“We Are Now Learning the [Japanese] Language like Little Children” – St. Francis Xavier

“We are now learning the [Japanese] language like little children” – Childlikeness and learning within the context of the early modern Jesuit mission to Japan

 Dr. Pia Maria Jolliffe
The Nissan Institute of Japanese Studies, University of Oxford

Learning, education and inculturation were very important to the early modern Jesuit mission to Japan. From the beginning, the Jesuits admired the high level of education in Japan. The missionaries knew that they had to learn from Japan if they wanted the Japanese people to develop a real desire to learn from them.

St. Francis Xavier

St. Francis Xavier
A Japanese depiction of Saint Francis Xavier, dated to the 17th century, held in the Kobe City Museum.  St. Francis was the greatest Roman Catholic missionary of modern times who was instrumental in the establishment of Christianity in India, the Malay Archipelago, and Japan.

After Francis Xavier [1506-1552] arrived with his companions on 15 August 1549 in Kagoshima, he lived for a while with a Japanese family and studied Japanese customs. Five letters sent by Xavier from Kagoshima to Rome have survived and have been confirmed as authentic. They are all dated 5 November 1549. Learning emerges as an important theme in all these letters. Xavier admired the Japanese people for their highly developed culture. So, he urged his Jesuit companions to adapt a humble approach to their missionary work:

“May it please God our Lord to grant us a knowledge of the language so that we can speak to them of the things of God, for we shall then, with his grace, favour, and assistance, produce much fruit. We are now like so many statues among them, since they speak and talk much about us, while we, not understanding their language, are mute. We are now learning the language like little children, and may it please God that we may imitate them in their simplicity and purity of mind. We are forced to employ the means and to dispose ourselves to be like them, both in learning the language and in imitating the simplicity of small and innocent children.” (Xavier 1992: 306)

This comparison between the learning Jesuit and little children is very interesting. Probably, Xavier thought of the evangelical simplicity and childlikeness: “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18: 3-4)

The first elementary school for young children was opened in 1561 in Ōita. Another elementary school was opened in 1562 in Yokoseura. (Schilling 1931: 30)

Fr. Luis Frois, SJ

Fr. Luis Frois, SJ
Statue of Fr. Luís Fróis, SJ,  in Yokoseura Park ©Nishimura Yuka

In the same year, 1562, Fr. Luís Fróis [1532-1597] arrived in Japan. It is quite likely that he had read Xavier’s letters during his novitiate in Goa.

After 23 years as a missionary in Japan, the mature Froís drafted in 1585 his Tratado, which is today considered the earliest systematic comparison of Japanese and European cultures. There is a whole chapter “Concerning children and their customs” which includes several observations concerning learning.

For example, distich 6 says:

“Among us, a four-year old child still does not know how to eat with his own hands; in Japan a three-year old already eats by himself using chopsticks.” (Fróis 2015: 84)

Or distich 8 says:

“Among us, one learns to read and write from secular teachers; in Japan, they all learn at the temple-schools of the Buddhist monks.” (Fróis 2015: 85)

Distich 9: “Our children learn first to read and then to write; in Japan they commence with writing and then learn to read.” (Fróis 2015: 86)

Distich 13: “Our children have little command and excellence in their manners; children in Japan are exceedingly thorough in their manners, so much that they are amazing.” (Fróis 2015: 87)

It is noteworthy how positively Fróis evaluates Japanese children. Compared to their European counterparts – the Portuguese children Fróis may have been familiar with – Japanese children seemed to the missionary well mannered, dexterous and relaxed when performing in the presence of others. This positive interpretation of Japanese customs and behaviour can be found throughout the Tratado.

Fr. Alessandro Valignano, Jesuit Superior General

Fr. Alessandro Valiugnano, SJ
Fr. Alessandro Valignano helped introduce Christianity to the Far East, especially to Japan

Alessandro Valignano [1539-1606], the famous Visitador, also had a high opinion of the quality of learning in Japan. Like Fróis he noted how quickly Japanese children were learning:

“People are very able and of good understanding; and the children are very able to learn all our sciences and disciplines (…) and they learn to read and write in our language much easier and in less time than our children in Europe.” (Valignano 1899: 92)

St. Francis Xavier
St. Francis Xavier, Apostle of the Far East

Moreover, like Xavier, Valignano suggested that Jesuits need to develop a childlike approach towards their new life in Japan:

“However prudent and wise they may be, people find themselves in Japan like children and ignorant, in the kind of way that it is necessary for them to learn how to talk, how to sit down, how to walk, how to eat and to do a thousand other new things. These things seem at the beginning very strange and foolish, however, later they seem good.” (Valignano 1899: 110)

In this way, Valignano challenged generational power relations by acknowledging that mature Jesuits will find themselves “like children and ignorant” when learning to adapt themselves to Japanese culture.#

References

Fróis, Luís. 2015. The First European Description of Japan, 1585. A Critical English-language Edition of Striking Contrasts in the Customs of Europe and Japan by Luís Fróis, S.J. London & New York: Routledge.

Schilling, Konrad. 1931. Das Schulwesen der Jesuiten in Japan (1551-1614). Münster: Druck der Regensbergschen Buchdruckerei.

Valignano, Alessandro. 1899. Monumenta Xaveriana. Ex autographis vel ex antiquioribus exemplis collecta. Matriti: Typis Augustini Avrial.

Xavier, Francis. 1992. The letters and instructions of Francis Xavier. Translated and introduced by M. Joseph Costelloe. St. Louis: Institute of Jesuit Sources.#

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