Recent research on cross-cultural encounters in the early modern period has shown that the records of the first Europeans in eastern Asia provide us with excellent models to reflect on current issues in cross-cultural and inter-religious dialogues. These stories are helpful for understanding ways through which the Self perceives, understands, and interprets the Other, who is radically different. According to sinologist Nicolas Standaert, “One is tempted to call [these records] a ‘laboratory’ for the study of cultural diffusion, transfer of knowledge, and cultural change, leading to deeper insights for broader theories of cultural interaction.”
To be sure, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the European empires’ agendas for colonization dominated exchanges between Europeans and non-Europeans. Nonetheless, their interactions in eastern Asia—especially in China and Japan—were impressively reciprocal in comparison to contemporary cases in Latin America, India, and Africa. Their stories can serve as resources in conducting a case study of how one is affected by and transformed through interactions with another who is radically different in terms of language, tradition, or worldview.
The purpose of this paper is to examine Catholic missionaries’ interpretations of Japanese religiosity (i.e., religious inclination/disposition, liturgical habitus) in the late sixteenth century. I will show that many European missionaries were aesthetically attracted to Japanese Buddhist art and respected Japanese people’s devotion to Buddha, despite the fact that the Church considered such devotion a form of idolatry. As they understood Japanese religiosity, there emerged an interesting paradox in the missionaries’ overall assessment of Japanese culture: on the one hand, they condemned the local religious tradition as comprising demonic practices, while on the other hand, they praised the local piety and said that the Japanese were disposed to a deeper capacity for devotion than were the Europeans.
This paper also aims to offer a historical case study with regards to the ongoing attempts of comparative theology and inter-religious dialogue. Following Francis X. Clooney, I consider comparative theology a venue through which one seeks a better understanding of one’s faith through comparative, inter-religious and dialogical reflections of other religions. In undertaking comparative theology, the subject (i.e., the one who makes the comparison) is open to self-criticism and transformation that emerge during his or her study of other religions. In this context, this study entails an investigation of how the act of comparison helped European missionaries better understand Japanese religions, and how their appreciation of Japanese religiosity influenced and transformed their approaches to non-Christians.