In 1542, the first European contact with Japan had occurred when three Portuguese on board a
Chinese junk laden with hides bound from Siam to China was shipwrecked at Tanegashima,
an island only twenty miles southwest of Kyushu. Portuguese trade with Japan began three years later.
The Basque Francis Xavier -- one of the seven co-founders
of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits -- headed a Jesuit
mission which landed at the southern Kyushu city of Kagoshima
in 1549. Used to dealing with overlords, he soon made friends with members of Japan's ruling class who were
primarily interested in Western technology and culture. They gave Xavier permission to teach Catholicism
in exchange for some of his knowledge of the outside world. Backlash to the rising influence of the
missionaries resulted in the first interdictions in 1587 and the first martyrdoms in Japan a decade later.
The success of the Dutch in Japan during the next two and a half centuries was primarily due to their nonalliance
with the Roman Catholic pope.
Until the latter part of the sixteenth century, a bonsan was indispensible to the classic setting of the formal tea ceremony held typically in the aristocratic drawing room ( shoin ) of a lord's mansion. The background for two prominent examples of this is as follows:
The warlord Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582) had led two thousand men to route an invading army twelve times its size in 1560. Eight years later he proceeded against the capital in Kyoto, leading a force of 30,000, setting up a rival to the Ashikaga's shōgun. Three years after this, in the most terrifying act of his career, he torched three thousand temple buildings in the capital area, slaughtering thousands of Buddhist monks whose great sects had for years held much independent power and political influence. In 1573 the last Ashikaga shōgun was driven out of Kyōto. Two years later Nobunaga won a major battle by employing three thousand musketmen -- relatively new technology courtesy of Portuguese traders -- in recurring waves. Nobunaga soon became de facto leader of the home provinces of Japan. He ordered land surveys and a unification of weights and measures, as well as patronage of the merchant class. Responding in 1582 to a call by his general Toyotomi Hideyoshi for reinforcements, Nobunaga and his eldest son were slain by a treacherous other general. Three years later Hideyoshi himself was the undisputed successor and continued the task of unification set in motion by Nobunaga with his own military alliances, domestic reforms, and foreign adventures. Hideyoshi's successor, Tokugawa Ieysau, established a new régime. These three men completely changed the course of Japanese history.
Now, in contrast with his sect-breaking infamy, Nobunaga was also known to be an enthusiastic collector of both Zen-inspired garden stones and miniature landscape stones. In one incident, he is said to have sent one of the latter, named "Eternal Pine Mountain" (Sue no Matsu-yama), together with a fine tea bowl, in 1580 in exchange for the Ishiyama fortress (currently the site of Ōsaka castle). Nobunaga, a greedy collector of tea implements, was apparently also a fancier of bonsan.
Luis Frois, S.J. (1532-1597) was born in Lisbon and after his entrance into the Society of Jesus, left for the missions. He arrived in Japan in 1563. For the next 34 years he sent a constant stream of news back to India and Europe and over a hundred of his letters -- many of them running into thousands of words -- have been listed. He was also the author of the valuable Historia do Japão, and a treatise, since lost, on Japanese religions. He died in Nagasaki only a few months after the February martyrdom there of 26 Christians.
In a letter written in November 1582, Frois stated that just before his doom, Nobunaga installed the emblem of his divinity in the Sokenji, his temple on Azuchi Hill -- " someone having brought him a stone suitable for the purpose, called Bonção " -- and guaranteed prosperity and a long life to all who came in to venerate it. This particular bonsan has been historically documented and listed as a feature of one of the second-floor rooms of the Azuchi Donjon and was located within a special enclosure there (Naitō, room B, bonsan no ma).
"The temples of the kami in Japan usually have a stone which is called shintai, meaning the heart or essence of the guardian kami. Now there was no such stone in Azuchiyama temple because Nobunaga declared that he himself was the very shintai and living kami [celestial god/nature spirit] and hotoke [a reincarnated Buddha], and that there was no other lord of the universe and author of nature above him. He thus desired to be worshipped on earth, and in order to please him and win his favour his servants openly proclaimed that no other being save Nobunaga should be worshipped. So that his cult might not be inferior to that of the other idols which had been assembled there, a man named Bonção brought along a stone suitable for the purpose . Nobunaga ordered it to be placed in a kind of tabernacle or small enclosed chapel in the most prominent place above all the hotoke in the temple. He further commanded a proclamation to be made throughout all the kingdoms under his sway that every class of people, men and women, ruling lords and common folk alike, should come from all the cities, towns and villages of these kingdoms on the fifth month (the month of his birth) of this year and worship his shintai which he had placed there in the temple. The crowd of people who converged there from many different kingdoms was indeed incredible."
The impressive and extravagantly decorated Azuchi Castle -- with seven internal levels (plus an underground level) and a 138 foot tall tower on a 600 foot high hill above the waters of Lake Biwa -- was begun in 1576, inaugurated in 1579, and burnt down in the aftermath of Nobunaga's own terrible end in early July 1582. It had been among the first constructed to be able to withstand brute cannonfire. It was one of the typical grand homes designed to please the rude and self-made men who had fought their way to mastery of the country, and to demonstrate their power and wealth. Most of its internal rooms were highly decorated with the bold and lavish-painted gold screens and colorful relief carvings subtlely of the previous age's almost purely religious themes. Nobunaga was fastidious regarding cleanliness of the structure and grounds. Only a stone base now remains of the great castle. But enough illustrations and descriptions of it have survived to allow its appearance to be reconstructed with some confidence. One feature of Azuchi, never repeated anywhere else, was the building of an octogonal tower as the uppermost of its seven storeys.
(In 1586 Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who succeeded Nobunaga, commissioned Osaka Castle, which was to add its own chapter to the history of Japanese castle-building.) 1
1 Elison, George "The Cross and the Sword: Patterns of Momoyama History" in Elison, George and Bardwell L. Smith (eds.) Warlords, Artists, and Commoners (Honolulu: The University Press of Hawaii, 1981), pp. 50, 62-63, 74-75, 264. Bonsan referenced specifically on pp. 74 and 301, note 62.
Cooper, Michael, S.J. (ed.) They Came to Japan, An Anthology of European Reports on Japan, 1543-1640 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press; 1965), pp. 145, 291, 409, 418. The long two paragraph Nobunaga quote is from Frois in the two-volume collection of Jesuit public letters and reports about Japan known as Cartas (Cartas que os padres e irmãos da Companhia de Jesus escreverão dos reynos de Iapão e China, (Vol. I, 1549-1580; Vol. II, 1581-1589), Manoel de Lyra: Evora, 1598), II, ff. 62-62v, as quoted in Cooper, pp. 101-102, with notes on 106, 199, 418. Be aware of the subtle difference in translation of the two colored phrases above.
"Eternal Pine Mountain" stone from Covello, Vincent T. and Yuji Yoshimura The Japanese Art of Stone Appreciation, Suiseki and Its Use with Bonsai (Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle; 1996, 1984), pp. 22-23.
Hall, John Whitney Japan, From Prehistory to Modern Times (New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1970), pp. 136-159.
Wil "The Nature of Suiseki in Japan, Part 1," California Aiseki Kai newsletter, June 2017, Vol. 35, Issue 6, Azuchi floor plan on pg. 8.
Turnbull, Stephen Strongholds of the Samurai, Japanese Catles 250-1877 (Oxford: Osprey Publishing; 2009), pg. 143, and 158 which has a color cutaway illustration of what the keep of the Azuchi Castle is believed to have looked like, per Peter Dennis © Osprey Publishing Ltd.
Are there any even earlier known references? In describing the three monasteries at Daitokuji which they saw in passing -- out of fifty monasteries at that location --- Frois states "The first one we saw is at present reserved for a son of the king [Ōtomo Yoshishige, 1530-1587, his family had close connections to Daitokuji and the temple possesses the only contemporary portrait of him] of Bungo, who has to be its superior because of a large sum of money was given for this purpose. Even so, this temple does not equal either the second or third one. In the second temple we entered there is a lovely gate of exquisite workmanship which is very different from our sort of gates. We passed through and came to a corridor paved entirely with square block stones, and the walls on either side were whiter and smoother than thin glossy Venetian paper. Along one side is a garden which you see as you enter the corridor. This garden has nothing more than a kind of artificially constructed mountains [sic] of stones, which are especially sought for this purpose and brought from afar. On top of these rocks there are many different kinds of little trees [emphasis added by RJB], and paths and bridges, a span and a half wide, lead up to them. In some places the ground is covered with coarse white sand, and in other places with small black stones, while some large rocks, a cubit and a half in height, stand out here and there. At the foot of these rocks there a thousand sorts of roses and flowers, so intermingled and arranged according to season that all the year round there are always some of them fresh and blooming. And to save myself the task of describing the many things in each garden and house of these monasteries, let it suffice to say, dear brothers, that they possess all this only for their / happiness and renown in this life..."
This is from a letter dated April 27, 1565 as found in Cartas que los Padres y Hermanos de la Compañía de Jesus que andan en los Reynos de Japon escrivieron..., Alcalá, 1575, ff. 213v-215 (Cooper, pp. 343 / 344, note on pg. 351, and pg. 418). The group of Zen temples to which he refers is the celebrated fourteenth-century foundation of Daitokuji, situated in the north of the city and renowned for its art treasures and landscape gardens. Also in this letter is the passage:
"In front of the windows of this suite [of shōgun Ashikaga Yoshiteru] was a garden with delightful and strange trees -- cedars, cypresses, pines, orange-trees [sic], as well as other varieties unknown in Euope -- all of which were cultivated artificially, so that some are shaped like bells, others like towers, others like domes and so on. There are so many lilies, roses, violets and other flowers with such diverse colours and scents (for much care is lavished upon them for his enjoyment) that they cause much admiration among those who continually see them and even more so among people like ourselves for whom they are so novel." (Cartas, 1575, ff. 213-213v, per Cooper, pp. 280, note on pg. 291)
Another Jesuit impressed by the temple gardens of Miyako [Kyōto] was Vilela, who describes in a lengthy but fascinating account of his tour of the city their miniature mountains, stunted trees [emphasis added by RJB], rocks and waterfalls -- a setting which, he declares, inspires the spectator to contemplation (Cartas, 1575, f. 229v, per Cooper, note on pg. 351). Gaspar Vilela, S.J. (1525-1572) was born in Avis, Portugal and sailed for the missions at an early age. He arrived in Goa in 1551 and thence sailed to Japan in 1554. He worked on the Japanese mission, especially in Miyako, until 1570 when as a sick man he was recalled to Goa where he died shortly afterwards. At least on Japanese New Year, Feb. 1, 1565 Vilela was travelling with Frois. The former was known to have acquired a good command of the Japanese language. Some of his letters are also published in the 1598 Cartas, especially ff. 319-330v. (Cooper, pp. 17, 109-110, 182, 269, 351, 412)
Were any of the artificially cultivated little and stunted trees containerized? If so, this pushes back our earliest European-language reference to dwarf potted trees to at least 1575. Another observation about Frois' account is that the presence of all those flowers in the garden does seem to be at odds with all other and later descriptions of Japanese landscaping: blossoms were held to be too transient to be a continuous part of the scenery. Did the cultural rules and regulations promulgated by the Tokugawa shogunate prohibit such wild and ongoing displays of flowers?