Jesuit strategy in Japan and India in the 16th Century as a precursor to modern Western “Soft Power”


The principles of “soft power”, within the context of the historical development of international relations both on the worldwide and regional levels, had been applied in the East and in the West long before the aforementioned theories appeared. It was the Jesuits in the 16th Century who developed strategies of influence and were pioneers in the introduction of “soft” methods of leverage in international communication practice. In today’s world, which is witnessing an increase in the role of the religious factor in international relations, it is important to understand how to identify these achievements, and correct the mistakes of these early strategies, based on the practices of Francis Xavier in Japan and of Antoni de Montserrat in the Mughal Empire. An attentive and thorough study of the Jesuits’ experience is of great importance in understanding contemporary processes of international interaction from a “soft power” point of view.

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Today’s world is witnessing an increasing role of the religious factor in international relations [Fox, Sandler 2004; Thomas 2005; Haynes 2014]. As Jeffrey Haynes wrote, “if religious organisations and constituencies manage to ‘get the ear of government’ they may be able to influence foreign policy” [Haynes 2014]. The term “soft power” has appeared recently, but the methods and means of its use have existed for centuries. The principles of ‘soft power’, within the context of the historical development of international relations both on international and regional levels, had been applied in Western Europe long before the aforementioned theories appeared. One of the first practices showing the main patterns of use of the elements of ‘soft power’ were connected with the activity of Catholic missionaries in Oriental countries. They were the first to “get the ear of government” and in the 16th Century were pioneers in the introduction of “soft” methods of leverage in international communication practice. They formed unique strategies of international interaction - ‘Hispanization’ (or ‘Westernization’) and ‘Accomodation’ - tested and described them. Realizing in Eastern countries their strategic aims to promote Christian values, they have been developing unique scenarios of strategies of influence and implementing them in those societies that have become relevant in international relations in the late 20th - early 21st centuries. Those are called ‘soft power’ policy. It is important to understand how to use the achievements and correct the mistakes of the early religious strategies in the international relations. Attentive and thorough study of missionaries’ experience is of great importance for understanding contemporary processes of international interaction from the ‘soft power’ point of view. A historical distance of almost five centuries allows present-day researchers to objectively study, single out and analyze the main flaws and achievements made by missionaries in the pursuit of their strategy in the East. This article deals with the main ‘non-forcible’ methods that the missionaries used to penetrate into other cultural spaces and with the limitations of these first attempts of the West to triumph over the East not through the use of ‘hard power’ (as in South America), but through ‘soft’ religious models. In the 15th century, absolute monarchies were established in Spain and Portugal and national countries emerged. Almost at the same time their countries transformed into great colonial empires and made contact with other peoples outside the Iberian Peninsula. The Society of Jesus acted in keeping with the foreign policies of Rome and of the Portuguese Crown, transmitting to the East, according to Andrei V. Vinogradov, “respective public-political and socio-political codes” [Vinogradov 2006: 6]. The Jesuits acted on the basis of the Western perception of the world. By imposing their own concepts on the other view of the world, which was - they recognized - radically different from the Western one, they arrived in that part of the world with their own expectations. The stereotypes of Jesuit missionary work in the East were formed under the influence of these state-political and socio-political codes. Many communication failures of the Jesuits were attributable to the fact that they were not familiar with the cultural, political and state codes of the East and could not make full use of them in practice. The Jesuits attempted to analyze the differences between the West and the East, which in a few Centuries' time led to a theoretical understanding of the basics of the dichotomy East-West pair, to the comprehension that “...the West and the East have developed different types of public-political and socio-political «codes», all of which were intended to embody the optimal types of governance for the West or for the East...” [Vinogradov 2006: 8] and that these codes could be revealed in different ways in international cooperation and foreign policy. European expansion to the East broadened observations of alien societies, cultures and religious practices. Such encounters led to attempts to explain and interpret the origins and nature of racial and cultural diversity. The term ‘national identity’, which first appeared in common mindset in travel literature, assumes comparison and identification of differences11. It was then that stereotypes and perceptions of a different type of person emerged. When the rulers of Spain and Portugal invoked the Society of Jesus to evangelize their new subjects in the overseas empires which they shared, one of the signs of identity was religion. For the Jesuits, it was religion in particular that become the dominant form of identity. The missions of the Jesuits in Asia became the founders of a method by which they attempted to form a strategy of communication and developed ways to impact other cultures through religious influence on ‘other’ social groups and institutions. It is no coincidence that it was the Jesuits in particular who assumed this role. As Takao Abé explains, from the first days of existence of the Society of Jesus, they were capable of understanding non-Christian cultures at least in their own systematic way [Abé 2011: 8-9]. The Jesuits brought many scientific innovations, made an enormous contribution to the development of science in Asian countries, studied languages, customs and became the first ethnographers and cartographers. But most importantly “the strength of the idea of Europe as Christian and occidental was crucial in the 16th century” [Hosne 2013: 3]. According to Brockey, the Jesuits were motivated by a firm belief in the universal applicability of Christian teaching and by a conviction that the Christian language had an elasticity that permitted it to conform to the contours of even the most widely disparate cultures. In contrast to the worldly pretensions of secular agents of empire, such as merchants and mercenaries, the missionaries’ spiritual ambitions knew few limits [Brockey 2007: 6]. They were willing to make any sacrifice, to accept martyrs for this well-intentioned mission; they were “the soldiers of God and of Pope”[106]. The activities of Francis Xavier and Antoni de Montserrat (he changed his name in India to Monserrate to make it easier to pronounce) [Vernet 2001: 823] became the founding experience, on the basis of which Jesuit strategies of international communication in Asia were developed. This paper examines their missionary activities in Japan under Oda Nobunaga’s rule and in Akbar’s Mughal Empire. The study of their activities and different approaches in the interpretation and implementation of their concept, allows us today to value the strategies of influence in international communication practice made by missionaries of 16th century Japan and the Mughal Empire: how they perceived foreign society, culture and religion, to what extent this perception corresponded with the stereotypes that they had before they arrived in the country, how these stereotypes affected the selection of methods for missionary activities, to what extent they facilitated the success of evangelization, whether the success or failure of the introduction of the “soft” methods of leverage in Japan and the Mughal Empire depends on the character of the country and the methods chosen by Xavier and Montserrat for their missionary activities. *** The beginning of the 16th century in Asia was marked by two key events. In 1510, the Portuguese seized Goa and in 1511 Malacca - and the Great Mughal Empire was created in 1526. There were fifteen years between the entrenchment of the Europeans in Asia and the formation of the largest Muslim Empire in India. In other words, practically simultaneously, the Portuguese arrived on the continent, bringing with them Catholicism, as well as conquerors from Central Asia and Afghanistan, who spread the catchment area of Islam in India. Both Spain and Portugal considered it very important to evangelize its possessions and establish the missions overseas. Following the Spanish and Portuguese expansion to Africa, Asia, and the Americas, the Society of Jesus opened its residences in the new colonial cities. The pioneers of that movement were Francis Xavier and Antoni de Montserrat. Both were born in aristocratic Spanish families, both were disciples of Ignatius of Loyola. Both Xavier and Montserrat faced a deep gap between Christian and non-Christian civilizations. It is hard not to agree with Takao Abé that the analysis of the Jesuits, “while biased, was the best available at the time” [Abé 2011: 9], but their ultimate objective both in Japan and the Mughal Empire was evangelization. “We have come the whole way from Portugal to Japan, a voyage of more than six thousand leagues, for no other purpose than to deal with them about divine things, to set forth the Christian faith, and show them in their errors the way of eternal salvation”, wrote Xavier[107]. “We are ready to come to the palace and to labour night and day in teaching the Christian religion”, echoes Montserrat[108]. And because they studied the culture of the other peoples only from the perspective of the success of evangelization, they only ‘absorbed’ the information that may be useful to them or that might justify their actions. Autochthonous customs were viewed through the missionary lens without any attempt to categorize those customs culturally. The attitude to any other culture as to a ‘barbarian’ culture distorted their real understanding of reality. Based on this understanding of the ‘Other’, the practice of missionaries’ relations with the local population was formed and evangelization methods were developed which were adapted to each country and people. Ana Carolina Hosne highlights two main methods and draws an important contrast between the strategy of ‘Hispanization’ and ‘Accomodation’. The ‘Hispanization’ characterized methods of the Spanish crown which commanded the evangelization of the Indias Occidentals, where Spanish rule sought to ‘civilize’ the Amerindians well as make Christians of them [Hosne 2013: 71]. The strategy of “Accommodation” was typical of the missions in Asia, where the Jesuits tried to adapt the Christian religion for a people whose culture and traditions they did not hope to modify. Francis Xavier was the first to realize that some sort of accommodation was necessary in Japan [Hosne 2013: 72]. As Takao Abé shows, the main methods used for winning neophytes in the strategy of ‘Accommodation’ were: preaching, winning converts and educating them were the next composite methods [Abé 2011: 9]. Xavier proudly declares of the converting of Ōtomo Sōrin, ‘King of Bungo’ and his subjects. With equal pride, he informs of the evangelizing in Yamaguchi of one of the Buddhist monks, baptized with the name Lorenzo, a remarkable fact to the extent that most of the Japanese converts of that time were ordinarily of common background. While the Jesuits approached socially influential Japanese adults for patronage, the targets of education were boys who would sooner or later play an important role in helping missionaries to establish their colonial church. Education was a vital part of winning converts. It was one of the most fundamental tasks set forth in preliminary discussions which led to the establishment of the Society, and was just as important as actual conversion to Christianity [Abé 2011: 9-10]. The Jesuits were trained to work with children; they had special books where the founding ideas of the Christian faith were explained[109]. Akbar asked Jesuits to undertake the education of his eldest son and his mates who had been chosen by him from the children of the higher nobility. The children were taught Christianity and at the beginning of each lesson Prince Murad “called devoutly upon the names of Jesus and Mary as is the Christian custom; then he made the sign of the Cross on his forehead, face and breast; finally, he paid reverence to the picture of Christ which was in his book.” In three month, he could read and copy his tutor’s handwriting[110]. Another important aspect of missionary activity was the study of language by the Jesuits. To participate in religious discussions, knowledge of language was a necessary condition. Gonoi Takashi mentions that Xavier managed to learn some words and phrases in Japanese. He was able to answer in Japanese the questions about the Creation, devils, inferno etc. [Takashi 1990: 42-43]. But Xavier had to admit that it was not enough. In one of his first letters, he notes: “If we knew the Japanese language, we should long ere this have been at work at this large uncultivated field with great fruit of souls”[111]. Not knowing the language created serious difficulties in communicating with the people, and he repeats the same idea: “This island is well fitted and prepared to receive the Gospel. If we all knew the language, I do not doubt but that a great many Japanese would become Christians”[112]. This was also well understood by Montserrat and other members of the Rodolfo Acquaviva mission to Akbar’s Mughal Empire. Akbar provided them with a teacher, and in three months Jesuits learned the Persian language which was spoken at the court. As Montserrat wrote, Acquaviva “could easily make himself understood in Persian, although he could not indeed speak as yet in a polished or fluent manner”[113]. Akbar's courtiers were really astonished “that a stranger and foreigner could learn so easily an unknown language.” And “when the priests had attained sufficient proficiency in Persian safely to translate the Gospel records and the teachings of the Faith, they began to turn into Persian the chief passages of Gospel history, and afterwards to write very careful comments and explanations”, Montserrat commented[114]. Jesuits had to establish complex belief systems comprehensible by resorting to a familiar and limited canon of European concepts. They had hours of discussion with Akbar about the essence of the Holy Trinity and the Virgin Birth of Jesus, the Twofold Nature of Jesus, they explained the meaning of Christian sacraments and celebrations. Montserrat notes that Akbar had a strong interest in theology and “desired to be instructed in the faith in such a way that there might be no danger of stirring up the bitterness of his enemies, or of his being compelled to desist through fear of the consequences”[115]. He wanted “more enlightenment on these points - how the Highest God can be both three and one, and how He can have a son, a man born of a virgin”, as these ideas went beyond his understanding[116]. Akbar demonstrated them extreme benevolence: they were allowed to sit beside him, he conversed with them in private, he ordered his door-keepers to grant them entrance, whenever they wished, he sent them food from his own table, he visited one of them when he was ill and greeted him in Portuguese. As Montserrat noted, “he wished the priests to be sharers of his inmost thoughts”[117]. Based оn these signs of benevolence Montserrat believed that Moghul ruler wanted to convert to Christianity. During one of these discussions Acquaviva insisted that he had “to decide immediately upon some plan and process by which he might become a Christian without causing an upheaval or risking his life”[118]. In both places, the Jesuits soon found opponents who objected to their views. The Jesuits’ attempts to convert Akbar to Catholicism met with fierce opposition from the Muslim Mullahs who had centuries of experience of confrontation with the Christians. Xavier, when speaking of the successes of his mission, praises the Japanese, mentioning that “it does not seem that we have any danger to fear from the people itself”, but “unless perhaps it be roused against us by the bonzes”, highlighting the fierce resistance of the monks[119]. The bonzes are described by Xavier as the greatest enemies of the missionaries and he denounces them violently for their greed and immorality. “Now the Christian truth is opposed in the highest degree to their bad tenets and errors, and so there is a chance that as soon as we begin to preach the Gospel and refute the lies which they teach, we shall have them all attacking us with great hostility”[120]. The disputations of Xavier and Montserrat with the bonzes or the mullahs were concentrated on the religious beliefs and practices of the Japanese and Indians, on their conception of Buddhist or Islam doctrine and explanations about Christian teachings, on three core Christian principles - one God as the creator of all things, the immortality of the soul, and rewards and punishments in the hereafter. About Christian teachings Xavier notes that the Japanese are extremely curious and skeptical. On being told that God is the creator of the world and the “First Cause of all things”, they remark that the Chinese “must have known it”. The Japanese questioned Xavier on the origin of evil in the Christian tradition: “God if He were good could never have done such a thing as create beings so evil!” They also considered it problematic to agree with the idea “that men could be cast into hell without any hope of deliverance”. Such a dogma apparently appeared too unmerciful and uncompromising to them. Xavier’s listeners were mostly shocked to absorb the idea that their ancestors, who had never had the chance to know God, should be condemned to eternal damnation. “All these sects”, Xavier explains, “observe a wonderful silence about the creation of the world and of souls”. They talk of “abodes of the virtuous and of the wicked” without making clear “by whose power... the wicked are cast down to hell”. They limit their remarks “to holding up the example of the founders of the sects” who suffered greatly for the redemption of the evil and unthinking. Penance is not required and the laity is urged to save itself from eternal suffering by confidently placing its trust in these “holy persons”. Still the Buddhists all agree that five moral precepts must be observed. Should these commandments be broken by secular persons, the bonzes will “make satisfaction for all the evil or inconvenience which may happen to them” providing that they are given convents, money, honor, and homage. The bonzes therefore get whatever they want “as everyone believes that by their prayers souls are delivered from hell”. Under such a system the rich “enjoy a greater license of sinning” while the poor “have no hope of escaping from hell”. But any individual, irrespective of sex, who gives money to the bonzes, will after death “receive ten times as much in the same coin” [Lach 1965: 670-671]. The members of the Acquaviva mission also experienced such animosity from the Mullahs. The subject of discussions between the Christians and the Muslims was rather traditional. Montserrat wrote, “The Fathers and the religious leaders of the Musalmans held frequent debates concerning an infinite variety of points - the Trinity, God the Son, his death, Muhammad, Alcoranus, the day of judgment, death, resurrection, and various philosophical and political subjects”[121]. These discussions were nothing new for the missionaries. The collection of arguments used by both sides shows that the ideological opponents already had experience of such a confrontation, the mission’s members were trained for debates with the Muslim Mullahs, Acquaviva could use “arguments and quotations drawn from the Musalman scriptures instead of from Bible” which made a strong impression on the Muslims. The Mullahs “had constantly found, when the scriptures were brought for reference, that our party had given the most careful study to the Quran, and indeed that they never made a mistake in their quotations”[122]. The fact that the Catholic mission’s representatives were able to debate, based on the Koran demonstrates that the Christians were already well acquainted with the image of their ‘Other’. For them he was not just an ‘Other’, but he was the ‘Alien’, a very dangerous enemy. The discussion that took place, was not an attempt to understand the ‘Other’; it just confirmed an image of the ‘Other’ that had been already established. *** In the 16th century, the Jesuits were the intellectual elite of society and “from a contemporary sixteenth or seventeenth century standpoint, Jesuit priests were masters of Euro-Christian knowledge” [Abé 2011: 8]. It was at that time in particular that the Jesuits tested ways of behaving in another cultural environment and their methods of influencing “Others” with the objective of integrating them into the system of European spiritual values. In terms of the acculturation of non-Christians these methods turned out to be quite successful. An evaluation of the Japanese and Mughals example demonstrates esprit de corps on the obvious cultural biases both in the Jesuit missionaries’ approaches to non-Christian peoples and in their interpretations of overseas civilizations. In Japan, the missionaries had immediate success. Over the course of the two years during which Xavier was in the country, over 700 people were converted to Christianity. Among them were people from all the classes and social groups and for the first time the Japanese opened their eyes to Christianity [Takizawa 2010: 52]. By 1614, there were already over one million Christians there. From the outset of the Jesuits' activity in Asia, Xavier in his letters and in the annual reports, frequently applauds the converts, but complains from time to time about the difficulties of evangelization, mentioning that “those who become Christians do not find themselves commonly blamed for what they have done”[123]. But he had to admit that that the success of evangelization was less significant than he had expected. For this reason, by the end of his time in Japan, his attitude towards the inhabitants of the country had also changed. Xavier no longer calls them “the best people on Earth” - he characterizes the Japanese as being a people “very ambitious of honors and distinctions” who “think themselves superior to all nations in military glory and valor”. They prize arms, he reports, “more than any people I have ever seen”. To each other they are polite in daily interaction, “but not to foreigners, whom they utterly despise”[124]. Fifty years after Xavier first set foot on Japanese land, Toyotomi Hideyoshi started purges of the Christians, which at the beginning of the 17th century would lead to the prohibition of Christianity and complete closure of Japan to the Europeans. Over the course of those 100 years, Japan became a different country. From a “patchwork quilt” marked by feudal wars, the country was politically unified under the leadership of Tokugawa, who no longer needed the Portuguese to maintain his own power or the Christians to combat with the monasteries. Okugawa ceased to tolerate their new gods and new laws. To fight the Christians, they used the same bonzes whose power they had tried to limit using the Catholic missionaries. As Emilio Sola concludes, the Christian century in Japan “resulted in a ‘disencounter’ when colonial/imperial model confronted the great culture” [Sola 1999; Sola 2013: 237]. It was the Japanese example that inspired the missionaries led by Acquaviva. Reporting on the progress of discussions with Akbar Montserrat stated that “in our own days the kings of Japan <...> frequently visit the humble houses of the priests of our Society, that they may learn the precepts of the true faith”[125]. The Jesuits spent more than one year in Akbar’s Court but failed to achieve even the modest results compared with Japan. They were unable to navigate the situation in the country, the system of interactions of the elites and the challenges faced by Akbar. Prisoners to their own stereotypes and biases, they genuinely believed that Akbar was not far off becoming a Christian. Montserrat, when describing his numerous meetings and conversations with Akbar was sure that the main obstacle to this was the Mughal ruler's preconception against Christian dogmas, primarily “chastity of life as to forbid a man to have more than one wife and to enjoin complete celibacy on their priesthood”. And then he continues, “as the King himself said, his judgment was dulled and clouded, as it were, when he heard that there are three persons in one God, that God had begotten a son from a virgin, had suffered on the Cross, and had been killed by the Jews”[126]. Although he enjoyed participating in theological debate, asking questions, his plans did not include changing his faith. All his theological research was not related to an intention to adopt a different religion, but demonstrated, first and foremost, his ambitious intention to create a spiritual doctrine under which the Emperor becomes higher than any religion. He needed a new syncretic religion to maintain the Hindu majority under the control of the Muslim minority. By perceiving the Muslims as their traditional “Aliens” and attempting to defeat them in theological debates, the Jesuit mission acted there even less ‘accommodating’ than with Buddhists. Islam, like Christianity, has a missionary character and any actions against the dominant position of Islam in the Empire led to a sharp resistance from Muslim communities. As a result the relations of the Portuguese with the Mughals were reduced to “an uneasy jousting”, to “a jockeying for position”, which made up an age of ‘contained conflict’, as Subrahmanyam defines it [Subrahmanyam 2011: 6]. The misunderstanding of the ‘Other’ led to the failure of Acquaviva’s mission to the Mughal Empire. To understand an outlandish cultural world, a person must partially abstract of his own ‘mental maps’, his own values, which he carries with him. Both Xavier and Montserrat considered Oriental world exclusively through the lens of their own views, which were combined with a Eurocentric conscience, an ardent ambition to bring the Christian idea to life and the stereotypes of the perception of the ‘Other’, which led to a misunderstanding of the situation in the country and the peculiarity of the religion. In those missions the external support was extremely decreased: they had neither political nor military power on their side, so they could only rely on their perception of the world of the ‘Other’. The preconceptions formed during communication with another people turned out to be the reasons for the failures of the Catholic missionaries which prevented them from understanding and accepting that culture. In practice this led to the limits of ‘Accommodation’ and they achieved far less success. But at the same time, in the initial period of their missionary work, the Jesuits who first came to Asia have taken a step towards the understanding that the identity of different peoples is structured in their own way, that dominants cannot be the same, that religion may not represent identity. They approached to the establishment of international strategy aimed at the strengthening of influence of Western powers in the East. The achievements of the Jesuits have been linked to the fact that they sought, at first instinctively, to ‘fine tune’ some aspects of their activities to an ‘other’ mentality and an ‘other’ socio-cultural, spiritual and religious reality, including language, values and traditions. They succeeded in making the very first steps in the use of ‘foreign code’ in the sphere of international contacts and interaction for realizing their intentions through the development of a religious and strategy of ‘soft’, ‘non-forcible’ leverage on the ‘others’. ‘Strategies of influence’, outlined by the first Jesuits, were developed later in the 17th century when Catholic missionaries would try to ‘accommodate’ their doctrines to the local conditions which would later allow them to make their activities more effective and led the Western governments to dominate the Eastern world.

About the authors

Olga Vilenovna Volosyuk

National Research University Higher School of Economics

Moscow, Russia

Olga Alexandrovna Nesterova

National Research University Higher School of Economics

Moscow, Russia

Olga Leonidovna Solodkova

National Research University Higher School of Economics

Moscow, Russia


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