Tiago Salgueiro, The Importance of the 1584 visit of the Japanese Tensho Embassy to Vila Viçosa (Portugal), e-conservation Journal 4, 2015
Available online 14 November 2015

doi: 10.18236/econs4.201509

The Importance of the 1584 visit of the Japanese Tensho Embassy to Vila Viçosa (Portugal)

Tiago Salgueiro


This article analyzes some issues related to the Portuguese visit of the Japanese Embassy that sailed from Nagasaki towards Rome in the late 16th century. During this trip, the Palace of the Dukes of Braganza in Vila Viçosa (Portugal) was one of the places visited by the four young Japanese ambassadors. Converted to Christianity, the Japanese Nobles were part of a delegation that went to Rome and visited the most important decision-making centers in Europe at the time (1582-1586). The great mentor of the initiative was the East India Visitor Jesuit, Father Alessandro Valignano (1539-1606), who organized the visit to Rome with a twofold aim: to clarify the Pope about the Missions in Asia and to impress the Japanese nobles with the power and status of Rome and the European nobles. They were accompanied by the Portuguese Jesuit Diogo de Mesquita (1553-1614), tutor and interpreter, and their servants. This tour of Europe, Africa, India, Macau and Japan lasted eight years and a half. The article intends to demonstrate that Vila Viçosa had been more than a small scale tour. The account of the visit to Vila Viçosa and the description of some episodes that took place between the Palace and the Tapada (the Dukes’ hunting reserve) deserve special attention, as well as the factors that appear to have been the origin of this shift to the Court of the Dukes of Braganza. The most peculiar chapter of the visit was the offer of two Portuguese dogs to the Japanese Ambassadors by the Duke of Braganza D. Theodosius II.

1. Introduction

Is it now possible to imagine an encounter of cultures in the 16th century? Perhaps this exercise will become easier to perform after the perusal of this article. The allure and mystery must have been key elements in the contacts maintained between the Japanese Ambassadors and the then Duke of Braganza, D. Theodosius II (1568-1630) (Figure 1).

This research aims to ascertain the facts which have given rise to the visit of the Princes to the Japanese Court of the Duke D. Theodosius II, located in Vila Viçosa. Was it a mere courtesy? Have the objectives been political, religious, economic or cultural? Interests that may have resulted in a reception worthy of monarchs or high state representatives?

2. The political importance of the House of Braganza during the 16th century

During the 16th century, in particular, there were notorious attempts for D. Catherine (widow of the 6th Duke, John I) to obtain from her cousin King D. Philip II of Spain (I of Portugal)  royal legal alienable rights, such as persecution of symbolic goods, the game of matrimonial alliances and privileges of treatment, to ensure social status to the House, not only in the Portuguese but also in the Iberian context [1].

In reality, the Palace (Figure 2) was a place of institutional promotion and consolidation of power of the Braganza Family. The importance of Vila Viçosa, with the presence of the dukes and his Court since 1502, is attested by the new charter letter given by D. Manuel in 1512 and classified as one of the Village "chief seats" of the kingdom.

In addition to the existence of formal devices and informal practices inherent logic of organization of power and, in particular, the Dukes of Bragança also promoted, from its origin, a set of conscious strategies to the actions of the House. The analysis of construction projects developed by the Dukes while patrons is very relevant to the extent that they promoted conditions that attracted to the local Court very creative people, including musicians, painters, sculptors and diplomats. The development of this courtly life, with great splendor and honor, reveals that the political dimension of the residence had a decisive influence on the habits of cultural affirmation of the House of Braganza, through its invaluable provincial court [1].

We recall the fact that, over time, this place had been visited by several delegations and embassies revealing once again the Palace of the Dukes in Vila Viçosa was indeed an important political, social and cultural center, as we shall also emphasize throughout this analysis.

As it has happened in other cities, also in Vila Viçosa a climate of great curiosity about this visit aroused. This process of acculturation, clearly visible in the reports that reached our days, of the interest of the Japanese and Portuguese language and culture, hunting and food, the music and the decorative arts, also reveals a fascination for clothes and the rituals of the Japanese culture.

The precocious age of all participants (the Duke and his brothers would have substantially the same age as the Japanese ambassadors, between 12 and 15 years) would certainly have encouraged a less formal and closer relationship. There were two important episodes during this visit: the hunt at the Dukes Hunting Reserve and the walk inside the palace by D. Duarte (the youngest brother of Theodosius II) with hitatare (a robe typical of the samurai) and hakama (Japanese trousers), prepared by order of the Duchess D. Catherine and witnessed, in its final phase, by the curious elements of the Court.

Together with the description of the stay in Vila Viçosa, at two different times (1584 and 1586), there is, with this investigation a new approach that allows launching points for research and documentary investigation. What is certain is that the effect of the missions in Japan and the subsequent visit of the embassy cannot be analyzed from a purely religious perspective. It is impossible to separate purely commercial ambitions of a missionary vocation collective. The coming of the Japanese to Vila Viçosa can also enter in this context, since Braganza held certain privileges in the spice trade of the East Indies. These economic privileges on trade in oriental spices - consisting of the right to purchase a certain quantity of spices, free of payment to the Crown, were obtained at the beginning of that century and was always renewed by successive monarchs. The profits achieved in this area reached very substantial sums.

3. From Japan to Portugal

The impact of the Japanese legation visit to Europe was considerable and over 80 books, treatises and pamphlets related to the visit were published between 1585 and 1593. Furthermore, those publications were not confined to the places that were visited as seen by the editions produced in Lithuania and England [2].

To some extent, the historic embassy to Rome originated several consequences, in terms of evangelization strategy of the Japanese visit to Europe.

The propaganda strategy of the Jesuits about the virtues of the European civilization on the magnificence, principles and values of Christian thought, to captivate the Japanese represented by the four ambassadors, was the major objective. It was the most visible expression of how the Jesuits wanted to reorganize the methods of communication and dissemination of messages. This initiative is designed as a way to solve the inability of the Jesuits to share certain types of information with the Japanese Christians [3].

The great leader of this initiative was the Jesuit Visitor East Indies, Father Alessandro Valignano (1539-1606) who organized the visit to Rome at Christian Japanese Princes converted with a dual purpose: to clarify the Pope about to the Missions in Asia and to impress the Japanese nobles with the richness and the Rome Statute and the European nobles (Figure 3). The names of the princes were Sukemasu Ito (D. Mancio, 12 years-old), Chijia Naokazu (D. Miguel, 14 years-old), Hara Nakatsukasa (D. Martinho, 13 years-old) and Nakaura Jingoro (D. Julian, 12 years-old). They were accompanied by Portuguese Jesuit Diogo de Mesquita (1553-1614), tutor and interpreter, and two servants, Augustine and Constantine. This tour to Europe, Africa, India, Macau and Japan lasted eight and a half years [2].

The journey lasted too long and its participants traveled thousands of miles with some sacrifice and dangers. The triumphal route these Japanese sent by Portugal, Spain and Italy, not to mention the cordial meetings with two popes, king Philip II of Spain and the civil and ecclesiastical dignitaries, put Japan on the map in relation to the European context. The remote and mysterious island of Zipangu, as described by Marco Polo, had become a reality for Europeans.

During the duchy of D. Theodosius II, and from its predecessors, D. Theodosius I and D. John I, Vila Viçosa became a clear manifestation or embodiment of "Court in the Village", the nerve center set up in the monumental architectural expression of the Ducal Palace, a sign of greatness and pretense ever renewed competition and overtaking the invading Castilian court.

The House of Braganza had a range of governance and its own logic, which materialized for control and expansion of the territory of the noble family. Over the period of Phillipe II of Spain, the Braganza maintained enviable political stability, since that depended on the royal will, to which fidelity of manors and nobles around her family or groups of exclusive regional and local importance [1].

4. Vila Viçosa and D. Theodosius II, Duke of Bragança

Vila Viçosa, a medieval village of political, economic and military reference in the context of national integration, became a Renaissance and Mannerist village thanks to the action of the Dukes of Braganza. The choice fell on Vila Viçosa, where the ducal castle was the traditional quarters, an urban space that showed not only the ducal power, but that was also the first place in the hierarchy, immediately after the King’s House [4].

This background allowed him to consolidate his position as master over time and gave him a unique status in the kingdom during the Dual Monarchy. The presence of the ducal court also marked Vila Viçosa as the center of the new humanist currents, whose values  were there developed by the Dukes. This influence became visible in its architecture. According to Moreira [4], "the Palace Square, the Church, the Convent and the Fortress - almost a showcase of new forms of Renaissance style - were not timely interventions, but elements of a specific strategy".

Thus, it was here the seat of power of the ducal court, at the time one of the most important of all the Iberian Peninsula and one of the leading ducal houses of Europe, diffusing center of humanism in Portugal. The village itself presented an image of wealth and power that spread the dignity and grandeur of the House of Braganza [1].

The establishment of the dukes’ court in Vila Viçosa brought great development to the village attracting, over two centuries, a large number of employees, with their families, and a major influx of income from its vast heritage scattered throughout the country. This gave rise to economic and socio-cultural characteristics unparalleled in other properties of similar size. It also allowed the construction of monasteries and noble buildings which gave Vila Viçosa its unmistakable appearance.

After the Royal House in Lisbon, the House of Braganza, represented symbolically by the Ducal Palace of Vila Viçosa, was the second house of the kingdom, with approximately 350 people at its service, gathering more than 150 noblemen, knights, squires and chamber servants. Regardless of the physical distance of the royal Court, the dukes maintained some level of political intervention on it and, above all, an undeniable ability to reproduce and consolidate the preeminence of their social position. The maintenance and continuity of undisputed preeminence, well recognized by the monarchy itself, seems to have been the main objective that guided the actions of the Ducal House [1].

The presence of the dukes in Vila Viçosa completely changed the social composition of its population. Their coming to Vila Viçosa brought a large number of servants and people of his Court who served in various levels at the Palace.  At the time, Vila Viçosa was also a great center of culture, thanks to the presence of the Dukes of Braganza. This remarkable concentration of sages, located in the heart of Alentejo, rich in its artistic programs and the scholarship of their culture are unique features on the national scene [5].

During the period of domination of the Philippine Dynasty, the House of Braganza also established contacts with major centers and agents of political decision. This royal village Court, humanistic center by excellence where the fervor of cultural affirmation always combined with a certain nationalist autonomy, breathed an atmosphere of that spirit of independence. However, there is no unanimity about the political significance of these actions. Some historians interpret the retreat to Vila Viçosa as a form of passive resistance, intentionally outside the political intricacies of the Spanish Court and governance in Lisbon that would configure how morally untouchable reserve for a future occupation of the throne. Others felt that this tacit acceptance of a political situation existing only changed by virtue of the action of others, with which, in the final analysis, the Duke merely acquiesce [1].

In addition to its importance as cultural center, prominent personalities visiting the famous literary court of the Dukes of Braganza were dazzled by the luxury and opulence of the Ducal Palace, confirming it as unique in the Iberian Peninsula, only comparable to Madrid’s Royal Palace.

Left to right:
Figure 1. D. Theodosius II (ceiling painting by Domenico Dupra, 1725). Photo by Joaquim Real Andrade.
Figure 2. Ducal Palace of Vila Viçosa.
Figure 3. Statue of the Japanese Ambassador's Mancio, Miguel , Martinho e Julião in Omura, Japan.

5. The Japanese Visit to Vila Viçosa

The first visit to Vila Viçosa (15th to 18th September 1584) apparently happened at the request of D. Theotonius so that his niece D. Catherine, widow of the 6th Duke of Braganza, D. John I had the opportunity to see them [6]. In this period, D. Catherine was one of the most important figures in political terms.

Insofar as the Company of Jesus and more specifically Alessandro Valignano prepared the entire visit very rigorously, carefully choosing the type of knowledge that should be assimilated by the ambassadors, we see the existence of a mutual interest. On the one hand, the House of Braganza wanted to express prestige and the power it held in the Iberian Peninsula with the embassy and, on the other, the Jesuits sought to show the Japanese the importance of European Christian culture represented in the Court of the House of Braganza.

Father Luis Alvares accompanied the delegation to Vila Viçosa, on September 15th, with two other clergymen by direction of Father Provincial, well known in the House of Braganza. The Duke of Bragança, D. Theodosius II and D. Catherine had already been warned of the entourage arrival [7].

Two miles before arriving to Vila Viçosa, two priests announced the arrival of the entourage and Duchess D. Catherine sent the Duke’s coach, all garnished with crimson velvet cushions. D. Luís de Noronha, noble and cultured gentleman of the House, chosen for his tutor, was responsible for the embassy reception.

The Duke was waiting for them at the door of the Monastery of St. Augustine, along with his brothers, where Eucharisty was celebrated with solemn music. Back then, this temple would still have the same configuration of the early Church of the Convent that the Augustinians Friars established in Vila Viçosa in the 13th century. The Japanese delegation was there received and greetings where exchanged both in Portuguese and Japanese. The ambassadors had approximately the same age as D. Theodosius II. The Duke headed to the choir, and the Japanese princes sat in chairs of crimson velvet. The festivity of St. Nicholas was celebrated in that day [7].

When the mass finished, the party headed to the ducal palace, the Duke and his brothers on horseback and the Japanese ambassadors on D. Catherine’s coach. The sight of the Palace and the adjacent square should have had some impact to the Japanese given its size and its marble decoration. The Duke was waiting the delegation arrival at the last steps of the main staircase, and subsequently moved to where D. Catarina was, which in our opinion would be the Dukes’ room, then called Sala Grande. This space, more solemn, was the only one used for this type of receptions, also given its proximity to the main staircase access to the building.

One of the Japanese ambassadors’ companions, Constantine Gold, being a scribe and very curious, took several notes on what he witnessed at the palace, especially the kitchen, which impressed him a lot, particularly for its clay pots, the basins of water and plates of gold and silver bottles. There is no doubt that the Japanese took notes and should have been asking questions about the price and cost of the things described, from buildings to clothing [6].  This information allows to understand that this visit was to be truly a process of acculturation, since diverse experiences where shared together, through children, between East and West.

In the four days they were in Vila Viçosa, they were called four or five times by the Duchess D. Catherine, who loved to talk to them and treated them with great kindness and love. Every morning a servant of the House was sent with a large silver pot with sugar to eat to make them feel calm.

The Japanese also played musical instruments and the Duke himself told them to take a harpsichord and violas to their room and all were amazed by how musical pieces where performed in those instruments. They also had the same interests, including music, although there is no evidence about the possibility of D. Theodosius being a performer, unlike what happened with the Japanese, who played both keys and string instruments. His improvisational counterpoint was much discussed and admired [8].

After the trip to Rome, the princes returned to Vila Viçosa and remained there for over four days in February 1586. The Book of Mercy of D. Theodosius II reveals that the Princes were offered two dogs as a reminder of their passage by Vila Viçosa [9].

6. The story in our days

In April 2014 and given the curiosity on the subject, a book concerning this visit was translated and published in Japanese, through the city of Minami-Shimabara (Nagasaki), which was the exact location of the departure of the Japanese Ambassadors in 1582. This Japanese edition was titled "The Secret Stories of Diplomatic Boys During the Age of Provincial Wars". With the release of the Japanese edition of "From Japan to the Alentejo - The Japanese Embassy in Vila Viçosa Tensh in the year 1584", a strong cultural interest in relation to Portugal in the Nagasaki area was noted.

In fact, it was there that the Portuguese navigators arrived in 1543 and this historical memory is still very present. Currently, it is being prepared an application for UNESCO World Heritage Site based on the Christian presence in Kyushu and historical relations with Portugal. Nagasaki is supporting efforts to register the "Group of Churches and Religious Heritage of Nagasaki" as World Heritage by UNESCO and the connection to Portugal in this sense is a focus of interest in terms of the exceptional nature of this legacy. The Japanese edition of the book is part of this research and knowledge about this cultural encounter between two civilizations. The region of Minami-Shimabara, where the book was presented on 2014, is working in this issue and the council has a vision about the development of the area through research on his past.

7. Conclusion

The Japanese delegation visited Vila Viçosa for four days on their way to Rome and another four days on their return. These eight days gives us an indication of the importance of the House of Braganza at the eyes of the Church and within the national political context of the period.

The fact that the Dukes of Braganza, through their strategies, seek focus mainly on the consolidation and maintenance of social and political positions in the national space, however acquired, may also justify the coming of the distinguished Japanese visitors to Vila Viçosa. In this sense, the visit to Vila Viçosa was quite important since, as we intend to clarify, it was not a mere courtesy. As the investigation came to demonstrate, the visit of the Japanese delegation to the court of D. Theodosius II, was also related with the political and commercial interests of the Duchy of Braganza.

Therefore, it seems likely that, combined with a natural curiosity aroused by the presence of the Japanese delegation on Portuguese soil and taking into account the situation experienced during this period in Portugal, which was under Spanish rule, there were some clear underlying political objectives. The account of the visit by Vila Viçosa and the description of some episodes which took place at the Palace and the Hunting Reserve deserve special attention.

This article emphasizes the importance of the historical relationships between Portugal and Japan, giving an account of the cultural exchange that began in the 16th century. Recent initiatives demonstrate the existence of a common heritage, which can and should be valued, to allow more research on this topic.

8. References

[1] M.S. Cunha, A Casa de Bragança, 1560-1640 – Práticas senhoriais e redes clientelares, Editorial Estampa, Lisboa, 2000

[2] M. Cooper, The Japanese Mission to Europe, 1582-1590: The journey of Four Samurai Boys Through Portugal, Spain and Italy, Folkstone, Kent, Global Oriental, 2005

[3] J.P. Costa, J. Paulo, Os Portugueses no Japão, Portugal no Mundo, Vol. II, Publicações Alfa, Lisboa, 1993

[4] R. Moreira, Uma Cidade Ideal em Mármore: Vila Viçosa, a primeira corte ducal do Renascimento Português, Monumentos 6, Direção Geral dos Edifícios e Monumentos Nacionais, Lisboa, 1997

[5] V. Serrão, Giraldo do Prado, Cavaleiro - pintor do Duque de Bragança D. Teodósio II, Revista de Cultura Callipole, 12, 2004

[6] L. Froes, Tratado dos embaixadores japões que foram do Japão a Roma no anno de 1582, Grupo de Trabalho para as Comemorações dos Descobrimentos Portugueses, Ministério da Educação, Lisboa, 1993

[7] C.F. Moura, Notícia da visita feita a algumas terras do Alentejo pela 1ª embaixada japonesa à Europa (1584/85), A Cidade de Évora 51-52, Évora, 1968/69

[8] M. Ryan, Musicians and Music in the Chapel of the Dukes of Bragança at the time of the visits by the Japanese Princes in 1584, Revista de Cultura Callipole, nº 9, 2001

[9] M.I. Pestana (ed.), Mercês de D. Teodósio II Duque de Bragança, Fundação da Casa de Bragança, Lisboa, 1967

Tiago Salgueiro

Assistant Curator
Museum of the House of Braganza – Ducal Palace of Vila Viçosa
Foundation of the House of Braganza
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