Technology, History, and Travel

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How to sail from seventeenth-century Japan

Note: This post contains plot spoilers for Shusaku Endo’s 1980 novel The Samurai.

In October 1613, a ship set sail from Tsukinoura in northeastern Japan. The ship looked like a Spanish galleon and bore the name San Juan Bautista, but it had been built in Japan on behalf of a local feudal lord. On board was Hasekura Rokuemon, a minor lord who was dispatched as an envoy to Pope Paul V in Rome.

Shusaku Endo’s novel The Samurai (1980, trans. 1982 by Van C. Gessel) is a fictionalized account of Hasekura’s voyage from Japan to New Spain (Mexico), and onward through Spain to Rome. The novel does not stick closely to the historical facts (for instance, greatly compressing the Japanese delegation’s stay in Europe), but at any rate the facts are so sparse that Endo had to engage in extensive speculation as he crafted his narrative.

The purpose of the voyage is a central question of the novel. Hasekura and three other lance-corporals are sent to initiate trade relations with New Spain. One of the envoys, Matsuki, returns to Japan from New Spain. On several occasions before his return, Matsuki hints darkly that their mission is a cover for something else, because why else would such low-ranking officers be selected for this mission? The other three continue across the Atlantic and have an audience with Pope Paul V.

When Hasekura finally returns to Japan, he talks with Matsuki, who reveals the purpose of the mission. “Haven’t you realized yet that you were nothing more than a decoy dressed up to look like an envoy?” he admonishes Hasekura. “Edo and our domain never had trade with Nueva España as their main object. … Edo used our domain to find out how to build and sail the great ships.”

In Endo’s interpretation, Hasekura’s mission was cover for technology transfer. The Japanese wanted to learn how to sail European-style ships, and sending emissaries to new Spain was a way to do that without raising the Europeans’ suspicions.

It is a plausible interpretation, albeit completely speculative. The Japanese have long been prolific cultural borrowers, and technology has always been a part of what they are interested in borrowing. Shortly after Hasekura’s mission, Japan closed its doors to foreigners, and the country would remain closed for more than 200 years before being forced open by the United States in the 1850s.

But even during this period of isolation, the Japanese continued to allow the Dutch limited access to one port, and it was through this contact that the Japanese learned about European technology and industry. When Japan reopened to the world in the nineteenth century, the Japanese already had a head-start on understanding industrial technology thanks to the Dutch.

I don’t know if Shusaku Endo had this background in mind when he wrote The Samurai, but I expect that he did. In Endo’s own lifetime (he lived from 1923 to 1996), Japan readily adopted electronics manufacturing and became a world leader in the field. One can only wonder what might have happened with technology in Japan after the voyage of the San Juan Bautista, had the country not been closed to the world.

View of the Frankfurter Dom from across the Main River.

Re-densifying Frankfurt

In 1997, after my fourth grade year, I went with my family on a trip to Europe. We flew in and out of Frankfurt, and spent a couple of weeks visiting Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, itty-bitty Liechtenstein, and Switzerland. Frankfurt did not make a big impression on me, as we didn’t spend much time there and the city does not have much character anyway. (I was most impressed by Berlin, the city abuilding, where we spent the better part of a week.) One thing I do remember from Frankfurt in 1997 is the historic city center next to the Main River. In particular, I remember visiting a cathedral made of red stone that stood in front of a plaza.

In 2015, on one of my trips out to India, Lufthansa gave me a nice long layover in Frankfurt, and I used some of the time to make an excursion from the airport to the city center by train. (For further observations from the same visit, please see my post “From fortress to Boulevard.”) The red-brick cathedral, the Frankfurter Dom, was there just as I remembered it from eighteen years earlier. But to my surprise, the plaza in front of the cathedral was gone!

In its place was a construction site. A sign at the site explained that the area was being built up to restore its pre-World War II urban density. The plaza had only existed since the war, when much of Frankfurt was destroyed by Allied bombs.

Glimpse of the Frankfurter Dom between newer buildings, as seen in 2015.

Glimpse of the Frankfurter Dom between newer buildings, as seen in 2015.

Tower of the Frankfurter Dom.

Tower of the Frankfurter Dom.

I suppose the redevelopment of the former plaza in front of the cathedral is done by now. Lately, I have been thinking about how this project makes use of previously wasted urban space, opened up by the world’s worst war. In my own country, the United States, our cities have have their own share of wasted space, created not by bombs but by overzealous mid-century urban planners working in the name of urban renewal. I wonder if it is time to redevelop some of the big empty plazas in this country as well.

View of the Frankfurter Dom from a bridge over the Main River.

View of the Frankfurter Dom from a bridge over the Main River.


The ex-churches of Quebec

Quebec was colonized in the 17th century by France, a country that remained largely Catholic even as England, northern Germany, and other parts of Europe were turning Protestant. Like the mother-country, Quebec became Catholic. Protestants were not even allowed to settle there. Only after the British takeover of Canada in the mid-18th century was Protestantism even tolerated in Quebec.

In much more recent times, Catholic Church membership and attendance have dropped off sharply in Quebec, and many congregations have had to close their doors. The availability of deconsecrated church buildings has given rise to some intriguing examples of adaptive reuse. On a recent visit to Quebec, I saw one church that had been converted into a restaurant and another that was a fitness center. Neither use really makes sense to me, because they do not take advantage of the single large, enclosed space that is a hallmark of churches.

Decline in church membership is only one reason why churches might be converted to other uses or torn down. Another is urban redevelopment, which is carried out with particular ferocity on the land-hungry island of Montreal. Churches—along with many other buildings of historic value—disappear and are replaced by new construction.

But they don’t all disappear without a trace. On the corner of Viger and St. Denis streets, there stands a lonely church tower without a church. This is the tower of Trinity Anglican Church, built in 1865 and demolished in 2011 to make room for a giant new hospital, University of Montreal Health Centre. The tower was rebuilt in 2016, using the original stones. Even as the city is redeveloped, this memento of the past has been retained.

The reconstructed church tower of Trinity Anglican Church, next to University of Montreal Health Centre.

The reconstructed church tower of Trinity Anglican Church, next to University of Montreal Health Centre.

The Gothic church tower has been integrated into the glassy facade of the hospital.

The Gothic church tower reflected in the glassy facade of the hospital.

The backside of the tower is used for bicycle parking.

The backside of the tower is used for bicycle parking.

The story of Trinity Anglican Church is inscribed in the reconstructed steps below the doorway.

The story of Trinity Anglican Church (in French) is inscribed in the reconstructed steps below the doorway.

Vanishing Montreal blog has pictures of Trinity Anglican Church shortly before and during its demolition.

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