Silk for prayers – Jesuit and Franciscan polemics over the Macau-Nagasaki trade

Silk for prayers – Jesuit and Franciscan polemics over the Macau-Nagasaki trade
Kano Naizen's "Arrival of the Southern Barbarians Screen" Kobe City Museum Collection

At the beginning of 1614, Tokugawa Hidetada (1581-1632) – the second Tokugawa shogun – promulgated the edict called Hai Kirishitan bun with the sanction of his father Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616). The edict officially banned Christianity from the whole Japanese archipelago. At that point in history, the order did not surprise Catholic missionaries in Japan, who had witnessed persecution intensify since at least 1612 when the Christian daimyōs Arima Harunobu (1567-1612) and Okamoto Daihachi (?-1612) were sentenced to death (Hur 2007). After the anti-Christian edict was issued, the missionaries had either to leave the archipelago or go underground. Although the edict was addressed to all Catholic missionaries, the Society of Jesus, the denomination with the largest number of workers and active for the longest time in Japan, suffered harsh criticism from the mendicant friars who blamed the Jesuits for ruining the relationship between the Japanese authorities and the Christian missionaries.

Namban Screen. n.d.

In the year following the ban, the Spanish Franciscan Friar Sebastian of San Pedro (?-1628) wrote a treatise titled Recopilação das causas porque o imperador do Japão desterrou de seus reinos todos os Padres (“Compilation of the reasons why the Emperor of Japan banished all the Priests from his kingdoms”) in which he laid out the motivation behind Hidetada and Ieyasu’s ban of Catholic missionaries from Japan. According to the friar, the Jesuits’ involvement in the Macau-Nagasaki trade carried out by the Portuguese caused a clash of interests with powerful Japanese merchants, who held considerable political influence over Nagasaki authorities.

The original manuscript of San Pedro’s treatise is yet to be found. However, in 1617, the Jesuit Provincial of Japan and China, Valentim Carvalho, wrote an apologia responding to San Pedro’s accusations and included a translation of the Spanish treatise into Portuguese. The Portuguese historian José Eduardo Franco found three copies of Carvalho’s manuscript in European archives: in London, Lisbon, and Rome (Franco 2012). In 2007, he published the transcription of the manuscript kept by the British Library, which he believes to be the original, containing San Pedro’s treatise and Carvalho’s Apologia (Carvalho 2007). Both works are important sources for understanding the conflicting strategies for the evangelisation of the Japanese developed by the Franciscans and the Jesuits in the sixteenth-seventeenth centuries. Furthermore, they contain valuable information on the involvement of the Jesuits in the Macau-Nagasaki trade.

Copy of Valentim Carvalho's Apologia at the Torre do Tombo.

Fray Sebastian of San Pedro’s main accusation was related to the arrangements carried by the Jesuits in the silk trade. He argued that even when the profits of such trade were well spent, the Jesuits generated enmities with Japanese authorities who had an interest in the trade by meddling in such matters. The most emblematic case, according to the friar, was that of Hasegawa Fujihiro Sahyōe (1567-1618), bugyō (governor) of Nagasaki from 1606 to 1614, who tried so hard to harm the Jesuits that ended up “destroying the whole Christendom of Japan” (Carvalho 2007, 61). Also, many “gentile” traders took advantage of this hostility and brought their complaints to Sahyōe, building up even more the tension.

In his Apologia, Carvalho did not deny the involvement of the Jesuits in the silk trade, since the agreement they held with the Portuguese traders and Macau authorities was public and official. The strategy he employed was to justify such involvement based on necessity (to gather funds to promote missionary activity in Japan) and lawfulness (the agreements were authorised by the Catholic authorities in Rome). Carvalho also included his own interpretation of the reasons that led the Tokugawa shoguns to issue the 1614 edict. By the end of his Apologia, he summarises: “We believe that the real cause of all this work is reason of state and the suspicions that the lords of Japan have that we plan to take over their kingdom on the pretext of preaching the Gospel” (CARVALHO, 2007, 218). Among the Jesuits, such an interpretation prevailed. In the following years, the concept of rationem status was invoked by other Jesuits – such as Matheus de Couros, Francisco Vieira and Cristóvão Ferreira  – who tried to explain the reasons behind the 1614 edict. 

Nanban Byobu depicting a Portuguese carrack with traders arriving in Nagasaki by Kano Domi

In an open-access article published in 2023 by Dimensões, the Journal of the History department at the Federal University of Espírito Santo, I presented these sources and analysed the Jesuit reasoning for perceiving reason of state as the real motivation for the Tokugawa ban on Christianity (Bernabé 2023). The Jesuits’ interpretations of Japanese early modern politics proved sharp but useless in circumventing the Tokugawa anti-Christian policy. A few decades after the 1614 edict, the Portuguese merchants were also expelled from Japan, and the Catholic missionary activity in the archipelago languished until it terminated altogether. Since Macau’s dwellers’ income was heavily reliant on the profits coming from the trade with Nagasaki, they were compelled to find alternative markets and build new trade arrangements within Asia. This forced reorientation of the city structure is analysed by Jorge Flores in a blog post for the CAPASIA website (here).


Bernabé, Renata Cabral. 2023. “Entre Preces e Negociações: Os Jesuítas no Japão dos Séculos XVI e XVII.” Dimensões, no. 50 (July).

Carvalho, Valentim. 2007. Apologia do Japão. Edited by José Eduardo Franco. Lisbon: CCCM.

Franco, José Eduardo. 2012. “Jesuítas e Franciscanos Perante a Sociedade e Religião Nipónicas o Caso Da Apologia Do Japão.” Revista Lusófona de Ciência Das Religiões 16/17: 351–68.

Hur, Nam-lin. 2007. Death and Social Order in Tokugawa Japan: Buddhism, Anti-Christianity, and the Danka System. Harvard University Asia Center.

Medina, Juan Ruiz de. 1999. El Martirologio del Japón. Rome: Institutum Historicum Societatis Iesu.