Skip to main content

This presentation examines Latin documents authored by Japanese Christians in the late 16th to early 17th century together with the Jesuit seminary where they were trained. While classicism in the Jesuit curricula and the diffusion of Neo-Latin in non-Western contexts have both been studied to some extent, my research sheds light on an area where both coincide and yet has only received scant attention.

The first recorded piece of Latin composition by a Japanese author is Hara Martinho’s encomiastic speech, which was delivered in 1587 and survives in a printed edition of 1587. An ornate and mannered oration which conscientiously follows the classical rhetorical tradition, it has sometimes been attributed to a European tutor rather than a Japanese teenager. Close textual analysis however reveals minor grammatical and stylistic flaws which suggest that a relative novice may have had a hand in its composition. Hara is followed by several of his compatriots whose authorship of Latin is less in doubt. Among them are Miguel Goto, whose elegant and correct Ovidian couplets appeared in print in1621, Diego Yuki, Miguel Minoes and Kibu Cassui, all Jesuits whose autograph reports to their superiors survive in ARSI (Archivum Romanum Societatis Iesu), and Thomas Araki, another Jesuit alumnus who penned a Latin letter in Japan as late as 1632 even though he had apostatized more than a decade earlier.

Examination of these documents provide sample proof that certain Jesuit-educated Japanese of the late 16th to early 17th century developed sufficient fluency in Latin to produce extensive, correct and often elegant compositions on their own, an achievement that was noted by contemporary Europeans but is passed over in Ijsewijn’s survey. The Jesuit seminary in Japan, as recent research has shown, placed extraordinary emphasis on developing linguistic competence in Latin and was staffed by dedicated teachers who were both classically trained and sensitive to local culture. The seminary deserves greater attention as a community where Latin found a home outside the traditional West, even though its life proved short due to historical circumstances beyond its control.