Society for the History of Discoveries

Cooper, Michael, ed. João Rodrigues’s Account of Sixteenth-Century Japan. London: The Hakluyt Society, 2001.  xli, 428p.  50.  ISBN 0904180735

      Michael Cooper has spent the bulk of his adult life in Japan, and his career as a scholar has been inexorably linked to another Jesuit who also spent decades in Japan, albeit some four hundred years before Cooper. João Rodrigues was a Portuguese who traveled to the East as a boy of fifteen. Shortly after his arrival in Japan in 1577, he joined the Society of Jesus and resided there until 1610. He spent the rest of his life in Macao and mainland China. Until his death in 1633 in Macao he worked on a history of the Jesuits in Japan. The incomplete manuscript of this work forms the basis for Cooper’s present work.

      Undoubtedly the most remarkable aspect of Rodrigues’ career was his mastery of the Japanese language and the special relationship with key Japanese leaders deriving from the linguistic skills. He was present in Japan during the period of civil war and eventual consolidation of power with Tokugawa Ieyesu as Shogun. This period also witnessed the expansion of Portuguese presence in Japan and the arrival of the first Englishman, Wil Adams.

      Rodriques’ language skills also led to the publishing of the monumental Arte da lingoa Iapam which along with Vocabulario da lingoa de Iapan served to train subsequent arrivals in the country. This extraordinary facility with the language made him invaluable to the Japanese authorities as well as the senior Jesuit hierarchy, and he must have been present at many critical meetings over the years. He was forced to leave Japan permanently in 1610 as a result of the incident of the Portuguese ship, Madre de Deus, which became the cause of a diplomatic crisis between the Japanese and the Portuguese. The ship had been involved in a dispute in Macao the year before in which Japanese sailors were killed. After her return visit to Nagasaki, Japanese authorities attempted to board her and arrest the captain. The ship burned and sank while attempting to exit Nagasaki harbor, and the ill feelings this incident generated necessitated the expulsion of someone. That someone was Rodrigues.

      In the Introduction, Cooper produces a detailed description of the history of the manuscript which is the subject of this present book. Portions of Rodrigues’ manuscript were recopied in Macao in the mid-eighteenth century and eventually ended up in Lisbon. The original and another copy were sent to Manila and eventually to Madrid. The original remains there but the second copy ended up in private hands. Sir Thomas Phillipps acquired the copy, and by 1991 it was for sale in a book store in Kanda, Tokyo, after being auctioned by Sotheby’s a few years before. Cooper has made his translation from a photocopy of the manuscript copy in Lisbon which bore many transcription-errors, some interestingly indicating that the transcription was made from oral dictation. 

      Cooper points out that what remains is only a portion of a far larger work, but the observations of Japanese life are nonetheless the most interesting part. According to Cooper, Rodrigues was quite open-minded in his discussion of Japanese culture, even to the extent of praising the holiness of the Buddhist monks. The tea ceremony, which was still undergoing its development during Rodrigues’ time in Japan, is also heavily reported on in three full chapters.

      Cooper, while recognizing the quality and validity of Rodrigues’ observations of contemporary Japan, is not shy to point out the shortcomings of the manuscript. He documents instances of what today would be called plagiarism. He also concurs with comments made by Rodrigues himself on the rather unsophisticated literary style of the original work. However, for the scholar interested in fresh European observations of Japan, this annotated translation will be a valuable source indeed. Combined with Cooper’s two earlier works on Rodrigues, we have a quite complete view of this important early phase in the ongoing drama of “East meets West” which was to be played out over the centuries to come.

Richard Pflederer
Williamsburg, Virginia

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