Mihoko Oka, The Namban Trade: Merchants and Missionaries in 16th- and 17th-Century Japan

In: Journal of Jesuit Studies
Frederik Vermote Social, Behavioral and Global Studies Department, California State University, Monterey Bay, CA, USA,

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Mihoko Oka, The Namban Trade: Merchants and Missionaries in 16th- and 17th-Century Japan. European Expansion and Indigenous Response, 34. Leiden: Brill, 2021. Pp. xiii + 277. Hb, €98.00/ $118.00.

Mihoko Oka has translated and expanded her 2010 work, originally published in Japanese by the University of Tokyo Press, and in seven chapters she analyzes the precise economic characteristics of the Portuguese trade as it was conducted by merchants and missionaries between Macao and Japan. Bringing together Portuguese and Japanese source material, Oka’s work on maritime commerce and the intricacies of investment and maritime loans steps away from framing this trade as one between governments or as conducted via official contacts but, rather, she argues it was a continuous balancing of profit and loss between powerful merchants that “synergistically” evolved along with the changing nature of Macao as a “half-independent port city” (22).

Overall, Oka uses a chronological arch in which she embeds a more in-depth analysis of particular economic themes, such as changing commodity flows or structures of investment and capital injection, along the way. Chapter one introduces the Portuguese as players in the East Asian trade in the sixteenth century, with particular attention to the activities of merchants such as Diogo Pereira (32) and his relations to Francis Xavier (42) and how an intimate relationship between merchants and missionaries created opportunities for missionary activity intertwined with diplomatic and mercantile endeavors. Chapter two then reconstructs the structure and content of the Namban trade, with the Jesuit start in trade as they gained the contract to load “fifty picos of raw silk into the ships of the Capitao-mor” each year (50). Chapters three and four focus mostly on the economic features and the peculiar types of speculative investments of the Namban trade while chapters five and six analyze in depth the role of Jesuit missionaries and the Society overall in establishing and participating in all financial dealings between Macao and Japan.

In chapter five Oka analyzes the relationship between religion and power in Macao and, as she explains in several places, she builds upon earlier research by Takase Koichiro with an expanded view of Macao’s wider society (149). Oka starts off by outlining the dialectic financial ties between the Jesuits’ finances and Macao as a trading hub, and then she makes this connection concrete as she examines how the Jesuit college was Macao’s treasury—the site in which the safe with all receipts and earnings from trade with Japan was kept—while at certain times the Jesuit visitador would manage all three keys (155). Relying on Jesuit letters from Japonica Sinica, Oka strengthens her argument that St. Paul’s functioned as both a fort and a political center. Oka uses Jesuit annual reports extensively to investigate the Jesuits’ worldly roles as mediators, for example, while they did their part in representing or more directly helping Macao merchants with their businesses in China and Japan.

Throughout chapters five and six Oka analyzes the financial underpinnings of the Jesuit Society in the Far East, illustrating the choice of either relying on private trade—the aforementioned fifty picos per year (in addition to other, less documented and legal, opportunities)—or trying to survive financially via donations and rents. In chapter six, as Jesuit missionary activity and Japanese politics were increasingly on a collision course, Oka zooms in on how Jesuits remained connected to mercantile activities after the prohibition of Christianity in Japan. The attention is squarely placed on the documents left behind by multiple Jesuit procurators during the early seventeenth century, particularly the Memorandum, a supplement to Valignano’s Regulations, which aims to educate the reader about the dos and don’ts of the position of the Japan procurator. The modus operandi for Jesuit procurators beyond 1618 changed due to the geopolitical shift for European merchants and missionaries with an interest in Japan. This document, Oka claims, was written by Joao Rodrigues Tcuzu and it is prime evidence for the Jesuits’ continued involvement in trade after the ban from Japan (170). Oka’s comparison of Rodrigues’s Memorandum with Valignano’s Regulations for procurators is especially interesting for scholars of Jesuit economic activities; the differences and contrasting advice illustrate perfectly the limitations of prescriptive texts versus the usefulness of texts written from decades-long experience and a need to adjust to an ever-changing financial reality, as Macao-Japan trade tried to adapt to the dramatic political changes in the early seventeenth century (175–77). The Rodrigues document provides details on the gold in exchange for silver trade with extensive instructions and advice; in this regard Oka builds further on Koichiro Takase’s research.

The seventh and last chapter “Nagasaki during the Kan’ei Period: The Affair of Paulo dos Santos” examines the influence on the shogunate’s foreign policies as it responded to the financial and political repercussions of the Santos affair. Oka argues that the impact was fatal (228), and that it was a “turning point” as it led the Shogunate to “break off its relationship with Macao” (228). She analyzes the original documents from the Biblioteca de la Real Academia de la Historia in Madrid to unfold and outline the affair when it comes to the viewpoint of the Portuguese and Jesuits involved, while she relies on Japanese translations to provide substantial quotes from the Dutch Diary of the Batavia Castle and all the letters from factory heads connected to the voc in East and Southeast Asia. Santos’s trading activities thus triggered a complete break between Japan and the Macao merchants and missionaries, though the church realized its profit was “indispensable for proselytization” in Japan, so ends Oka her analysis of the Namban trade (228). In the epilogue, Oka wraps up this intriguing partnership as both merchants and missionaries became martyrs, and state control more forcefully dictated the outlines of the commercial networks Macao residents had created together.

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