Hasekura Tsunenaga: 1571–1622?

A replica of the Japanese-built galleon San Juan Bautista, in Ishinomaki, Japan.

December 1613. A samurai retainer from northern Japan stands on the deck of his ship as it clips along, sails billowing in the wind. For centuries, craft of all kinds have ferried passengers, troops and trade goods around the Japanese archipelago. But the Date Maru is different. At 500 tons, it is enormous by the standards of most earlier vessels, requiring thousands of labourers to construct it. And where other ships cling to the coast, seeking out Japan’s great trading entrepôts, this one is way out in the mid-Pacific. Hasekura Tsunenaga is heading not for Osaka or Nagasaki – but for Acapulco, in the Spanish Empire.

From there, Hasekura will journey overland through the Empire’s Viceroyalty of New Spain, stopping off in Mexico City before departing from Veracruz to sail the Atlantic. This is the first official Japanese embassy ever to be sent to Europe. Its purpose is to establish relations between Hasekura’s lord – the daimyō of Sendai, Date Masamune – and two of the great global leaders of the day: King Philip III of Spain and Pope Paul V.

Lingering for a thousand years on one another’s imaginative peripheries – in myth, legend and rumour – East Asia and Western Europe have become far better acquainted in recent decades. The first known Europeans to set foot in Japan did so in 1543 – by mistake: a small group of Portuguese were forced to make landfall on the island of Tanegashima, just off the southern main island of Kyūshū, when their Chinese junk encountered stormy weather. Portuguese-style firearms, duly nicknamed tanegashima, were soon raising the volume and the body-count on Japanese battlefields. Oda Nobunaga was amongst the earliest and most effective adopters. European maritime technology has also made its way into Japan. The Date Maru was built on the design of a Spanish galleon, with Spanish assistance. It even bears an alternative Spanish name: the San Juan Bautista (St John the Baptist).

That name hints at a third European import, possessing the potential to strike far deeper than guns or ships into how a nation thinks about itself, organizes its affairs and deals with its neighbours. The responses of Japan’s leaders to the dilemmas posed by Christianity, across three decades from Nobunaga’s death to the launching of the Date Maru, are set to tax Hasekura’s talents as a diplomat throughout his epic seven-year journey. Trouble is already brewing below deck, where around 140 Japanese merchants and samurai are packed together unhappily with forty Europeans, mostly Spaniards. Hasekura perhaps takes these tensions as a sign of what awaits him: encounters with Europeans that are coloured by recent history and by conflicting ambitions. What do the Japanese aboard the Date Maru want from Europe? And what might Europeans want from Japan?

In the hours and days following Oda Nobunaga’s death, very little retribution came the way of his assailants. Akechi Mitsuhide’s forces proceeded unimpeded from Kyoto to Azuchi, where they looted Nobunaga’s splendid castle. Soon afterwards it burned to the ground, following its owner into oblivion. But then Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s men, pursuing Nobunaga’s planned campaign against the Mōri in western Japan, captured an Akechi emissary and learned of their overlord’s fate. Hideyoshi moved swiftly to claim his inheritance. He persuaded the Mōri to make a truce with Nobunaga, neglecting to mention that the latter was dead. And then he marched his men towards Kyoto, destroying Mitsuhide’s forces not far from the city in early July. The man Nobunaga called ‘that bald rat’ carried the traitor Mitsuhide’s head back to Honnō-ji, where he presented it to the spirit of his former master.

Justice done, coalition-building began. Hideyoshi made terms with Tokugawa Ieyasu. He began awarding fiefs to key allies. And he had himself adopted by a Kyoto courtier, so that he could accept the post of Imperial Regent. Hideyoshi then set out to extend his hegemony across the rest of the country, beginning in the south. Free of Honshū’s costly conflicts in recent centuries, many of Kyūshū’s leading families could trace their roots all the way back to service as warrior-constables and samurai estate-managers in the Kamakura era. The Shimazu clan was currently the paramount power, pushing for control over the whole island. Hideyoshi responded in late 1586 by moving an enormous force – around a quarter of a million men – from Honshū to Kyūshū, where they made short work of the Shimazu.

By 1590, Hideyoshi’s last remaining enemy was the Hōjō clan in eastern Japan. After their leader, Ujimasa, refused calls to submit peacefully, Hideyoshi launched one of history’s least hurried sieges, of the Hōjō stronghold at Odawara Castle. Starting in May, he invited concubines, musicians, dancers, merchants and tea ceremony specialists to provide entertainment for himself and the troops, while the enemy slowly starved. The castle finally surrendered in August, at which point Ujimasa was ordered to perform ritual suicide and his family’s vast holdings were confiscated.

Hideyoshi took the opportunity of the Odawara siege to require the daimyō of northern Japan to demonstrate their loyalty, backing him in teaching the Hōjō a lesson. The region had seen its fair share of intrigue and fighting since the authority of the Ashikaga bakufu broke down and Japan broke apart in the late 1400s. But its remoteness from self-consciously ‘civilized’ central parts of the country – notably Kyoto – had long garnered it a rather unfair reputation for equal parts barbarity and banality: of little political or cultural consequence, save as the wild natural setting for folk tales and travel poetry. Northern warlords had become accustomed to the role of semi-detached observers of events down south.

No longer. Amongst those who travelled to Odawara in 1590 to offer their submission to Hideyoshi was Date Masamune, a much-feared daimyō in the southern part of Mutsu Province, known as the ‘One-Eyed Dragon’ after losing his right eye to smallpox as a child. Confirmed in his fief by Hideyoshi, two years later Date found himself leading an army of retainers all the way down to Kyūshū. One of them was a teenage Hasekura Tsunenaga. Born around 1571 to a northern samurai family, Hasekura served Date as a valued spy, emissary and information-gatherer.

Date, Hasekura and the rest of their northern army joined around 160,000 warriors and supporting personnel mustering at a giant, purpose-built fortress on the north-western coast of Kyūshū. Hideyoshi had made himself master of all Japan. But his ambitions did not end at his own borders. It was time to carve out a place in the wider world for what he called the ‘Land of the Gods’. China would fall, and then India. The first stop along the way would be the peninsula just across the water from Kyūshū. Date and Hasekura were about to take part in a full-scale invasion of Korea.

The East Asian order that Hideyoshi was setting out to overturn had long been shaped by the Chinese concept of tianxia (‘all under heaven’): a physical and moral universe in which China was in every respect central. Successive Chinese dynasties established official tributary relationships with peripheral ‘barbaric’ peoples across East and South East Asia, India, the east coast of Africa and the Persian Gulf. Networks of Chinese traders and pirates played an important ancillary role, spreading Chinese culture far and wide. The Japanese understood themselves as part of this tributary system while at the same time forming the centre-point of their own tianxia. Kanmu’s old northern foes the Emishi were amongst those cast in the role of barbarian outsiders.

Japan’s original place in the European imagination was more impressive: it was Paradise. Working with the Book of Genesis and alighting on the line ‘Now the Lord God planted a garden in the east, in Eden’, writers and map-makers had begun in the early 600s to adapt conventional divisions of the world into the territories of Europe, Africa and Asia by marking out ‘Paradise’ at a location remarkably close to that of the Japanese archipelago. The country’s fall from grace began a few centuries later, with the Venetian traveller Marco Polo (1254–1324). Living at the court of Kublai Khan not long after the latter’s failed invasion of the Japanese islands in 1274, Polo claimed that ‘Cipangu’ was rich in red pearls and gold and that its people were ‘good-looking and courteous’. But they were also given to ‘outlandish and diabolical exploits’, including the killing, cooking and eating of prisoners, whose flesh they considered ‘the finest food in existence’.

The first European actually to set eyes on Cipangu was Christopher Columbus – or so he thought at the time. In fact, his search in 1492 for a lucrative westward sea-route from Europe to spice-rich Asia had led him to Cuba. It was one of a series of unexpected discoveries that persuaded Europeans to rethink their picture of the world and to begin dividing it up between them. The Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) drew a line down the Atlantic, approximately halfway between the Cape Verde Islands off the west coast of Africa and the lands discovered by Columbus. The Spanish took everything to the west: much of the Atlantic, all of the Americas, a new ocean beyond – christened ‘the Pacific’ in 1520, for its preternaturally calm waters – and finally the Philippines, claimed and named for King Philip II. The Portuguese travelled in the opposite direction, employing a combination of deal-making and war-making to build a network of trading outposts as they went: the southern Indian port of Calicut (1500), Mozambique Island (1505), Goa (1510), Malacca (1511), Hormuz (1514), Colombo (1518), Bombay (1534) and finally Macau in southern China (1557).

Japanese met European visions of the world in 1543, with the forced landing of a small group of Portuguese at Tanegashima. Japan, for the Portuguese, was the ‘far east’; less rich in resources than many parts of their empire, but promising nonetheless. The chaos of the Sengoku (Warring States) era, and associated problems with piracy, had brought trading relations between China and Japan almost to a halt. Portuguese merchants were able to step in, carrying raw Chinese silk to Kyūshū – where it fetched up to ten times its value in China – and shipping Japanese silver and other goods back in the opposite direction.

The Japanese regarded the Portuguese, in turn, as ‘southern barbarians’ (nanban), since they sailed to Japan from the south-west. They were associated with trade and soon with Christian missionaries, the first of whom arrived in 1549: three Spanish Jesuits, Francis Xavier amongst them, reached the southern tip of Kyūshū in a Chinese pirate ship. Buddhist clergy were fascinated. The missionaries claimed to have come from India (blurring origins and way-points) and they talked about their God as ‘Dainichi’: the celestial Buddha central to Shingon Buddhism. It followed that they must be offering a new interpretation of the Buddha’s teachings. The missionaries soon realized their mistake, switching to the word ‘Deus’ and dismissing Dainichi as ‘an invention of the Devil’. Their disillusioned Buddhist interlocutors gave as good as they got, pronouncing Deus as ‘dai uso’, ‘great lie’.

The Jesuits had better luck with the daimyō, especially in Kyūshū, where enthusiasm for the missionaries’ message combined with interest in the influence they appeared to enjoy over Portuguese merchants’ choices of ports and business partners. By the time Hideyoshi arrived in Kyūshū in 1586, a striking new phenomenon was sweeping the island: Christian daimyō, some of whom were capable of compelling large numbers of their vassals to convert in turn.

A man so concerned with his image that he inked his scalp to approximate the hair that he didn’t have, Hideyoshi was an enthusiast for Kyūshū’s hybrid nanban fashions: Portuguese-style cloaks, worn over armour; helmets based on exotic hat designs; baggy breeches; rosaries, reliquaries and crosses, designed to be hung about the body. Hideyoshi was keen, too, on trade and the wealth it generated. Nor was he philosophically opposed to Christianity. But surveying the scene in Kyūshū, he was reminded of a phenomenon against which he and Oda Nobunaga had struggled hard just a few years before: the coming together of commercial with religious and political power in a way that threatened the project for a single, secular, unified rule in Japan.

Nagasaki provided the clearest, most egregious example of the problem. A small fishing village on Kyūshū’s western coast had gained favour with the Portuguese for its sheltered natural harbour. Beginning in the early 1570s, a ‘Great Ship’ had begun arriving there most years from the Portuguese base at Macau. The Jesuits helped to facilitate this trade, ploughing their share of its enormous profits into missionary work that soon included schools and a printing press. Then, in May 1580, something truly shocking transpired: the Christian daimyō in control of the area gave Nagasaki to the Jesuits. He ceded them control of its land, administration and trade. Barely a fortnight after Nobunaga had forced the Buddhist Patriarch Kennyo out of the Ishiyama Hongan-ji at Osaka, another religious domain had started to take shape in Japan, complete with influential warlord allies and its own burgeoning fortifications.

Elsewhere on Kyūshū, Hideyoshi heard of shrines and temples being attacked by Christian converts. One temple was repurposed as a boys’ prep school, while others had their precious artefacts sold off, thrown into rivers or used for firewood. There were rumours that some foreigners, quite possibly Portuguese, were involved in trafficking Japanese people to China and elsewhere as slaves. To top it all off, a missionary approached Hideyoshi in advance of his Kyūshū campaign, offering to intercede on his behalf with the island’s Christian daimyō – as if their loyalties lay within the Jesuits’ gift.

Here was sacrilege on so many levels, evidence of a changing world order over which Hideyoshi resolved to exercise some serious influence. He began in July 1587. In a rage apparently enhanced by imbibing a generous quantity of Portuguese wine, he produced an edict condemning the ‘pernicious doctrine’ of Christianity and giving the Jesuits twenty days to leave the country. He seized Nagasaki from their grasp the following year, taking over its trade directly. In the end, Hideyoshi let the Jesuits stay: their merchant allies were too important to Kyūshū’s economy. But European influence in Japan had been curbed and Christians put on notice.

Hideyoshi followed up with a flurry of inflammatory missives sent to foreign powers near and far. In 1590, he wrote to the King of Korea explaining that he had been invested by heaven with a unique will to rule in the region: he was the ‘Sun Child’, conceived when his mother dreamed that the sun had entered her womb. On this basis, he expected the king, as his vassal and ally, to assist him in subjugating China. The following year, Hideyoshi wrote to the Philippines, demanding that the (Spanish) nanban there likewise accept his suzerainty. He promised otherwise to attack and destroy their walled enclave at Manila. Similar messages went out to the Ryūkyū Islands, to Japan’s far south, to Taiwan and even to Goa.

Amongst the few to respond to Hideyoshi was the King of Korea, making it clear in 1592 that he would not let Hideyoshi treat his peninsula as China’s driveway. Hideyoshi duly sent his 160,000 men – Date and Hasekura included – into action. The invasion of Korea became one of the most vivid signs of the unprecedented global mixing and mingling taking place in the sixteenth century. A Japanese force crossed the sea to Korea, aboard ships built with European merchant help, and led by daimyō with names like Dom Agostinho Konishi, Dom Sancho Ōmura and Dom Protasio Arima.

Landing at Pusan under their Christian commanders, Hideyoshi’s troops chased the Korean king steadily northwards, out of Seoul and later out of Pyongyang. For a few short months, almost the entire peninsula was in Hideyoshi’s hands. Then the Korean navy, Korean guerrillas and Chinese troops belatedly sent south across the Yalu River began to push his men much of the way back. By early 1593, nearly a third of the Japanese force had been wiped out and the war was at a stalemate. Hideyoshi had remained in Japan all the while – in contrast with Nobunaga, he rarely led from the front. There he moved from planning the precise format of ceremonies for when the Japanese emperor relocated to China to commencing years of humiliating talks on the terms of a truce.

Relationships with Spain and the Philippines went little better. The Spanish hoped to temper Hideyoshi’s bellicosity, establishing friendly trading relations instead. But in 1596 a Spanish galleon called the San Felipe, in service on the Manila–Acapulco route, was wrecked on the Japanese coast. When Hideyoshi proved reluctant to return the cargo, the ship’s pilot intervened, foolishly harping on Spain’s imperial designs for Japan. Brandishing an up-to-date world map to illustrate Spanish in relation to Japanese power, he claimed that missionaries in Japan were spying for the Spanish and that the Christianization of the country – home to around 300,000 believers by this point – was part of a grand colonial plan.

Hideyoshi was at first so angry that he ordered every Christian in Kyoto to be killed. He was persuaded by the governor of that city to limit himself to just twenty-six. Six Franciscans (four Spaniards, one Portuguese and one Mexican), three Japanese Jesuits and seventeen Japanese Franciscan tertiaries were rounded up. Their ears were cropped – a sign of criminal status – and they were taken to Nagasaki, paraded along the way through Osaka. On 5 February 1597 they were led up a hill overlooking the former Christian stronghold of Nagasaki, and crucified.

Hideyoshi died the next year in his lavishly appointed Kyoto home of Fushimi-Momoyama Castle, his planned conquest of Asia stalled in Korea. Discovering in the course of negotiations with the Chinese that they still – after everything that he had achieved – regarded the Japanese as a tributary people, he had launched a fresh invasion of Korea in 1597, this one even more brutal than the first. Hopes of a smooth succession went similarly awry. Hideyoshi’s plan had been for a board of five regents to keep his seat warm until his young son Hideyori came of age. Instead, one of those regents, Tokugawa Ieyasu, began dealing with the other daimyō as though he were now in charge.

Two factions quickly formed amongst Japan’s warlords: one in the east, supportive of Ieyasu, and another in central and western Japan, protecting Hideyori’s claim. The two sides met in battle at Sekigahara in October 1600 and Ieyasu won an epoch-making victory. He bolstered his position by taking the title of shogun, in 1603, and by launching the largest redistribution of land in Japanese history. Eighty-seven enemy daimyō were deprived of their holdings. Others were moved around, in some cases to weaken their support base. Allies were meanwhile rewarded via the creation of brand new domains. One of the great beneficiaries was Date Masamune, receiving the large north-eastern domain of Sendai.

While Kyoto remained Japan’s capital, real power now shifted to the Tokugawa castle town of Edo on the east coast. There, a new bakufu (military government) was established. Ieyasu stepped down as shogun in 1605, determined to achieve the intra-familial transfer of power – to his son Hidetada – which he had so conspicuously deprived Hideyoshi. But he remained very much in charge, seeking to address the legacy of Hideyoshi’s disastrous foreign policy. Ieyasu made peace with Korea in 1605 and limited trade was resumed. In 1609, the recently established Dutch United East India Company (VOC) was granted permission to set itself up at the port of Hirado, near Nagasaki. Agreement was reached with the English East India Company in 1613.

Ieyasu negotiated with the Spanish, too, hoping to increase trade with Manila and to enlist the help of mining experts from New Spain in maximizing profits from Japan’s silver mines – over which Ieyasu exercised personal control. A Spanish explorer by the name of Sebastián Vizcaíno was appointed as New Spain’s first ambassador to Japan, arriving in 1611. Two years later, the privilege of ferrying him back across the Pacific was claimed by Date Masamune, who successfully applied to the bakufu for permission to build a ship. The new vessel would do double-duty: as ambassadorial transport and as the means for Japan’s first official diplomatic embassy to Europe – sorely needed in the aftermath of Hideyoshi’s provocations – to complete the initial leg of a pioneering voyage.

Hasekura Tsunenaga led a reasonably quiet life for a few years after the Korean war. Receiving a commendation from Date for his service in the conflict, he returned home to raise a young family and continue in the service of his lord. Life changed in 1612 when Hasekura’s birth-father was required to perform ritual suicide after charges of fraud were brought against him. Such were the standards of the day – linking suicide with atonement and father with son – that Hasekura should have been ordered to do the same.

But Hasekura was too valuable. Instead of putting him to death, Date put him to work, leading a maritime mission so risky that Hasekura would either disappear along the way or return suitably chastened. In addition to helping his country’s international relationships recover, Date had personal plans for the voyage. No more northern ‘backwater’: he would turn Sendai into a global trading hub, bypassing Nagasaki and Manila. To that end, Hasekura was charged with opening up trade negotiations with Spain and the Viceroyalty of New Spain. He was also to ask King Philip III and Pope Paul V to send Christian missionaries to northern Japan – a diplomatic sweetener for convert-hungry Europeans, and also a source of the kind of cosmopolitan culture that had marked Nagasaki out as special.

Hasekura’s guide and interpreter on the trip was the Spanish Franciscan missionary Luis Sotelo – and he too had his own agenda. There was at present just a single Catholic diocese for the whole of Japan, based at Nagasaki, under the control of the Franciscans’ Jesuit rivals. Sotelo hoped to turn Date’s domain into the centre of a new Japanese diocese. He even hoped one day to become Archbishop of Japan.

What became known as the ‘Keichō Embassy’, after the name of the current era in Japan, departed from Tsukinoura harbour aboard the Date Maru on 23 October 1613. They made it safely across the Pacific to Cape Mendocino on the west coast of North America, while the first English colonists were settling in on the continent’s far eastern fringe. From Cape Mendocino, the Date Maru tracked the coastline down to a port near Acapulco, docking there in late January 1614. An advance party proceeded north overland towards Mexico City, where a Nahua annalist known by the Christian name of Don Domingo de San Antón recorded their grand entrance:

The 4th of the month of March of the year 1614 … there arrived here and entered inside the city of Mexico these Japanese nobles. They came in on horseback at 12 o’clock noon. Their vassals came ahead of them, just coming on foot, holding high something like little long narrow black poles … perhaps that signifies royal leadership there in Japan. They came attired in the same way they go about and are attired back home: they wear something like a tunic, tied in the back, and they tie their hair at the backs of their necks.

Conspicuous by their absence from the annalist’s account were the incomers’ weapons. And for good reason. Tensions between Japanese and Spanish passengers during the Pacific crossing erupted into violence shortly after they landed near Acapulco, ostensibly over who had responsibility for looking after gifts brought from Japan – including a number of folding screens commissioned by Ieyasu. The New Spain ambassador Sebastián Vizcaíno was beaten and stabbed, prompting the Viceroy of New Spain to demand that, with the exception of Hasekura and a handful of others, the Japanese surrender their weapons. It made for an unfortunate first impression.

Hasekura arrived in Mexico City some three weeks after the advance party. He had taken a scenic route through the hills of New Spain, stopping off at a number of Franciscan monasteries along the way, including one at Cuernavaca. Making it to the city in late March, he handed the Viceroy a letter from Date Masamune. Luis Sotelo passed over a separate letter from Ieyasu and Hidetada. Meetings were held with the Franciscan Order, aimed at having missionaries sent to Japan. And over the course of the next month, around sixty of Hasekura’s retainers were baptized and confirmed, with Franciscan friars for their sponsors. Hasekura himself was persuaded to hold off. Baptism would be a diplomatic act as well as a religious one. Better, therefore, to wait until he reached Europe.

In May, Hasekura split his embassy into two groups. One stayed in Mexico City to trade, while the other went with Hasekura to Veracruz. From there, they sailed via Cuba across a stormy Atlantic, arriving at the south-western Spanish port of Sanlúcar de Barrameda in early October and cruising up the Guadalquivir River to the town of Coria del Río. Changing into more formal attire, they continued their journey by road to Seville: Luis Sotelo’s home and, more importantly, the only town in Spain permitted to trade beyond Europe.

The mayor and senior dignitaries crowded on to the Triana Bridge to greet Hasekura’s party as they arrived. Locals found Hasekura ‘calm’, ‘humble’ and ‘reasonable’. The archbishop was impressed by the manner and dress of his men, who brought to mind for him the biblical Three Wise Men.

At a special meeting of the Seville Senate, Hasekura presented gifts from Date Masamune, including a sword and a dagger sheathed in silk. Then, unrolling a calligraphic scroll adorned with gold, with Sotelo’s help he presented and elaborated on a message from his lord to the leaders of Seville:

I have learned of the afterlife, after hearing the teachings of Deus. Owing to unavoidable reasons, I cannot yet accept these teachings for myself. But in order to spread the word in my land, I have asked Friar Sotelo for his assistance, and am sending a samurai by the name of Hasekura. I hope for the safe arrival of these two at the feet of the King and the Pope, and the passing on of my wishes. It is my intent, by asserting the viability of maritime travel between Japan and Seville, to begin annual sea voyages.

Such grand requests required ratification at a higher level. So, according to a plan worked out well in advance by Sotelo, Hasekura’s embassy headed north for Madrid. Their caravan of carriages, sedan chairs, guards, guides, patissiers and chefs made for such a spectacular sight that people crowded around them in villages and towns all along the way, slowing their progress and causing them to arrive in the Spanish capital nearly a month behind schedule, on a snowy late December day in 1614.

And there the trouble began. King Philip III’s chamberlain and chaplain came to meet them, assuring Hasekura of the King’s help and encouraging him to make the most of the Christmas season in Madrid. But two weeks went by and still an invitation to meet the King at his home in the Royal Alcázar of Madrid was not forthcoming. The Spanish were beginning to think twice about their guests.

European impressions of the Japanese had come to be dominated, in recent decades, by Jesuit accounts, coloured by their hopes that the conversion of Japan would make up for the Catholic Church’s losses in Reformation Europe. Francis Xavier described the Japanese as ‘the best who have yet been discovered’. They were well-mannered, honourable, educated and proud. They rarely gambled, swore or stole, and they didn’t eat animals – preferring a diet of fish, rice and grain for which Xavier personally had little appetite but which hardly constituted a vice. They were open to having their understanding of the world challenged, and they seemed interested in Christianity and the West. Other Jesuits found the Japanese naturally given to interiority – a compliment, given the Jesuits’ own deep interest in the inner life – and more encouraging of women’s literacy and freedom than was generally the case in Europe.

Shortcomings were relatively few by comparison. Some Japanese held their own country in such high regard that they tended to disdain foreigners as a matter of course. The men seemed overly fond of weaponry – and of one another. Widespread male homosexuality, the missionaries concluded, was the result of Buddhist influence and years of civil war: twin evils that also accounted for the inhumanity of ritual suicide and summary execution, heavy drinking and a tendency to dissemble when questioned. Such difficulties were not insurmountable, and in 1582 the Jesuit ‘Visitador’ to India and the Far East, Alessandro Valignano, had decided to show Europeans at first hand just what a promising place Japan was. He sent four young Christian nobles from Kyūshū on a mini-European tour between 1584 and 1586, where they met, amongst others, King Philip II – the present King’s father – and for a time generated quite a stir.

But then news of the twenty-six ‘martyrs’ of 1597 reached European ears, seeming to confirm some of the more negative Jesuit commentary on Japan. Accounts doing the rounds in Portuguese Macau that year told of Japanese onlookers throwing stones at the men as they made their way to Nagasaki, calling them beasts and stuffing weeds into their mouths. A procession was held in their honour in Macau in December, accompanied by paintings of the grisly events, copies of which were sent to New Spain, Spain and Rome. A sermon was preached in Mexico City the same month – one of the dead, Felipe de Jesús, was a son of the city and New Spain’s first martyr.

The Franciscan missionary Marcelo de Ribadeneira, present in Nagasaki at the time of the crucifixions, published a highly romanticized account of the events and accompanied the remains of the six dead Franciscan friars to Mexico City in December 1598, later travelling to Rome to seek their beatification. His writings eventually became the source for a series of large murals commissioned by the Franciscan Order for the nave walls of the very monastery at Cuernavaca through which Hasekura had recently passed. Cuernavaca was one of the places where Spanish missionaries to Asia would stop on their way to the western coast of New Spain, so here perhaps was a reminder for them of how much they were risking – and why. Hasekura’s men may even have played a part in the creation of the murals, whose detail suggests either that Japanese physiques were used as models or that a Japanese painter did some of the work.

By the time Hasekura arrived in Madrid, King Philip III had thrown his weight behind the martyrs’ claim to sainthood. He had also received disturbing updates about Japan and the Hasekura embassy from the Viceroy of New Spain and from the Council of the Indies, the latter administering the Spanish Empire from within the Royal Alcázar. Hasekura’s embassy, it turned out, originated not with Japan’s national ruler but with a mere regional lord. And though they professed a desire for missionaries, their main aim was trade. Meanwhile, Christianity in Japan was in serious difficulty, returning, it seemed, to the dark days of Hideyoshi.

Unfortunately for Hasekura, Spanish intelligence on this last point was entirely accurate. Ieyasu had initially tolerated Christianity for the same economic reasons as Hideyoshi. But it soon started to seem more trouble than it was worth. Spanish Franciscan missionaries and the Jesuits were constantly at each other’s throats, while Japanese Christians were rumoured to have responded to the execution of some of their number in 1612 by saying prayers, singing hymns and collecting relics of the dead. Here was a religious community, Ieyasu concluded, whose worship centred on a criminal lawfully executed on a cross many centuries ago, and which appeared to treat present-day criminals with similar reverence.

It was an intolerable challenge to the bakufu’s still-fragile authority. So in December 1613, while Hasekura was sailing the Pacific, Christians in Kyoto and Edo were forced to renounce their faith. Churches were destroyed and some of Ieyasu’s own Christian retainers were sent into exile. On 27 January 1614, two days after Hasekura arrived in New Spain, Ieyasu ordered the drafting of a document banning Christianity and expelling all missionaries. It was disseminated across Japan in February, so that while Hasekura was seeking new missionaries in Mexico City, Seville and Madrid, those already in Japan were either leaving or going into hiding.

Aware of much of this by the time Hasekura turned up requesting an audience, King Philip first made him wait and then treated him coolly when he finally granted the audience on 30 January 1615. Hasekura entered the audience room to find the King standing near his throne, leaning casually on a table, surrounded by ministers and nobles. He refused to be greeted in the traditional way, with a kiss on his hand, and instead ordered his guests rather curtly to state their purpose. Luis Sotelo, mindful of his own mission, did what he could to soften the King up. He offered a creative interpretation of Date’s wishes, adding to the latter’s request for missionaries and trade the laying at King Philip’s feet of his vast lands in Sendai, his title and his unstinting service.

This bought the embassy a little warmth. Hasekura’s wish for baptism was granted, at a ceremony conducted in the presence of the King and other members of the royal family, to the strains of a choir singing Laudate Dominum. Hasekura received ‘Felipe Francisco’ for his Christian name, and the powerful Duke of Lerma for his godfather, a man said to have amassed a personal fortune of some 3 million ducats while ruling the realm on behalf of his less-than-conscientious king. Hasekura told Philip how moved he was to be born afresh with the King’s own name. Philip gave him a hug and wrote a letter in support of his request for an audience with the Pope. Philip’s advisers argued that now was not the time for such a meeting. The King countered that now was precisely the time, if matters in Japan were to improve.

The final leg of Hasekura’s European voyage took place that autumn, passing through Barcelona and Saint-Tropez. The latter – unplanned – stop marked the dawn of Franco-Japanese relations. Townspeople marvelled at samurai solemnly attending Mass, eating with the aid not of cutlery but of ‘two sticks’ and blowing their noses into small pieces of paper which they then discarded on the ground – and which the curious of Saint-Tropez proceeded to pick up and claim as souvenirs.

Genoa and the port of Civitavecchia followed, before Hasekura’s party arrived on the outskirts of Rome, to be met once again by European emissaries expressing suspicions about Japanese intentions towards Christianity. Luckily, Hasekura had three things in his favour. One of Europe’s most powerful monarchs had written him a reference. His long journey from Japan was taken as evidence of Date Masamune’s sincerity. And, perhaps most important of all, the Pope had personal need of him.

Paul V, born Camillo Borghese and elected to the papacy in 1605, was acquiring a reputation both for looking after his own – the Borghese family was now far advanced on its journey from Siena elite to Italian aristocracy – and for seeking to promote the Catholic Church’s claims to global universalism. He beatified Ignatius of Loyola in 1609 and would do the same with the one-time Japanese resident Francis Xavier: two of the principal founders of a religious Order, the Jesuits, that was responsible for leading mission work beyond Europe – learning new languages, exploring new cultures and testing the limits of pragmatic accommodation with non-Christian ideas and ways of life. The Pope lent his support, too, to the case for sainthood of the Nagasaki martyrs: heroic advocates for a faith whose progress in the world, from the time of Peter and Paul onwards, had often been marked by tragedy and pain.

The city of Rome would gain a great artistic symbol of this global Church in 1651: Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers, representing the Danube (Europe), the Nile (Africa), the Río de la Plata (the Americas) and the Ganges (Asia). Well in advance of that, Pope Paul V was pioneering the use of diplomatic pageantry and art to stake his own claim to centrality in a Catholic tianxia. He had already welcomed embassies from the Kongo (in 1608) and Persia (1609). Now it was the turn of the Japanese to play their part.

So it was that, after a brief informal audience with the Pope at the Quirinal Palace on 25 October, Hasekura was awarded the accolade of a formal entry into Rome. It began at 3 p.m. on 29 October at the Porta Angelica. Wearing a kimono of white silk threaded with gold and silver motifs of flowers, birds and animals, Hasekura set out in a carriage while his men rode in front of him on finely caparisoned horses provided by the Pope. They were joined by ambassadors and aristocrats from Rome, Spain and France, alongside Swiss guardsmen and cavalry. The sound of trumpets and drums resounded around the streets as the embassy passed through, briefly drowned out by welcoming cannon-fire in St Peter’s Square and then the Castel Sant’Angelo. The procession ended at the Capitoline Hill, where Hasekura descended from his carriage and was welcomed to his accommodation by the Pope’s chamberlain.

For all its splendour, this was the economy version of a papal welcome. Senior cardinals and papal aides stayed away, according to rules under which only an embassy sent by a Christian head of state had a claim on their presence. A few days later, Hasekura dressed in his best for his second audience with the Pope, only to find the Holy Father dressing down in simple red, and greeting him in the relatively low-status Sala Clementina, within the Apostolic Palace. It was an impressive occasion nonetheless, for the visitors: the Pope sat on his red-velvet throne, a golden canopy overhead, surrounded by cardinals, archbishops, bishops and secretaries.

Hasekura entered, knelt once in the middle of the room and then again three times at the Pope’s feet, kissing them before he arose. Greeting the Pope in Japanese, with Sotelo interpreting, he took Date Masamune’s letter – written in Japanese and Latin – from a silk bag and presented it to the Pope. He then knelt again, but the Pope motioned him to stand as an aide read the Latin portion of the missive. Date was asking for Franciscan missionaries, pledging to build churches and protect priests. He hoped, too, for a bishop, whom he promised to maintain in appropriate comfort. The Pope’s aide responded by expressing pre-scripted delight that the mission had come from so far away, adding that he hoped for Date’s baptism soon.

In keeping with the best traditions of diplomacy, what each side really wanted could not be included in official correspondence, nor articulated in public. The Pope’s hopes for the visit were made manifest in art a few years after the visit. The Sala Regia, a large audience chamber at the Quirinal Palace, was redecorated, turning the upper parts of the room’s walls into an imagined spectators’ gallery. There, looking down on the Pope’s visitors, was a Japanese samurai dressed in an embroidered kimono of white silk: Hasekura Tsunenaga, freeze-framed in a fresco. Joining him in the image were four of his retainers, along with Luis Sotelo, gesturing downwards as though explaining to the Japanese the meaning of events taking place below. Further along the walls, likewise surveying the scene, were groups of Persians and Kongolese, alongside Armenians and Nestorian Christians from central Asia – all of them based on embassies received by the Pope, and all of it an implied rebuke of Protestant parochialism.

The discerning of Hasekura’s hidden motives required a careful reading of the letter from Date. It contained a rather strange and nebulous line: ‘For all the rest I thoroughly rely on [Sotelo and Hasekura], and I shall ratify anything they may conclude and ratify in my name.’ The Venetian ambassador to Rome suspected that he knew what this meant. He reported back to his Senate that Hasekura had quietly put an additional request to the Pope: ‘to receive under his protection as a sovereign prince his king, Masamune, who is on the way to become Emperor of Japan’.

Bearing in mind European uncertainty around this time over the roles of emperors versus shoguns, the Venetian ambassador seemed to be saying that Date’s real aim in sending the Hasekura mission to Rome was to forge foreign friendships that would help him declare his independence from Ieyasu and Hidetada, and perhaps go after the latter’s job. This was early days for the Tokugawa bakufu, and with Hideyori still alive there was everything to play for. Date perhaps hoped that by bringing the Pope onside he could leverage the latter’s authority and exploit to his advantage Japanese Christian concern over Ieyasu’s hostility towards them.

Whatever the truth behind the Venetian ambassador’s claims, the Pope showed little interest in forming an alliance – or, indeed, in agreeing to anything that Hasekura asked for. He made clear that his jurisdiction did not cover the trade policy of European powers. Nor did he show any willingness to create a new bishopric or support the sending of missionaries, shifting responsibility for the latter back to King Philip. Everything else Hasekura received during his stay in Rome – from honorary citizenship to a papal gift of a thousand gold ducats – represented consolation prizes at best.

Hasekura left Rome in early January 1616, beginning a long and dispiriting journey home. He found himself unwelcome in Spain: King Philip had secretly written to the Pope advising him to refuse all Japanese requests, while the Council of the Indies now barred Hasekura from Madrid and bade him return directly home instead. Hasekura ended up back in Seville for a few months, deploying his newly minted European contacts to the best effect he could. The Duke of Lerma, Pope Paul V and the Senate of Seville all received requests for help in meeting Date’s demands, with Hasekura now claiming that the fate of Japan’s Christians depended on them.

It was all to no avail, and in the summer of 1617 Hasekura was effectively deported: forced to sail back down the Guadalquivir River and to recross the Atlantic to New Spain. From there, his embassy reboarded the Date Maru, arriving in Manila in August 1618. The ship soon ended up in the hands of the Spanish navy, either commandeered by the Governor-General of the Philippines for service in an ongoing war with the English and the Dutch or donated by Luis Sotelo for that purpose. While the Date Maru was refitted for war, Hasekura, Sotelo and the others waited for an alternative ride home.

Hasekura and Sotelo may well have welcomed the delay in their return to Japan; Sotelo perhaps even engineered it, by making a gift of the Date Maru. One reason was the failure of their mission, another the Tokugawa turn against Christianity. Sotelo finally made it back in 1622 disguised as a merchant, only to be discovered, arrested and then burned at the stake with other Christians in 1624. All were tied loosely in the pyre, so that their writhing bodies would impress upon people the pain in store for those who broke the law. Setting out to lead the Christian community in Japan, Sotelo had ended as a martyr. He would be beatified in 1867, the final full year of Tokugawa rule.

Hasekura returned to Japan two years before Sotelo, reaching Sendai in September 1620 with presents for Date Masamune that included a portrait of the Pope and one of himself kneeling at prayer. The one thing he couldn’t give his lord was good news. Having maintained his support for Christianity throughout the period of Hasekura’s voyage, angering the shogun in the process, Date now turned his back. He banned Christianity in his domain and ordered the missionaries out.

No one knows for sure what became of Hasekura after this. Some say that he renounced his Christian faith, others that he died for it, along with his wife, children and servants. The most interesting afterlife afforded Hasekura insists that his ‘death’ in 1622 was faked by his family: a ruse to allow him to escape into the mountains. There he lived on for another thirty years as a recluse, finally passing away in 1654, at the age of eighty-four or thereabouts.

By this time the waters of Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers were flowing in Rome, while in Japan the Tokugawa bakufu had finished mopping up their enemies and were firmly in control of the country’s affairs. Ieyasu and Hidetada had defeated Hideyoshi’s son Hideyori and almost 100,000 of his supporters in 1614–15, besieging them at Osaka Castle and forcing Hideyori and his mother into suicide. Ieyasu had passed away the next year, leaving his successors to continue the arrest and execution of Christians all the way into the 1630s. A final armed stand took place in 1637–8 on the Shimabara peninsula near Nagasaki. Tens of thousands of disaffected samurai and Christian peasants battled the bakufu, but eventually went the way of Hideyori and his loyalists: besieged in a castle, and then wiped out.

If Hasekura was indeed still around in the early 1640s, he would have seen a century of Japanese contact with Europe – beginning with the first shipwrecked Portuguese in 1543 – come almost full circle. Alongside missionaries, Portuguese traders were banned from Japan. Only Nagasaki was open to foreign ships, and soon the only Europeans with whom the bakufu would do business were the Dutch. Japanese were meanwhile forbidden from leaving the country, on pain of execution when they returned. Issued across the 1630s, these rules were known collectively as the sakoku – ‘closed country’ – edicts.

Across the decades that followed, the ban on Christianity was enforced with the help of Japan’s Buddhists, recovered from bloody setbacks under Oda Nobunaga and once again hand-in-glove with the state. Shinran’s sect in particular was so powerful that in 1602 Ieyasu had decided to turn an internal split into a permanent separation of an Eastern (Higashi) Hongan-ji from a Western (Nishi) Hongan-ji. Buddhist temples now ran a nationwide system of compulsory registration, so that the country’s leaders knew who was who and where they lived. And they administered a method of anti-Christian surveillance known as fumi-e (picture-treading). People suspected of harbouring Christian sympathies were required, once a year, to tread on an image of Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary, many of them wrought in copper by apostates, working from the heart and taking as their model the kind of art that Hasekura had found everywhere during his travels in Europe.

For that deeply divided continent, long years of bloody religious conflict lay ahead. Japan, by contrast, had brought its own to a close. Its global relationships had also been settled, according to a vision – a Tokugawa tianxia – that prioritized domestic unity and bakufu control over foreign ambitions or friendships. It may have been less than Hideyoshi hoped for the Land of the Gods, but Japan was at last entering an era of remarkable peace and prosperity.