Jesuits and the Problem of Slavery in Early Modern Japan


Rômulo da Silva Ehalt

PhD defended at: 

Tokyo University of Foreign Studies


There has been an increasing number of works dedicated to the phenomenon of Japanese slavery, which involved Japanese taken overseas between the arrival of the firearms until the middle of the seventeenth century. Since 2007, this theme has been analyzed by various researchers. In recent years, we learned that merchants from Portugal and other countries took Japanese shoju, genin, nenki hokonin and other types of Japanese servants out of the country, where they would be identified as slaves. Furthermore, many historical sources have been unearthed showing that enslaved Japanese reached places such as Peru, Mexico, Portugal, Spain, Italy and other regions. It has become clear that Jesuits, acting as intermediaries in the negotiation of Japanese servants, played an important role in the Japanese slave trade. In sum, recent research has focused on the geographical spread of Japanese slaves and the trading structure of the Japanese slave trade.
Past research has shown that, until the 1590s, Jesuits had a positive attitude towards the Japanese slave trade, but their position changed with the 1598 Nagasaki meeting, when missionaries changed to a hard stance towards the activity. But beyond that, the problem of how Jesuit missionaries justified the enslavement of Japanese has not been solved yet. By analyzing rules regarding servants used by Jesuits and the theological interpretation of Japanese enslavement, the present thesis resets the history of Japanese slavery as intellectual history. In other words, the main object here is to analyze the legal and theological arguments used by Jesuits to support the enslavement of Japanese people and how they discarded these by the end of the sixteenth century.
From past investigations, we know that Portuguese merchants purchased Chinese and Japanese in Kyushu in the 1550s. Also, Jesuits were quick to intervene in the trade, enacting permits to allow Portuguese to procure slaves. Furthermore, upon learning about the trade, Toyotomi Hideyoshi forbade it in 1587 and, in 1596, Jesuits condemned slave traders with an excommunication letter enacted by the Bishop. Upon the prelate’s death, the order was nulled, being thus reenacted in 1598
by the new Bishop of Japan. After that, missionaries tried pressuring the Portuguese crown to forbid the enslavement of Japanese, but the strategy failed because of opposition from the Portuguese in India.
The present thesis shows that Japan Jesuits used theological arguments to defend the enslavement of Japanese. Thus, it underlines the importance of justification for the history of Japanese slavery. This dissertation analyzes historical changes in the concept of early modern slavery and its legitimacy, showing how although the field gives great importance to the use of Just War Theory in the justification of slavery, the relation between JWT and slavery was not natural. The use of just war to justify slavery was the result of a historical process started in the thirteenth century, when prisoners were captured during clashes between European Christians with Muslims. By the sixteenth century, the legitimacy of slavery was in the hands of theologians, and in Portugal and its territories Jesuits played a crucial role as those responsible for defining the justice of wars.
Although we know Portuguese and Spanish words such as escravo and esclavo were used to indicate Japanese forms such as shoju, genin and nenki hokonin, it is unclear when this association started. The present dissertation shows that since Europeans disembarked in Japan they started calling slaves unfree laborers in the country. Thus, the term Japanese slave was born when Europeans interpreted Japanese unfree labor relations based on their own ideas. Nevertheless, Jesuits were reluctant to the use of slavery as a concept in Japan. Considering the period, it is possible this was because they intended to protect Japanese Christians from the stigma of slavery.
During this time, the enslavement of Asians also began to be questioned. In 1550, a missionary in Goa asked the founder of the Jesuits, Ignacio de Loyola, whether it was legitimate to enslave Asians. Loyola replied that those in India were better prepared to answer the issue. This attitude reflects the heavy influence of tutiorism on the way theologians addressed dubious issues such as this in this period. When there was a chance of infringing Christian dogmas, missionaries would resort to the safest option given by moral theology and casuistry manuals. For that reason, this was the time when the favored solution for dubious cases of enslavement was to campaign for the manumission of the enslaved. However, because of economic and political limitations superiors of the Jesuit order could not push for the liberation of

slaves in Asian colonial societies. Thus, Loyola left the issue for Jesuits in the region. As a result, dubious enslavement was tacitly accepted.
In 1567, the First Provincial Council of Goa reviewed the legitimacy of slavery in Portuguese territories. It decided that those enslaved according to foreign laws considered just could be accepted as legitimate slaves. Because of that, Portuguese authorities could formally accept slaves procured beyond territories of Portuguese jurisdiction.
According to the historiography, the Portuguese monarch Sebastião felt sorry for enslaved Japanese and forbade their enslavement in 1570-71. This dissertation reviews the idea that this initiative failed and shows that the legislation ended up putting Jesuits in a privileged position in Japan. Furthermore, previous research has shown that, in the early 1560s, Japan Jesuits started enacting permits for Portuguese merchants procure Japanese slaves. The present thesis explains how this practice started systematically, and how it was introduced by the Jesuits when they began intervening in the trade between Japanese from Bungo and the Portuguese. Historiography has shown that the Otomo clan from Bungo would send Japanese women to nations in Southeast Asia as part of their foreign trade. For that reason, it is possible that the slave trade with the Portuguese began as a continuation of this practice.
Next, this dissertation presents how Jesuits interpreted theologically the issue of Japanese slavery. Although there are few sources directly related to this topic, the Latin language was an important tool to look for these notions. As the Church’s lingua franca, Latin was important to identify how unfree labor relations in Japan were interpreted and translated. Thus, we understood Jesuits had two different interpretations for such laborers. Simply put, first, those servants in the Japanese society were identified as famuli, while those taken overseas were identified as servi. While Canon law, in the tradition of Roman law, did not equated the former to slaves, rather treating them as free people, the latter were indeed identified as slaves. Even if they were freed, they would carry the stigma of slavery for the rest of their lives. Legally speaking, they would have lost their ingenuitas, the essence of free people, and be legally treated in a different manner than free people.
Japan Jesuits continued to support the trade of Japanese slaves out of the archipelago, but circa 1570 a missionary in Macau questioned the situation to a

theologian in Goa, the Jesuit Francisco Rodrigues. Rodrigues recognized there could be issues concerning the permit system put in place by the Japan Jesuits, but he refrained from giving any opinion on the subject, considering missionaries of the archipelago were in a better position to judge it. As a result, the problem of Japanese slavery was left to Jesuits in Japan, thus the situation was tacitly consented.
Sources show that from 1587 on, Hideyoshi took various legal measures trying to assess the Japanese slavery problem. Coming to Japan, the visitor Alessandro Valignano also started having doubts about the acceptance of the enslavement of Japanese. A key source to understand this period is the A Dialogue Concerning the Mission of the Japanese Ambassadors to the Roman Curia, where although we can see criticism against the enslavement Japanese, we see that Valignano divided slavery in general in two types: the sad slavery (tristem servitutem) of African Blacks, and the positive enslavement of Japanese. In this thesis, we referred to this second type as “tolerable slavery”.
Behind the acceptance of the enslavement of Japanese people, two ideas were used: the first was the possidentis principle, which refers to the favoring of the owner in a dispute (in this case, the slave master); the second was the notion of bona fides, which allowed an action to be accepted when the actor had no intention to bring injury to another party. Accordingly, Japanese people who had fallen in bondage as defined by Japanese customs were legitimately accepted by the Jesuits. The usage of these principles shows how the doctrine of Probabilism had been widely embraced by the Jesuits.
Nevertheless, in 1598, when the Bishop returned to Macau from Japan, he enacted an excommunication order against merchants involved in the enslavement of Japanese. However, this order was nulled a few days later after being enacted in Japan. The Bishop’s successor arrived in Japan that same year and held a meeting to discuss this issue. Japan Jesuits then decided to abandon theological principles used to support the enslavement of the Japanese. For that reason, the missionaries decided to set themselves apart from the problem of Japanese slavery. This thesis shows how from that point beyond the issue was left for the secular justice.
After 1598, Jesuits kept themselves away from the problem of Japanese enslavement. In 1612, then vice-provincial reviewed rules applied to Jesuit facilities in Japan, and ordered that missionaries were not to meddle with issues concerning the justice of slavery. However, the fact that Manuel de Sá’s Aphorismi

Confessariorum was published indicates that it was probably possible to still legitimately procure slaves in Japan. In 1614, the Jesuits were expelled from Japan by the Tokugawa Bakufu, and secular organizations known as Confrarias were used by the Jesuits to continue battling against the enslavement of the Japanese.
As shown by this dissertation, principles used by the Japan Jesuits clearly had much in common with principles used by missionaries in other regions. Because of that, it is possible to investigate other common points concerning principles and methods used by missionaries in Japan and in other regions. Furthermore, we believe it is possible to investigate new dimensions concerning problems of principles and methods faced by Jesuits in Japan. Reset as intellectual history, the slave trade in Japan brought about many theological issues during the missionary activity in Japan developed by Jesuits. In conclusion, Jesuit missionaries understood that the phenomenon of Japanese enslavement was the result of the establishment of labor relations between Japanese unfree laborers and Portuguese masters. Also, missionaries in Japan limited the use of the concept of slave to describe these unfree relations, stressing fundamental differences between servant-master relations in Japan and those developed with Black African slaves. Furthermore, it was not possible to divide the Japanese society according to the traditional Roman dichotomic view of society as divided between free people and slaves. Because of that, Jesuits understood servitude relations in Japan where different than slavery, thus Japanese sold to foreigners and taken out of the country were the ones seen as enslaved.
For the history of Japanese slavery, this thesis shows that behind the way Jesuits related to the problem of the enslavement of Japanese there was a serious process involving thought and consideration. Both the period of acceptance of Japanese slavery before the 1590s and when theological principles were scraped and the enslavement of Japanese was condemned after 1598 happened against a background which witnessed the emergence and debates involving the doctrine of Probabilism. Furthermore, this thesis showed that, upon resetting the history of Japanese slavery as intellectual history, to understand the actions and thoughts of Jesuits in this period as deeply related to theology points to new directions and possibilities. We believe this dissertation showed that, for the study of the history of the actions of Japan Jesuits, it is fundamental to consider the historical relation missionaries had with theology.