Alessandro Valignano

Orfeas Katsoulis | Nov 23, 2023

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Alessandro Valignano (Chieti, Kingdom of Naples, February 1539 - Macao, January 20, 1606) was an Italian Jesuit missionary who helped oversee the introduction of Catholicism to the Far East, and especially to Japan.

Valignano joined the Society of Jesus in 1566, and was sent to the Far East in 1573. The appointment of a Neapolitan to oversee a Portuguese dominion in Asia was at the time quite controversial, and his nationality, as well as his adaptationist and expansionist policies, led to many conflicts with the mission staff.

He excelled as a student at the University of Padua, where he studied Christian theology. Valignano's ideas on the Catholic Christian message convinced many within the Catholic Church that he was the perfect person to bring the spirit of the Counter-Reformation (the reaction against the Protestant Reformation) to the Far East. He was ordained a priest in that order and, at the age of 34, was appointed Visitor of the Missions in India and had made his profession of the fourth vow after only seven years in the order.

As visitator his responsibility was to examine and reorganize whenever necessary the mission structures and methods in India, China and Japan. He was given an enormous amount of freedom and discretion, especially for one so young, and was responsible only to the superior general of the Society of Jesus in Rome, Italy. His imposing presence only increased in all its unusual height, enough to "attract attention in Europe and draw crowds in Japan." Valignano formed a basic strategy for Catholic proselytizing, usually called "adaptationism." He put the advancement of superior Jesuit influence adding to traditional Christian behavior. He tried to avoid cultural friction by compromising with local customs that other missionaries saw as conflicting with Catholic values. His strategy was in contrast to that of the mendicant orders of Franciscans and Dominicans, which he worked hard to block from entering Japan and later led to the Chinese rites controversy.

Shortly after Valignano arrived in Macau, China, from Goa, India, in September 1578 he realized that none of the missionaries stationed in Macau had succeeded in establishing themselves in mainland China. In his opinion, to improve the penetration rate of the Jesuits in the country and their success in converting the local people it was first necessary to learn to speak, read and write the Chinese language. To this end, he wrote to the superior of the order in India to ask him to send to Macau a person who would be up to the task, named Bernardino de Ferraris (1537-1584). However, as Ferraris was busy as the new rector of the Jesuits in Cochin, another Jesuit scholar, Michele Ruggieri (羅明堅), was sent to Macau.

Valignano left Macao for Japan in July 1579, leaving instructions for Ruggieri, who was to arrive in a matter of days. Once Ruggieri began studying Chinese and realized the immensity of the task, he wrote to Valignano, asking him to send Matteo Ricci (利瑪竇) to Macao to share the work.Referred by Valignano to the superior of the order in India in 1580, Ruggieri's request was fulfilled, and Ricci joined him in Macao on August 7, 1582.Together, the two would become the first European scholars of China and its language.

Valignano made the first visit to Japan from 1579 to 1582. In 1581 he wrote Il Cerimoniale per i Missionari del Giappone (The Ceremony for the Mission in Japan) to establish guidelines for the Jesuits. In the writing he assimilated the Jesuit hierarchy to that of the Zen Buddhist sect even though he detested it. He stated that, in order not to be despised by the Japanese, every Jesuit should behave according to the class to which he belonged. As a result, the Jesuit fathers served themselves on sumptuous plates of the daimyo (feudal lords) and walked around Nagasaki with armed Japanese servants. A life of luxury and authoritarian attitudes among Jesuits in Japan were criticized not only by rival mendicant orders, but also by some Jesuits. Moreover, their detailed instructions on manners and customs indicate that their understanding of Japanese culture was only superficial.

As he was ordained by the superior general, he devoted efforts to foster Japanese priests. He forced Francisco Cabral, who opposed his plans, to resign as superior of the Jesuit mission in Japan. But it was not only Cabral who disagreed with Valignano. In fact Valignano was left in the minority among the Jesuits in Japan. He was optimistic about the formation of the native priests, but many Jesuits doubted the sincerity of the Japanese converts. And Valignano himself came to take a negative view after his second visit to Japan, although he did not give up hope. After his death the negative reports from Japan were reflected in the policies of the Society of Jesus headquarters in Rome in 1610, and the order restricted the admission and ordination of Japanese Catholics. Ironically, persecution by the Tokugawa shogunate forced the Jesuits to rely increasingly on Japanese believers. Despite the policies of the headquarters, St. Paul's Jesuit College in Macau, which was founded by Valignano, produced a dozen Japanese priests.

On his first arrival in Japan Valignano was appalled by what he considered to be, at the very least, negligent, abusive and unchristian worst practices on the part of the mission staff. Valignano later wrote that, although the mission had made some important advances during Francisco Cabral's tenure, the overall methods used by the superior were very poor. In addition to the problems of Japanese language study and racism, some of the Jesuits, and Cabral in particular, were in the habit of "always considering Japanese customs as abnormal and speaking disparagingly of them. When I first came to Japan, ours (the crowd usually follows the leader), showed no care to learn Japanese customs, but at the entertainment and on other occasions were continually increasing in them, arguing against them, and expressing their preference for our own ways to the great disappointment and displeasure of the Japanese."

There is an implicit belief in the visitador's writing that leaders influence and are responsible for the conduct of those of lower rank. Therefore, in Valignano's opinion, any disruption in the mission's behavior toward the Japanese was undoubtedly a result of Cabral's grief. He immediately began to reform many aspects of the mission, and whenever possible, he undermined Cabral's authority as superior of the Jesuit mission to Japan.

Language course

Language courses were always one of the central problems of the mission. Before the visitator arrived in Japan 17 of the missionaries personally appointed by Valignano wrote to him complaining that language instruction was totally lacking. Cabral had protested that it was impossible for Europeans to learn Japanese and that even after fifteen years of study the fathers could hardly preach a sermon, even for Christian converts.

Valignano's first official act upon arriving in Japan was to have all new missionaries in the province spend two years in a Japanese language course, separating the newcomers by leaps and bounds from the first enthusiastic but pompous efforts of St. Francis Xavier. In 1595 Valignano could boast in a letter that the Jesuits not only printed a Japanese grammar and dictionary, but also several books (especially on the lives of saints and martyrs) entirely in Japanese. The main body of the grammar and dictionary was compiled from 1590-1603; when finished, it was a truly comprehensive volume with the dictionary alone containing 32,798 entries.

When Cabral had worked to exclude the Japanese from going beyond brothers in the Society of Jesus, Valignano insisted that they be treated equally to all Europeans and that while the Japanese seminarians would learn Latin for sacramental use, the visitator observed that it was the Europeans who should learn Japanese customs and not the other way around. This, it should be added, was quite the opposite of the opinion expressed by Cabral that the Japanese should adapt to Western ideas and ways of thinking.

The need for trained native clergy was important to Valignano, and so in 1580 a recently vacant Buddhist monastery in the province of Arima became a fledgling seminary. Twenty-two young Japanese converts began the process of teaching holy orders. The process was repeated two years later in Azuchi, where there were 33 seminarians.

The first order of business in the seminaries would be the teaching of languages. Valignano made it clear that all seminarians, whatever their origin, would receive education in Latin and Japanese. Students were then educated in theology, philosophy and Christian doctrine. This was typical of Jesuit education, and reflects the state of Jesuit education in Europe. But there were some significant differences. For one thing, because the Arima seminary was formerly a Buddhist monastery, and because Valignano emphasized the need for cultural adaptation, the original decor remained virtually unchanged; This pattern was repeated in other seminaries, and, in 1580's "Principles for the Administration of Japanese Seminaries," which goes into great detail about seminary methods, Valignano notes that the "tatami mats should be changed every year" and that students should change into "katabira (summer clothes) or blue cotton kimonos" and outdoors a "dobuku" (black cloak)". Students were instructed to eat white rice with sauce on a fish dish.

Valignano's purpose is very clear. The seminaries were typical Jesuit institutions of humanistic education and theological exploration, but their lifestyle was thoroughly Japanese. They were carefully designed to combine, as much as possible, Japanese sensibilities with European ideology. In short they were a perfect place to train Japanese preachers, men who would appeal both to their families and friends, and also to society. Some experts assume that Valignano was actively trying to replicate the Japanese institution of dojuku or monastic novitiate. This is probably a convenient interpretation, as it seems that the Catholic seminaries appealed to, but in typical Jesuit style were not limited to many of the sons of wealthy nobles who, as a Buddhist tradition, entered a monastery as a novice.

Valignano's methodical and organized mind is evident in all aspects of mission organization. Annexed to his "Principles for the Administration of Japanese Seminaries" was a complete daily program for a Japanese seminarian. As might be expected the scheduled activities included the teaching of Latin and Japanese every day with some choral music.

The success of its seminar reforms

Despite his great idealism, it is not clear how successful Valignano's seminary reforms really were. They certainly encouraged Japanese converts to join the order; in the decade after Valignano's first visit 60 native Japanese joined the Jesuits as novices. But there were problems. Few Buddhist monks were required to live under a state of strict poverty such as that enforced by the Jesuits, and because gift-giving is such an important part of Japanese social relations, the novices' inability to accept these gifts undoubtedly contributed to alienating them from their families. In addition, the Ignatian form of spirituality, with its emphasis on confession and examination of conscience struck the seminarians as terribly inadequate. Valignano, Cabral, and others had often pointed out how Japanese culture insisted on the suppression and concealment of emotion. This problem is compounded by the inability of most Jesuits to speak or understand the language fluently. Revealing all secret thoughts to another, through an interpreter, was seen as a serious violation of social mores.

Finally, but even more importantly, Japanese culture does not regard religious life as totally separate from secular life in the sense that the Jesuits understood. In most Buddhist communities, it is common, if not expected, for men and women to spend some time in seclusion as a monk or nun for a few years or months. It was no dishonor for a monk to take vows for a limited period of time and then return to his or her normal occupation, whereas the Counter-Reformation Catholic Church, with its emphasis on vocation and eternal priesthood, was more different.

As the mission began to expand rapidly financial difficulties began to arise. All Jesuit institutions: seminaries, schools, printing presses and missions required money to be financed. This eternal conflict, which Valignano describes as the one between "God and Mamon," lasted for most of the mission's history.

Originally the local Japanese daimyo tried to curry favor with the Jesuit administration in order to have Portuguese merchant ships visit their local ports more frequently. This all changed in 1580 when Father Vilela converted the Ōmura Sumitada daimyo who controlled the port of Nagasaki. As he gave away the port, then no more than a small fishing village, it was ceded to the control of the order as was the fortress in the harbor.

The superior general in Rome was taken aback by the news of such a blatant acquisition of property and gave firm instructions that the Jesuits' control of Nagasaki was to be only temporary. But since most of the suggestions came from Europe, Cabral and Valignano decided to ignore much of it, especially since, as Valignano would later explain, the city quickly became a haven for displaced and persecuted Christians.

Under Jesuit control Nagasaki would grow from a one-street town to an international port that rivaled the influence of Goa or Macau. Jesuit ownership of the port of Nagasaki gave the order a monopoly on taxes on all imported goods coming into Japan. The order was most active in the Japanese silver trade, in which large quantities of Japanese silver would be shipped to Canton in exchange for silk from China, but the mission superiors were aware of the inherent bad taste of the order's involvement in mercantile transactions and decided to keep the traffic to a minimum.

Conflicts with Rome

This violation of ecclesiastical practice did not go unnoticed by the leaders of other European missions in the area, or by those making a living through inter-Asian trade. Finally, Pope Gregory XIII was forced to intervene, and, in 1585, the Holy See ordered the immediate cessation of all Jesuit mercantile activities. Valignano appealed to the pope, saying that he would give up all trade as soon as the 12,000 ducats needed to cover his annual expenses were remitted from another source. Abandoning the silk trade, he said, would be the equivalent of abandoning the mission in Japan, which was undoubtedly true. In a letter to the superior general Valignano asked for clemency and, above all, trust: "Your paternity must leave this matter to my conscience, because with God's help, I trust that I will continue to think about it and also to keep in mind the good name of the order in Japan and China, and when it seems possible for me to do so I will gradually reduce and finally abandon the trade."

But sufficient finances had to be secured somehow. In 1580 the order was supporting a community of 150,000 people, 200 churches with 85 Jesuits, among them 20 Japanese brothers and an additional 100 acolytes. A decade later, there were 136 Jesuits in Japan, with a staff of up to 300. There were about 600 people who depended entirely on the order's funds; all this, plus the construction and maintenance of churches, schools, seminaries and the printing press cost a lot of money. Set in the context of the extreme poverty that afflicted Japan during this time, it is not surprising that Valignano authorized entrusting the mission with the income tax provided by the port of Nagasaki.

Alessandro Valignano held his position as visitator, overseeing all the Jesuit missions in Asia from the main Portuguese port of Macao, but his main focus was always on the Japanese mission. By 1600, the Jesuit mission was in decline due to the persecution of the Kanpaku Toyotomi Hideyoshi and then, more severely, under the Tokugawa.

Tokugawa Ieyasu worked diligently to thwart all European attempts to reestablish contact with Japan, religiously or otherwise, after his rise to power in 1603. All samurai and members of the army were forced to abjure Christianity and to remove Christian emblems or designs from their clothing. Later, daimyo and commoners were ordered to follow the same restrictions. In 1636, Tokugawa Iemitsu promulgated the Sakoku edict that ended almost all contact with the outside world. Japanese ships were forbidden to leave the country on pain of death, just as any Japanese who attempted to return from abroad would likewise be executed. The policy of isolation was forcibly ended by U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853, beginning a period of rapid modernization that included the Meiji Restoration and reopening the country to the international community.

Valignano died in Macao in January 1606 and one of his Jesuit admirers noted in his Panegyric: "In we mourn not only our former visitor, but also, as some would say, the apostle of Japan".

Valignano founded the Jesuit College of St. Paul in Macao. He traveled to Goa and visited Japan on three occasions: in 1579, when he stayed three years; in 1590-92 and from 1598 to 1603.

Valignano sought the way for a closer relationship between the peoples of Asia and Europe by promoting the equal treatment of all human beings. He was a great admirer of the Japanese people and envisioned a future in which Japan would be one of the most important Christian countries in the world. He wrote the famous phrase that the Japanese: "They are excellent not only to all other Oriental peoples, they also surpass the Europeans" (Alessandro Valignano, 1584, "History of the Beginning and Progress of the Society of Jesus in the East Indies (1542-1564)" ).

He sent four young Japanese nobles to Europe, led by Mantius Ito. This was Japan's first official dispatch to Europe.


  1. Alessandro Valignano
  2. Alessandro Valignano
  3. ^ "Novizi Gesuiti - Italia". Archived from the original on 2005-12-20. Retrieved 2006-02-01.
  4. [1]
  5. a b c Timeline of Valignano biography
  6. Missionaries, Martyrs and Merchants
  7. Braga, J.M.; "The Panegyric of Alexander Valignano, S.J." In Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 5, No. 2. (Jul., 1942), pp. 523–535
  8. Zur Frage des Geburtsdatums siehe Schütte (1980), Part 1, S. 30f.
  9. De Mesquita (1554–1614) war ein portugiesischer Jesuit, der Valignano als Dolmetscher diente.
  10. Alle vier stammten aus Familien von Regionalherrschern der Insel Kyushu. Sie waren dazu ausersehen, um nach ihrer Rückkehr Zeugnis von der Pracht und Herrlichkeit Europas und besonders von ihrer Audienz beim Papst zu geben.
  11. ^ Sergio Zoli, L'Europa libertina (secc. XVI-XVIII): bibliografia generale, Nardini, 1997, p. 83.
  12. ^ Istruzione di Propaganda Fide "Plane Compertum" del 1939 e atti del Concilio Vaticano II

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