DESCRIBED: The reports of the Europeans
RODRIGUES ( 1562-1633), the Interpreter
Frois was the chronicler of stirring events and Cocks
the recorder of daily life, Joao Rodrigues was par excellence
the exponent of Japanese language and culture. Few of
his contemporaries from Europe paid much attention to
Japanese culture, and even fewer had either the opportunity
or the inclination to study it deeply. Rodrigues not
only wrote on the subject with enthusiasm, but showed
an appreciation and insight seldom attained by a Westerner
either in his time or our own.
Rodrigues was born about 1562 at Sernancelhe in northern
Portugal and sailed to the East while still a boy of
twelve or thirteen years of age. He entered the Jesuit
Order in Japan and obtained such a proficiency in Japanese
that he acted as Valignano's interpreter at the audience
granted by Hideyoshi in 1591. From that date onwards
he made frequent visits to court, acting as spokesman
for the Jesuit missionaries and interpreter for the
delegations of Portuguese merchants. After Hideyoshi's
death in 1598, Tokugawa Ieyasu continued to favor him
and even appointed him as his commercial agent in Nagasaki.
Jealousy and resentment on the part of local officials
resulted in his exile to Macao in 1610 after living
in Japan for thirty-three years, during which time he
met many of the leading political and artistic figures
of the day.
spent the rest of his life in Macao, from where he made
several journeys into the interior of China in order
to study the esoteric doctrines of Buddhism. In 1628
he accompanied a military expedition to Peking, and
was probably the first European to visit the capitals
of both China and Japan. Then, after various colorful
adventures, including a dramatic escape from a besieged
fort at dead of night, he was formally commended for
his services by the Chinese court.
Rodrigues' claim to fame is based on something far more
substantial and durable than these spectacular feats.
In addition to his business activities in Japan he found
time to publish at Nagasaki in 1608 the Arte da Lingoa
de lapam, a truly monumental work, for it was the first
systematic grammar of the Japanese language. Not only
does he describe the spoken and written language in
exhaustive and possibly excessive detail, but he includes
for good measure fascinating accounts of Japanese poetry,
letter writing, and history.
Unlike Frois, Rodrigues did not write a large number
of letters and had little or nothing to say about contemporary
events. But following the example of Frois, he planned
to write a history of the Japanese mission, and the
two introductory books of this uncompleted work contain
most of his discerning observations on Japanese culture.
Rodrigues' literary style and
presentation may lack the elegance and method of Frois;
but whereas the chronicler was generally content to
report the events of Japan and seldom allowed himself
the luxury of delving beneath the surface, Rodrigues
probed deeper and tried to explain the ethos of Japanese
culture. It is in his account of Japanese art that he
displays his outstanding talent, and his description
of the tea ceremony, flower arrangement, painting, lacquerwork
and calligraphy is unrivaled in contemporary European
reports. His appreciation of the Japanese artistic temperament
is remarkable, and he accurately and sympathetically
portrays the elusive feeling of sabi, the transcendental
loneliness of the homo viator in this fleeting world
of dew, and the sentiment of wabi, the spirit of disciplined
and aesthetic frugality in art and life.
Rodrigues was well acquainted with the magnificent palaces
and mansions of Kyoto and Sakai, and he sets down his
recollections of their interior decoration.
walls are lined with paintings executed on many layers
of paper like thick parchment, and they are excellently
decorated with trees, rivers, springs, animals, birds,
lakes, seas, ships, human figures, and scenes from ancient
legends, some of them containing soldiers, according
to individual taste. Or the four seasons of the year
may be represented, each one depicted by whatever blooms
in that season. In the part representing spring there
will be various kinds of flowers that bloom therein,
mist, clouds and other things proper to that time of
year. For summer there will be other flowers that
bloom in that season and green fruit about to ripen.
The autumn season will depict ripe fruit, the leaves
of the trees losing their color and falling to the ground,
and fields of ripe rice being harvested. In winter there
will be the dry leafless trees, for their vitality leaves
the branches and gathers in the roots; there will also
be snow, and the birds of that season, such as wild
duck, cranes, swans and others, which come flying in
flocks from Tartary with their leader in front, and
other birds moving through the fields.
Everything is done to imitate nature so that you seem
to be looking at the very things themselves. In the
houses of the great lords and nobles these paintings
and the doors of the rooms have a background richly
painted in gold, and on this gold they depict the scenes
in various suitable colors.
after describing the splendors of such paintings, which
reached their highest form in the contemporary Kano
school, Rodrigues notes that "the Japanese are
fond of melancholy subjects and colors rather than happy
ones, and they seek contemplation and nostalgia in everything
For in addition to the magnificent scenes in gold,
also depict hermitages of recluses dwelling in the wilderness,
as well as valleys, forests, rivers, lakes and seas
with boats sailing in the distance. There are eight
lonely places, called hakkei or "eight views,"
both in Japanese and Chinese tradition, and these scenes
are often painted and much admired.
The first scene is a certain famous place with the clear
autumn moon reflected in the water; they go out on autumn
nights to gaze at the moon in a sad, nostalgic mood.
The second view is of a valley or remote wilderness
where a hermitage bell, rung at sunset or at night,
is heard sounding softly from afar. Third, rain falling
quietly at night in a certain lonely spot. Fourth, a
ship sailing back frorn the distant high seas toward
land. Fifth, the sight of a lovely fair in certain mountains.
Sixth, fishing boats returning together from the sea
at sunset. Seventh, flocks of wild birds landing with
in a certain place. Eighth, snow falling on a high place
in the evening or during the night. All this is in keeping
with their temperament and makes them feel very nostalgic
and quietly lonely.
Rodrigues' opinion, Japanese culture reaches its finest
development in suki, the gathering of friends to drink
tea, and he devotes no less than five chapters to describing
the setting and procedure of this aesthetic pastime.
He rightly attributes its inspiration to the monks of
the Zen sect; and while showing scant sympathy for the
degenerate conduct of many of the Buddhist monks during
that period of monastic decline, he admires the dynamic
Zen spirit, which has left its imprint on practically
every aspect of Japanese culture. He outlines with obvious
approval the Zen ideal.
art of suki, then, is a kind of solitary religion instituted
to encourage good customs and moderation. This is in
imitation of the hermit philosophers of the Zen sect
in their lonely retreats. Their vocation is not to philosophize
with the help of books and treatises written by illustrious
masters and doctors, as do the members of other sects.
Instead, they give themselves up to conternplating the
things of nature, despising and abandoning worldly things.
They rnortify their passions by means of certain enigmatic
and figurative meditations and considerations. Thus
from what they see in things themselves they attain
by their own efforts to a knowledge of the First Cause;
their soul and
intellect put aside everything evil and imperfect until
they reach the natural perfection and being of the First
an ascetical training, says Rodrigues, forrns ''a resolute
and determined character, "without any slackness,
indolence, mediocrity or effeminacy." This is a
far cry from the sweep-
ing condemnation of Buddhist monks in the accounts of
other Europeans of that time.
In a desire to savor the harmony of nature, every man
of means possesses a small tea house within the grounds
of his mansion. Great care and expense are lavished
to make the setting appear as natural as possible, for
unlike European gardens with their symmetrical and artificial
design, those in Japan are planned to blend and harmonize
search in remote areas for a special type of tree of
certain fashion and shape to plant in the garden, for
any tree whatsoever will not do. This costs a great
deal of money until the trees take root and look as
if they had sprung up there quite naturally. The stones
with which they pave the path make up one of the main
expenses; they are of a certain kind and are sought
for in distant places. Although rough and unworked,
they look as if they have appeared there quite naturally,
and they have a certain grace, beauty and simplicity
about them. They buy choice stones at a high price,
and among them will be a special one containing a pool
of water within a cavity in the rough stone for washing
the hands. Suitable ones are found only seldom and are
worth a great deal.
enlarges on this subject and goes on to explain the
peculiar attraction of Japanese gardens.
artificial, refined and pretty rnust be avoided, for
anything not made according to nature causes tedium
and boredom in the long run. If you plant two trees
of the same
size and shape, one in front of the other, they will
eventually cause tedium and boredom; the same applies
to other things as well. But lack of artificiality and
a certain note of naturalness (for example, a tree consisting
of various disordered branches pointing this way and
that, just as nature intended) is never boring, because
experience shows that there is always something new
to be found therein. But this cannot be said of artificial
things, which look well only at first sight and eventually
cause boredom and disgust.
tea house itself is far different from the gilded halls
of Fushimi Castle, and Rodrigues, who had known some
of the leading tea masters of the day, describes with
the ideal meeting place for this ritual.
gathering for tea and conversation is not intended for
lengthy talk among themselves, but rather to contemplate
within their souls with all peace and modesty the things
that they see there and thus through their own efforts
to understand the mysteries locked therein. In keeping
with this, everything used in this ceremony is as rustic,
rough, completely unrefined and simple as nature made
it, after the style of a solitary and rustic hermitage.
Thus the house and the path leading to it, as w ell
as all the utensils employed therein, are all of this
So they do not make use of spacious rooms and richly
decorated apartments for this gathering as they do in
normal social usage, nor do they use costly and delicate
dishes or other rich and choice vessels. Instead the
desired effect is gained by a tiny cottage, thatched
with straw and reeds, situated within the compound and
next to the
house in which they dwell. It is fashioned from timber
as rough as it came from the forest and one old piece
of wood is merely fixed to another. Everything is left
in its natural state; there is no artistry nor genteelness
apparent, but only natural elegance and age.
from his exile in Macao the elderly missionary tries
to express and explain the spirit of Japanese culture.
When Valignano comments that a certain tea bowl, costing
thousand ducats, was fit for nothing more than to serve
as a water trough in a birdcage, Rodrigues points out
its intrinsic beauty and value. When Matteo Ricci remarks
that temple bells give out a note of poor quality because
they are rung by a hanging log instead of a metal clapper,
Rodrigues maintains, and surely rightly, that such bells
emit an evocative and
mellow sound precisely because of this arrangement.
Writing about the spirit of the tea ceremony, Rodrigues
they have come to detest any kind of contrivance and
elegance, any pretense, hypocrisy and outward embellishment,
which they call keihaku in their language…
Instead, their ideal is to promise little but accomplish
much; always to use moderation in everything; finally,
to desire to err by default rather than by excess…The
more precious the utensils are in themselves and the
less they show it, the more suitable they are.
would be difficult to improve on this summary description
of the traditional Japanese canon of taste. Written
today by a Westerner, the passage would indicate a commendable
under-standing and appreciation of an essentially alien
culture; to have been written three and a half centuries
ago reveals Joao Rodrigues as a unique interpreter not
only of the language but also of the artistic genius
of the Japanese people.
The First Europeans in Japan
Published by Kodansha Ltd, Japan and Palo Alto, Calif.U.S.A.
Edited by Michael Cooper S.J.
JAPAN DESCRIBED: The reports of the Europeans
Michael Cooper S.J.