The Christian Century in Japan 1549-1650 by CR Boxer, Carcanet, £30 WEN ST FRANCIS Xavier first came to Japan in 1549, he was entranced: "We shall never find among heathens another race to equal the Japanese ... they are men of honour to marvel." They made impressive converts; and by the early 17th century there were almost half a million of them.
Yet by 1650 the faith was proscribed and thousands of Catholics had suffered the Water torture, been hung upside down, burnt, even crucified. Halfway round the world, Jesuits in Douai rejoiced that Japanese Catholics bore the "palm of Christian fortitude". They survived only in secret until the 1850's.
The re-issue of CR Boxer's classic account of the first century of Christianity in japan will enable new readers to appreciate the adventure of those days. Jesuits learnt the language, analysed the customs, set up printing presses and modelled themselves on Zen Buddhist monks. They used native catechists or dojukus (trainee monks) but never got so far as setting up a native priesthood.
The more indiscreet went in for the burning of temples and shrines, but, unlike the friars who came from the Spanish Phillipines, most Jesuits, as subjects of the Portuguese, realised that tolerance paid.
To the Japanese they were useful principally because they helped bring in the kurofane or Black Ships, especially the annual Great Boat from Macao to Nagasaki with its Chinese silks and gold.
When the Japanese found the Dutch would trade without trying to convert, the Jesuit monopoly was threatened. In the end the native priests had their revenge; and in 1614 all foreign missionaries were banned. Earlier martyrs had died before sympathetic crowds, till the daimyos, or lords, in whom they trusted turned more severe.
There were not enough Christian samurai to protect the peasant majority, the shoguns who had established themselves at Tokyo grew more vicious, revolts were crushed and the peaceful informed against. Officially, Christianity disappeared.
This tragic tale is impressively documented in Boxer's book in European and Japanese sources and well illustrated.
When his book first came out in 1951, Japan had lived through a period of intense xenophobia.
In the context of 1993 what strikes this reviewer is how receptive the Japanese were to alien ideas.
How good it would be if St Francis Xavier's judgment was still sound: "They are a people of very good will, very sociable and very desirous of knowledge; they are very desirous of hearing things about God."
TIMOTHY WILSON SMITH