A samurai and a Pope walk into a bar. They have a good chat and the samurai becomes a Catholic. Sounds like a dumb joke from a history nerd’s fanfiction, right? Well, not quite. A samurai and the Pope really did meet in Rome in 1615.
Two years earlier, a Japanese delegation had set out for Europe, seeking to establish both commercial and religious ties with Christendom. Headed by a samurai named Hasekura Tsunenaga, the visitors crossed the Pacific Ocean and traveled across Mexico before arriving on European shores. The Japanese caught the attention of monarchs, merchants, and popes, and Hasekura became a temporary celebrity.
Yet Hasekura’s journey occurred at an unfortunate time for both Japan and Europe. As European kingdoms were gripped by missionary fervor, Japan’s rulers feared the growth of Roman Catholicism in their own domains. Within the next twenty-five years, Catholicism would be outlawed in Japan.
The Great Unknown: Hasekura Tsunenaga’s Early Life
To the European monarchs he would later meet with, Hasekura Tsunenaga had an impressive background. He was born in 1571, during a time of great political and social change in Japan. Far from the centralized country it would later become, Japan was a patchwork of small fiefdoms ruled by local noblemen known as daimyo. During his adulthood, Hasekura would grow close to the daimyo of Sendai, Date Masamune. Only four years separated Hasekura from the daimyo in age, so he worked for him directly.
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Little else is known about Hasekura’s early life. As a member of the samurai class and a descendant of the Japanese imperial family, his youth was undoubtedly privileged. He received extensive training in armed and unarmed combat — skills necessary to defend any daimyo. He may have even known how to wield an arquebus — a large, clunky gun introduced by Portuguese sailors to Japan in the 1540s. Regardless of his combat skills, Hasekura forged a close relationship with his daimyo and positioned himself as a man of agency in a changing Japan.
Hasekura Tsunenaga: Samurai, Christian, World Traveler
Hasekura Tsunenaga’s world was an increasingly connected one. For hundreds of years, Japan had had contact with China and other parts of East Asia. In the mid-sixteenth century, European powers arrived on the scene: Portugal and Spain.
The Europeans’ motives were both economic and religious. Spain, in particular, remained high on its 1492 conquest of western Europe’s final Muslim enclaves. The Spanish and Portuguese were fixated not only on building trade with distant countries, but also on spreading Christianity to all corners of the globe. And Japan fit into that mission.
The Catholic Church’s initial entry into Japan actually met with considerable success. The Jesuits, originally led by Saint Francis Xavier, were the first religious order to arrive on Japanese shores. By the end of the sixteenth century, over 200,000 Japanese people had converted to Catholicism. The Franciscan and Dominican orders, sponsored by Spain, would also play a role in Japanese conversion efforts. At times, their goals even collided with those of the Portuguese Jesuits. The different religious orders, while campaigning for the same missionary cause, were rival players in a geopolitical battle between their patron countries.
Hasekura Tsunenaga was among those Japanese intrigued by the Catholic message. Yet one of his primary reasons for taking up the mantle of diplomat may have been personal. In 1612, authorities in Sendai forced his father to kill himself after he was accused of corrupt behavior. With Hasekura’s family name disgraced, Date Masamune gave him one final option: lead an embassy to Europe in 1613 or face punishment.
Crossing the Pacific and a Mexican Pitstop
While Portugal may have been the first European power to arrive in Japan, Spain had taken its place as the most powerful Pacific empire by 1613. From 1565 until 1815, the Spanish dominated a trans-Pacific network known to scholars today as the Manila galleon trade. Ships would sail between the Philippines in Southeast Asia and the Mexican port city of Acapulco, loaded with goods such as silk, silver, and spices. This was how Hasekura began his journey.
Along with an entourage of around 180 merchants, Europeans, samurai, and Christian converts, Hasekura left Japan in the fall of 1613. The trip to Acapulco lasted for about three months; the Japanese arrived in the city on January 25, 1614. One local chronicler, the indigenous Nahua writer Chimalpahin, recorded Hasekura’s arrival. Shortly after they landed, he wrote, a Spanish soldier traveling with them, Sebastián Vizcaíno, got into a fight with his Japanese counterparts. Chimalpahin added that “the lordly emissary” (Hasekura) only stayed in Mexico for a short time before continuing on to Europe.
Interestingly, the annalist made sure to note that Hasekura Tsunenaga wanted to wait until he reached Europe to be baptized. For the samurai, the payoff would come at the end.
Meeting Popes and Kings
Naturally, Hasekura Tsunenaga’s first stop in Europe was Spain. He and his entourage met with the King, Felipe III, and they gave him a letter from Date Masamune, requesting a trade agreement. It was in Spain that Hasekura finally received his baptism, taking the Christian name Felipe Francisco. After months in Spain, he then stopped quickly in France before continuing on to Rome.
In October 1615, the Japanese embassy arrived at the port of Civitavecchia; Hasekura would meet with Pope Paul V at the Vatican in early November. As he had done with the Spanish King, Hasekura gave the Pope a letter from Date Masamune and requested a trade deal. Additionally, he and his daimyo sought European missionaries to instruct Japanese Catholic converts further in their faith. The Pope was evidently impressed with Hasekura, enough to reward him with honorary Roman citizenship. Hasekura even had his portrait painted, either by Archita Ricci or Claude Deruet. Today, Hasekura’s image can also be seen in a fresco at the Quirinal Palace in Rome.
Hasekura and his entourage retraced their route to return home. They crossed again through Mexico before sailing across the Pacific for the Philippines. In 1620, Hasekura finally reached Japan again.
The End of an Era: Japan and Christianity Violently Split
When Hasekura Tsunenaga finally returned from his global adventures, he would be met with a changed Japan. During his time away, Japan’s ruling Tokugawa clan had turned harshly against the presence of the Catholic priests. Tokugawa Hidetada feared that priests were pulling the Japanese people away from local values and towards belief in a foreign deity — an act of rebellion. The only way to cement his authority was to kick the Europeans out and expunge Japan of its Christians.
We unfortunately don’t know much about what happened to Hasekura after he returned home. The King of Spain did not take him up on his offer of trade. He died in 1622 of natural causes, with few sources recording details of his precise fate. After 1640, his family found themselves under suspicion. Hasekura’s son, Tsuneyori, was among those executed for harboring Christians in his home.
After the failed Christian-fueled Shimabara Rebellion of 1638, the shogun would evict the Europeans from Japanese territories. Japan largely isolated itself from the rest of the world, and being a Christian became punishable by death. Those converts who survived the ensuing state persecution had to hide their beliefs for the next two hundred years.
The Legacy of Hasekura Tsunenaga: Why Does He Matter?
Hasekura Tsunenaga is a fascinating figure. He was a samurai of considerable importance who converted to and maintained the Catholic faith. Tsunenaga met with the highest-ranking figures in Catholic Europe — the King of Spain and Pope Paul V. He was part of an increasingly globalized Catholic Church. Yet the trade deal the Japanese sought never came to pass. Instead, Europe and Japan’s paths diverged wildly, not meeting again for the next two hundred fifty years. At home, Hasekura’s efforts were largely forgotten until the modern era.
Some might be tempted to label Hasekura a failure. After all, he went back to Japan with nothing major gained. That would be short-sighted. During a seven-year period, he accomplished many feats that few of his contemporaries anywhere in the world could boast about. Although the details of his final two years are murky, he seems to have held on to his new faith. For Hasekura Tsunenaga, such spiritual conviction must have meant something. The global journey he undertook was not all for naught.