Historical Oddities: Hasekura Tsunenaga

During the Age of Sail, many European merchants went on long expeditions to the East Indies to establish trade and bring back the lucrative spices that would make them rich. This resulted in a large expansion and creation of trade routes across the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans. One of these, the Manila route, went around the Pacific Ocean from Acapulco on the western coast of Mexico to Manila in the Philippines and was the main Spanish trade route with east Asia There are many known accounts of travels from Europe and the New World on this route, but few of any contact originating from Asia. One of the few accounts of this is the travels of the Japanese samurai Hasekura Tsunenaga and one of the few diplomatic envoys sent by Japan to Europe before the 19th century.

The idea for the embassy arose in Japan in the early years of the Tokugawa shogunate. The Spanish had been expanding their colonial base in the Philippines, and by the early 1600s had begun sending Jesuit missionaries throughout eastern Asia to proselytize and spread Catholicism. In these early years, Japanese diplomatic missions were occasionally sent to Mexico, but they were always Spanish monks in Japan who offered to travel on behalf of the shogun. In an effort to seek friendlier trade with the Spanish colonies, Tokguawa Hidetada approved the construction of a galleon in Japan that would carry a Japanese embassy to not only Mexico, but to Europe and a representative to the Spanish court and the Vatican. Hasekura Tsunenaga was chosen to lead the embassy as part of the retinue of daimyo Date Masamune of Sendai. Tsunenaga was selected because Date Masamune was one of the daimyos who had embraced Christianity and supported the Jesuit presence in Japan.

The galleon Date Maru – later called the San Juan Bautista by the Spanish – left Japan on October 28, 1613 with 180 passengers including Tsunenaga, 30 samurai for the shogun and Sendai, and 40 Spaniards and Portuguese as well as Spanish explorer Sebastian Vizcaino. The galleon spent three months sailing across the northern Pacific current and down the California coast before reaching Acapulco in early 1614. The Japanese embassy spent two months in Acapulco and Mexico City, meeting with the viceroy of New Spain. Some of the merchants travelling with the envoy also sold some of the goods they had brought over on the galleon. In Mexico City Hasekura explained to the Spanish officials the goal of the expedition. They were meant to travel to Madrid and gain an audience with King Phillip III to arrange safe trade for Japanese merchants in New Spain. This was important because at the time, the Viceroyalty of New Spain included the Philippines and other Spanish lands in Asia. Meanwhile, 60 Japanese men on the expedition were baptized by the Archbishop of Mexico. Tsunenaga, however, chose to wait to be baptized in Spain. The Date Maru left Acapulco to return to Spain with many of the Japanese envoy, while the smaller embassy left Mexico in June of 1614.

En route to Europe, the embassy stopped over in Havana for six days. This stopover is mostly notable because of a statue of Hasekura built on Havana Bay in 2001 to commemorate the embassy. The embassy arrived in Sevilla in October of 1614, and stayed there and in Madrid until early 1615. During this time, Hasekura met with King Phillip. Hasekura gave a letter from Date Masamune to King Phillip, and requested the arrangement of a treaty between Japan and Spain. Additionally, Hasekura Tsunenaga was baptized while in Madrid.

After leaving Spain, Hasekura’s embassy stopped in the south coast of France on their way to Rome due to a period of bad weather in the Mediterranean Sea. The local nobility met with the embassy in the first recorded instance of Franco-Japanese relations. Finally, the embassy met with Pope Paul V in Rome in November of 1615. In an exchange of letters, Hasekura requested of the Pope a trade treaty between Japan and Mexico, and to dispatch Christian missionaries to Japan on behalf of Date Masamune. In return, the Roman Senate declared Hasekura Tsunenaga an honorary Roman citizen and the Pope agreed to send missionaries. Returning to Spain, the embassy ran into trouble in seeking its trade treaty on the second meeting with King Phillip III. Resistance to Christian proselytizing in Japan had grown during the voyage of the embassy. In January of 1614, the shogun had issued an edict expelling all Christian missionaries from Japan. Because of this, the king had doubts about whether the embassy was acting in an official capacity and declined the trade agreement.

After the two year mission to Europe, Hasekura Tsunenaga left Seville in 1617. They arrived in Mexico and rejoined the San Juan Bautista galleon in Acapulco, which had embarked on a second voyage across the Pacific. The galleon was laden with pepper and lacquerware from Japan, and Hasekura and the remaining members of the embassy made a profit from selling these goods in Acapulco. Hasekura and his Spanish companion Luis Sotero traveled aboard the San Juan Bautista to the Philippines in 1618, where they met with the governor of the colony. Hasekura sold the San Juan Bautista to the governor and it was immediately converted into a war galleon for use in the Spanish navy in the Indies. Hasekura finally returned to Japan in 1620.

Unfortunately for Hasekura Tsunenaga, Japan had continued to turn to isolation and toward the persecution of Christians by his return. Hasekura met with Date Masamune and gave an enthusiastic report on the greatness of Christianity. Two days later, the daimyo issued an edict ordering all practice and spreading of Christianity to cease in Sendai in accordance with the shogun’s ban on the religion. The daimyo, previously tolerant of Christianity in Sendai, was lax in enforcing the ban, and records show that Hasekura Tsunenaga and his descendants continued to practice Christianity in secret. Hasekure Tsunenaga died in 1622, and Japanese relations with Spain were severed in the following years. Japanese embassies to European countries ceased from then until 1862.

The legacy of Hasekura’s embassy remains in several forms. Many of the letters and documents from the embassy still survive, including two gilded letters in Japanese and Latin from Hasekura to Pope Paul V that are in the Vatican Archives. Statues of Hasekura have been built in Manila, Havana, Acapulco, in Civitavecchia in Italy, in Coria del Rio near Seville, and in Osato in Japan where Hasekura is purported to be buried. Additionally, the embassy left a living legacy in Spain. Many members of the Japanese delegation remained in Europe in Coria del Rio, and approximately 700 of their descendants survive with the surname Japón.

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