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“Alessandro Valignano on the Japanese”


They are very prudent and discreet in all their dealings with others and they never weary anybody by recounting their troubles or by complaining or grumbling as people do in Europe. When they go visiting, their etiquette demands that they never say anything which might upset their host. And so they never come and talk about their troubles and grievances, because as they claim to suffer much and always to show courage in adversity, they keep their troubles to themselves as best they can. When they meet or go to visit somebody, they always appear cheerful and in good spirits, and they either do not refer to their troubles at all, or if they do, at most they just mention them with a laugh as if they did not worry about such unimportant matters. As they are so opposed to every kind of gossip, they never talk about other people’s affairs or grumble about their princes and rulers, but instead they speak on topics in keeping with the times and circumstances, dwelling on them only for as long as they think they can afford pleasure and content to their hosts.

For this reason (and also in order not to become heated in their dealings with others), they observe a general custom in Japan of not transacting any important or difficult business face to face with another person, but instead they do it all through messages or a third person. This method is so much in vogue that it is used between fathers and their children, masters and their servants, and even between husbands and wives, for they maintain that it is only prudent to conduct through a third person such matters which may give rise to anger, objections, or quarrels. As a result they live in such peace and quietness that even the children forbear to use inelegant expressions among themselves, nor do they fight or hit each other like European lads; instead, they speak politely and never fail to show each other respect. In fact they show such incredible gravity and maturity that they seem more like solemn men than children.


How much of this sixteenth-century description of the Japanese is still true today? What has changed, and why?


(Douglas Wilkerson)