About the 'History of Japan' by Luís Fróis
Notes on the genesis and on the importance of this work

Momota Kawasaki*

"As a zealous missionary, Fróis wanted to narrate all the facts related to the missionary activities, but with the innate talent of a historian he included the events that has occurred in the political and cultural fields(…) the "History of Japan" by Fr. Luís Fróis constitutes a precious document for a sound understanding of the XVI century, which was one of the decisive periods in Japanese life and civilization."

It is common knowledge that Fr. Luís Fróis, the famous Portuguese Jesuit missionary of the XVI century, wrote a book entitled "History of Japan". Partial translations of this work have been presented to the Japanese readers but the book as a whole and its genesis have never been made available. In this essay I would like to project the historical background of the "History of Japan", by Fróis, recalling all the vicissitudes that this work has been through till this day. I would like to draw attention to a few of its aspects, showing that it is indeed a rare and valuable historical document of the XVI century, one of the most exciting and decisive historical periods of the country.

I would start my work by referring briefly to its author. Fr. Luís Fróis was born in 1532 in Lisbon. Having joined the Society of Jesus in 1548, he went to India the same year, where he met St. Francis Xavier, the great apostle of the Orient, and Yajiro, the first Japanese convert, who later accompanied the missionary saint to Japan. Fr. Fróis arrived in Japan in 1563, when he was thirty-one years old. He spent his initial years in various localities of Kyushu, on the islands of Doshima, Hirato and Kuchinotsu, studying the local language and customs. In 1565, he went for the first time to Kyoto, then the capital of Japan, which he had aspired to see. He was deeply impressed by the city. However, Kyoto during this period, was in a state of great turmoil due to successive wars and rebellions. Later he was obliged to move out from Miaco and take shelter in the neighbouring cities of Sakai, Amagasaki and Kawachi, until the political situation returned to normal. When the great Nobunaga appeared on the stage of politics, and after his triumphant march to Miaco as conqueror and absolute ruler of Tenca, the Church situation in Japan changed considerably. Fróis had an impressive meeting with this military chief in the castle of Nijo, as per description in his book.

Fr. Luis Fróis was endowed with an exceptional literary ability. His qualities as a writer made him a clerk and the editor of letters and periodicals of the Mission which were sent to Rome. It was during the term of office as a correspondent and editor that he received the order of his Superior to write down the Mission history of the Society of Jesus in Japan. For the preparation of this work he retired from the active duty of the Mission and dedicated himself exclusively to this work.

He received this order in 1583. So much so was his tenacity for this work that Fróis used to work ten hours a day. He continued with this work till the year 1597, when he died at the age of sixty five in Nagasaki.

As regards the composition of this work there is a letter from Fróis addressed to the Fr. Superior of the Society, in 1593, in which he literally says:

I spent approximately six years in composing the History arranged in three volumes. Fróis had requested the visiting priest, Alexandre Valignano, then his Superior, to send his work to Rome, but the latter did not approve of his request, saying that the work was too much diffused. Thus, contrary to the author's wish, this work was kept in the archive of the Society's College in Macau. However, in the fire that broke out in the same College, on 26th January 1835, it was destroyed along with other historical documents. Fortunately, however, the manuscripts of this work had been copied and sent to Fr. José Montanha who had been sent to Macau by the Portuguese government in 1720 with the mission of despatching to Portugal all the copies of precious documents existing in the College of Macau. Fr. José Montanha tried to rejoin on his own initiative the original manuscripts of Fróis, grouping them in various separate series which he entitled "Display of Ecclesiastical History of the Diocese of Macau" and "Display of Ecclesiastical History of the Diocese of Japan".

According to the indexes, the copies of the manuscripts of Fr. Fróis work have been divided into three parts. However, this division in three parts is not mentioned, at least, in the letter referred to by the author where it is stated clearly "composed in three volumes" and not in three parts. Since we cannot check on what must have happened with the original documents, which do not exist any longer, we have to take for granted that this division was to distinguish the three successive periods of recorded missionary movement of the Society of Jesus in Japan. The first part covers the period between 1549 and 1578; the second deals with the events of the period between 1579 and 1590; and the third part around 1593.

That Fr. Luís Fróis had attempted to write this great work "History of Japan" was already known in Europe, according to his letter recording this fact.

However, very little is known about the existence of the manuscripts and its copies. The course that these copies took before they made their appearance in a complete form is rather, complex and mysterious.

In 1894 Joseph Marie Cros, a Jesuit historian, while making his research in Biblioteca do Palácio da Ajuda1, Lisbon, discovered copies amounting to 424 sheets that were known to be integral parts of the "History of Japan", the famous work of Fr. Luís Fróis. These copy-sheets related the events between 1549 and 1578. These were parts which corresponded, exactly, to the second part which Fróis had mentioned in his letter. In this 2nd part he mentions the arrival of Fr. Francisco, his conversion, works and difficulties.

In like manner, in 1924, Dr. E. A. Voretzsch, then German ambassador to Portugal and the Jesuit historian Fr. Georg Schurhammer, discovered in the same Biblioteca da Ajuda yet another book that contained 294 sheets with the title of "Apparatos para a História Ecclesiástica do Bispado do Japão"2. These copies were identified as parts of the History of Japan which dealt with the wars of the period between 1588 and 1593. Thus they revealed two important parts of the work; those dealing between the period 1549 and 1578, and the rest referring to the period from 1588 to 1593. Fr. Schurhammer has translated into German the first part of the work mentioned above.

In 1931, the Franciscan historian Fr. D. Schilling, in his investigation of the manuscript copies of Fróis, managed to locate the whereabouts of the two volumes with the titles of "Apparatos para a História Ecclesiástica do Bispado de Macau" and "Apparatos para a História Ecclesiástica do Bispado do Japão", respectively. The owner of these valuable documents was Mr. Paul Sarda, a citizen of Tours. These two volumes corresponded exactly to the parts of "History of Japan", which contained descriptions from 1583 to 1587 and from 1588 till 1593. The tenacity of Fr. Schilling in the investigation of the copies of the work of Fr. Fróis did not stop there, for he discovered two years later, in Arquivo Histórico Ultramarino de Lisboa, yet another volume entitled Apparatos para a História Ecclesiástica do Bispado de Macau", which contained 466 sheets, of which a major portion of 175 sheets was dedicated to the description of the History of Japan, corresponding exactly with the period between 1578 and 1582.

Thanks to the constant efforts and stubborness of these researchers, the monumental work of Fr. Fróis was revealed finally in its totality. That happened in 1933. But after the demise of both Fr. Schilling and Mr. Sarda, the two volumes belonging to the latter again disappeared from the sight of the scholars. Of the two volumes belonging to Mr. Sarda, one, commonly known as "Edição Sarda A" was of the utmost importance for completing the integral parts of the work, which dealt with the period from 1583 to 1587, and for being the only existing copy. The "Edição Sarda B", was not so important as there were some copies kept in the Biblioteca da Ajuda under the title of "Apparatos para a História Ecclesiástica do Bispado do Japão", -mentioned above.

In 1975, during my stay in Lisbon, I was fortunate enough to find this valuable volume, the "Edição Sarda A", in Biblioteca Nacional de Lisboa". I, thus managed to microfilm this document and bring it to Japan.

Summarizing what I have so far narrated, the existing manuscript copies of the work of Fr. Fróis are distributed in the following manner in Lisbon: in Biblioteca da Ajuda there are two copies, one of which corresponds to the period between 1549 and 1578 of "History of Japan" now designated, as cited, by Montanha, "Apparatos para a História Ecclesiástica do Bispado de Macau" and the other is a part of the same work relating to the period between 1588 and 1593 with the title of "Apparatos para a História Ecclesiástica do Bispado do Japão". In the Arquivo Histórico Ultramarino there are copies of the work of Fróis that correspond with the parts that are concerned with the period between 1578 and 1582, under the title of "Apparatos para a História Ecclesiástica do Bispado de Macau". Finally, in Biblioteca Nacional there are two copies written in two volumes, known also by the names of Sarda A and B, the first of which covers the period between 1583 and 1587 and the second of which deals with the period between 1588 and 1593, with the titles "Apparatos para a História Ecclesiástica do Bispado de Macau" and "Apparatos para a História Ecclesiástica do Bispado do Japão", respectively.

Before being introducted to the work of Fróis, it is worth remembering that it was not the intention of its author to write the history of Japan in the strict sense of the word. What Fróis wanted to write was the history of the Mission, namely to document all the events and facts concerning the affairs of the Catholic Church in Japan. He wanted to record the realities of the Jesuit mission in this country, with its struggles and victories, throughout the half century of its existence. Therefore, it describes in detail the activities of the missionaries and the activities of the Church. Their work and sacrifices undertaken for the cause of the Almighty, are expressively narrated together with the joys and consolations received by those in Faith. In this respect, Fróis was a zealous missionary conscious of his duty towards the ministry of God. But it is worth remembering too, that he was gifted with an exceptional quality as a writer and that he possessed a sharp mind for observation. Throughout the life of the Mission many famous and ordinary people came in contact with the missionaries and all of them were an object of observation for the author. As a result he presented a wonderful description of people and events in a unique manner. Fróis used to observe carefully the people and its customs, describing them afterwards comprehensively in his History. As an example, I shall quote a passage of his work on Akechi Mitsuhide, a mysterious person to the author: "A man very keen on treason and conspiracy, cruel and tyrannical, but very farsighted in restraining himself; Crafty in warfare, and courageous, a great inventor of stratagems and traps, a fine architect in the construction of forts, being followed by selected war experts".

After this introduction, let us observe now his writings. Due to its vastness, I will limit myself only to a few chapters of each of the three parts of his composition.

In the first part of "History of Japan", after the prologue, there are 37 chapters which deal with the affairs of Japan.

Chap. 1: The climate, nature and quality of Japanese islands.

Chap. 2: The origin of Japan, its description and trade with other nations.

Chap. 3: The physionomy of Japanese people, their way of dressing and behaviour.

Chap. 4: About womenfolk, their individualities and customs.

All these chapters are engaged in describing the affairs of the people and the customs of the land.

And in conclusion you find these words: "This index or this table has been taken from another book". It means when the copyist wanted to transcribe this part of Fróis's work, there was no original manuscript related to this part. He had therefore to copy these chapters from another book, which fortunately carried that part.

After the simple propositions to the introductory titles of these 37 chapters, there follow 116 descriptive chapters of the happenings of the Church in Japan since the arrival of the first Jesuit missionary, St. Francisco Xavier, in 1549, or be the year 18 of the Tenmon era, till the year 1578.

The first part of the "History of Japan" starts with a description of the arrival of the missionary saint to Japan and of his activities during his stay in the country. The propagation of the catholic faith in various regions of Japan, from Kyushu to Miaco came next.

It was during this period that Nobunaga made his appearance as a great warrior and conqueror of Tenca. In Chapter 83, Fróis writes about "the ancestry of Nobunaga, his qualities, power, wealth and dignity, his achievements and how he brought back Cubosama to his State". In Chapter 85 he describes the favour done by Nobunaga in bringing Miaco back by the intervention of Watadono, then Governor of that city. The famous dispute he had with Nichijo before Nobunaga is also described in detail. With the arrival of Fr. Francisco Cabral as Superior of the Mission, the missionary activities for the conversion were intensified not only in the regions of Kyushu, but also in parts of Gokinai till the confines of the kingdoms of Mino and Omi. The construction of Nanbanji, the famous Miaco church, is also narrated in this manner: The church was built in Miaco and the vocation of our Lady of Assumption, as well the help given to it by the Christians.

The second part of the work deals with the events from 1578 to 1589 with 132 chapters. Fróis refers to the conversion of Otomo Sorin, who became one of the central figures under the name of Dom Francisco. In Chapter 18 he mentions the arrival of "Fr. Alexandre Valignano the visiting priest to Japan, and what has been done since he arrived in this region (Kyushu)". He mentions also the Seminary of Azuchiyama. For example in chapter 31, he states, how "the Visiting Priest went to see Nobunanga in Miaco, and later he paid a visit to Azuchiyama"; he describes minutely the grandeur and magnificence of the famous castle built by Nobunaga in Azuchi.

In this second part, reference is made to the famous intrigue between Nobunaga and Murashigue Araki, lord of the kingdom of Settu, resulting in the severest punishment imposed by Nobunaga on Araki's family. From chapter 40 he describes "the great arrogance and craziness in which Nobunaga was carried by his wealth, power and state", "how Aquechi killed Nobunaga by treachery and planned to rise against Tenca", "the unfortunate death of Aquechi occurred on the eleventh day after Nobunaga's killing". Following the death of Nobunaga there is a description of the achievements of his successor Hideyoshi, who was nicknamed by Fróis, Taicosama. Thus in chapter 66, for example, he describes "the buildings and fortresses of the new city of Ozaka"; in N° 67, he tells of the War that Faxiba fought against Bonzos called Nengouros and the Sacai". In the chapters of this second part, Fróis describes the conversion of Dosan, a famous Doctor of that time, as well as of Gratia Hosokawa who led a dramatic life after embracing Christianity. One of the biggest events mentioned in this second part was the religious persecution by Hideyoshi against the Catholic Church in Japan. In chapter 97, he tells how "Quambaco started the persecution of priests, Church and Christianity in Japan". In the following chapters he even tells of "the things the tyrant did regarding the death of Dom Francisco and of various happenings in the kingdoms of Kyushu".

The third part of the work covers the period from 1590 till 1593, and refers to the arrival of Fr. Valignano from Europe accompanied by four Japanese ambassadors. In chapter 15, he tells about an audience Quambaco had with the Father and with the ambassadors in Osaka castle. The war that Quambaco had declared on Korea is also referred to. From Chapter 46 onwards, detailed descriptions about this war are made. The names of Agostinho Konishi Yukinaga and of Kato Kiyomasa appear frequently in these narrations.

The above presentation is only a small part of this big work. It was written like an annual record where the main events of each year were kept. Readers of this work will therefore, not only learn about the Church, but also the major trends of that period under which influence the Church and Christianity found themselves. As an example, I draw your attention to the rise to power of Nobunaga and his triumphant life, as well as his betrayal and fall which were vividly and minutely described. As a zealous missionary, Fróis wanted to report all facts connected with missionary activities, but as previously stated, his natural talent as a historian, found him simultaneously recording the events in which he was interested either in the political or cultural field. Therefore it can be said that the "History of Japan" by Father Luís Fróis is a precious document for us to understand fully the life and civilization of Japan which reached its height in the 16th century.


Fróis, S. J., Luís: "Primeira Parte da Historia de Japam, 1549-1578". Code 49 - IV - 54, Library of Ajuda, Lisbon.

Fróis, S. J., Luís: "Segunda Parte da Historia de Japam, 1578-1582. Code 1659, Overseas Historical Archive, Lisbon.

"Apparatos para Historia Ecelesiastica do Bispado de Macau" (Fróis, Historia de Japam) 1583-1587. Quota 11098, National Library, Lisbon.

"Apparatos para Historia Ecelesiastica do Bispado de Japam" (Fróis, Historia de Japam) Code 49 - IV - 57).

Matsuda, Kiichi: Nanban Shiryo no Kenkyu. Publishing House Kazama, Tokyo, 1967.

Translated by João Libano


1 - Ajuda Palace Library.

2 - Display of the Ecclesiastical Historical of Japan's Diocese.

- Overseas Historical Archive of Lisbon.

The author of this text, Professor Momota Kawasaki, is also responsible for the translation into Japanese of the work of Fr. Luís Fróis - "The History of Japan" - a laborious and remarkable work in the propagation of Portuguese culture in Japan:

The following timely note of the author is sufficient to give a clear idea of this great work of valour and interest:

"A word on the work of Fr. Luís Fróis. and its translation into Japanese."

Although I am referring to a rather personal subject, it would be quite suitable to mention it as it is related to the Portuguese language. I am referring to the translation I made in collaboration with the famous historian of Portuguese Japanese affairs, Dr. Kuchi Matsuda, my colleague, of the work of Fr. Luís Fróis who spent over 30 years working in Japan in the XVI century.

The translation work was laborious and difficult, due to XVI century language. This task was made worse because of the reading of the manuscript, because when I started the translation this book was not yet in print. It took us several years to translate it entirely into Japanese language. Our translation was recognised by the Chuokoron Publishing House, one of the most important in Japan, and they wanted to publish the 12 volumes in succession. There was a great repercussion by the publication of this book of Fróis in Japanese edition in the literary world of historical affairs. Thus, the book was awarded with two top Japanese literary-cultural prizes: the Kikuchi-kan sho and the Special Prize of Mainichi Bunka sho in 1981.

*Head of Portuguese Department Kyoto University, professor of Portuguese and researcher.

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