Hasekura Tsunenaga, also known as Hasekura Rokuemon Tsunenaga (支倉六右衛門常長, 1571-1622) led a Japanese embassy to Mexico City, Madrid, and Rome in the years from 1613 to 1620. He was the first official Japanese envoy to visit the American continent.
In July 1611, an embassy under the Spanish explorer and diplomat Sebastián Vizcaíno repatriated the Japanese merchants from New Spain (modern-day Mexico) who had travelled there with Rodrigo Vivero de Velasco, a Spanish colonial officer, in the previous year. This inspired Date Masamune, the daimyō of Sendai (present-day Miyagi Prefecture), to despatch an exploratory embassy to seek trade with Mexico and southern Europe. Supported by the Franciscan friar Luis Sotelo, whom he had rescued from shogunal persecution, Masamune appointed Hasekura, a mid-level samurai of imperial descent (it is said he had ancestral ties to the 50th emperor, Kanmu) and a veteran of the invasions of Korea in 1592 and 1597, his representative.
Sendai City Museum, Portrait of Hasekura Tsunenaga in prayer, following his conversion in Madrid in 1615
Under Spanish supervision and in just 45 days, Japanese shipwrights built a galleon, the Date Maru, in the small fishing village of Tsukinoura, east of Ishinomaki City. On 27 October 1613, leading a party of 180 Japanese, Hasekura set sail for Acapulco, accompanied by Sotelo and what was left of the Mexican mission. He met the Mexican viceroy in March 1614, the Spanish monarch Philip III in January 1615, and Pope Paul V in October 1615.
Although baptised as Francisco Felipe Faxicura in Madrid, Hasekura seems to have focused more on the secular aspects of his mission: he received Roman citizenship, toured the Italian city republics, attempted to secure fiscal exemptions for Japanese goods imported into Spanish territory, and negotiated the sale of his ship to the authorities in Mexico.
Tsunenaga during his mission in Rome in 1615. Portrait by Claude Deruet.
During his absence of almost seven years, the Tokugawa shogunate had consolidated its control over the outlying daimyō, while Spain had closed the Mexican Pacific coast to foreign shipping. Hasekura's mission had failed to achieve its targets. He returned to Japan in September 1620, after spending two years in the Philippines. His return coincided with the suppression of Christianity in the Date domain, but he was given special dispensation from renouncing his faith.
Not much is known about Tsunenaga's death; his son Rokuemon Tsuneyori and some of his servants were put to death by the shogunal authorities because they were accused of being clandestine Christians or of harbouring Christians in their house.
During the sakoku policy of isolation, Hasekura's travels had fallen into complete oblivion in Japan and were only rediscovered in 1873 when the Iwakura embassy to Europe was shown documents of Hasekura's mission in Venice.
In 1980, the Catholic novelist and historian Shusaku Endo wrote a novel titled The Samurai, a fictitious account based on the travels of Hasekura.
- Nussbaum, Louis-Frédéric, Japan Encyclopedia, Harvard University Press 2005