Hasekura Rokuemon Tsunenaga. Born 1571 of Japanese imperial descent; baptised into the Catholic church as Francisco Felipe Faxicura in Spain, 1615.
Claim to fame
In 1613, seven years before the Mayflower headed to the New World, Hasekura set sail from the small Japanese port of Tsukinoura, crossed the Pacific, travelled overland through Mexico, then sailed all the way to Europe. He was accompanied by about 20 fellow countrymen – in all likelihood, the first Japanese to cross the Atlantic. They visited Seville, were received by the King of Spain, popped briefly to France, and travelled to Rome for an audience with the pope in 1615. The purpose of Hasekura’s embassy seems to have been to establish cultural and trading links with Europe.
When he left Japan, Hasekura began a journal about his experiences. Unfortunately, this was lost or destroyed on his return. There are, however, records of his visit in European archives. It was the discovery of these in the 19th century that reignited Japanese interest in their forgotten emissary. Some of the historical evidence is collected in an appendix to Shusaku Endo’s excellent 1982 novel about Hasekura’s journey, The Samurai.
Hasekura was painted during his visit to Rome by the artist Claude Deruet. It shows him wearing a beautiful silk outfit embroidered with animals and grasses, but the eye is drawn to a pair of swords at his waist, symbols of his status as a samurai.
Hasekura’s trip was astonishingly badly timed. When he returned to Japan in 1620, having been baptised into the Catholic church, the country had begun to persecute Christians and was about to retreat into sakoku, the centuries-long policy of isolation that weirdly foreshadowed Brexit. With Japanese Euroscepticism triumphant, Hasekura was persona non grata. He vanishes from history. One hint of his fate is the fact that in 1640 his son was forced to disembowel himself because of alleged sympathies towards the illegal Christian religion.
It’s not so much that Hasekura was intrepid – though he clearly was – but that his journey helps correct the Eurocentric bias of many assumptions about explorers. Whatever his aims, the mind boggles at the thought of armed samurai wandering around the Europe of El Greco and Cervantes: 7.
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