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Japan’s first Christmas

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The first Noel, the Jesuits in Yamaguchi did say, was a 16th-century celebration in a converted Buddhist temple with midnight hymns.

Joji Sakurai writes: In a letter home to Portuguese brethren, Jesuit missionary Pedro de Alcacova writes of singing a Mass to Japanese believers in 1552: “Our voices weren’t good,” he recalls, “still the Christian believers rejoiced.”

It was Christmas Eve in Yamaguchi, and the patience, if not faith, of the new Japanese converts may have been tested after dubious singing by nanban(“southern barbarian”) missionaries turned into a scripture reading that ran deep into the night and resumed for another day with the “crow of the cock.”

This was Japan’s first Christmas on record, and in subtropical Yamaguchi, at the southern edge of Honshu, the celebration of the virgin birth was in a sense also a virgin encounter: It featured much surprised delight (the Jesuit account says) along with the first Western vocal music heard in Japan. Saint Francis Xavier — the Jesuit who brought Christianity to Asia — had landed in Japan’s Satsuma domain only three years earlier, winning favor with daimyō lords and with it permission to seek converts. Japan was still decades away from the Christian persecutions ushered in by the seclusion policy of the Tokugawa shogunate — the backdrop of the great Shusaku Endo novel “Silence” recently adapted into a film by Martin Scorsese.

Mutual fascination — along with commercial and strategic interests — still featured highly. Regional daimyō invited missionaries home in order to learn about the West, and to lobby for advantageous trade, while Xavier sought friends in high places to help him win converts in lower ones. It was a period of remarkable and often cordial exchange for both sides, although even then street-side Jesuit preachers would be prone to spitting, jeers and pelting from passers-by.

The Christmas of 1552 could hardly have been more different from the Christmases we know today. Familiar Yuletide iconography — Christmas trees, reindeers, mistletoe and the like — was not yet established anywhere in the world (and, naturally, there was not a whiff of the commercialism that marks modern-day Christmas festivities.) The setting for this Christmas was the abandoned Daido-ji Buddhist temple, converted into the Jesuits’ house of worship and living quarters. It would be among the first of Japan’s nanban-dera, or southern barbarian temples, the name given to the makeshift Christian churches housed in Buddhist buildings, with shoji and engawa(a type of terrace) and, often the sole exterior visual difference, a cross erected upon the kawara roof tiles.

On Christmas Eve, Japanese believers were invited to spend the night in the Jesuit living quarters, cramming the venue as they embarked upon an all-nighter of hymns, sermons, scripture readings and Masses. For today’s readers, at least, de Alcacova’s account comes across as a rather gruelling experience, although there’s no reason to doubt the missionary’s numerous references to the “great joy” of the Japanese converts. From dusk until dawn, the new converts were treated to sermons and readings about “Deus” — the Portuguese word for God. The entire celebration contained no fewer than six Masses.

Father Juan Fernandez, an important Jesuit who wrote the West’s first lexicon of Japanese, opened the midnight scripture sessions. When his voice grew weary, he was relieved by “a Japanese youth with … (read more)

Source: The Japan Times

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