The first European to visit Japan was Portuguese adventurer Fernao Mendes Pinto, unjustly called the "Prince of Liars" because his book about his travels was so widely disbelieved by his contemporaries.
Fernao Mendes Pinto was born in the Portuguese town of Montemor-o-Velho not far from the ancient university city of Coimbra. At the age of ten or twelve he was taken to Lisbon by an uncle and placed in the household of a rich noblewoman. He stayed there a year and a half until "something happened that placed me in such great jeopardy that I was forced to leave the house at a moment's notice and flee for my life." We do not know what had happened. Mendes Pinto fled to the Alfama section of Lisbon where he caught a ship bound for southern Portugal. Fifteen miles from their destination it was captured by French pirates. Mendes Pinto was eventually put ashore on the coast of Spain and made his way to the Portuguese city of Setubal. He entered the employ of a nobleman there and stayed for a year and a half.
Determined to seek his fortune elsewhere, Mendes Pinto sailed from Portugal on March 11, 1537 bound for India. He sailed around the Cape of Good Hope, stopped in Mozambique, and arrived at the Portuguese fortress of Diu on the northwestern coast of India on September 5, 1537. He then joined an expedition to the Red Sea and delivered a message to the Portuguese soldiers who were fighting on the side of the Christian king of Ethiopia. Leaving Ethiopia, his ship was captured by the Turks and the crew was taken to the port of Mocha in Yemen and sold into slavery. Eventually being bought by a Jewish merchant, Mendes Pinto was taken to the port of Ormuz on the south coast of Persia, where he joined a Portuguese trading ship.
Reaching the Portuguese headquarters of Goa, Mendes Pinto entered the service of the newly appointed captain of Malacca on the coast of Malay. He arrived in Malacca in 1539 and worked for the captain of the fortress there as an emissary to the kingdoms of Sumatra and Malaya. He then went to Patani on the east side of the Malay Peninsula and started a thriving business trading with the Thais in Bangkok. Robbed by pirates, he and his partners got revenge by becoming pirates themselves. He then traded along the coast of Indochina. He was shipwrecked on the coast of China and sold as a slave to work on the Great Wall of China. (Mendes Pinto claimed to have been shipwrecked, captured, and sold into slavery 16 or 17 times.)
Helping Tartar invaders penetrate into China, Mendes Pinto was freed and returned overland to Indochina. Hoping to travel back to India, Mendes Pinto took passage on a Chinese pirate junk that was driven off course during a storm and ended up on the Japanese island of Tanegashima, south of Kyushu in 1542 or 1543, the first European to reach that country. He then returned to Canton in south China and told Portuguese merchants there of the wealth to be gained by trading with Japan. He accompanied a group of them, and they were shipwrecked in the Ryukyu Islands where they were saved by the pleas of the women of the island. He then went back to Malacca.
From Malacca he was sent on a mission to the Burmese who had just captured the Kingdom of Pegu. He was taken prisoner by the Burmese and traveled as far as Luang Prabang in what is now Laos. He escaped and returned to Goa. He then undertook a trading mission to Java where he got involved in a local war and left just in the nick of time. Trying to travel on to China, his ship was attacked by Japanese pirates and was shipwrecked on the coast of Thailand. He and his men built a raft that ended up once again in Java, where they were reduced to cannibalism in order to survive and sold themselves into slavery. Freed again, Mendes Pinto borrowed money to start a trading operation with Thailand. He became involved in Burmese-Thai wars and wrote the first European account of Burmese politics and history.
From Thailand Mendes Pinto made his second trip to Japan where he landed in the port of Kagoshima. On his departure, he brought back a Japanese stowaway whom he handed over to St. Francis Xavier in Malacca and thus inspired Xavier's effort to travel to Japan and Christianize the inhabitants. Sometime during these years in Asia, Mendes Pinto had accumulated a large fortune. He was a wealthy merchant when he made his third voyage to Japan in 1551, where Francis Xavier was installed at the court of one of the feudal lords of southern Japan. He gave Xavier the money to build the first Christian church in Japan.
In 1554 Mendes Pinto decided to return with his fortune to Portugal. While waiting in Goa for a ship back to Europe, he underwent a sudden conversion and turned over half of his fortune to the Jesuit missionaries and was accepted by them as a lay brother. He then traveled back to Japan in the company of a group of these missionaries. He was charged by the Portuguese governor in Goa with opening up diplomatic relations between Portugal and Japan, and Mendes Pinto was largely responsible for paying for this mission. At some point following his final departure from Japan in 1557, he voluntarily separated himself from the Jesuits, although he remained on good terms with the Church.
Mendes Pinto returned to Portugal on September 22, 1558. He stayed at court for four years hoping for some reward or recognition for his years of service in the Far East. When this was not forthcoming, he retired to a small estate on the Tagus River opposite Lisbon where he got married and raised a family. Sometime between the years 1569 and 1578 he wrote the book called the Travels, which was not published until 1614. It was then translated into most Western languages and became a best-seller throughout Europe. However, it contained so many fantastic stories that it was considered to be a work of fiction. It was only as more information about the exotic lands he visited became available that the book was recognized to be largely (but not totally) factual. Mendes Pinto died on his estate on July 8, 1583, shortly after being awarded a small pension by the Portuguese government.
Further Reading on Fernao Mendes Pinto
Mendes Pinto's Peregrinaçao was first published in 1614. Since then, there have been many versions in many languages. All previous versions in English have now been superseded by a new translation: Rebecca D. Catz, trans. and ed. The Travels of Mendes Pinto (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989). Catz includes a long introductory essay that discusses Mendes Pinto's life and the question of the accuracy of his reports. Excerpts from an earlier edition of the book can be found in Charles David Ley, Portuguese Voyages, 1498-1663 (London: Everyman's Library, 1947; reprinted, 1965).
A previous book, Maurice Collis, The Grand Peregrination: Life and Adventures of F.M. Pinto (London: 1949), is also full of exciting tales and makes an interesting contrast to Catz.