the new spirit of Renaissance and the Reformation born in Europe, it only became possible to launch a formidable mission of religious endeavours in such extraordinary scale for the remote islands in Asia-Pacific. On the contrary, Japan was unprecedentedly corrupted in money makings in deceit, criminal activities, no modern legal system but only law of the jungle, and losing the direction in its religious faith without credible philosophy under the control of its superior politics. The grave economic uncertainty with all its perils was perhaps the main reason why so many Japanese were attracted to Christianity at the time.

According to Frois, Francisco Xavier instructed the missionary the way to preach the basics of Christianity in Japan, knowing the situation of influential Japanese Buddhism, which cannot be united into single religious concept by innated sectarianism, as follows:

  1. To verify the existence of the God Almighty.
  2. To explain that there was the beginning of the world/universe, but the world will not last forever as Japanese Buddhists insisted.
  3. To teach why sun or moon cannot be a god.
  4. To discuss about the difference between human being and human spirit.
  5. Then, to dispute against the specific assertions of each Japanese Buddhist sect.

The explanation on the Holy Trinity should be given afterwards. Furthermore, before the baptism, to emphasise the importance of ten commandments and the need of abandoning the rituals of superstitious practices. 

As a religious professional, some Buddhists understood these principles and believed in Christianity. Gradually, Japanese Christian-converted priests (i.e. ex-Japanese Buddhist monks) contributed and made a great impact on the increasing Christian population in Japan. As the number of Christians constantly grew, however, the imperial courts started to worry about the consequence. The monks of Enryaku temple were sympathetic to the visiting priests from Europe. (The Jesuits mission once believed the temple as the sole university of Japan.) But the Japanese monks categorically could not have accepted the Jesuits’ proposal to open dialogues between each other. 

The court nobles had to suppress the new Western religious movement as much as they could, to protect Japan’s traditional political system. The situation became tense all the time. As an extraordinary event, Shogun Yoshiteru was attacked in his own palace, and himself, his mother, and some of his family were killed with the injection of a massive force of 12,000 men by Miyoshi Yoshitsugu, the warlord of Kawachi/Osaka, and Matsunaga Hisahide, the warlord of Yamato/Nara in 1565. 

However, the power of the Imperial court and their warlord-sympathisers or Buddhist paramilitaries were still too weak in front of the rising military genius, Oda Nobunaga. In the midst of fierce battles for the Japanese reunification, the Mount Hiei suddenly confronted against Nobunaga by taking the side of his strong opponents in 1570. He had no other choice but to negotiate with the Imperial court and the Shogunate to save his skin. But he didn’t compromise with his determined antagonist, in particular, its military role that could paralyse him anytime. His strong army of 30,000 men led by Akechi Mitsuhide burned down all the temples on the Mount Hiei and killed many of the monks and nuns in 1571. It was an atrocious war but the repercussion to Japanese politics was far greater. 

Most Buddhists had huge manors, fields and faming lands. In terms of their armed forces, it was never straightforward issue to differentiate Buddhists from samurais, many belong to both, but it was more so because the Japanese Buddhists in principle did not forsake their military function. Some of them had own arsenals under their secretive controls including the best matchlock-guns and ninja secret services, which existed as a common practice amongst warlords at the time. For instance, Enryaku temples could assemble the army of 3,000 men. The Mount Koya was far stronger. In its history, two traditional temples in Nara were also set on fire by another ruler, Taira-no-Kiyomori, when they confronted him in 1180. 

Some of newly created Buddhist-sects also followed this military tradition. Under a hopeless economic downturn, peasants revolted the authority. Only the organised Buddhists were there to help and mediate. For instance, a powerful Honganji’s Real-Jyodo-sect, or also known as Ikko-sect, owned the hub Osaka port and castle, and they even had their own navy. From there, their huge assets and properties spread all over Japan to the extent that even the country of Kaga/Ishikawa was once deemed as their territory.

Nobunaga was a keen learner and he hated something unreasonable. He modernised his army with the help of Portuguese but even they were astonished by his navy armoured with iron-cladded ships and large cannons that forced his strongest enemy including the Honganji forces to surrender. He saw some Buddhists as the most dangerous enemy. But he also encouraged some peaceful Buddhist sects, such as Jyodo-sect. In contrast, Nobunaga was willing to support the activities of the Christian mission. 

Nobunaga invited the Jesuits to found the Cathedral (1579) and Seminary (1580) in his own capital city, Azuchi. He continued to rely on his capable Christian warlords and samurais by accepting the freedom of religion in practice. (We must admit that this attitude was quite an advanced way of thinking at the time, even in Europe.) Also a few of his family members were converted or willing to be Christian, according to Frois. The mission was getting its highly successful operations, thanks to Nobunaga. During the year of 1581 alone, more than 4,000 people became Christians in various countries around Kyoto only, the crucial areas that once regarded impossible to reach. 

Facing this new alarming situation, the Imperial court tried to negotiate with him by proposing the highest court ranks for his own choice to be the ruler of Japan. As the first individual doing so in Japanese history, Nobunaga somehow did not take their ‘final’ offer. What’s in his mind? –  confusions gradually intensified in many nobles’ mind but nobody knew the answer to that question in the ancient Japanese militarism. When Nobunaga assembled a formidable invasion force against his solely remaining adversary in the island of Shikoku, he was assassinated while staying in the capital in 1582, the year – the current Gregorian calendar was duly approved in Rome. Again, Frois was staying very close to his place and left a trustworthy description about what happened in that night and beyond.

As a most unusual event, in which Luis Frois attended, the religious-debate contest arranged by Nobunaga took place between learned monks of the largest Hokke-sect and Jyodo-sect. In the end, a decisive question was unleashed from the Jyodo-sect about the meaning of Chinese character: Myo, which had been claimed by Hokke-sect as Buddha adamantly preached it for forty-four years. But the Hokke-sect could not provide an answer to this question and they were declared as the defeated, and punished by Nobunaga. Ordinary Japanese know this popular prayer. But to understand the entire meaning of the argument in view of the Japanese Buddhism with its backgrounds, we have to further refer to the attached Herodotus’s eye of Hajime Nakamura.

Scroll to Top
Scroll to Top