In 1597, Japan was reaching the end of the Warring States period and starting to unify under the rule of Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi. At the same time, which was 15 years after the Tenshô embassy (the first Japanese embassy to Europe), three Japanese men were completing their (unwilling) journey to Mexico, of all places.
Using records from the Inquisition found in the National Library of Mexico, Lucio de Sousa (University of Evora in Portugal) and Oka Mihoko (University of Tokyo) have discovered conclusive proof of the men’s journey to the New World. They’ve also managed to piece together a few details of their stories.
While the records do not list their Japanese names, the entries for the men indicated that they were from Japan. Instead of their birth names, it seems that they were called “Gaspar Fernandez,” “Miguel,” and “Ventura.” (Hmmm…do you think this will lead to a new baby-name trend in Japan?)
It seems that Gaspar, born in Oita Prefecture (in Kyuushu, off the main island of Japan), was sold by a Japanese slave trader to Perez, a Portuguese slave trader, at the age of eight for a three-year contract. The price? Seven pesos (at the time, a bottle of high quality olive oil was going for 8 pesos. Yikes!).
While nothing of Ventura’s history is known, records indicate that Miguel was brought by a Portuguese slave trader to Spanish territory and sold to Perez in Manila in 1594.
In 1596, Perez was arrested by the authorities on suspicion of being secretly Jewish. After being found guilty, Perez and his entire family (slaves included) were sent out of Manila in December 1597 and across the Pacific to Acapulco, Mexico. It was in the interrogation records that information regarding the three Japanese slaves was found.
Gaspar testified at the hearing and provided evidence of Perez’s religious beliefs. After ending up in Mexico, Gaspar and Ventura complained to the authorities and were freed in 1599.
Unfortunately, that seems to be all we know of the men. While it is certainly a sad tale in nearly every way possible, there is a glimmer of beauty to it. After all, this was a time during which few people ever left their home countries—let alone circumnavigated the globe! Still, it was probably poor consolation for them. We can’t imagine what Mexico must have been like in the summer without air conditioning.
Note: the featured image is of the Tenshô Embassy, not the Japanese men who ended up in Mexico.