|Hasekura in Rome. Portrait by Claude |
Deruet (1588-1660), with his galleon,
the Date Maru, behind.
The conquistadors and Japan
This was the era of the conquistadors, little more than a century after Columbus. The Spanish now ruled much of Central and South America, had colonised the Philippines and were eying up Japan.
But the Portuguese got there first. In 1543 they were already selling matchlock rifles to the warring Japanese clan lords. Shortly afterwards, in 1549, Francis Xavier and his Jesuit missionaries arrived and started converting sections of southern Japan. The Japanese realised that the Jesuits were the thin end of the wedge and that invading armies might follow, but they felt able to hold their own.
|Portuguese with big hats enjoying very early female kabuki dancing |
in Japan around 1603
|Hasekura with his samurai sword as |
depicted by Scipione Amati,
a German artist, in 1615
The One-Eyed Dragon of Oshu
Japan had recently come to the end of half a century of warfare and was now unified under the rule of Ieyasu but up north the formidable warlord Daté Masamune - the ‘One-Eyed Dragon of Oshu’ - had different ideas. He was interested in the Southern Barbarians and their Christianity and could see a way of using them to increase his own influence and perhaps escape from under the thumb of Ieyasu. So he decided to send a mission to the west. With Ieyasu’s approval he commissioned a splendid galleon, called the Daté Maru in Japanese and the San Juan Bautista in Spanish.
Hasekura Tsunenaga was a samurai with a somewhat chequered background, but Daté decided he was the man for the job. He headed a delegation of thirty samurai plus 120 Japanese merchants, sailors and servants together with 40 Spanish and Portuguese. His brief was to negotiate trade treaties. This was Japan’s first official venture to Europe and he was the ambassador.
After three months at sea the galleon arrived at California then followed the coast to Acapulco where they stayed for two months. They were received with great splendour in Mexico City, then boarded another galleon, the San Jose, to cross the Atlantic and reached the port of Sanlùcar de Barrameda, at the mouth of the river Guadalquivir, in Spain, on October 5th 1614.
|Seville in the 16th century with the river full of galleons and the cathedral|
rising behind: Vista de Sevilla attrib. Alonso Sanchez Coello, d 1588
|The Alcazar gardens with cathedral behind|
|Gentleman in padded breeches -|
Hasekura went on to Madrid where he met King Philip III on 30 January 1615 and delivered a letter from Daté Masamune proposing a trade treaty. He was baptised on Feb 17 1615 by the king’s personal chaplain.
In all he and his colleagues spent eight months in Spain, being treated with all the honour due to visiting dignitaries.
|Hasekura meets the Pope in Rome, 17th century Japanese painting|
In April 1616 they were back in Spain and in June 1616 left Seville for New Spain (Mexico) on the first leg of their journey home. Six samurai stayed behind and in the little town of Coria del Río, just outside Seville, seven hundred of the 25,000 inhabitants now bear the surname Japón, marking them as descendants of the expedition.
|Seville orange tree|
But when Hasekura and his colleagues got back to Japan after seven years away, like Urashima Taro, the Japanese Rip van Winkle, they discovered everything had changed. The retired shogun Ieyasu had died and his son, the shogun, had decided to eradicate Christianity and persecute Christians. The treaties Hasekura had worked so hard to negotiate were useless.
Lesley Downer’s latest novel, The Shogun’s Queen, is an epic tale of nineteenth century Japan and is out now in paperback. For more see www.lesleydowner.com.