Marko Marulić and the 'Kirishitan ban': The Jesuits in Japan

09 July 2018

Area Studies | Empire and Globalism | History

When we’re indexing historical documents at Adam Matthew we’ll sometimes come across one in a language we can’t read. Occasionally we’ll not only be unable to read it but also be unable to identify what the language is, even after consulting multilingual colleagues. Generally in these instances, but not always, the catalogue information provided by the source library will provide the details we need, though a rousing office game of Guess The Language at this point can provide ten minutes of instructive amusement.


A Jesuit with a Japanese nobleman, c. 1600.

I started a particularly lengthy but uninstructive game of Guess The Language the other month when I sat down to index a document in our recent Research Source resource Area Studies: Japan which begins thus:

quan dai ichi

The catalogue information provided for this book declared it to be a Kirishitan ban printed by Jesuits in 1591 and the first book to be printed in Japan using movable type. The press used was brought to Japan by Alessandro Valignano, an Italian. But what language was it in? ‘Collegio’ certainly appears to be Italian, but ‘Iesvs’ is presumably Latin and ‘companhia’ is Portuguese. As to the origin of ‘vchinvqigqai’ the players of Guess The Language did not settle on any one candidate.

The Jesuits had come to Japan to preach the word of God, and a glance through the text throws up many obviously Latinate words of a distinctly Christian flavour. For example:

Sono Emperador carega mocuzŏ uo vôqin; içucuri Tibre toyù caua no fotori naru xococu vŏsen no michitçuji nit ate voqi ramai, core na Simam Mago toyŭ tattoqi fito no goyei nari to gacn no veri. Sono jibun S. Pedro mo Roma ye nobori tamai, mainichi Missa uo voconauaxcrare, Sancta Trindade no von dangui no nobe tamŏ nari. Sono von dangui vomotte Christan ni naru fito amata ari.

Could, then, this be a romanisation (perhaps the first?) of Japanese, developed to spread the Jesuits’ message? It doesn’t look like any romanisation of Japanese I’d previously seen, but then transcription systems do often differ wildly – compare Mao Tse-tung with Mao Xedong, or Chiang Kai-shek, Chiang Chieh-shih and Jiang Jieshi. A better objection was that Japanese already had a writing system that literate speakers could read. Surely a more fruitful approach would be to develop ways of writing Christian terminology in Japanese script. Perhaps the text was intended to be read aloud by European Jesuits to a Japanese audience?


A painting of Marko Marulić by an unknown artist, c. 1903.

Google Translate was no help in this instance either, but some general Googling eventually solved the mystery. In 2006 W. F. Vande Walle of the University of Leuven was asked about the book by a researcher who was evidently only slightly less bamboozled than I was, but who was aware that it is a translation of – it deepens – a work by a Croat humanist, Marko Marulić (or, Latinised, Marcus Marulus). Vande Walle informed him that the book, titled De Institutione bene vivendi per exempla sanctorum in its original Latin, is indeed in romanised Japanese but with the spellings of the many European words used generally unaltered. The apparent gibberish of the title page is simply a whole sentence run together but broken over lines, and means: ‘Extracts from the acts of the saints, volume one: at Kazusa, in the district of Takaku, in the province of Hizen, at the College of the Society of Jesus’.

Marko Marulić (d. 1524), meanwhile, made the earliest known reference to psychology in his Latin works, though his current fame in Croatia rests on his Croat-language poetry. Other early-modern printed works in Area Studies: Japan include João Rodrigues’s Arte da lingoa de Iapam (another Kirishitan ban) and The History of Trauayle in the West and East Indies, ‘done into Englyshe’ by Richard Eden and printed in London in 1577.


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About the Author

Nick Jackson

Nick Jackson

Since joining Adam Matthew my main field of work has been with British diplomatic documents, having edited several of our Archives Direct collections of material from The National Archives in London. But I've also helped build resources featuring everything from guides to London nightlife to records of American slaves' court appearances.