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Europe through the Prism of Japan: Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries. .

Jacques Proust. Europe through the Prism of Japan: Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries.

Trans. Elizabeth Bell. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002. xix + 276 pp. + 11 color pls. index, append. illus. chron. bibl. $49.95. ISBN: 0-268-02761-7.

The title is somewhat misleading, for it suggests that we are to discover how the Japanese perceived Europe during the brief period of contact with the west and in the two centuries of isolation that followed, whereas what Jacques Proust offers us is a fairly detailed account of the Jesuit mission to Japan in the sixteenth century, with a sketchy description of the largely uncomprehending reception of certain kinds of European expertise, such as theology, cartography, perspective, and anatomy. This odd assortment of cultural fragments is presented as if it were the key to an epistemological revolution in Japan, but what impresses the reader is the slowness of the Japanese adoption of new ideas and the inability to apply alien skills to a deeply conservative society.

The author is primarily interested in the activities of the Portuguese Jesuits in Japan in the sixty years after Francis Xavier first preached the Gospel there in 1549-51. Their theological training is explored at some length, along with the nature of the beliefs that they attempted to disseminate in Japan. Proust reviews the devotional and catechistical works--all in Latin--printed there on a press imported from Macao, and gives a valuable digest of Jesuit reports about Japan. Prominent among these is the 1590 narrative De Missione Legatorum, which describes the well-orchestrated visit to Europe of four selected Japanese converts, who were to be impressed with the magnificence and power of the church in Italy and Portugal and who would transmit their awe to the authorities in Japan on their return.

Proust emphasizes the broadly humanistic role of the Jesuits in the east, for they were the principal conduit for Renaissance knowledge and art before the Dutch entered the scene in 1600. They employed sacred drama to make the Christian stories more immediate, and understood the power of images to reinforce belief. The engravings they imported, mainly of Flemish origin, had a short-lived influence on a few Japanese artists who incorporated western motifs into their paintings and prints and attempted to master the rules of perspective. All too often, the artists didn't understand what they were borrowing, just as Japanese converts didn't fully understand the religion that was being offered them. In their attempts to make Christianity viable, the Jesuits had to simplify it: among other modifications, the Old Testament virtually disappeared, and Christ's crucifixion was nor dwelt on because local sensibilities would not accept that a punishment reserved in Japan for the most worthless criminals could be inflict ed on the Son of God. Complexities of language meant that the concept of the Holy Ghost was too hard to communicate, with the result that effectively the Virgin Mary became the third person of the Trinity for most converts. The biblical stories became garbled, and after the expulsion of the Jesuits, the confused tangle of beliefs that was Japanese Christianity took refuge with Amida Buddhism until contact with the west was resumed in the later nineteenth century.

The Dutch merchants on their little island in Nagasaki bay were the other source of European practices and artifacts. Proust believes that the medical skills of the Dutch and the anatomy books they imported transformed Japanese attitudes to medicine and surgery. He is able to point to a few Japanese who attempted to master this new knowledge; certainly, a few books were published up to 1800 that showed the influence of western medicine, though whether it was put to practical application, beyond a few dissections, remains an open question. Since most of the medical books that are recorded in Japan were sixteenth-century Italian textbooks, any application would hardly have been stare-of-the-art! Other instances of western imports that may have altered Japanese perceptions include the optique, a kind of camera obscura, whose effects can be traced in certain prints and in books on geography and natural history.

Proust's book lacks convincing coherence, and it makes greater claims for the significant assimilation of western knowledge in Japan than can be substantiated. Although the author aspires to avoid a Eurocentric view of Japan, presenting instead the view from the other side, he remains dependent on western sources, and his confessed inability to read or speak Japanese inevitably limits his engagement with Japanese culture. More illustrations would have amplified his arguments, and a map of Japan with the old place names is sorely needed. The translation is slightly stilted in certain sections, but overall this is a thought-provoking if occasionally perplexing enquiry.
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Author:Parry, Graham
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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