Great Grammar of the Japanese Language (Arte da lingoa de Japam) was
written by the Portuguese Jesuit missionary Joao Rodriguez (1561–1633)
and printed by the Jesuit mission press in Nagasaki between 1604 and 1608.
The grammar is a veritable treasure house of information about the
Japanese language in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries,
and particularly the language of polite society. Rodriguez spent
thirty-three years in Japan and was probably the European most proficient
at speaking and reading the Japanese of his day.
epistolary style, or sorobun, is one of the topics dealt with by
Rodriguez. He explains in his “Treatise on Epistolary Style” what kind
of letters there are and their names, the set phrases that are used, how a
letter is divided into its component parts, how to interpret the physical
layout of a letter, and how the level of politeness can be determined.
Rodriguez deals extensively with the courtesies for the Buddhist clergy,
and he proposes an adaptation of these forms so that they can be used for
and by Jesuit missionaries in Japan. Finally, Rodriguez provides a large
number of sample letters.
“Treatise on Epistolary Style” has a twofold utility for modern
readers. First, it is an excellent instrument for dissecting Japanese
letters from the early-modern era into their component parts. Second, it
can help to make apparent the valuable historical and social clues that
are often hidden in what appear to be trivial epistolary details. Once one
understands the principles of the Japanese epistolary style, with its
subtle social nuances and minute gradations of courtesies, much more
information can be obtained from early-modern documents than their factual
Published by Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan