Dossier Acta Litt&Arts : La traduction du savoir et ses méthodes

Estelle Doudet et KUROIWA Taku


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1“Translation of Knowledge and its Methods” is a familiar and even a common topic to discuss in an international congress: linguistic exchanges, translations of social competences, intercultural transfers are omnipresent in our globalized world, and scientists experiment comprehensive methods to study these different aspects. However, reflecting on translations of knowledge has a special meaning in Sendai, considering the important role the city played to promote the relations between Japan and other parts of the world. Our brief introduction aims to recall this heritage and to put into an historical perspective the notions of mobility, dialog, and translation that will be further discussed in this collective survey.

  • 1 Vassal of Date Masamune, Hasekura Tsunenaga (1571-1622) had participated to...

2Three centuries ago, in the first decades of the seventeenth century, Hasekura Tsunenaga1 departed from Tohoku region leading an international mission commissioned by Date Masamune. In 1613, he and his crew sailed for Mexico and then Europe, stopping in Spain, in France and eventually in Rome. The entry of the Japanese officials in the Eternal City was a most spectacular event. To preserve its memory, ceremonial books were published. One of them was printed by Abraham Saugrain, an important French printer with familial connections in Grenoble (1615). The worlds and cultures today embodied by the organizers and the participants to the volume “Translation of Knowledge and its Methods” met for the first time. Our current French-Japanese dialog is somehow a consequence of this astonishing first contact. What was at stake in Hasekura’s “translation” from Asia to Europe? What kind of knowledges were then discussed, and may be transferred? Could that distant historical event still be a possible source of inspiration for us, inducing us to reflect on the enduring complexity of intercultural exchange?

3To introduce these questions, we may recall that, in the mid-sixteenth century, European missionaries reached Japan, integrating the country to the commercial and cultural circulations of a newly globalized world. The import of guns and Christianism deeply influenced the politics of famous Japanese lords of the time, such as Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu. The new religious knowledge brought by the missionaries also reached Tohoku region. Date Masamune, the ambitious founder of the city of Sendai, decided to send an embassy to the Spanish king Philippe III to conclude commercial treaties able to increase the economic development of his domain. Masamune also intended to write to Pope Paul V and to invite him to send Franciscan friars to Japan.

4The mission to Spain led by Franciscan Friar Luis Sotelo and Hasekura Tsunenaga was the second Japanese diplomatic mission to European countries. The first project, the Tenshō embassy, composed of four young noblemen, was led by the Jesuits and travelled the Asian route. Its main objective was to ask for the Pope’s and the Portuguese and Spanish kings’ support to develop Christian missions to Japan. The Tohoku project was completely different. The goal was to negotiate trade treaties linking Sendai and Mexico, and the chosen route was trans-Pacific. A striking specificity of the enterprise was the Japanese-European collaboration during the construction of the ship: it was built by the shipbuilders employed by the Tokugawa government and by the Date domain but using technical knowledge imported from Spain (or may be Britain). Regarding the hybridization of technologies and the transfers of expertise, even the preparation of Hasekura’s journey was extremely significant.

5Other kinds of translation were experimented during the course of the mission. In his letter to the Pope, Masamune underlined his deep interest for Christian doctrine, implying that he might convert to Catholicism once the relations between Tohoku and European kingdoms were stabilized. In other words, without promising anything, the lord of Sendai used a religious argument as a tool of commercial negotiation. We know nowadays that Masamune’s strategy to ‘translate’ faith into money, and vice-versa, was not a successful one. King Philippe III and Pope Paul V were not convinced that his desire to be baptized was genuine. The distrust of the Europeans was increased by the news of the persecutions launched against Japanese Christians by Tokugawa government, a policy that Masamune did not condemn. From this moment on, even if Hasekura, the leading ambassador, has publicly expressed his own Christian faith and his sincere wish to open dialog, the mission was doomed to fail.

6This was not, however, the final episode of this story. Let’s remember that Hasekura Tsunenaga was the first Japanese man to land in France (1615), a fact rarely known even among Francophone scientists. His presence on European soil after an extremely long journey was incredible news and inspired numerous comments. Books describing in details Hasekura’s stay in Rome were published by important printers in France, disseminating new knowledge about Japan among a large audience. One of these printers was Abraham Saugrain, whose family originated from Grenoble and Lyon regions and who was then established as printer and librarian in Paris.

  • 2 Recit de l’entree solemnelle et remarquable faicte à Rome, à Dom Philippe F...

7In 1615, Saugrain published the anonymous Recit de l’entree solemnelle et remarquable, a depiction of the Roman festivity organized in honor of “Dom Philippe François Faxicura”, Hasekura’s christian name2. Inspired by the tradition of entry books flourishing since the end of the Middle Ages, the Recit had several objectives. Firstly, it aimed to inform the French readers of the magnificent festivity organized in Rome. Secondly, the book had a clear commemorative dimension: it underlined the importance of the Japanese-European encounter and preserved its glorious memory for future generations. Thirdly and most importantly, the subtitle of the book identified Hasekura as the Ambassadeur pour Idate Massamune Roy de Voxu au Jappon, hinting to the fact that Masamune was actually the protagonist of the story told by the Recit, a story about the alleged conversion of the powerful daimyo (Sur sa conversion au Christianisme). As we have seen, this was a fake news. Nevertheless, many ceremonial books – such as L’Arrivee et entree publique de l’ambassadeur de roy du Jappon dans la ville de Rome (Paris, 1615) – were assertive: Masamune, presented as « the king of Japan », was supposed to have become a Catholic lord.

  • 3 Abrégé des fruits acquis par l’ordre des Frères-Mineurs es quattre parties ...

8Like other books published in France at the same period, the Recit printed by Saugrain did not aim only to inform about Hasekura’s mission; it also communicated a miraculous narrative able to persuade the French audience that the ‘translation’ of a Japanese crew to Europe was a sign of God’s will. The extraordinarily length of the journey from Sendai to Rome was supposed to prove the divine power and was even compared, in some of these books, to the arrival of the Mages when the Christ was born. Masamune, who was not baptized, was nevertheless praised as a staunched support for Christian faith in Asia; he was somehow transformed into a western prince. This representation was a lasting success: in 1652, a Franciscan Friar published a book still praising the pious lord of Sendai and asserting that Tohoku region remained under the sacred protection of the Christian martyr Sotelo, Hasekura’s former colleague, who was executed when returning in Japan in 16243

9Three dimensions of this rich event are particularly striking for us and put into perspective the surveys we are going to present in this volume.

10Politically speaking, the mission revealed that Japan was considered a cardinal point between America, Asia, and Europe. From a Spanish point of view, Japan had an evident strategic importance on the route from Mexico to Asia, a fact that was not lost on Ieyasu and other Japanese leaders. But other strategies were at stake: with its promise of a converted Japan, the Tohoku embassy arouse the attention of Catholics kingdoms who sought allies to fight against the emerging power of Reformed countries, England and the Netherlands. For the first time, maybe, a globalized world implied exchanges of military, strategic, political knowledge, anticipating similar translations during the 19th, 20th, and 21th centuries. This often forgotten story will be studied in the following pages.

11A second crucial dimension to our point of view is the intercultural dialog implied by West-East encounters. Hasekura’s mission strongly stimulated linguistic translations. Neither Masamune nor Hasekura could speak a European language. Therefore, in Mexico and in Spain, Luis Sotelo translated Japanese presentations into Spanish; in Italia, it was Scipione Amati who translated Sotelo’s Spanish translation into Italian. The linguistic entanglement was equally present in the books commenting on the embassy: speeches by Hasekura and Masamune were given in French to francophone readers, but these speeches were translated from Latin versions or by Italian intermediate versions produced and disseminated after the entry in Rome. The visual language was equally concerned by these transformations. The famous portrait4 of Hasekura painted during his stay is evidently inspired by the traditional figuration of western saints and knights, without eliminating entirely Japanese physical features. Assessing and the current modes of transfers between languages and cultures in our globalized world will be one of the main task of the contributions given by the young researchers gathered during these international day conferences.

12A third dimension is the philosophical and intellectual dialog – or sometimes dispute – rose by international transfers. The issue of religious identity is particularly significant in this regard. For the Catholics of the first decades of the 17th century, the Japan lord who commissioned the Tohoku mission had to be presented as a Christian ally. As for Masamune himself, it is not clear if he was aware that Christianism, a monotheistic religion, was different from a doctrine about moral conduct (“Tattoki-teusu-no-onnhô”). He was however well aware that the religious question was an important one for his European counterparts and he knew how to use it to negotiate. This opportunistic ‘translation’ of religious affiliation may seem surprising, but such practical approach is usual in Japan today, where many Christian universities and schools welcome students, pupils, and teachers who are not necessarily Christians. Does intellectual ‘translation’ of foreign social and moral values always imply adaptation, reorientation and integration in the local ways of live? This question will lead some participants of the volume to a third path of exploration.

13Hasekura’s journey from Tohoku to Europe and its reinterpretations disseminated by printers like Abraham Saugrain are not stories to overlook today. They illustrate the highly complex translations of knowledge induced by the globalization at the dawn of modernity. Transfers of technologies, commercial trade, religious conversion, linguistic, and artistic transformation, philosophical acculturation: every aspect of the mission was interconnected one to another, resulting in an entangled set of cultural values and social practices that is still inspiring today.

14The workshop “Translation of Knowledge and its Methods”, held in February 21th-22th, 2018 at Tohoku University, aimed to ‘translate’ the various questions raised by Hasekura’s journey and Saugrain’s reception into our 21st century. This was done in order to give a better understanding of the new world we have to live in. Two years after our first symposium “Thinking and Figuring the Other, Cultural transfers between France and Japan”, held in Grenoble in October 2016 and published in 2017 at Tohoku University, “Translation of Knowledge and its Methods” was the second event organized by TOGA as a preparative event for the International Graduate Program in Japanese Studies (GPJS) at Tohoku University. TOGA is a scientific and interdisciplinary exchange program launched in 2015 by Estelle Doudet (University of Grenoble-Alps, France) and Kuroiwa Taku (Tohoku University, Japan). It brings together researchers, PhD and MA students specialized in a large specter of disciplines related to arts and human sciences, practicing multilingualism and coming from multiple countries all around the world. The program invites them to an open dialog on interculturality and gives to the youngest of our participants the opportunity to submit their first paper for an international publication.

15With its twelve research papers discussed in Sendai, selected and proudly published on Acta Litt&Arts (Grenoble Alps) thanks to Corinne Denoyelle’s editorial efforts and generous dedication, the volume “Translation of Knowledge and its Methods” you are about to discover explores how artistic, literary, philosophical, political, and even military and technological transfers have happened and circulated in a global scale for several centuries, with a special emphasis on the current mutations. It also aims to experiment new ways of communicating the results of academic research to scientists, students and audiences coming from different educational and cultural backgrounds. By continuing and developing, this trans-continental and trans-oceanic exchanges, we hope to create a new model of teaching and researching which would give us keys to understand our multipolar world.


1 Vassal of Date Masamune, Hasekura Tsunenaga (1571-1622) had participated to the invasion of Korea by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and thus had been one of Masamune’s most experienced subjects regarding international contacts. Baptized during his trans-Pacific-Atlantic mission, he was also the first Japanese who was honored of the title of Roman noble and obtained the Roman citizenship. After the negotiations in Europe, he returned to Japan via Mexico and the Philippines in 1620 and died two years later. Many members of his family converted to catholicism, and his first son, Tsuneyori, was executed in 1640 because of the Christian faith professed by his servant. Concerning the life of Hasekura, his mission and his time, we rely mainly on History of Sendai City (in Japanese), special series, tome 8, Sendai, Sendai City, 2010 and Hamada Naotsugu, Dream of Masamune and Reality of Tsunenaga. Four hundred years after the Keichō Mission (in Japanese), Sendai, Kahoku Shimpo Publishing Center, 2012.

2 Recit de l’entree solemnelle et remarquable faicte à Rome, à Dom Philippe François Faxicura, & au Reverend Pere Frere Louys Sotello de l’Ordre des Freres Mineurs Observantins deschaussez, Ambassadeurs pour Idate Massamune Roy de Voxu au Jappon. Sur sa conversion au Christianisme & recherche de l’alliance des Princes Chrestiens vers la Saincteté de N.S.P. Paul V, Paris, A. Saugrain, 1615.

3 Abrégé des fruits acquis par l’ordre des Frères-Mineurs es quattre parties de l’univers [...], Bruxelles, François Vivian, 1652.

4 A picture of this portrait is to be seen on

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Estelle Doudet et KUROIWA Taku , «Introduction», Acta Litt&Arts [En ligne], Acta Litt&Arts, La traduction du savoir et ses méthodes, mis à jour le : 14/05/2019, URL :

Quelques mots à propos de :  Estelle  Doudet

Université Grenoble Alpes – UMR Litt&Arts

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Quelques mots à propos de :    KUROIWA Taku

Tohoku University