Presentation of the History of the Evangelization of Japan

The Marega documents a bridge with Japan

 The Marega documents  a bridge with Japan  ING-009
04 March 2022

“The History of the Evangelization of Japan. The Marega Collection” of the Vatican Apostolic Library, was presented at the Holy See Press Office on Tuesday morning, 1 March. The Marega documents will enable historians to better understand the presence of Christianity in Japan from the 17th to the 19th century, and to learn about Japanese history. The presentation included addresses from Cardinal José Tolentino de Mendonça, Librarian and Archivist of the Holy Roman Church, Msgr. Cesare Pasini, Prefect of the Vatican Apostolic Library, Dr. Delio Vania Proverbio, Scriptor Orientalis, Dr. Ángela Núñez Gaitán, head of the Restoration Laboratory and Professor Silvio Vita, Kyoto University of Foreign Studies. The following is a translation of the discourses given by Cardinal José Tolentino de Mendonça and Msgr. Cesare Pasini. The other speeches may be found on:

Cardinal José Tolentino de Mendonça
The cultural and ecclesial significance of
the Marega project

Martin Scorsese’s Silence (2016) was the last of the three film adaptions of the eponymous historical novel by Japanese writer Shūsaku Endō. The story of two young Jesuits who covertly landed in Japan in the aftermath of the Shimabara massacre (1637) is the starting point for the description of the tragedy of the persecution of Japanese Christians during the Edo period, when, having effectively ousted the emperor, the Tokugawa shogun took full power in the Land of the Rising Sun and promulgated the Kinkyo-rei, a ban on Christianity in Japan, in 1612. When the American director visited the Vatican Library in November 2016, he was shown one of its precious holdings: ancient Japanese documents dating from that period (1603-1868) which take us back to that precise historical situation. These documents are the focus and subject of this press conference.

As history would have it, the largest feudal archive outside Japan is now preserved here in the Library. These papers, collected in the 1930s by the Salesian Mario Marega, were the starting point in 2013 for the largest cultural cooperation project undertaken by the Library in recent years. This project has seen the Library and the Japanese National Institute for the Humanities undertake the study, restoration and cataloguing of thousands of documents (about 14,000), with dozens of Japanese researchers spending long periods of time in the Library each year. During these years of fruitful collaboration between the Japanese team and officials and researchers of the Vatican Apostolic Library, several conferences and meetings were held in Rome and in Japan. In 2019, the first promoter of this initiative, the then Librarian Cardinal Raffaele Farina, was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun, conferred to him by the Emperor of Japan, for his important work in favour of the “reordering of historical documents of the Edo period collected by the Salesian missionary Don Mario Marega”. But one must also note the extremely intense and decisive activity of the scientific staff of the Vatican Library as a whole. And I would like to mention three names in particular: the Prefect, Msgr. Cesare Pasini, the scriptor orientalis, Professor Delio Proverbio, who assiduously accompanied this project, and Dr. Ángela Núñez Gaitán, head of the Vatican Library’s Restoration Laboratory.

The considerable scientific activity developed in recent years around the Marega Collection is an unmistakable mark of the international interest it has inspired. I think, for instance, of the various publications, among which I recall the two latest titles: Naohiro Ōta, Reading Japanese documents from the Marega Collection. An introductory manual with selected texts and Kazuo Ōtomo & Naohiro Ōta, The Marega Collection in the Vatican Library. A Comprehensive Study.

Furthermore, by opening its archival fonds, both modern and contemporary, to the investigation of researchers, the Vatican Apostolic Archive is providing a considerable contribution to the study of relations between Japan and the Holy See.

The documents preserved in the Marega Collection are fundamental for reconstructing the history of Japanese Christianity. But their historical value goes far beyond this context. The documentation produced constitutes a nuanced portrait of Japanese society in the premodern era.

Msgr. Cesare Pasini
A significant collaboration between
the Vatican Library and
Japanese institutions

The Marega Project relates to an early history of Christianity in Japan and a modern history of discoveries and rediscoveries, starting in the 1930s, when Salesian Mario Marega collected many documents that were at risk of being lost, and sent them to Rome. The greater part arrived at the Vatican Library in 1953. It was not immediately inventoried, like other collections that require careful and complex verification; the wait was prolonged, also because the material was in a language that was not immediately accessible (Japanese) and, moreover, in an ancient script that required special palaeographic skills. The opportunity to bring them back to light came in 2011 when Dr. Delio Proverbio, scriptor orientalis of the Library, took them into his care, enabling them to be appreciated.

To proceed, it was necessary to create close collaboration with the Japanese world and with the skills that only its research institutes could offer. In 2013, a joint project was established between the Vatican Library and, for Japan, with the Institutes for Research in the Humanities ( nihu ), specifically with Professor Kazuo Ōtomo, project director, with the Historiographical Institute of the University of Tokyo and with the Ōita Prefecture Ancient Sages Historical Archives. On the Japanese side, the Kyoto Italian School of East Asian Studies, with Professor Silvio Vita, and the municipality of Usuki, the locality in Kyushu where most of the documents come from, also participated in the project. The Salesian University also participated on the Italian side.

The project involved the reorganization of the material, its conservation and the restoration of part of it because of its precarious condition when it was collected by Marega, its high-definition digitization as part of the project to digitize the Vatican Library’s 80,000 manuscripts, the cataloguing of the documents and the preparation of a database that would allow access to individual documents and a description of them. The project is now complete. But we are not stopping here: research and studies on the documents made available to everyone (to all those who can read them!) are now beginning, and highly constructive contacts with the Japanese institutions continue.

It is important to recall the profound symbolic significance of the collaboration between the Japanese institutions and the Vatican, and all the people involved. By working together on documents that bear witness to a persecution that lasted two and a half centuries, it was possible to build a common experience, which took the form of an exchange of expertise and which was broadened and deepened in mutual knowledge and esteem. Even where history has inflicted wounds or known contrasts or pitted one against the other, we can build understanding and acceptance, harmony and respect, by researching and investigating, explaining and contextualizing, and respectfully remembering everyone and everything. And we come to know the lives of peoples even better. Not a random message, least of all in our times.