Father Xavier Introduces Christianity to Japan

Over the period 1549-1552, Jesuit priest Francis Xavier and his colleagues established Christianity in Japan, converting several thousand adherents and introducing European learning and trade.

Summary of Event

To counter the Protestant Reformation of the early sixteenth century, the Catholic Church launched an internal reform known as the Counter-Reformation Counter-Reformation[CounterReformation] . At the heart of this movement was a new order of priests, the Society (or Company) of Jesus, popularly known as the Jesuits Jesuits . Their fundamental mission became the preservation and advancement of Catholic tradition. Their founder, Saint Ignatius of Loyola, was a Spaniard. Christianity;Japan
Xavier, Saint Francis
Torres, Cosme de
Fernández, Juan
Ōuchi Yoshitaka
Ignatius of Loyola, Saint
Torres, Cosme de
Fernández, Juan
Shimazu Takahisa
Naito Takaharu
Ōuchi Yoshitaka
Xavier, Saint Francis

It was Spain together with Portugal, bastions of Catholicism, that pioneered maritime discoveries in the fifteenth century that opened trade routes and new lands in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Supported by the power of the expanding Spanish and Portuguese empires, Jesuits took the forefront in evangelizing the globe for Catholicism. They were particularly dedicated to establishing schools, emphasizing learning as key to solidifying Catholic faith. Education;Jesuits

One Jesuit, Saint Francis Xavier, became particularly distinguished in advancing Catholicism to the farthest known eastern reaches of the globe, Japan. Missions;Jesuits in Japan He was born Francisco de Jaso y Azpilcueta into an aristocratic Basque family in the castle of Xavier near Pamplona, Spain. Studying in Paris, he became the friend of a fellow Basque and Spaniard, Ignatius Loyola. In 1534 Francis and five other students joined Ignatius in organizing what became, with papal approval in 1540, the Society of Jesus.

Father Francis Xavier began his missionary career the same year. Leaving Portugal under royal auspices, he evangelized throughout Asia until he died twelve years later off the coast of China. He labored to establish Catholic missions in Mozambique, India, Sri Lanka, and the islands of Indonesia. He operated from Goa, India, the chief center of the Portuguese empire in the East.

At Melaka (now Malacca in Malaysia), he met in 1547 a Japanese samurai (warrior aristocrat) named Anjirō (also known as Anger or Han-Sir), who had come to request that the Jesuit journey to Japan to advance Christianity there. Responding to the request, Francis Xavier traveled to Japan, landing on August 15, 1549, at the port of Kagoshima on Kyūshū, the southernmost of Japan’s four major islands. He was accompanied by Anjirō, who was baptized as Pablo de Santa Fe, and two other Jesuits, Father Cosme de Torres and Brother Juan Fernández.

They arrived during a period of exceptional political and religious transition in Japan’s history known as the Sengoku Jidai, or Warring States period Warring States period (Japan, 1477-1600) . These conditions would initially aid but ultimately frustrate their missionary efforts. Japan was experiencing a feudal period after ancient imperial authority had waned. Local authorities or warlords known as daimyo, Daimyos with mounting military force, had replaced central authority. Changing power relations among local lords created chronic instability and violence. Nonetheless, economic opportunities emerged from the debilitated government and social regulations. Moreover, large religious, philosophical, and cultural questions had opened. Traditional Shinto and Confucian spiritual tenets had been confronting and were absorbing or mixing with newer Buddhist challenges.

In this unstable yet open flux of ideas, relations, and opportunities, the handful of Christians evangelized the gospel. Not speaking Japanese, the Jesuits initially were unable to preach. At Kagoshima until October, 1550, Francis composed, with the aid of translators, a Japanese catechism of basic Catholic doctrine. The presence of the Jesuits was tolerated by the local warlord, Shimazu Takahisa, who hoped they might aid him in attracting Portuguese traders to his province. He calculated that economic bonds could become strategic ones in the endless rounds of warfare that characterized Japanese civil society.

Francis’s ambition, however, was to journey to Kyōto, the imperial capital on the main island of Honshū. There he hoped to obtain the permission and support of the emperor for the preaching of Christianity. On his way northward to the capital, he stayed in Yamaguchi from October to December, where he and his fellows were now emboldened to preach.

Using the crossroads of the city as pulpits, they read from their Japanese catechism, denouncing Japanese idolatry and morals. They were often mocked by the street folk because of their ragged appearance and awkward speech. Nevertheless, a segment of the population was sympathetic, particularly to the Christian teaching of compassion. Some local aristocrats invited Francis to their homes, interested in hearing of his travels around the world and his knowledge of trade and technical advances rumored to be emerging from Europe. One of these noblemen, Naito Takaharu, became a patron, protector, and eventually, the Jesuit’s most important convert. Moreover, he introduced Francis to the region’s most powerful warlord,Ōuchi Yoshitaka.

After finally reaching Kyōto, Francis learned that the Japanese emperor was weak and irrelevant to plans for national conversion. In returning to Yamaguchi in March, 1551, he now saw howŌuchi held a singular position of regional power. To persuade him to support Christianity, Francis tempered his manner, dressed in better clothing, and offered Ōuchi gifts that had been destined for the emperor. These gifts were meant to impress the Japanese regarding the value of Portuguese trade and technology and the productive intellectual environment that Christianity fostered. The gifts included a clock, a music box, books, spectacles, a mirror, and rich fabrics and tableware. Most alluringly and tellingly for history, one gift was a three-barreled rifle.

Ōuchi responded generously, giving the Jesuits an abandoned monastery, some land, and, together with Naito, financial aid. They also received permission to preach and soon had five hundred converts for their newly constructed church. Their message was particularly effective among the underclass, who responded to the Christian message of brotherly love and who lost no social prestige by adhering to a new religion. A noted convert was a blind lute player who, as Brother Lorenzo, became a lay evangelist of the Jesuits. Francis was even able to convert a Zen Buddhist monk. In talking of the Christian God, Francis used the Latin word deus, which unfortunately could be equated by enemies of Christianity with a Japanese word, daiuso, meaning devil.

By September of 1551, Francis left Yamaguchi, sojourned briefly in Bungo, and then left Japan, to which he never returned. Father Cosme de Torres was left in charge of the Japanese mission. Spending the first months of 1552 back in Goa, Francis resolved to evangelize China, setting out in April. By September, he had reached an island off the coast of the country, near present-day Hong Kong. However, falling ill in November, he on died December 2. His body was returned for burial in Goa. He was canonized a saint, together with Ignatius Loyola, in 1622.


Evangelizing in Japan from 1549 to 1552, Francis Xavier and two Jesuit colleagues established Roman Catholic communities on the islands of Kyūshū and southern Honshū. After initial difficulties of social acceptance, they converted several thousand followers among the lower classes and attracted a handful of admirers among the provincial nobility. From this nucleus, Christianity grew and took root in southern Japan during the second half of the sixteenth century and the first half of the seventeenth, a period in Japan known as the Christian Century Christian Century (Japan, 1549-1650) .

Ports in southern Japan were generally where foreign traders, including the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and Chinese, concentrated. The growth of Christianity occurred because no central state or national religious opposition existed in the country to thwart it. Moreover, it offered promising commercial, strategic, and cultural ties in regional power centers. Jesuits opened numerous secondary schools (colégios) noted as centers of Western learning.

The national consolidation of Japanese state, military, religious, and cultural power beginning in 1600 with the rise of the Tokugawa shogunate reversed the favorable conditions for foreign religious, commercial, and strategic activities. During the 1620’, Christian missionaries and their converts were executed in the tens of thousands, their churches and property were confiscated, and the Japanese were forbidden any contact with foreigners. The novelist Shūsaku Endō recalled this persecution in his work appearing in 1966, Chimmoku (Silence, 1969). Until the reopening of Japan in the late nineteenth century, Christianity survived in a rudimentary form in southern Japan as a hidden sect. In 1913, the Jesuits opened Sophia University in Japan. A statue of St. Francis Xavier stands prominently on the campus.

Further Reading

  • Fernandes, Naresh. “Tomb Raider: Looking for St. Francis Xavier.” Transition 84 (2000): 4-19. An Indian of Portuguese descent retraces steps of missionary in Asia, recounting how devotees have distributed relics of Xavier’s body to shrines in various parts of world.
  • Gowen, Herbert H. Five Foreigners in Japan. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1967. Includes a chapter on Xavier.
  • Moran, Joseph Francis. The Japanese and the Jesuits: Alessandro Valignano in Sixteenth-Century Japan. London: Routledge, 1993. Examines earliest activities of Jesuits in Japan through the record of an Italian Jesuit.
  • O’Neill, Charles E., and Joaquín Ma. Dominguez, comps. Diccionario histórico de la compañía de Jesús: biográfico-temático. Rome: Institum Historicum, 2001. The most complete compilation of Jesuit biographies; includes an article on Xavier. In Spanish.
  • Ross, Andrew C. A Vision Betrayed: The Jesuits in Japan and China, 1542-1742. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1994. A missionary Catholic interpretation of the pioneer work of the Jesuits in East Asia.
  • Schurhammer, Georg. Francis Xavier: His Life, His Times. 4 vols. Rome: Jesuit Historical Institute, 1973-1982. The authoritative Jesuit biography of Xavier.

1457-1480’s: Spread of Jōdo Shinshū Buddhism

1467-1477: Ōnin War

1477-1600: Japan’s “Age of the Country at War”

Mar. 5, 1488: Composition of the Renga Masterpiece Minase sangin hyakuin

Beginning 1513: Kanō School Flourishes

1514-1598: Portuguese Reach China

1532-1536: Temmon Hokke Rebellion

1550’s-1567: Japanese Pirates Pillage the Chinese Coast

1550-1593: Japanese Wars of Unification

Sept., 1553: First Battle of Kawanakajima

June 12, 1560: Battle of Okehazama

1568: Oda Nobunaga Seizes Kyōto

1583-1610: Matteo Ricci Travels to Beijing

1587: Toyotomi Hideyoshi Hosts a Ten-Day Tea Ceremony

1590: Odawara Campaign

1592-1599: Japan Invades Korea

1594-1595: Taikō Kenchi Survey

Oct., 1596-Feb., 1597:
San Felipe Incident

Oct. 21, 1600: Battle of Sekigahara