Hasekura Tsunenaga (支倉六右衛門常長, Hasekura Rokuemon Tsunenaga), also called Don Felipe Francisco Hasekura after his conversion to Christianity, was born in 1571 and died in 1622. Japanese samurai, vassal of daimyō of Sendai, Date Masamune, he headed an embassy to New Spain and then Europe between 1613 and 1620. He was the very first Japanese official sent to the Americas.
Table of Contents
- 1 Biography
- 2 Background of the embassy
- 3 The 1613 embassy project
- 4 The trans-Pacific journey
- 5 The mission in Europe
- 6 Return to Japan
Little is known about the youth of Hasekura Tsunenaga. Born in 1571, he was a middle-ranking samurai nobleman from the fiefdom of Ōshū, in northern Japan, who directly served the daimyo Date Masamune. They are both approximately the same age, and records show that Date entrusted him with the role of representing him on several important missions.
For six months in 1597, he fought as a veteran samurai in the Imjin War under the shogunate of Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
In 1612, his father, Hasekura Tsunenari (支倉常成, Hasekura Tsunenari), was condemned for corruption; he was put to death in 1613. His fief is confiscated, and his son is normally executed as well. However, Date Masamune gives Hasekura Tsunenaga the opportunity to restore his honor by taking charge of an embassy in Europe, and also quickly gives him back his lands.
Although Hasekura’s embassy made a strong impression in Europe, it came at a time when Japan was trying to suppress Christianity from its soil, so that European monarchs, such as the King of Spain, eventually refused the trade arrangements that Hasekura was trying to establish. Hasekura returned to Japan in 1620 and died of illness about a year later, his embassy having failed to achieve anything in an isolationist Japan.
Background of the embassy
Contacts between Spaniards and Japanese
In the 16th century, the Spanish began to make trans-Pacific voyages between New Spain and China, via their territorial base in the Philippines, following the sea route established by Andrés de Urdaneta. Manila became their final point of access to the Asian region in 1571. Due to bad weather, Spanish ships were regularly shipwrecked along the Japanese coast, which allowed Spain to initiate contacts with this country. The Spaniards wanted to spread the Christian faith in Japan, but their efforts to do so met with strong resistance from the Jesuits, who began evangelizing the country in 1549, but also from the Portuguese and Dutch, who did not want Spain to participate in trade with Japan.
Some Japanese, such as Christopher and Cosmas, are known to have crossed the Pacific Ocean in galleons as early as 1587. It is also known that gifts were exchanged between the governor of the Philippines and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who thanked him in a letter dated 1597, writing: “I find in particular the black elephant quite unusual. »
In 1609, the Manila galleon, the San Francisco, had to face bad weather during its voyage from Manila to Acapulco, and was wrecked on the Japanese coast at Chiba, near Edo. The sailors are rescued and welcomed, and the ship’s captain, Rodrigo de Vivero, former acting governor of the Philippines, meets retired shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. They signed a treaty on November 29, 1609, by which the Spaniards gained the right to establish a trading post in eastern Japan, mining specialists could be sent to Japan from New Spain, Spanish ships were allowed to stop over in Japan if necessary, and a Japanese embassy was to be sent to the Spanish court.
First Japanese Expeditions to America
Voyage of the San Buena Ventura in 1610
A Spanish Franciscan monk by the name of Luis Sotelo, who proselytizes in the Edo region, manages to convince the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu and his son Hidetada to send him as ambassador to New Spain. He travels with the Spanish sailors of the San Francisco returning to the San Buena Ventura, a ship built by the English adventurer William Adams for the shogun. Once in New Spain, Luis Sotelo met Viceroy Luis de Velasco, who agreed to send an ambassador to Japan in the person of the famous explorer Sebastián Vizcaíno, with the additional mission of exploring the “Islands of Gold and Silver” (las Islas del Oro y de la Plata) that were then supposed to exist to the east of the Japanese islands.
Vizcaíno arrived in Japan in 1611 and met many times with the shogun and feudal lords. These encounters are marked by his lack of respect for Japanese customs, the rising hostility of the Japanese towards Catholic missionaries and the intrigues of the Dutch to counter Spanish ambitions. Vizcaíno finally sets off in search of the Silver Islands, a search during which he encounters bad weather, forcing him to return to Japan with extensive damage.
Voyage of San Sebastian in 1612
Without waiting for Vizcaíno, another ship, named the San Sebastian, built in Izu by the bakufu under the leadership of the Minister of the Navy Shōgen Mukai, left for Mexico on September 9, 1612 with Luis Sotelo on board, along with two representatives of Date Masamune, with the aim of advancing trade agreements with New Spain. However, the ship sank a few miles from Uraga, and the expedition had to be abandoned.
The 1613 embassy project
The shogun then decided to have a 500-ton galleon built in Japan with the dual purpose of escorting Sebastián Vizcaíno back to New Spain and sending a Japanese embassy mission accompanied by Luis Sotelo. The construction of this galleon, named Date Maru by the Japanese, then San Juan Bautista by the Spaniards, takes 45 days, with the participation of technical experts from the bakufu (the Minister of the Navy Shōgen Mukai, an acquaintance of William Adams with whom he built several ships, sends his chief carpenter), 800 shipbuilders, 700 blacksmiths, and 3,000 carpenters. Date Masamune, Sendai’s daimyō, is in charge of this project and appoints one of its vassals, Hasekura Tsunenaga (whose fiefdom is estimated at around 600 koku), to lead the mission:
“The great ship left Toshima-Tsukinoura for the Southern Barbarian regions on September 15 [in the Japanese calendar] with Hasekura Rokuemon Tsunenaga at its head, and those named Imaizumi Sakan, Matsuki Shusaku, Nishi Kyusuke, Tanaka Taroemon, Naito Hanjuro, Sonohoka Kyuemon, Kuranojo, Tonomo, Kitsunai, Kyuji, and several others under Rokuemon’s command, as well as 40 Southern Barbarians, 10 men from Mukai Shōgen, and traders, for a total of 180 men. »
– (Archives of Date House, Keicho-Genna 伊達家慶長元和留控, Gonoi, p. 56)
The purpose of the Japanese embassy is both to discuss business arrangements with the Spanish crown in Madrid, and to meet the Pope in Rome. Masamune Date shows a great willingness to welcome the Catholic religion on his lands: he invites Luis Sotelo and authorizes the spread of Christianity in 1611. In his letter to the pope brought by Hasekura, he writes: I will offer my estate as a basis for your missionary work. Send as many padres as you can.
Sotelo, in his account of these journeys, insists on the religious dimension of the mission, stressing that its main objective is to spread the Christian faith in the north of Japan:
“I was previously sent as an ambassador of Date Masamune, who reigns over the kingdom of Oxu [from Japanese 奥州] (which is the eastern part of Japan), and who, although not yet resurrected through baptism, has received the catechism, and is desirous that the Christian faith be preached in his kingdom, together with another nobleman of his Court, Philippus Franciscus Faxecura Retuyemon [sic], to the Roman Curia and to the one in charge of the Apostolic See, His Holiness Pope Paul V. »
– Luis Sotelo, De Ecclesiae Iaponicae Statu Relatio, 1634
The embassy was probably part of a plan to diversify and increase foreign trade, a plan put in place before the participation of Christians in the Osaka rebellion, which led to a radical reaction by the shogunate, with the banning of Christianity in the territories under its direct control in 1614.
The trans-Pacific journey
Once completed, the ship left for Acapulco, Mexico on October 28, 1613 with about 180 people on board, including 10 shogun samurai (provided by the Minister of the Navy Shōgen Mukai), 12 Sendai samurai, 120 Japanese merchants, sailors and servants, and about 40 Spanish and Portuguese, including Sebastián Vizcaíno, who, in his own words, had only the status of a passenger.
New Spain (Mexico)
The ship first reached Cape Mendocino in present-day California, then sailed along the coast and docked in Acapulco on 25 January 1614 after three months at sea. The embassy entered Mexico City on March 4, where it was received in a grand ceremony. The ultimate goal of the embassy being Europe, she spends some time in Mexico City, then leaves for Veracruz to embark in Don Antonio de Oquendo’s fleet.
A contemporary newspaper, written by the historian Chimalpahin Cuauhtlehuanitzin, an Aztec nobleman, gives an account of Hasekura’s visit:
“This is the second time the Japanese brought one of their ships to the shore of Acapulco. They are bringing many iron things, and writings, and clothes that they are going to sell here. »
– Chimalpahin, “Annals of His Time,” March 4, 1614, p. 275.
“It was known here in Mexico City, and it is said, that the reason why their ruler, the Emperor of Japan, sent the said seigniorial emissary and ambassador here is to go to Rome to see the Holy Father Paul V and to affirm to him their obedience to the Holy Church, so that all the Japanese will want to become Christians. »
– Chimalpahin, Annals of His Time, March 24, 1614, p. 275.
Hasekura is installed in Mexico City in a house near the church of San Francisco. He meets with the viceroy, to whom he explains that he also wants to meet with King Philip III to make him an offer of peace and obtain for the Japanese the possibility of coming to trade in Mexico. On Wednesday, April 9, twenty Japanese were baptized, and twenty-two more on April 20 by the Archbishop of Mexico City, Don Juan Pérez de la Serna, in the church of San Francisco in Mexico City. In all, sixty-three of them receive confirmation on April 25. Hasekura, for his part, waits for his trip to Europe to be baptized there :
“But the seigniorial emissary, the ambassador, didn’t want to be baptized here; it was said he wanted to be baptized later in Spain. »
– Chimalpahin, Annals of His Time, April 9, 1614, p. 277.
Chimalpahin explains that Hasekura left some of his compatriots behind before leaving for Europe :
“The Japanese ambassador set off for Spain. On leaving he divided his vassals: he took a number of Japanese with him, and left an equal number here as merchants to trade and sell things. »
– Chimalpahin, Annals of His Time, May 29, 1614, p. 283.
The fleet left for Europe on the San Jose on June 10, Hasekura having left most of the Japanese group behind, waiting in Acapulco for the return of the embassy. Some of them, as well as those left over from a previous trip by Tanaka Shōsuke, returned to Japan later that year aboard the San Juan Bautista :
“Today, Tuesday the fourteenth of October in the year 1614, was the day that some Japanese left from here to Mexico City to return home to Japan; they lived here in Mexico for four years. Some of them remained here; they earned their living by trading and selling here the goods they brought with them from Japan. »
– Chimalpahin, Annals of His Time, October 14, 1614, p. 291.
The embassy stops and changes ships in Havana, Cuba in July 1614. In memory of this event, a bronze statue representing Hasekura was erected on April 26, 2001 at the end of the bay of Havana.
The mission in Europe
The fleet arrives in Sanlúcar de Barrameda on October 5, 1614.
“The fleet finally arrived safely, after facing some dangers and storms, at the port of Sanlúcar de Barrameda on the 5th of October, where the Duke of Medina, who resided there, warned Sidonia of the arrival. He sent ships to receive them, and had a sumptuous lodging prepared for the ambassador and his followers. »
– Scipione Amati, History of the Kingdom of Voxu, 1615
“The Japanese ambassador Hasekura Rokuemon, sent by Joate Masamune, King of Boju, entered Seville on Wednesday, October 23, 1614. He was accompanied by 30 Japanese with blades, their captain of the guard, and 12 archers and halberdiers with painted spears and ceremonial blades. The captain of the guard was a Christian and was called Don Thomas, son of a Japanese martyr. »
– Calombina Library 84-7-19 Memorias…, fol. 195
The Japanese embassy meets King Philip III of Spain in Madrid on January 30, 1615. Hasekura gives him a letter from Date Masamune, as well as a treaty proposal. The King replies that he will do what he can to accede to these requests.
As is customary, the Japanese embassy brought several gifts to the King of Spain, including samurai armour (still on display in the Royal Palace in Madrid).
Hasekura was baptized on February 17 by the king’s personal chaplain, and was given the name “Felipe Francisco Hasekura”. The baptism ceremony is conducted by the Archbishop of Toledo and Francisco Goméz de Sandoval y Rojas, Duke of Lerma, chief administrator in the reign of Philip III and de facto ruler of Spain is chosen to be his godfather.
The embassy stays in Spain for eight months before leaving the country for Italy.
After crossing Spain, the embassy sails on the Mediterranean Sea in three Spanish frigates to Italy. However, bad weather forces them to stay for some time in the French port of Saint-Tropez where they are received by the local nobility and cause a sensation among the local population, as can be seen in the archives that have survived to the present day :
“It was eight days ago that a great Indian lord, Don Felipe Fransceco Faxicura, named Don Felipe Fransceco Faxicura, Ambassador to the Pope, on behalf of Idate Massamuni Roy of Woxu in Jappon, feudal lord of the great King of Japan and Meaco, spent in St Tropez. He had more than thirty people in his retinue, including seven other pages, all well dressed and all camuz, so that almost all of them seemed to be brothers. They had three very light fregates, who carried all his paraphernalia. They have a shaved test, a small border on the backside making a float of hair on the top of the receding test, and tied up like a Chinese woman […]. »
“…] They blow their noses into handkerchiefs of Chinese tissue paper, about the size of your hand, and never use a handkerchief twice, so that whenever they don’t blow their noses, they jest their papers on the floor, and avow the pleasure of seeing them picked up by those of deca who are willing to see them, where there is a great press of the people who fight among themselves to pick up mainly those of the Ambassador who are stunned by the edges, like the richest poulletzes of the ladies of the Court. They carry a lot of them in their lordship, and they have brought sufficient provision for this long journey, which they have come to make some deca […]. »
“…] His swords and daggers are made of simmet earthen fasson, very slightly curved, and of medium length, and are so strong that putting a sheet of paper in it and blowing on it, they cut the paper, and again of their paper which is much more loose than ours and is made of silk on which they swivel with a brush. »
“…when they eat, they never touch their flesh except with two little sticks they hold with three fingers. »
– Relations of Mrs de St Troppez, October 1615, Inguimbertine Library, Carpentras
The visit to the Japanese Embassy is recorded in the chronicles of the city as being led by “Philip Francis Faxicura, ambassador to the Pope, of Date Masamunni, King of Woxu in Japan”.
This unexpected visit is the first recorded trace of Franco-Japanese relations. Conversely, the first visit of a Frenchman to Japan was that of François Caron in 1619.
The Japanese embassy arrives in Italy where she meets Pope Paul V in Rome in November 1615. Hasekura gives the Pope two golden letters, one in Latin and one in Japanese, containing a request for a trade treaty between Japan and Mexico, and the sending of Christian missionaries to Japan. These two letters are still visible in the archives of Vatican City. The letter in Latin, probably written by Luis Sotelo for Date Masamune, contains:
“Kissing the holy feet of the great, universal, most holy lord of the whole world, Pope Paul, in sign of deep submission and reverence, I, Date Masamune, King of Wôshû in the empire of Japan, say with supplication:
The Franciscan father Luis Sotelo came to our country to spread the faith of God. On that occasion, I received the teaching of this faith and desired to become a Christian, but I have not yet fulfilled this desire because of some small problems. However, in order to encourage my subjects to become Christians, I would like you to send me missionaries from the Franciscan Church. I guarantee that you will be able to build a church and that your missionaries will be protected. I also ask that you choose and send a bishop. For this I have sent one of my samurai, Hasekura Rokuemon, as my representative to accompany Luis Sotelo across the seas to Rome, to give you a mark of obedience and kiss your foot. Also, since our country and New Spain are neighboring countries, could you intervene so that we can discuss with the King of Spain, for the benefit of sending missionaries across the seas. »
– Translation of Date Masamune’s Latin letter to the Pope
The Pope agrees to send the missionaries but leaves the decision about trade to the King of Spain. He writes a letter to Date Masamune, a copy of which is still visible in the Vatican.
The Roman Curia also gives Hasekura the honorary title of Roman Citizen, in a document that he brings back to Japan and which is now kept in Sendai.
Sotelo also gives an account of the visit to the Pope in his book De ecclesiae Iaponicae statu relatio (published posthumously in 1634):
“When we arrived here with God’s help in the year of grace 1615, not only were we kindly received by His Holiness the great Pope, with the holy college of cardinals and a gathering of bishops and nobles, and even the general joy and happiness of the Roman people, but we and three others (whom the Japanese Christians had specially appointed to announce their condition with respect for the Christian religion) were heard, rested, and just as we hoped, sent as quickly as possible. »
– Luis Sotelo, De ecclesiae Iaponicae statu relatio
Rumours of political intrigue
Apart from the official description of Hasekura’s visit to Rome, some contemporary texts tend to indicate that political issues were also discussed, and that an alliance with Date Masamune was suggested as a means of establishing Christian influence over the whole of Japan :
“The ambassador strongly emphasized that the authority and power of his leader was greater than that of many European countries. »
– Anonymous Roman communication, dated 10 October 1615.
“The Spanish Franciscan Fathers explain that the King of the Ambassador [Tsunenaga Hasekura] will soon become the supreme ruler of this country, and that not only will they become Christians and follow the will of the Church of Rome, but that they in turn will convert the rest of the population. That is why they are calling for a high clergyman to be sent with the missionaries. Because of this, many people have questioned the true purpose of the embassy, and are wondering if they are not seeking some other profit. »
– Letter from the ambassador of Venice, dated 7 November 1615.
Second visit to Spain
Back in Spain, Hasekura meets again with the king who refuses to sign a trade treaty, arguing that the embassy is not an official embassy of the ruler of Japan Tokugawa Ieyasu, who on the contrary issued an edict in January 1614 ordering the expulsion of all missionaries from Japan, and began the persecution of Christians in Japan.
The embassy left Seville for Mexico in June 1616 after a two-year period spent in Europe, but some Japanese remained in Spain where they settled in Coria del Río, a town near Seville, where 700 of their present descendants bear the surname “Japón”.
Return to Japan
By the time Hasekura came back, Japan had changed quite drastically: an effort to eradicate Christianity had been under way since 1614, Tokugawa Ieyasu had died in 1616 and been replaced by his more xenophobic son Tokugawa Hidetada, and Japan was moving towards the “Sakoku” policy of isolation. Because news of these persecutions arrived in Europe during Hasekura’s embassy, European rulers – especially the King of Spain – became very reluctant to respond favorably to Hasekura’s trade and missionary proposals.
Indonesian kris and Ceylonese dagger (acquired in the Philippines), presented by Hasekura to Date Masamune upon his return; Sendai City Museum Hasekura reported his travels to Date Masamune upon his arrival in Sendai. It is recorded that he remitted a portrait of Pope Paul V, a portrait of himself in prayer (shown above), and a set of Ceylonese and Indonesian daggers acquired in the Philippines, all preserved today in the Sendai City Museum. The “Records of the House of Masamune” describe his report in a rather succinct manner, ending with a rather cryptic expression of surprise bordering on the outrage (“奇怪最多シ”) at Hasekura’s discourse:
“Rokuemon went to the country of the Southern Barbarians, he paid his respects to the king Paolo, he stayed there for several years, and now he sailed back from Luzon. He brought paintings of the king of the Southern Barbarians, and a painting of himself, which he remitted. Many of his descriptions of the Southern Barbarian countries, and the meaning of Rokuemon’s declarations were surprising and extraordinary.”
Interdiction of Christianity in Sendai
The direct effect of Hasekura’s return to Sendai was the interdiction of Christianity in the Sendai fief two days later:
“Two days after the return of Rokuemon to Sendai, a three-point edict against the Christian was promulgated: first, that all Christians were ordered to abandon their faith, in accordance with the rule of the Shogun, and for those who did not, they would be exiled if they were nobles, and killed if they were citizens, peasants or servants. Second, that a reward would be given for the denunciation of hidden Christians. Third that propagators of the Christian faith should leave the Sendai fief, or else, abandon their religion” (November 1620 letter of father Angelis, Japan-China archives of the Jesuits in Rome, quoted in Gonoi’s “Hasekura Tsunenaga”, p231),
What Hasekura said or did to bring about such a result is unknown. As later events tend to indicate that he and his descendants remained faithful Christians, Hasekura may have made an enthusiastic – and to a certain extent, disturbing – account of the greatness and might of Western countries and the Christian religion. He may also have encouraged an alliance between the Church and Date Masamune to take over the country (an idea advertized by the Franciscans while in Rome), which, in 1620 Japan, would have been a totally unrealistic proposition. Lastly, hopes of trade with Spain evaporated when Hasekura communicated that the Spanish King would not enter an agreement as long as persecutions were occurring in the rest of the country.
Date Masamune, heretofore very tolerant of Christianity in spite of the Bakufu’s prohibition in the land it directly controlled, thus suddenly chose to distance himself from the Western faith. The first executions of Christians started 40 days later. The anti-Christian measures taken by Date Masumune were however comparatively mild, and Japanese and Western Christians repeatedly claimed that he only took them to appease the Shogun:
“Date Masumune, out of fear of the Shogun, ordered the persecution of Christianity in his territory, and created several martyrs.” (Letter of 17 prominent Japanese Christians from Sendai, to the Pope, 29 September 1621).
One month after Hasekura’s return, Date Masamune wrote a letter to the Shogun Tokugawa Hidetada, in which he makes a very clear effort to evade responsibility for the embassy, explaining in detail how it was organized with the approval, and even the collaboration, of the Shogun:
“When I sent a ship to the Southern Barbarian countries several years ago, upon the advice of Mukai Shogen, I also dispatched the Southern Barbarian named Sotelo, who had resided for several years in Edo. At that time, your highness also gave messages for the Southern Barbarians, as well as presents, such as folding screens and sets of armour.” (18 October 1620, quoted in Gonoi, p. 234).
Spain was by far the most threatening power for Japan at that time (with a colony and an army in the nearby Philippines). Hasekura eyewitness accounts of Spanish power and colonial methods in Nueva España (Mexico) may have precipitated the Shogun Tokugawa Hidetada’s decision to sever trade relations with Spain in 1623, and diplomatic relations in 1624, although other events such as the smuggling of Spanish priests into Japan and a failed Spanish embassy also contributed to the decision.