Manila and the Western Fruits of Japan

Portuguese Jesuit, Diogo de Mesquita, is widely credited for planting the first western trees in Japan. In his letters to Padre Juan de Ribera he requested the following trees: fig, pear, peach, quince (main ingredient of the Tagalog spread called membrillo) and olive trees. Padre Ribera (d. 1622, Manila), the Rector of the Jesuit College in Manila, corresponded with the Jesuit in Nagasaki over what specimens should be sent over to Japan. Mesquita also did not hesitated to order from the Jesuit based in Intramuros, trees that did not exist in the Philippines. He requested for Ribera to source them elsewhere if not locally available.

The cultivation of western plants in Japan was the result of the Jesuits desire to introduce foreign specimens in the territory for the purpose of propagation. This succcessful experiment would not have been possible without the Jesuits in Manila. The plants that survived the trip are the ancestors of the western plants that exist in Japan today. These deliveries was broadly established that it became “a routine part of trade” between Manila and Nagasaki. The plants were shipped to Japan by the merchant ships of Portugal, whose captains were known to Mesquita (Around the time of the Spanish Governor Rodrigo de Vivero y Velasco, trade relations with Japan improved and Spanish ships visited the ports of Japan regularly. This opened Japan to more products from Europe, Mexico and the Philippines. Under this Spanish governor, the Franciscan’s were granted to establish missions in Japan which in turn worried some of the Jesuits including Mesquita).

The letters between Mesquita and Ribera shows how the missionaries pursued their activities in Asia with Manila being the center. The religious were pioneers in many fields of studies that benefited their converts. Mesquita would went on to become Rector of a Jesuite College in Japan and later on, the first westerner to introduce the movable type-face printing press in Japan. Just like in the Philippines, the religious used the printing technology to produce religious books to further their influence.

Mesquita also contributed to his brothers understanding of Nihonggo (Manila once had a large Japanese population administered by Spanish missionaries that spoke their native language. They were placed under the patronage of the sword bearing angel, San Miguel, as most of them were samurai descendants. The community was concentrated in the area of present day Paco. They were used by the Spanish in their conquest of the Moluccas. This community in Paco would be later sent back to their native land). Japan was an important mission for the society, so Mesquita sent Manila several invitations for local Jesuits to acquire materials on learning  the Japanese language.

Although Padre Mesquita is Portuguese, he corresponded with Ribera in Spanish. The success of Mesquita in cultivating his western trees in Japan would have not been possible without Manila. There were many trees (ie., cherry and morello) that was probably ordered by Ribera from other European merchants. However, it’s possible that these trees was once grown in the the country as the missionaries are known for their excellent agricultural research (like wheat which the Franciscan’s tried to cultivate in Laguna). Unfortunately, most often these agricultural contributions are forgotten and left unacknowledged.

Reference/Further reading:

“Fr. Diogo de Mesquita and the Cultivation of Western Plants in Japan”, by Pedro Lage Reis Correia


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