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St. Francis Xavier took the first mechanical clocks to Japan

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PD

Daniel Esparza - published on 09/22/22

The Jesuits arrived in Japan in 1549. Francis Xavier took mechanical clocks as gifts for the ruling politicians.

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In a way, you could say the Jesuit saint Francis Xavier is the great-great-great-great-grandfather of your Casio watch.Wadokei are mechanical clocks specially designed to tell traditional Japanese time: daytime and nighttime are divided into six periods, their length changing with the season. But the mechanical clocks that were introduced into Japan by Jesuit missionaries in the 16th century were quite different. Made of brass or iron, the clocks the Jesuits brought with them were typically Western, invariably dividing the day into 24 hours. The story of these clocks is brilliantly told by Ryuji Hiraoka in an article published in 2020 in the Journal of Jesuit Studies.

Hiraoka’s article begins by reminding the reader that Jesuits, Francis Xavier leading them, arrived in the country in 1549. Christian teachings were enthusiastically received at first, with more than 760,000 people converted throughout Japan by the early 17th century. However, this early fervor soon made way for the harsh persecutions that began in 1614, and which eventually led to the bloody Shimabara Rebellion, an alliance of local ronin and Catholic peasants who fought the Tokugawa shogunate’s unpopular policies, including the suppression of Christianity and the consequent persecution of Christians.

The Jesuits succeeded in establishing the grounds for a solid presence in China in the 16th and 17th centuries. But all their efforts to restart their mission in Japan, Hiraoka explains, were fruitless. By the middle of the 17th century, all the missionaries had either been killed or expelled from the country. But the brief stay of the Jesuits in Japan gave the history of technology a notable spin. Even though after the persecutions, clockmakers were seen with distrust (as they might be hidden Christians), the introduction of Western mechanical clocks led to a tradition of clockmaking that survived well beyond the Japanese “Christian century.”

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By the middle of the 17th century, all the missionaries had either been killed or expelled from the country.

Francis Xavier was the first Christian missionary to enter Japan. According to Hiraoka, he was also “the first Jesuit who presented a Western clock to a dominant figure in politics.” Xavier had an audience with the feudal lord of an important province. He brought all kinds of gifts to this meeting, including a mechanical clock. The chronicles of the noted Portuguese Jesuit Luís Frois, who authored a History of Japan, describes the clock as being “exquisitely made.” Soon enough, giving clocks to prominent political figures became a diplomatic custom, and Frois himself brought a clock with him to his meeting with the powerful daimyo Oda Nobunaga ­­– an ardent supporter of Christian missionaries and of Christianity itself, although he never converted. The encounter is told in Frois’ chronicles as follows (according to Hiraoka’s own translation of the original Portuguese text):

[Wada] told the Father [Frois] to come with him [to meet Nobunaga] and to bring with him the small striking clock of exquisite mechanism that the priest had shown him before, for he had mentioned it to Nobunaga, and he very much wished to see it. They [Frois and Japanese Brother Lorenzo] went and found him [Nobunaga] with only a few gentlemen in attendance. He saw the clock with great admiration and said to the priest, who offered several times to send it to him as a gift: “I do wish very much to have it. However, I do not want it because it would be wasted on me” [which he said] because he felt it would be difficult to adjust it. […] He would then spend two hours asking the Father and Brother Lorenzo about Europe and India, while the Lord Wada stayed outside on a veranda on his knees, helping with everything he could.”

You can read Hiraoka’s article in its entirety here.

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