Newman’s Nook: Nobunaga and Fróis – Friends

Watching Nobunaga no Shinobi (which you can watch at Crunchyroll here) has been interesting as it walks through a period of Japanese history that I know very little about. An interesting item brought up in the show is the historic friendship that arose between Oda Nobunaga and Luís Fróis. Who are these two people? I’m glad you asked. Let’s discuss.

Portrait of Oda Nobunaga by Kano Motohide
Portrait of Oda Nobunaga by Kano Motohide

Oda Nobunaga was a powerful Daimyō (feudal lord) who lived in the mid-1500s. His goal in life was to end the warring feudal state and unite all of Japan under a single, united banner, his. Before his death, he came very close to uniting all of Japan and established fierce control. To some, he was considered a military genius, revolutionizing the manner in which soldiers fought in war, actively setting up regiments of soldiers with firearms and taking control of most of firearm production in Japan before he was done. Historic documentation shows that Nobunaga had mostly disdain for the Japanese Buddhist religious leaders at the time and used opportunities that he could find to undermine them, including sending Portuguese missionaries to debate them publicly.

Luís Fróis was a Portuguese Catholic priest and missionary who came to Japan on a mission to spread the Gospel and share the Bible with the Japanese people. Fróis first arrived in Kyoto, Japan in 1569 and met with the leadership he could find at the time, which included Nobunaga. Why? He wanted their permission to share the Gospel and tell others about Jesus. Nobunaga gave permission and let him go about his business. Later leaders would prohibit or outright ban Christianity, but Nobunaga did not.

Fróis was also known as a historian, writing down detailed histories of Japan which gave us some of very interesting insight into Oda Nobunaga as a person with his detailed interviews of various leaders in Japan. On Nobunaga, in 1569, he wrote one of the more detailed, descriptions we have of the appearance and personality of Nobunaga:

This King of Owari, who would be around 37 years old, is tall of stature, lean, sparsely bearded, with extremely sonorous voice, given to military exercises, indefatigable, inclined to works of justice and compassion, arrogant, a great lover of honour, very secretive in his decisions, a master of stratagems, hardly or not at all mindful of the reprimands or advice of his subordinates, and is feared and venerated by all to the highest degree. He does not drink wine, is brusque in his manner, looks down upon all the other kings and princes of Japan and speaks to them with disdain as if to his inferiors, is totally obeyed by all as the absolute lord, has good understanding and sharp judgements, despises the gods, the Buddhas, and all other kinds of idolatry and pagan superstition. Nominally, he professes to belong to the Lotus sect, but openly declares that there is no creator of the universe, no immortality of the soul, or life after death. His buildings are very clean and refined, and always in perfect order. He hates delays and circumlocution, and not even a prince appears before him bearing a sword; he always has two thousand pages or mounted guards with him. His father was Lord of Owari Province, but he, through his immense energy, has subjected seventeen or eighteen provinces in the last four years. He conquered the eight [sic] central provinces, including the metropolitan province of Yamashiro, in seven or eight days.

While in Japan, Fróis retained a close relationship that some historians view as a friendship with Oda Nobunaga. With that, he was able to craft some of the most detailed histories we still have from this period in Japanese history. He also worked with other Jesuit missionaries to establish schools where Christianity was able to be taught and discussed publicly. This peace did not last long as Nobunaga was later betrayed by one of his own, but in this period in time – Christians were able to live freely in the nation.

A warlord and a Jesuit missionary. Friends.

This unlikely friendship worked and serves as an interesting historic footnote. What are we to make of this? In modern times we need to remember an important lesson – just because someone is different than us or does not worship as we do, does not mean we cannot be their friends. I’ve had Christian friends over the years who have told me we must only befriend fellow Christians, but I think that’s a fool’s game. We are called as Christians to love our neighbors – this includes those who are not like us. As such, we should befriend those who are not like us. I mean, how else are they going to learn of the Gospel if we do not live it out for them.



One thought on “Newman’s Nook: Nobunaga and Fróis – Friends

  1. The history of Christianity in Japan is fascinating and Japan still has one of the most unique relationships with Christianity. A glance at history makes it appear that Nobunaga was open to Christianity while his successors were not, but it is far more complicated than that, and I find the historical persecution of Christians in Japan to be more reasonable than it sounds.

    As you note, Nobunaga had ulterior motives in promoting Christianity, most notably being a source of confusion for his enemies. Nobunaga’s single greatest goal was the unification of Japan, and the foreigners served a useful distraction during the turbulent times of war. Nobunaga was a man who used anything and everyone to further his goal; while he was no doubt cordial to Christians when alive, I’m not convinced he would not turn on them if he had lived longer. His successor Hideyoshi gets a lot of blame for instituting the Christian ban; however, this occurred only after Japan was fully unified, and Japan could afford to start thinking about outside threats (in other words, when Nobunaga was alive, he didn’t have the luxury of risking new enemies of unknown power). Although unified, it was very unstable, and the leadership feared that this foreign religion taking root could break the fragile stability of the country once again, or that it may even be used to usurp power by foreign countries, which they had very little information about at the time (and in fact, some of these fears were not completely unfounded, as we know all too well how religion can be used in politics).

    What’s most interesting, though, is that Hideyoshi had a habit of turning a blind eye to Christians despite ordering the ban. He was in a very tough spot, and although he still ordered deaths, it seems he was split on what was best for Japan. When you think about how unstable Japan was and how little they understood about foreign powers at the time, it’s much harder to think of Hideyoshi as anti-Christian. It wasn’t until Hideyoshi’s successor Ieyasu, who truly started actively persecuting Christians and forced everyone underground, that Christianity “died” in Japan.

    Anyway that’s my history lesson for the day. In my experience, Christians simplify the history far too much, so I try to educate people when I can.

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