Until I read this book, I’d never heard of the extraordinary Japanese embassy that arrived at the court of King Philip III of Spain in 1615. Its members had come halfway round the world, encouraged by the need to seek new trading markets and made curious by the stories of Christian missionaries. Led by the ambassador Hasekura Tsunenaga and escorted by a party of samurai, this remarkable entourage arrived in Europe to be feted and gawped at by peasants and nobles alike. Healey’s readable novel spins a tale around this encounter between two great empires and, even if the writing isn’t always the most gripping, it’s well worth seeking out for its fascinating and very unusual subject.
Shiro is the illegitimate nephew of the lord Date Masamune, raised with all the skills of a noble Japanese warrior, and with an extra layer of exposure to the foreigners resident in the Emperor’s realm. He has learned Spanish, Latin and Greek from Father Luis Sotelo, the Franciscan missionary at his uncle’s court, and cultivates a broader interest in the Western world than many of his countrymen. With this in mind, it’s hardly surprising when his uncle singles him out for a great honour: to join an unprecedented embassy from Japan to the great King of Spain, Philip III. Shiro is to be his uncle’s eyes and ears, protected by his portion of royal blood even if his illegitimacy rankles with Hasekura Tsunenaga, the noble vassal of Date Masamune. This shipload of men sets off on a journey that, even in these relatively recent times, must have been dauntingly unfamiliar: eastward across the Pacific from Shiro’s native Sendai, through Indonesia, to the western coast of the Americas and across the isthmus by land; then onto another ship for Cuba, and from there across the Caribbean and the Atlantic to the coast of Spain.
And for what gain? Hasekura comes with gifts and fine words for King Philip, angling for a trade treaty. He and his men undergo baptism as a sign of their good faith, though the sincerity of the conversion varies from man to man. And they hope to understand more of this strange country in which they find themselves. But, like all visitors, they wander into a network of relationships and feuds to which they are blind and yet, in Shiro’s case at least, will come to define the rest of their lives. His grace and good manners bring him favour in the eyes of the Duke of Medina-Sidonia, who takes on Shiro as a protege and brings him unwittingly into the emotional trials of his family, and most especially those of his niece Guada. Newly married to her beloved Julian, Guada is beginning to realise that a woman has limited say in her own future: a bitter epiphany, and one made harder by her parents’ tacit acceptance of her misery. What little comfort she has comes from her unconventional aunt, Doña Soledad Medina, her uncle the Duke and with the strange young foreigner whose quiet attentions are so very different from those of her husband.
Around this gentle love story, Healey coveys the way in which two very different cultures seek to honour and understand each other: the confusions over their respective social hierarchies, and the fascination which the exotic Japanese evoked in their Spanish hosts. There is drama, betrayal and courage, and I certainly found the story compelling even if the writing itself wasn’t always as rich as I’d have liked. But the pace is well done, taking us from Shiro to Guada and back again, allowing us to see how two young people can find a connection despite the cultural and social customs that set them apart. It would make a good film. One can’t help wondering if Healey, a filmaker, has that in mind.
The story is well and good, but the truly interesting thing is the fact behind it. I knew about the role of missionaries in Japan (and, of course, China), but I had no idea that the eastern nations had returned the interest and gone so far as to send this distinguished party of visitors. I’m not sure whether this is a spoiler or not, as any internet search will tell you this, but not all the samurai returned home to Japan. Six stayed, married local women and settled down in Spain, where their ancestors still live nowadays. It’s a little-known, fascinating period of cultural assimilation and I’d love to know whether anyone has come across any other good books about it – perhaps a straightforward history?
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review
Hasekura’s visit was sufficiently striking to have been recorded in several works of art at the time. He had his portrait painted in Rome in 1615 by Claude Deruet and also appears in the frescoes in the Salone dei Corazzieri in Palazzo Quirinale. They were painted between 1616 and 1617 by a team of artists who included Agostino Tassi, Giovanni Lanfranco and Carlo Saraceni. Hasekura is shown with other members of the embassy, leaning forward over a trompe l’oeil balcony, while the Franciscan Luis Sotelo translates for him. Finally there’s a rather intriguing and much-damaged painting showing Hasekura in Western dress after his baptism, praying to a crucifix. This painting is now, rather fittingly, back in his home town of Sendai in Japan. It seems that he actually took it back with him.