Unsheathing the Katana. The Long Fortune of the First Two Japanese Embassies in Italy: Rediscovery and Rereading between Continuity and Discontinuity (1873–1905)

Alessandro Tripepi, University of Milan

When historians examine the relations between Italy and Japan in contemporary era, they inevitably focus on the political and ideological ties that bound the regimes of the two countries from the 1920s, culminating in the alliance during the Second World War. The intention of strengthening this friendship led the two partners to organize frequent mutual visits between the countries. However, due to the highly ideological nature of the axis between Rome and Tokyo, the attention of the visiting delegations was focused on short-term objectives. Cultural interest almost never prevailed over political and propagandistic ends, with both interlocutors attentive to the needs of the present. During this period, many prominent political figures travelled in both directions (Vagnini 2015). In 1928, for example, the minister plenipotentiary of Japan, Count Uchida, came to Milan at the end of his diplomatic mission in Paris. In 1930, Imperial Prince Takamatsu travelled to Italy, accompanied by his wife. Finally, a few years later, in 1936, F. Ushizaka, procurator on behalf of the mayor of Tokyo Masao Yoshiyama, stayed in Milan with “l’incarico di studiare ed ispezionare l’andamento generale del lavoro nell’amministrazione municipale della vostra città”.

The Italian press and society paid great attention to these occasions of encounter between the two countries. However, due to the duration of the visit and its cultural implications, the honeymoon of Prince Nobuhito Takamatsu and his wife Kikuko was the event that aroused the greatest interest. The Corriere della Sera described the sumptuous receptions and ceremonies during the imperial couple’s stay in Turin, Milan, Florence and Rome. It also reported on the curiosity of the public as they witnessed the unusual procession of Japanese princes passing through the Italian streets (Corriere della Sera 1930a, 1930b). While it was undoubtedly an unusual event, it was certainly not unique or isolated. There are in fact several more or less recent precedents of ceremonial journeys made to the peninsula by delegations and delegates from Japan. The first Japanese journey to Italy, the one closest in time to the imperial couple’s honeymoon, was made in 1873 by the minister plenipotentiary, Iwakura Tomomi. Before that, between 1585 and 1615, two other delegations had left the archipelago under the impetus of Catholic evangelization in the Far East. These embassies were one of the first tangible moments of cultural interaction between the European and Japanese worlds and were welcomed in Italy in an atmosphere of celebration and euphoria. The journey of the young imperial couple can be seen as a piece in a complex puzzle. It was in fact the most recent trip that a delegation from Japan had made to Italy. There is, of course, no continuity — either in time or, above all, in meaning and purpose — between the various Japanese delegations that had crossed the Italian stage since the sixteenth century. However, the journeys of the various embassies over the course of more than three centuries can be used to tie up the threads of a fluctuating relationship between the peninsula and the archipelago. Despite receiving great attention, the young imperial couple’s trip (in addition to the political and ideological closeness between Rome and Tokyo) was not enough to set in motion a process during the 1930s to rediscover and reread a more or less distant past. In fact, neither the press nor the largest cultural forum giving a voice to Italian intellectuals, the Nuova Antologia. Rivista di lettere scienze e arti, took the trouble to examine the long relationship between the two partners.

All attention was instead polarized around the interests of the present. Indeed, if the more openly Catholic scientific journals — such as the Gregorianum — dealt with the theme of the longue durée of contacts between Italy and the Far East, they did so from a point of view totally in line with the regime’s propaganda. For example, in his considerations on the evangelizing action of the Society of Jesus in China and Japan, the Jesuit Pasquale d’Elia placed the stress almost exclusively on the fact that the mission was an Italian initiative. In his articles on Matteo Ricci and Alessandro Valignano, the two Jesuits were the main focus of attention, while the consequences of their action provided but a blurred background to the narrative (D’Elia 1935, 121–30; 1940, 482–526). In order to explain the reasons for such a specific interest in the historiography of the 1930s, it may be useful to refer to the theory of historicism, a conception of history which has its roots in the complex thought of Giovan Battista Vico (1688–1744). At the time of the above-mentioned Japanese visits to Italy, the greatest exponent of historicism in Italy was Benedetto Croce (1866–1952). In 1938, Croce published one of his most seminal books, La storia come pensiero e come azione (History as Thought and Action). In this book, the philosopher famously maintains that the only history that can exist is contemporary history, because all history is nothing but the manifestation of the interests of the present in which the historian lives: “perché, per remoti e remotissimi che sembrino cronologicamente i fatti che vi entrano, essa è, in realtà, storia sempre riferita al bisogno e alla situazione presente, nella quale quei fatti propagano le loro vibrazioni” (Croce 2002, 13).

While Croce was by no means involved in the Fascist regime, this conception of history could resonate strongly with the cultural atmosphere of the time and be intertwined with representations of Italian history aimed at satisfying the political needs and objectives of the present. In this sense, the reference to Croce can provide a methodological starting point for an essay that, in the 2020s, aims to reread the events of the early modern age through the documentary lens offered by the first sources to reconsider them, between the 1870s and the first decade of the following century. Indeed, it is as a result of sudden changes in Italian and Japanese society between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that the voyages of 1585 and 1615 regained the limelight. The reasons that led an entire generation of journalists, intellectuals and politicians to deal with the events of that distant past once again have to be sought in the needs of their present. These interests have to be taken into consideration in order to understand the inevitable relationship of continuity and discontinuity in the double chronological jump examined in these pages. However, before we get there, let us go over the Japanese delegations’ journeys to Italy between the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries and what they represented in the two different eras, namely, the one when they took place and the one when they were rediscovered and reused.

DOI: 10.36253/978–88–5518–579–0.06

Read Full Text: https://books.fupress.it/chapter/unsheathing-the-katana-the-long-fortune-of-the-first-two-japanese-embassies-in-italy-rediscovery-and/11802

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