Modern Missionaries as Writers of “Nihongo Bungaku”

The so-called “Nihongo Bungaku” written by those whose mother tongues are not Japanese is now an established research subject. The term is used to distinguish this genre from “Nihon Bungaku” (Japanese literature) written by Japanese speakers. In a broader sense, “Nihongo Bungaku” is also a part of Japanese literature.

The number of major writers of Nihongo Bungaku is about 50, which includes those in Taiwan and Korea (former colonies of Japan); the Russian writers of the 1920s, Serge Grigorievich Elisséeff (1889-1975) and Vasili Eroshenko (1890-1952); and contemporary writers such as Ian Hideo Levy who made his debut in the 1980s, as well as Yang Yi and Li Kotomi, who were awarded the Akutagawa Prize in 2008 and 2021 respectively.

The actual number of creators of Nihongo Bungaku, however, is ten times greater than the above-mentioned writers. The majority of them are missionaries who came to Japan to preach Christianity in the modern period, from the end of the Edo period until the present day.

The roots of “Nihongo Bungaku” can be traced back to the 16th century when “Kirishitan Bungaku” (Catholic literature) started to be produced. During that period, writing in Japanese was essential for the missionaries to evangelize.

From the Meiji period, missionaries actively wrote in Japanese, which forms a rich body of literary works in terms of quantity and quality. They not only wrote about the faith, but also conveyed knowledge of Western cosmology, morality, history, thought, as well as languages, which greatly differ from those of East Asia. Since their publications have had a great deal of influence on Japan, we can regard them as having played a role in developing Japan’s modern culture together with Japanese people.

Published in February 2023, my edited volume entitled Senkyōshi no Nihongo Bungaku: Kenkyū to mokuroku (Missionaries’ Japanese Language Literature: Research and Bibliography) introduces 442 modern missionaries who wrote in Japanese, although there are perhaps more than 500 missionaries in total. Meanwhile at least 2,700 books have been identified, including single authorships, joint authorships, and editorships. It is not an exaggeration to say that modern missionaries form the largest group of Nihongo Bungaku authors.

However, compared to the substantial number of their writings, the amount of research on missionaries is still minimal. Except for several prominent figures, they have been almost completely overlooked by the academic circles. Why is that?

The reasons could be related to the fact that missionaries often did not promote their own publications widely, and also many of their works went out of print which made them difficult to obtain. The major reason, however, is probably the bias held by scholars who do not take missionaries’ Japanese skills and writings seriously. I believe that this is due to the ignorance and negligence of scholars engaged in researching Japanese literature.

Japanese People Marveled at Fr. Candau’s Japanese Literary Skills

The word “literature” in a narrow sense tends to be associated with “fiction and poetry.” However, the Japanese literature created by missionaries includes translations of the Bible, hagiographies, essays, travelogs, critical reviews, dramas, dialogues, speeches, diaries, epistles, and other miscellaneous writings.

To fulfill their mission, they tried to thoroughly understand the mind and culture of Japanese people. Furthermore, they used elegant expressions which are suitable to discussing the Christian spirit, such as love, equality, and freedom, and they focused a lot on rhetoric when writing, following the model of the Bible.

Their writings assume various forms: penned solely by themselves, or collaborations with Japanese people who wrote down their speeches, edited their writings, or converted their writings in Roman letters to Chinese and kana characters. In sum, they represent a rich exchange of multiple languages and cultures that gave birth to missionaries’ Nihongo Bungaku.

Writings by missionaries are not only interesting as reading material, but also rich in ethical and literary quality, which manifest the development of their own spiritual growth. Among their writings, some were highly acclaimed by Japanese intellectuals of that time. For example, Shiba Ryōtaro, who has had the greatest influence on modern Japan’s views of its history, especially admired two missionaries: Francis Xavier from the 16th century and Sauveur Candau from the 20th century.

Father Candau, who was born in the French Basque region in 1897, came to Japan for the first time when he was 28. Although he returned to France during World War II, he came back to Japan after the war. He stayed in Japan for 21 years in total until his sudden death in 1955. He acquired the highest proficiency in Japanese which enabled him to translate Hōjōki into French and to critique Nishida Kitarō’s philosophy. Fr. Candau was also a master of word plays and puns.

The writings and lectures of Fr. Candau made a deep impression on many Japanese people at that time. Shiba Ryōtarō wrote, “Fr. Candau is a priest, a theologian, a philosopher, and above all a ‘Japanese.’ Since he came to Japan in 1925, he received deep affection and respect from many non-believers. He loved the Japanese people and their culture, and wrote essays of high quality with a great sense of humor. His Japanese is perfect. We can see his clear and pure spirit in his writings.” (*1)

The novelist Inukai Michiko enthusiastically wrote about Fr. Candau’s radio programs, saying “he embarrassed Japanese presenters by his eloquent speaking in Edo style, often using proverbs. His beautiful essay collections were best-selling books.” (*2)

Tanaka Kōrarō, a jurist who became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Japan, appraised Fr. Candau’s writing in Japanese as being equal to that of the country’s most accomplished intellectuals. “His style is plain, but not mediocre; witty, but not shallow; humorous, but not tawdry. His writings are thoroughly refined with attention to all details. They have the dignity of a missionary as well. His postwar publications were enthusiastically received by the press because they suited the style and taste of well-educated people.” (*3)

In fact, when we read the writings of Fr. Candau, we are impressed by their clarity, sharp insights, and the structure of his essays. But most importantly, we can perceive that he knew the Japanese mind thoroughly. He wrote about Japanese Christians: “The beauty of Fuji, Matsushima, and Amano Hashidate cannot be denied, but it is not something I would like to devote my life to. It is the abundance of beautiful souls that have kept me in Japan for all my life. They are the people who, in their final moments, thanked God, expressed their happiness, and composedly left this world…I am confident to say that I cannot help but love this country where I have discovered so many graceful souls.” (*4)

Not many people, even Japanese natives, can integrate the universal value of Catholicism into writings using the kind of elegant Japanese language as Fr. Candau did.

*1 Shiba Ryōtarō, Shiba Ryōtarō zenshū 59: Kaidō o yuku 8, Nanban no michi (Tokyo: Bungei Shunjū, 1999).
*2 Inukai Michiko, Seiō no kao o motomete (Tokyo: Bungei Shunjū, 1974).
*3 Tanaka Kōrarō, Gendai seikatsu no ronri (Tokyo: Shunjūsha, 1957).
*4 Sauveur Candau “Shingan ni eijitaru Nihon,” in Ikeda Toshio, ed., Kandō zenshū 1 (Tokyo: Chūō Shuppan, 1970).

Foreigners’ Japanese Admired by Shiga Naoya

Of course, not all missionaries could fluently speak Japanese and have a full command of reading and writing Japanese as Fr. Candau did. However, not only missionaries, but also other foreigners often display a sense of condensation in their writings, because their Japanese vocabulary is not that rich.

I am originally from Shanghai, China, and not a native speaker of Japanese. I recall the time when I tended to be more talkative in my mother tongue than in Japanese. Perhaps many have experienced manipulating their speech by using words one after another without much substance, because they are comfortable with their mother tongue.

This brings to mind the literature of Shiga Naoya, who was the starting point of my research. Shiga is sometimes praised as “the zenith of Japanese modern literature.” He evoked the reader’s imagination to the maximum by using minimalist language, or “omission.” This characteristic writing style of his was inspired precisely by the Japanese language used by foreigners.

For example, Shiga was deeply interested in the spoken Japanese of the potter Bernard Leach, his close friend. Shiga wrote, “Leach is not fluent in Japanese, but perhaps because of our friendship, he did not need to have diplomatic politeness,” and “one night, he told me a story, which impressed me because of his limited vocabulary. He described the story so succinctly and well. My vocabulary is also rather deficient. But when I listened to his story, I felt assured.” (*5)

Moreover, when the philosopher Tsurumi Shunsuke came back to Japan after finishing his five years of study in the U.S., he sought consultation on his problem of not writing Japanese well from Kuwabara Takeo, a scholar of French literature. Shiga advised, “Do not memorize a style of fine writing and mold your words into it. If you fall into the gutter between Japanese and English and struggle, you will be able to create your own style.” (*6)

What I expect from the Japanese literature created by foreigners is very much related to what Shiga discovered. In other words, because of insufficient vocabulary, they cherish their words with care. They make effort not to waste or manipulate words, but only to convey what they really want to say. That is why refined Japanese expressions have been created by people like missionaries.

Japan has been visited by people from various countries and regions, and different languages, thought systems, and cultures have been exchanged. Therefore, modern Japanese literature and culture are actually very international. In that sense, it is regrettable that modern Japanese people do not know much about the Japanese literature written by missionaries; the intellectual and literary contents of their abundant writings are overlooked, and the importance of their contribution to modern Japan is underestimated.

*5 Shiga Naoya, “Riichi no koto” (First published in Kōgei, No. 39, 1932), Shiga Naoya zenshū 9 (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1999).
*6 Tsurumi Shunsuke, ed., Atarashii Fudoki e: Tsurumi Shunsuke zadan (Tokyo: Asahi Shinbun Shuppan, 2010)

* The information contained herein is current as of January 2024.
* The contents of articles on are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.
* I work to achieve SDGs related to the educational and research themes that I am currently engaged in.

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