Japan on the Jesuit Stage

Japan: Akihiko Watanabe, Haruka Oba, Patrick Schwemmer
Austria: Maria Maciejewska, Florian Schaffenrath


Together with our Japanese partner Akihiko Watanabe (Department of Comparative Culture, Otsuma Women's University, Tokyo) the LBI started a so called Joint Programme, financed by the Austrian Science Foundation (FWF) and the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science. We are extremely happy that Patrick Schwemmer and Haruka Oba who was a fellow at the LBI support the project. 

In the middle of the 16th century, Japan was going through a period of extraversion, and was open for new religious ideas. The so called 'Christian century of Japan' from 1549 to 1650 was first and foremost the encounter between the Japanese and the Jesuits from Europe. In 1549, Francis Xavier arrived at Kagoshima in Kyushu together with Cosme de Torres and Juan Fernández. After first encounters with local potentates, the Jesuits were allowed to evangelize the country. In the 1580s, Alessandro Valignano succeeded in establishing Jesuit seminars in two cities, that is Arima and Azuchi. At the end of the 16th century, the situation changed fundamentally: After first restrictions and persecutions of Christians an edict of banishment was launched in 1614. The isolation of Japan and an era of introversion was the consequence, after a short century of openness.

Much is known about the various ways in which knowledge about Japan came to Europe. In Europe, this knowledge was spread via different channels to a broader audience. The most important stakeholder in this dissemination process was the Society of Jesus. Soon after its official foundation in 1540, the Society became an order of global impact. For these worldwide activities, the order developed efficient means of communication. Every institute of the order had to report about its activities in annual reports, the so called litterae annuae, which were sent to the headquarters in Rome. In some cases, Rome decided to publish these litterae. More often, they were an important source for authors who wrote general works on different parts of the world.

These collections, books, and treatises became a favoured source for the choragi, i.e. the Jesuits teaching at the schools of the order, whose duty it was to prepare a Latin drama staged by their students at the end of the school year or for any other occasion. The aims of Jesuit theater production were manifold: next to the obvious didactic purposes, plays about the mission in the far east also aimed to demonstrate the worldwide presence of the Society of Jesus. For these cases, the term 'Welttheater' has been coined: Exotic places from all over the world were shown on Jesuit stages: They brought people to settings in China, India, America, etc., but Japan was by far the most popular setting of these exotic plays.

For most of the plays, we only know about from Jesuit chronicles or histories of the schools, since in most of the cases, the texts are not preserved. Only few manuscripts transmit the text of Jesuit dramas, almost nothing of this huge literary production was printed. The Austrian contribution to the joint project will comprise the preparation of an edition, including a translation of and a commentary on the play entitled Sanctus Franciscus Xaverius Indiae et Iaponiae apostolus, which was staged in Lucerne in 1677. The Japanese team of the project will produce a similar edition of a play performed in Munich in 1665, the Error fortitudinis profanae a sacra correctus in Victore Iapone (Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm. 1554).

In addition to this detailed philological work, a conference took place, during which the limited perspective of “Japan on the Jesuit stage of the German language area” was widened to an international audience, where the results of the work conducted in the German-speaking world could be compared to other national contexts. The conference was held on 28-29 June, 2018 in Vienna.