Saturday, April 12, 2008

Setsuko Matoba: Zipangu and the Philippines

Setsuko Matoba has written a book Zipangu and Japan, after doing extensive primary research of sources in Europe, that suggests that Marco Polo's Zipangu (Cipangu) was actually the Philippines rather than Japan. I had missed the announcement of this book when first released about seven months ago.

Independently, I had come to the conclusion that Zipangu was a confused European conception of a continent that spanned the area from Japan, or at least southern Japan, southward through the Ryukyus, Taiwan, the Philippines all the way to the nutmeg and mace producing lands of the Moluccas.

The "Golden Land" or Suvarnadvipa region of Zipangu would refer to the region now known as the Philippines.

Here is the review of Zipangu and Japan that was published in the International Herald Tribune (Herald Asahi) last September.

29 September 2007
The International Herald Tribune (Herald Asahi)

Although he never visited it, the Venetian voyager wrote about a land that was laden with gold

It turns out he may have been wrong about the location

Setsuko Matoba, a Madrid-based author, raises the intriguing theory that Zipangu could be a reference to the Philippines in her book "Zipangu and Japan" published last month by Yoshikawa Kobunkan Inc. Matoba arrived at the new interpretation after analyzing archives and maps from the Age of Geographical Discovery (the 15th century through the first half of the 17th century) that she came across during visits to libraries and convents in Spain, Portugal and Italy over the past 10 years. Most of the documents dated back to the 16th century. "I published the book because I hoped to bring to attention documents that were not familiar in Japan," she said. "Giving my own opinion was not what I intended to do." "The Travels of Marco Polo" was based on Polo's experiences and observations during his journeys across Central Asia and China

Polo (1254-1324) was thought to have handed down the stories orally in Genoa, Italy, in 1298. They were then compiled into a manuscript, which was later translated into many European languages in and after the 14th century

About 150 original manuscripts of Polo's renditions survive. But there is no mention of "Zipangu" in the earlier versions, according to Matoba

Instead, the island that captured the imagination of medieval Europe was spelled in several ways, including Cipangu, Cipango, Zipangu, Siampagu and Cyampagu

"The Travels of Marco Polo," published in Japanese by Heibonsha Ltd. in its Toyo Bunko (the Eastern Library) series, employs the term based on the spelling of Cipangu. "Zipangu" apparently appears in documents for the first time in the early 17th century. In "Chronicle of Churches in Japan," written in the 17th century, Jesuit missionary Joao Rodrigues of Portugal said there was no question that the Zipangu mentioned in "The Travels of Marco Polo" referred to Japan. He noted that Zipangu derived from "Jepuencoe" or "Jiponcoe," the Chinese way of pronouncing Japan. Rodrigues spent many years in Japan from the late 16th century

Subsequent Jesuit missionaries accepted Rodrigues' view at face value. In turn, it became a mainstream theory in Europe, according to Matoba. Japanese scholars later subscribed to it

To back up his claim, Rodrigues cited the fact that a huge armada of Mongolian ships under Kublai Khan had come to grief in waters off Japan during a terrible typhoon. The incident, one of two attempted Mongolian invasions of Japan, was mentioned by Polo in his book But details do not match historical facts

Matoba offers this viewpoint: "Mongolia dispatched its fleet elsewhere as well." She said Polo could easily have been referring to an incident in Southeast Asia

So where was Zipangu? The documents Matoba gathered suggest the island known by the name of Zipangu is in the tropics

She noted frequent references to the Philippines, which Spain colonized in the 16th century with the lure of gold being a major factor. In contrast, there was no mention of gold in Japan. Moreover, ancient maps put Japan much further north. It was believed to be a peninsula, part of the Asian land mass, not an island nation, according to Matoba

Her findings spurred her to postulate that "Zipangu" actually referred to the Philippines and its far-flung archipelago

Takashi Gonoi, professor emeritus of the history of Christianity in Japan at the University of Tokyo, said he accepted her theory in principle. "It makes more sense if we think that (the island with gold) was a reference to a place other than Japan," Gonoi said. Charlotte von Verschuer, professor of Japanese history and philology at Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes in Paris, said Matoba's theory could answer longstanding questions among European scholars as to the location of gold-laden island if it was not Japan. But Masaaki Sugiyama, professor of the Mongolian history at Kyoto University, disagrees

"The compilation of 'The Travels of Marco Polo' was completed in the latter half of the 14th century, not in the end of the 13th century," he said. "Under the name of Marco Polo, experiences of other people and stories they had heard were incorporated into it." "That is why there are contradictions in it," Sugiyama said, referring to incidents that are at odds with historical facts

"It is possible that reports on Mongolia's expedition to the island of Java got mixed in with it. Still the outline matches that of the Mongolian expedition against Japan of 1281. There is no doubt that the island with gold was a reference to Japan." Sugiyama said that maps and documents pointing to the Philippines as the site of Zipangu referred to another location with a huge reserve of gold since Japan no longer produced the metal during the Age of Geographical Discovery. Matoba's theory has sparked a debate that may not die down easily. Even so, historians appear to agree on one thing: It raises questions about the veracity of the established theory.


Vinod Khare said...

Very interesting posts. The amount of rigor and detail in your posts is commendable.