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  • Spencer Low

Japan & Portugal: 480 years of friendship

Updated: Feb 18, 2023

This year, 2023, will see Japan and Portugal celebrate 480 years of relations between the two maritime countries at opposite ends of the Old World. Two Portuguese explorers, António da Mota and Francisco Zeimoto, landed on the island of Tanegashima (種子島) on September 23rd, 1543 and became the first Europeans to set foot in Japan. In the Japanese records, that was the 25th day of the 8th month of the 12th year of the Tenbun (天文) era.

Official logo featuring Portuguese azulejo and Japanese sakura (cherry blossoms)

The arrival of the Portuguese set off a chain of technological, religious and cultural developments that fundamentally changed Japan's history and outlook, most visibly with the introduction and later mass production of handheld guns. Arquebuses were a critical advantage for Oda Nobunaga (織田信長), the daimyō (大名 or feudal lord) who is regarded as the first "Great Unifier" of Japan, particularly in the decisive Battle of Nagashino (長篠の戦い) in 1575.

Mota and Zeimoto, along with António Peixoto, set off from Siam (as Thailand was then known) in a Chinese junk heading for Ningbo, a Chinese port-city near Shanghai. A bad storm swept the ship off course and it ended up far to the east in the archipelago of the Ōsumi Islands (大隅諸島) south of Kyūshū (九州), one of the four largest Japanese islands. The historical records suggest that Peixoto died while at sea before Mota and Zeimoto, along with around a hundred East Asians, anchored in a cove, Maenohama (前之浜), east of Cape Kadokura (門倉岬), the southernmost point of Tanegashima.

A damaged Chinese junk showing up would not have stirred up as much attention had it not been for the presence of the two Portuguese men, who must have stood out due to their strange garments and unfamiliar facial features. Because of them, the ship became known as the 'ship of the southern barbarians' or nanbansen (南蛮船), and the term 'southern barbarian' (nanban) came to refer both to Europeans in general (up to the 17th century) as well as the lucrative trade that the Japanese started with the Portuguese.

The local daimyō, Tanegashima Tokitaka (種子島時堯), was only 15 years old in 1543. When he heard about the presence of these foreigners, he sent for them and received them cordially. As described by Olof Lidin:

The lord was soon aware that the Portuguese possessed and carried an oblong object, which aroused his curiosity. When he asked about it, one of the Portuguese tried to explain what it was, and when Tokitaka became more and more interested, the Portuguese arranged a demonstration. A target was set up, the object (that is, the musket) was loaded, and a shot was fired, a shot that made Japanese history. Tokitaka and all other spectators were stunned, not only by the thunderous noise and the smoke, but also by the fact that the target was hit some 100 steps away. The respect for the Portuguese must have risen at that moment. From being just southern barbarians, they were suddenly the carriers of a new magic. For the first time interest was shown in western science in Japan!
Tokitaka understood. Further explanations were superfluous. This was the weapon he needed to reconquer Yakushima Island, which forces from Nejime on southern Kyushu had taken not long before.

Lord Tokitaka proceeded to buy two of these arquebuses for a princely sum and ordered his swordsmith, Yaita Kinbei Kiyosada (八板金兵衛清定), to make functional copies. Initial difficulties were solved when a Portuguese blacksmith was brought to Tanegashima in 1544, after which the Japanese started to master the techniques for producing teppō (鉄砲) or 'iron cannons'. Tanegashima was a major producer of iron and had many skilled blacksmiths, and over time the local versions of the Portuguese arquebus (arcabuz) became known throughout Japan as... tanegashima guns.

To this day, the people of Tanegashima hold an annual festival called the Teppō Matsuri (鉄砲祭り) to celebrate the arrival in 1543 of Mota and Zeimoto. Here's a video that shows what it's like:

Local schoolchildren learn about this history and here's a cute video produced by two Japanese girls about the historical links between Tanegashima and Portugal (in Japanese):

Note: A famous Portuguese explorer, Fernão Mendes Pinto, claimed in his autobiographical memoir Pilgrimage (Peregrinação) that he was the first European to arrive in Japan, but he was known to have greatly embellished his already remarkable voyages. For that reason he was nicknamed "Fernão Mentes Minto", a play on his name that means "Fernão, are you lying? I am lying." That said, Pinto did play an important role in developing relations with Japan, and even accompanied the Catholic missionary St. Francis Xavier when he arrived in Japan in 1549.

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