Asia,  Eastern Europe,  ER,  Japan,  Portugal

João Rodrigues-  The Interpreter

rodrigues2Japan was a land of mystery for westerners for many years.  Marco Polo had written about it, but never been there.  It was one of the destinations of Christopher Columbus as he sailed West in 1492.  However, it was still very much an unknown in the 16th century, when Portuguese merchants and missionaries arrived on the coast of Japan in 1577.  They had traveled to India in 1574 when Rodrigues was only 14 and served as a cabin boy.  No one is exactly sure why this young man made the dangerous trip from Lisbon to the East via the Cape of Good Hope.  He could have been filled with religious piety to convert the heathen or he could have simply been seeking his fortune.  Whatever the reason, the sixteen year old Rodrigues was with the missionaries when they arrived in Nagasaki.  There he joined the Society of Jesus or the Jesuits.  As a novitiate, Rodrigues devoted himself to learning the Japanese language to facilitate the spread of the gospel.  He became so fluent in the language, the Japanese called him Tçuzzu, or Interpreter.  He said in his later writings, “Tsukku-san’s my nickname as Japanese cannot pronounce my name … Tsukku’s a pun on the Japanese word tsuyaku – to interpret.”

His role as interpreter allowed Rodrigues access to the highest levels of Japanese society.  The Japanese were fascinated by the foreigners, but at the same time highly suspicious of them.  They were fascinated by the guns the westerners brought and their strange looks- thick beards, fair hair and long noses.  They called them “Southern Barbarians.”  Watching the Europeans eat with only a knife and their fingers were unbelievable to the Japanese.  As well as the fact that they only bathed every month or so, instead of every day like the Japanese.

The westerners, in turn, were fascinated by the Japanese.  Without the tenets of Christianity, they had set up a society “cultured and prudent people” yet completely opposite from Europeans.  Rodrigues describes even the smallest differences, such as the use of fans by all levels of people.  They wrote notes on the fans and would not be caught in public without them.  Rodrigues also gives one of the first accounts by a westerner of the tea ceremony or chanoyu.  He writes of this in his book, Arte del Cha, and details both the annual harvest from Uji as well as the Zen meanings of the ceremony.  His writings reveal an open mind about the culture of Japan, including praise of the holiness of the Buddhist monks.

The missionaries spread the word of the gospel, and some people were receptive of their message.  Over 200 Catholic churches were established, primarily in southern Japan, and converted over a quarter million Japanese.  These included some the warlords in charge, which would then put pressure on their people.  These conversions were possibly less than spiritual in nature as merchants generally followed where the missionaries were, and the merchants brought lucrative trade.  Religion and trade were closely intertwined and where one went the other followed.  Other warlords did not like the new influence of Christianity, and opposed its spread and the conversion of the people and their new found wealth.  Finally, the missionaries were expelled from Japan in 1587 and Rodrigues left and stayed in Macao.

The tide changed again and the Europeans were invited back in 1591 and Rodrigues returned with the new ambassador, Alessandro Valignano.  Rodrigues describes the procession of the European delegation through the streets of Kyoto, where spectators lined the streets to see the many gifts being given to Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the Japanese ruler.  These included “a fine Arab stallion, resplendent with silver harness, golden stirrups and black velvet drapes.”  Once there, the new ambassador and the Kampaku, or chief adviser of the emperor, sipping sake from the same cup in the sakazui ceremony.  Then gifts were exchanged.  Through it all Rodrigues was the prime interpreter.

Rodrigues was one of the few men to speak both Portuguese and fluent Japanese as well as be familiar with Japanese customs and etiquette.  His skills were called on for many diplomatic missions including the San Felipe affair in 1597.  The San Felipe was a Spanish ship, which wrecked off the coast of Japan.  Hideyoshi claimed the ship and the cargo, and the Spanish captain of the ship protested.  He demanded compensation for his lost ship and cargo, and alleged the missionaries were the vanguard of military conquerors.  This incident soured Hideyoshi on the Christians and rekindled a fear of the religion’s popularity in Japan.  This led to the crucifixion of the Twenty-Six martyrs of Japan in February 1597, which included six European Franciscans, three Japanese Jesuits, and seventeen Japanese Christian laymen.

Rodrigues stayed in Japan becoming the emperor’s commercial agent in Nagasaki until 1610.  There was another trade dispute over the Madre de Deus.  The ship had been involved in a fight in Macau the previous year and Japanese sailors had been killed.  When it returned to Nagasaki, Japanese officials boarded and tried to arrest the captain.  That did not go over well at all and in the ensuing fight the ship was burned and sank.  To smooth this over, the Governor of Nagasaki made a truce with the Portuguese merchants conditional on Rodrigues’ exile.  He was sent by the Jesuits back to Macao where he revised and published Arte da Lingoa de Iapam, the first ever grammar of the Japanese language.  He also began História da Igreja do Japão, the History of Japan, but it was never finished.  There are 18th century copies of the first two sections which include his own experiences in Japan.  The rest of the Jesuits soon followed Rodrigues as all priests were expelled from Japan in 1614.

Rodrigues died in Macau in 1633 or 1634.  His writings inspired the character of Martin Alvito in the book Shogun by James Clavell.


Sources available on request