Portugal and Japan: a historical love story

NB: Some of my earliest blogs no longer have their accompanying images but enjoy the copy!

I’ve just come back from a very relaxing holiday in sunny Portugal which actually has quite an interesting history with Japan. Whilst I get my knowledge mainly from books, I did a little reading around and thought I’d do a history geek post this week. So, here is a beginner’s guide to Portugal and Japan. I’ll make historians of you all yet.

The landing

In 1542, three Portugese merchants were shipwrecked on Kyushu, exposing Japan to the world. More Portugese traders, Jesuit missionaries and Dutch, Spanish and English traders soon followed. Although the Japanese daimyo were wary of the Jesuits in particular, they welcomed the trade of arms and tolerated them for some time.


Portugal and Spain divided the world into spheres of influence, trade and colonisation. Effectively, the Christianisation of Japan would mean the exclusive right to trade with the country. However, once Portugal began to exert its influence in Japan, Spain lobbied the Pope who decreed that Spanish friars could enter Japan and abolished trade restrictions between the two countries. What began was a power struggle between the Jesuits and friars.

The Jesuit ‘method’ for converting was from the top to bottom. They sought to influence people in power so that religion would be passed downwards to the common people. This way, they could also avoid rousing suspicion by preaching in public to huge crowds and even converted several daimyo to Christianity. One of the greatest ‘misunderstandings’ between many Japanese leaders and friars was Christianity’s intolerance to homosexuality, adultery, idolatry and so on; all of which were deeply rooted in indigenous Japanese culture.

Attempts were made to repress the Jesuits’ influence but, as they were expanding when Japan was in a state of civil war (Sengoku jidai), it was difficult to exert influence over them. Toyotomi Hideyoshi made efforts to ban them through a series of edicts, leading to the execution of 26 Christians in Nagasaki in 1597. Finally, the Tokugawa shogunate issued an ‘expulsion of all missionaries from Japan’ in 1614, claiming the Christians were inciting rebellion and using religion to control and corrupt. After a series of rebellions, the Catholic remnants were forced underground and some Jesuits remained in the country illegally with little support from Portugal. Christianity was banned under penalty of death throughout Japan’s period of isolation (1633-1853) and it was not until the Meiji Restoration in 1873 when it began to slowly return.


Early attempts to Christianise the Japanese were not in vain, however. The Portugese were invited to establish a trading center in Nagasaki by the daimyo of Omura, a Christian convert. This Christian settlement became a lucrative trade route between the Portugese colonies Goa and Macau. In this way, European products and knowledge about shipbuilding and medicine had an impact on Japanese livelihoods. Daimyo such as Date Masamune even ordered their own naval explorations because they were inspired by the Portugese. However, suspicions of Christianity and Portugese support for revolt led to the prohibition of trade with all foreign countries. However, one Dutch trading post at Nagasaki was allowed to remain.

The west failed to renew trade with Japan until 1853, when Commodore Matthew Perry sailed an American fleet into Tokyo Bay. After much resistance and fears of an impending civil war between pro-imperialists and Shogun loyalists, trade with the West was eventually forced upon Japan under terms less than favorable to the Japanese. Thus, the shogunate came to the end and the Emperor Meiji came to the throne.

Interesting fact: tempura was one of the Portugese ‘inventions’ brought to Japan

Next week…

Last August, I started this blog and am pretty shocked it’s already reached the first anniversary mark. So, we’re going to be celebratory mode for the whole of August 2012! Expect a big giveaway, some different posts and a competition involving a car (sticker). If you haven’t already, please subscribe so you won’t miss a thing!

And, of course, thank you to everyone who has been reading the blog so far!

4 thoughts on “Portugal and Japan: a historical love story

  1. It’s always interesting to learn new things about how different countries interact with Japan! I tell people tempura is originally from Portugal and they never believe me!

    Kitty x

  2. There’s a sad story about Japan-Portugal relationship. In the 90’s (I think it was, not sure) Japan gave Portugal many Sakura trees, to celebrate 400+ years since we first met. Portuguese government placed them near the sea, unattended, where salty air came to ruin most of them. Japan made the first move to embrace the history we share together, and we kind of blew it. Sad.

    But don’t be so surprised about tempura. There are lots of stuff that many cultures take for granted and that Portuguese traders introduced to them. Curry, in India, is one, one main ingredient was given to them by Portuguese traders. Oranges are called “Portugal” or a derivation in several countries because we took the now so known sweet oranges from India and spread it around. And Portugal itself got so much from cultures around the world. When I say I’m proud to be Portuguese I’m actually saying I’m proud to be a citizen of the world… not so proud of some moments in our history, but I’m proud of the world heritage that made it’s way into mine, coming from far, both in time and distance. After all, we were once a proud nation of poets and sailors 🙂

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