Christian Books in Pre-modern Japan: Printing, Prohibition, & Circulation

Part of the 2018 One Asia Forum Talk Series
with Professor M. Antoni Ucerler (University of San Francisco)


In 1590 the Jesuits in Japan imported a Gutenberg printing press from Portugal and began using metal type to print books in Japanese. Besides Christian devotional works, the Jesuits also printed grammars and dictionaries of the Japanese language. This was the same year that Toyotomi Hideyoshi first acquired Korean metal type. The “Jesuit Mission Press” continued to function in Kyushu until 1614, when the missionaries were expelled from Japan and Christianity was officially prohibited. In the aftermath of the expulsion of the Portuguese in 1639, the Edo shogunate realized that Christian books written by the Jesuit missionaries in China in classical Chinese (kanbun) were still circulating throughout Japan. These books were imported through Nagasaki by Chinese merchants. The discovery of previously banned Christian texts and objects led the authorities to appoint the head of the Shuntokuji Buddhist Temple (Nagasaki) in 1630 as censor of all imported books. The shogunate subsequently established the official position of “inspector of books” and entrusted it to the Mukai family, which was in charge of the Nagasaki Confucian Academy. They were to ensure that no prohibited writings or otherwise undesirable literature was imported directly from China. Besides promoting orthodox Confucian learning—the official ideology of the Tokugawa state—the Academy’s function was to be vigilant against Christian ideas circulating among the populace through Chinese books. Tokugawa Yoshimune, the eighth shogun, eased the ban in 1720 on Jesuit scientific books printed in China. Thereafter, many works, including Matteo Ricci’s world map (1602) were reprinted in Japan. New archival evidence reveals, however, that Christian texts in classical Chinese continued to circulate in “illegal” manuscript copies among curious Edo scholars for over two centuries.

About the speaker:

M. Antoni J. UCERLER, S.J. is Director of the Ricci Institute for Chinese-Western Cultural History and Associate Professor of East Asian Studies at the University of San Francisco. He previously taught at Sophia University (Tokyo), the University of Oxford, and Georgetown University. He is also co-editor of the new Brill series, “Studies in the History of Christianity in East Asia.” His research concentrates on the history of Christianity in Japan and its comparative history in East Asia. Among his publications are: Compendia compiled by Pedro Gómez; Jesuit College of Japan, ed., 3 vols. (Tokyo, 1997); Christianity and Cultures: Japan and China in Comparison, 1543-1644, ed., (Rome, 2009); and The Samurai and the Cross: Reinventing Christianity in Early Modern Japan (Oxford, forthcoming). He has also curated several exhibits, including “China at the Center,” an exhibit of the world maps of Matteo Ricci (1602) and Ferdinand Verbiest (1674) at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.